What is it about human beings and rarity?
When it comes to wealth, fashion and the cultural perception of attractiveness, exotica and the uncommon dominate our tastes. Abundance equals boredom: the easier a style or item is to obtain, the less chic it is – within the given parameters of taste. It’s a mindset that harks back to earlier times, when for most people, ‘luxury’ meant something like glass, lace or satin. Fashions that were strenuous to maintain, expensive to possess and hard to come by were for centuries the hallmark of the nobility, an exclusionary hauteur designed to exhibit wealth and status. The difficulties involved in making purple dye pigments, for instance, meant only Roman emperors were allowed to wear that colour; similarly, the use of rare white ermine to trim royal garments showed how much time and effort the wearer was able to expend on their clothing. In both instances, the scarcity of the components was socially evident: not only were they rare, but the rarity was common knowledge, thus creating an obvious visual distinction between those with wealth, and those without.
In the last few decades, however, traditional Western class and monetary barriers have been eroded. With the creation of a global society and the advent of mass production, there is no longer any implied wealth to wearing this type of material, that type of trimming – and so, by way of development, the concept has evolved in two different directions. Firstly, there is the fashion industry, which praises not the components of clothing, but the notoriety of the maker. This works in a strange reversal of past practice, a kind of fashionista oroborous: designer clothes are fashionable because their expense implies wealth and status in the wearer, but their pricing is linked to random fashionability. In order for this system to function, an entire industry exists to determine which aspects of style – cut, colour, coordination – should bestow fashionability at whatever time. Ultimately, however, the arbitrariness of these opinions mean that fashion is always in flux. Because people must constantly be told what denotes status, as opposed to knowing it as an innate part of their social reality, styles must constantly alter in order to avoid commonality. If lesser designers have time to mimic the desired look for less, thereby spreading it below the intended elites, the entire effect is ruined.
Secondly, however, is the idea of physical beauty. Just as with clothing, human beings have usually preferred a certain physical type or epitome. For much of European history, paleness in men and women was a sign of aristocratic birth, implying that one need undertake no outdoor (physical) labour. Soft hands and long, well-maintained nails meant a woman had servants to do chores for her. The idea of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan beauty was lauded by more people than Hitler, and continues to be echoed, however unconsciously, as a Western ideal. More recently, being tan implied the social status of leisure time: working less and spending more hours in outdoor persuits. Preferred body shapes have fluctuated throughout history, as any quick stroll through an art gallery will show; now, of course, slenderness is emphasised above all else – both for women and men – to such an extent that, socially, we have started to worry.
Given the origins of fashion, however, I wonder if our present fixation on the physical form is also based on rarity and status. Not long ago, the obsession was fitness – outdoor tans, big muscles, Amazon women, sporting men – in an era when going to the gym was a newly-burgeoned craze. Extreme fitness implied not only the wealth and time for training, but effort. Now, the trend is reversing: slight, skinny and pale are in, while socially promoted leisure has turned away from daytime sports towards nighttime clubbing. Like tightening the notch on a belt, we expect more from our bodies, trying to set ourselves apart from whatever has become average. With fitness currently inseperable from the cultural idea of attractiveness, we are interested in more stringent physical discipline, paring ourselves back to even more exacting standards.
This isn’t a road down which we can head indefinintely. Already, it seems, we are on the verge of another reversal. Which makes me wonder: what future rarity will sculpt our concepts of beauty and fasion? And might the process ever collapse entirely?