Jolie Laide


Today the Miss Universe pageant crowns archetypal perfection in beauty, Stephen Bayley’s

Sunday Times piece “The Ugly Truth” (paywalled) makes appealing points about the embrace of ugliness to appreciate true beauty…

  • Perfection is always tiresome. In human affairs, variety, risk, hazard and surprise are much more interesting than predictability and order. Consider the beauty spot, originally a minor superficial blemish that the fashion industry used to emphasise as a corrective to faces of bland symmetry. Marilyn Monroe had a famous one…Today’s equivalent of the beauty spot is the gap-tooth…Beauty can be as boring as it is disturbing. The Prada AW12 video look-book has computer-generated models who are ‘genetically perfected clones’. This flawless perfection terrifies even as it fascinates. Beyond fashion, imagine a world of uniformly beautiful people and things would be intolerable — a bus full of George Clooneys, or an NCP packed with immaculate Ferrari 250 GTs. Meanwhile, Porsche’s Panamera rejects all the ideas of form, function, elegance, lightness and simplicity advocated by Ferdinand Porsche himself. Instead, it is lardy and ill-proportioned. And it is a global bestseller…The Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani exploited this shocking idea 20 years ago. Fatigued by the politeness of fashion advertising, he produced deliberately aggressive adverts for Benetton. Today, Riccardo Tisci has used goth iconography of the undead to bring life to the tired Givenchy. Ugliness has its place.  The fact is, in Plato’s ideal republic, then or now, to appreciate beauty, you need a concept of ugliness, possibly even a positive appreciation of it. “Ugliness,” the gargoyle-like Serge Gainsbourg once said, ‘is superior to beauty because it lasts longer.’ Like Marcel Proust, he agreed that a taste for ugliness was aristocratic, because it suggested a disdain for wanting to please people.  Ugliness can, perversely, be attractive. In London’s National Gallery, there is a splendid portrait by the 16th-century Flemish painter Quinten Massys [see photo above]. It shows a middle-aged woman, her skin like an old leather saddle, suffering from a bone deformity that has turned her skull into a misshapen grotesque…Yet the postcard of the painting is one of the most popular in the National Gallery’s shop. In terms of popular appeal, an ugly old woman rivals Monet’s sweetly bland water lilies.  The concept of jolie-laide, popularised by Nancy Mitford, recognises our curious equivocation between attraction and repulsion. Translated, jolie-laide means “pretty-ugly”. It sounds absurd, but there are women — men, too —whose features are imperfect, even awkward, angular and aggressive, but who remain mysteriously beautiful. Jeanne Moreau, Isabella Blow, Diana Vreeland, Coco Chanel, Edith Sitwell and Mitford herself are all historic examples… And ugliness plays its part in male attraction. Or have you not seen the simian Jean-Paul Belmondo and the labially intrusive Mick Jagger?  Beauty and ugliness are not opposites. They are part of the same thing: it’s called aesthetics. This is more than a branch of philosophy, it’s an attitude to life itself. And the big lesson from aesthetics is: be cautious about making judgements. In both art and fashion, convictions are subject to continuous reappraisal. If beauty is not permanent, then neither is ugliness.”