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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Bella Figura–How Style, Grace, And Elegance Have Disappeared When We Most Need Them

Miranda Bliss had been taught proper manners.  She sat up straight, wore white gloves, kept her hands in her lap, smiled politely, said ‘excuse me’ and ‘pardon me’, and could have been the poster girl for the American suburb, ca. 1950.  She made her First Communion in a white organza dress, French veil, and Italian paten leather shoes.  She took the host gently into her mouth, reflected on the miraculous resurrection of Jesus, bowed her head, and walked down the aisle to sit with her proud, happy parents. She carefully smoothed the folds of her dress, eased herself gracefully beside them, smiled, and said a prayer.

Easter Sunday came soon after her First Communion, and this time she walked up to the altar railing in a new, yellow pinafore  and bonnet banded in blue ribbons, with a large brim that gave just the slightest intriguing shadow to her face.  As she gently and softly parted her lips to receive the wafer, she shut her eyes and felt beautiful, a flowery, peaceful, and quietly beautiful young woman. 

This fundamental sense of beauty only matured as Miranda grew older.  She wore ermine, sable, mink and chinchilla as naturally and comfortably as a cloth coat.  She arranged and distributed her diamonds, emeralds, and pearls so that they were perfect complements to her long fingers, red nails, Dior suit, and black, luminescent hair.  She wore a touch of perfume, just enough to scent and linger but never to trail.  Her make-up was balanced with a dramatic darkening of eyelashes, and she added only a subtle coloring of her already naturally high-colored cheeks.

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On anyone other than Miranda Bliss this ensemble of fur, couture, jewels, and perfume would never have been right, for few women had her complete sense of style.  One stroke too many of the eyeliner, one inch shorter on the hemline, too many jewels on one hand and not enough on the other, a perfume too floral or cloying – slight but oh-so-obvious diversions from Miranda’s perfectly balanced style – would have been enough to reveal the natively unsophisticated, hopelessly aspiring, overdressed and under-glamorous pretender.

Miranda not only dressed stylishly but was stylish.   Her taste and elegance were expressed in every movement, every gesture, and every word. She was demonstrative and graceful, and when she talked her hands were like birds in flight, especially her left, for she felt that her diamonds gave her fingers poetry and special beauty.

Other women by comparison were pedestrian and ordinary no matter what they wore or how oversized their diamonds. Miranda did not choose just any diamonds, but those  which had been cut by a South African Jew from a diamond-cutting family which had cut gems in Kiev for a hundred years.  His diamonds seemed to have hundreds of facets, for when she turned her hand in the light, the reflections and sparkles seemed to come from all directions at once.

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She was dramatic without being theatrical.  She had a balletic presence without pirouettes and pliés.  She spoke like an actress but with not a hint of irony, condescension, or disapproval.  She was first, foremost, and always the prima donna of every social event.  No one, however, ever accused her of operatic fol-de-rol or pretension.  She was everyone’s friend, invited to every dinner, soiree, and luncheon.  She was always respectful, temperate, and generous.

More than anything, her style had a flow.  Her perfectly-cut, variable length, deep black hair flowed into the long mahogany brown shawl she wore over her shoulders which in turn flowed down to her mid-calf dress, to  her narrow, polished boots.  Her earrings caught the eye and led them down her long arms to the simple gold bracelet on her wrist and Victorian ring on her finger.  The eyes of the admirer went up and down this magnificent woman, and couldn’t turn away.  She was confident but never dismissive; warm but never effusive.  She had all the elements of style. She embodied the essence of the Italian bella figura.

At its core bella figura is presentation…how to look good, to carry oneself,  to make the best possible impression in all things at all times. Bella figura means attention to image, visual beauty and presentation…but it is also all about knowing how to properly and graciously interact with others. Bella figura is all about good manners, tact and gentility.

Alas, this is a story about the disappearance of the likes of Miranda Bliss and bella figura itself – a tale of dumbing down and cheap clothes.  In an era of diversity, and the championing of personal identity, there are no absolutes, nothing ex cathedra or even vaguely suggestive of universal values.

In a ‘diverse’ society any suggestion of higher values or universal standards of behavior, beauty, or artistic design is considered anathema.  Yet common sense let alone an even cursory look at history give lie to those assumptions.  The moral, ethical, and spiritual values of Ancient Greece, Rome, and Jewish and Christian Palestine remain.  They are foundational principles of all religions and societies.  They like beauty are not in the eye of the beholder, but universal and common to all cultures since the first human settlements.

In fact there is little difference between the women painted by Leonardo and the beauties of Hollywood and Bollywood all of whom are reflective of those characteristics which have always made women attractive. Symmetrical features, luminescent eyes, full lips, and luxuriant hair all express health, wealth, and well-being as well as being pleasing to a natural sense of geometrical order (the golden mean is universally appealing), and sexual appeal. 

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Miranda Bliss knew this instinctively.  Without and before the admirations of family, classmates, and adults, she knew by looking in the mirror that the reflection was not just hers but that of every beautiful woman.  There were no debatable issues, no relative clauses, no codicils or caveats to her beauty.

It is no surprise that the women portrayed in art – the women of Botticelli, Leonardo, Caravaggio, Ingres, and the sculptors of ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome – have been beautiful.  The wives and courtesans of royalty, the aristocracy, and the socially prominent have been beautiful, and while kings like Henry VIII, desperate for an offspring, chose as much for fertility as for beauty as he continued to remain childless, most demanded only the most attractive.

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It is also not surprising that the standards of female beauty in non-Western cultures which have in recent years emerged from poverty – India, China, and Korea – have become more universal, remarkably similar to those in the developed world.  

This is in part due to competition – It is understandable and normal for women in formerly poor countries, now rich, to emulate women in the West. The factors of economic privilege, health, and well-being also come into play; but it is the undeniable quest for the perfect female beauty which has endured for millennia that is perhaps the most important factor in this evolution.  

This is not to say that the ancient Asian standards of beauty were not admired, but that exposure to the more universal characteristics of beauty derived from classical civilization and continued, assured physical homogeneity.

Feminist Women criticized Miranda for what they said was her ‘extraneous, unnecessary’ beauty; but her attention to complementarity, contrast, and blend, all of which created an appealing, attractive image, was the essence of bella figura.  She was not wasting her time, her intelligence, her wit and intellect but cultivating something equally important.

Physical beauty has always been a positive reproductive trait, a competitive edge, and a guarantee of security and prosperity. Beauty has always assured success.  All things considered, beautiful women have always been hired first, promoted first, married first, and sought after always. 

Yet Miranda’s sense of beauty went beyond such Darwinian considerations.  It was all about illumination, lifting the fog of Hobbesian drudgery, a Christmas tree ornament, an unexpected shower of desirability and allure.

Beauty, a la bella figura was never static.  It was displayed in feminine grace, subtlety, and graciousness.  Women’s fashion was always part of a context, an illustration of a particular cultural ethos or zeitgeist, always changing.  A woman’s dress was either demure, assertive, sumptuous, or sexually alluring; and her behavior mirrored and vice versa.

In the days of universal bella figura, everything was intended to be beautiful, and nothing was insignificant .  Table settings, flowers and flower vases, furniture, and the presentation of food were all part of it; and the way the woman moved among these complementary things was itself additive to the whole.

Today’s insistent focus on procedure, contract, and order is the antithesis of bella figura.  It places no value on physical beauty and only on some notion of interior moral value.  A good person is ipso facto a beautiful person.  Beauty is as beauty does is the meme.  Beauty is suspect, a betrayal of the emptiness beneath.  Fashion is irrelevant, and only the color of one’s skin and gender-based appearance mattered.  A transgender transformation in and of itself was beautiful, and in mattered little whether what emerged from the chrysalis was a thing of beauty or a drone; only if the sexual reformulation was complete.

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Identity politics and its disdain for physical beauty and appearance have contributed to the overall indifference to it.  Sweatpants, doublets, sandals, and tattoos inked for their relevance not their appearance; rummage sale shirtwaists and discarded trousers; mix-and-match for convenience not statement are the rule.  Demeanor and posture as suggestions of a bella figura completeness have become irrelevant.  Only bad, street attitude – macho gangsta roll pimp walk and tarted up, bangled and sequined women - or slouchy white boy cracker chic seem to matter.  Everyone in America seems angry at something with no time for attention to detail. ‘This is who I am, so go fuck yourself’.  Bella figura, pride in looking good, delight in sophistication and good taste, is a thing of the past.

It is only the Miranda Blisses of the world who stand out in this grab bag of incidentals – beautiful, graceful, sublime antidotes to ugly righteousness.

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