If I didn’t know any better, I’d think fashion was getting a little more thoughtful. For an industry that fixates on perfection – in clothes, body type, skin, makeup and hair – conspicuous departures from traditional beauty tend to make us pause. And as of late, these conspicuous, defiant looks are taking shape as clowns.
This isn’t some novel idea; this isn’t the first instance of clowns in fashion. There was the makeup at Dior’s spring ’03 couture show, the clown-like silhouettes at Miu Miu’s spring ’08 show, and the jester-sized bows at Moschino’s spring ’09 show. The only difference is that now, we’re seeing multiple instances of clowns in fashion all at once.
Much of this season’s American Horror Story revolves around clowns – specifically that menacing clown archetype we’re all so easily haunted by. Clowns embody the perfect recipe for fear – they’re an uncanny marriage of happiness and dread, youth and pedophilia, funny and demonic. And clowns in fashion have a similar effect; the image slightly irks because it, too, marries opposites, namely the typically flawless face of a model with a foolish or ugly one.
But clowns also frighten us because of their sameness. There’s a general mold that clowns must adhere to of white face with red cheeks, nose, and lips that not only renders most clowns indistinguishable from each other, but also renders the person behind all of the makeup – behind the guise of the clown – nearly unrecognizable.
And there’s something particularly uncanny about forgetting oneself. In Milan Kundera’s Immortality, Agnes remarks,
“If you put the pictures of two different faces side by side, your eye is struck by everything that makes one different from the other. But if you have two hundred and twenty-three faces side by side, you suddenly realize that it’s all just one face in many variations and that no such thing as an individual ever existed.”
Clowns arouse such visceral discomfort in us because they’re a reminder of our own weaknesses — the fact that we think we know what identity is, but in truth, we don’t. Essentially, they force us to face desires we don’t want to own up to.
The Independent, attempting to explain our fear of clowns, said, “Clowns and masks have the capacity to provoke fear because their make-up conceals their true facial emotions, thus thwarting our instinctual desire to read other people’s minds through their faces.”
In Immortality, the face is a subject that Agnes continuously agonizes over. It’s described as “the serial number of a human specimen,” which, Agnes laments, we’ve come to take comfort in. But more importantly, she says, it’s also a farce. “It reflects neither character or soul, nor what we call the self.” And it’s only when the face is obscured in such dramatic terms that this fact is illuminated.
It’s unlikely that the creative directors and makeup artists had this exact insight in mind when they decided on these clown-themed shoots. But it’s nevertheless a noteworthy departure from fashion’s typical portrayal of beauty.
I, for one, have had a hard time erasing the image of Julia Nobis, the clown, from my memory. There’s something eerie about the image of her letting out a colossal guffaw in her blue afro; clowns are supposed to arouse laughter in their audience, not the other way around. Then again if Julia is at all aware of the lessons to be learned from obscuring one’s face, it makes sense that she’d have the last laugh.