Saturday, October 16, 2010


Fashionistas (written for English Class)

In an attempt to define folklore, Jan Harold Brunvand said, “The first test a folklorist could make of membership in a folk group is the members’ awareness of shared traditions; then the background of this heritage can be investigated.” (Brunvand, 51)

So-called fashionistas definitely have shared traditions, all revolving around their biggest shared activity-purchasing clothing. Before examining these traditions however, let us first define a fashionista.

People outside the group tend to use the word as an insult, yet insiders do not feel this way. On, a website that allows people to catalogue and define slang words, user Nicolethe14 defines a fashionista as “A person devoted to fashion clothing, particularily (sic) unique or high fashion. A person not to be called a fashionista would be someone who obsessively follows trends. REAL fashionistas do not believe in trends.” ( In contrast, user How To Make A Scene dismisses fashionistas as “fashionable sheep.” ( This can lead one to the conclusion that fashionistas feel misunderstood, that they are seen as “insecure, lonely, vacuous,” and that “they typically judge others, particularly potential mates, solely on looks and cliques.” ( Nicolethe14 counters that these are not true fashionistas but “that type of person would be more correctly labeled a fashion whore or a shallow bitch.” For our purposes, we will take the term fashionista to mean anyone with a devoted interest in fashion-whether they take the actual topic seriously or not.

The most obvious component of fashionista folklore is the clothing. This is a folk group that revolves around taking elaborately designed costumes and using them in everyday life. Fashion does operate as a vehicle of gesunkenes Kulturgut (Brunvand, 50), and fashionistas follow it from the highest levels down to the lowest (as seen in the quote from The Devil Wears Prada, below).

Fashionistas have their own unique vocabulary, one that celebrates heroes, includes proverbs, and has slightly different meanings than mainstream vocabulary. For example, gladiator, in fashion speak, means a shoe rather than a combatant. Fashionistas do not see seasons the way others do-there is fall (September-December), spring (April-August), and resort (January-March). Fashion proverbs are highly dynamic and change often-such as “don’t wear white after labor day”, a dictate that is now largely ignored. While actual stories may be rare, some names are spoken with a legendary reverence: Lagerfeld, Valentino, Ghesquiere.

Fashionista folk customs revolve around one major festival in four major cities: Fashion Week. This bi-annual event is what the fashion world revolves around. New York, New York; Milan, Italy; Paris, France; and London, England: every fall and spring fashionistas flock to see the works of art the designers are showing. Some shows are incredibly elaborate-Karl Lagerfeld hosted the Chanel show on the Great Wall of China instead of it’s usual home in Paris. Others are very simple, a runway under a tent with folding chairs in Bryant Park. It is an appearance at fashion week that solidifies a designer’s art into icons, rather than just clothes. This is the ultimate elitist fashion, which will be tweaked, copied, and filtered from the trendiest boutiques to the most bare bones t-shirts and discount clothing. Fashion Week is a crazy rush of beauticians, designers, tailors, models, sometimes deejays, and of course fashionistas. The goal of a fashionista is to look as good as possible for each designer’s show, in the designer’s previous work of course, and arrive early. The fashionista will be constantly critiquing, adding and subtracting elements of the designs (and often the clothing of their fellow guests, who always include celebrities) for their own personal style statement. Those who are new to fashion week (and even those who are not) are generally in awe, although they are “chic” enough not to show it. As teenfashionista says, “I dream about the day I can flee to NYC. I want to live in Bryant Park during Fashion Week.” ( Fashion, despite the pure abundance of possibilities, is all about editing, and fashionistas appreciate the work designers do in finding just the right new idea.

So in a sub-culture that is all about “stuff”, how can fashionistas possibly gain legitimacy? Fashionistas know that every item makes a statement that reflects on the user, even if that statement is “I’m not trying to make a statement.” Fashionistas know that if life were completely utilitarian, we would lose the good things: chocolate, lace, pleasure, music, satin. Fashion is, for better or worse, inevitable, and fashion speaks. The character Miranda in the film The Devil Wears Prada states it well.

This... “Stuff”? Oh, ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets?...And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff. (The Devil Wears Prada)

The House of Chanel

The Parisian fashion house Chanel is probably among the most influential fashion lines in the world, both at its birth in 1910 and today. The House was founded by Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, more commonly known as Coco Chanel. Such iconic fashion items as the little black dress and tweed suit became mainstream because of Chanel, and Chanel number five is one of the most popular perfumes today. Chanel is also famous for it’s quilted fabric, made with a secret technique to keep it strong. Chanel’s philosophy was that style should be effortless, elegant, and tastefully sexy. The line soon became associated with wealth. Many things that are known as classic French styles were created or reinvented by Chanel, and Chanel herself seems to reflect the French aesthetic. Attributed with saying “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury” and “A woman is closest to being naked when she is well dressed”, the look is the classic idea of elegance without excess. When Karl Lagerfeld took over in 1983, the line got a new slightly more daring attitude, but is still characterized by unique designs, luxurious details, and impeccable quality.

Mathematics and Beauty: A Golden Connection

Beauty is mysterious.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” “Beauty is an illusion.” These ideas make beauty seem so subjective, so transient. Surely many prefer it that way. But what of us who crave the eternal? What of the scientists and philosophers who seek truth, the artists and engineers who sense all of time in one raised eyebrow or perfect pediment? Is that for naught?

What if there was some magical property that justified the beautiful, that widened, not narrowed our definitions thereof? What if the whole world was beautiful?

There may be no magic spell, but there is however, the next best thing: an equation. The Greek letter phi is defined as the following: (a+b)/a=a/b. If we simplify these terms, we are soon left with Phi^2-Phi-1=0. As we can see, this is a quadratic equation, and the only positive solution is (1+√5)/2=1.61803399.

What does this have to do with beauty? This is where things get interesting. As we will soon see, this ratio seems almost omnipresent. We can see it in faces, in flowers, in fruit, and even in fountains. All these beautiful things often have this ratio as a common thread between them. One may argue that this is just as subjective as anything else. As we examine the history of the ratio, we shall see why this particular philosophy of beauty deserves merit.

We start with Phidias, who was born in about 430 BCE in Greece. Phidias was a sculptor, painter, and architect, generally regarded as the greatest of his time. Favored by the leader Pericles, it is generally believed that Phidias designed the statues that reside in the Parthenon. We do not know much about Phidias, and cannot say for certain he knew of the ratio, but he seems to have employed it in his work. It is for this reason we call the ratio phi, the transliterated first letter in Phidias’ name.

Our next character is the philosopher Plato or Platon, born in Athens, Greece in about 427 BCE. In one of Plato’s dialogues, Honor, he describes 5 solids, all convex regular polyhedrons. Some of these solids are related to the golden ratio. In fact, it is possible to combine the solids and find even further examples of the golden ratio. Once again however, we do not know if Plato was aware of these relationships or not.

The first record of the golden ratio we are aware of occurred in the mathematician Euclid’s (or Euklidis’) book Elements. This book is so influential, we are still required to study it in secondary schools. Euclid, who was also Greek and born in about 300 BCE, actually defines the golden ratio. Euclid described it as the extreme and mean ratio.

It wasn’t until the middle-ages and the work of Italian mathematician Fibonacci that we were able to learn more about the ratio. In his The Book of the Abacus Fibonacci describes a sequence of numbers where each number is the sum of the two numbers before it, e.g. 3,5,8,13,21 etc. It can be observed that the farther we take this sequence, the closer the ratio of any two consecutive numbers (3/5, 5/8) gets to phi. While he did not discover this sequence, he popularized it, and it is now known as the Fibbonacci sequence.

Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli, Italian mathematician and friar, wrote The Divine Proportion, published in 1509. This book was illustrated by Leonardo Da Vinci and explored how the ratio related to art and architecture. It also showed how the proportion applied to people-with proportions on the face and body being close to phi. The following quote shows Pacioli’s thoughts on the ratio:

The Ancients, having taken into consideration the rigorous construction of the human body, elaborated all their works, as especially their holy temples, according to these proportions; for they found here the two principal figures without which no project is possible: the perfection of the circle, the principle of all regular bodies, and the equilateral square.

(Emphasis added)

Johannes Kepler was a German mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer born in 1571. Kepler was mainly concerned with uniting astronomy and physics, and in doing so was able to show that planets did not move in orbs (circles) as previously thought, but in orbits (ellipses). We were able to find that golden ratios often show up in ellipses, and Kepler later said

Geometry has two great treasures: one is the Theorem of Pythagoras, and the other the division of a line into extreme and mean ratio; the first we may compare to a measure of gold, the second we may name a precious jewel.

So far we have seen the ratio in shapes, architecture, art, people, and in the shape and movements of an ellipse. Those who think Phi is just a coincidence are losing their arguments. In the eighteenth century, Charles Bonnet, a Swiss naturalist and philosopher is finding it in plants. The spiral phyllotaxis (or leaf arrangement along the shoot of plants) going clockwise and counter-clockwise is often two successive Fibonacci sequences. We also find this in the spirals of the nautilus shell and the petals and seeds of the sunflower. German mathematician Martin Ohm begins to describe this ratio as “golden”.

French mathematician François Édouard Anatole Lucas studied the Fibonacci sequence and is the namesake of the related Lucas sequence, whose ratios also get closer and closer to phi. Lucas came up with a formula for the nth Fibonacci term, which is as follows. Fsub (n+1) = Fsub (n) + Fsub (n-1). He also gave the sequence the name Fibonacci Sequence.

It wasn’t until about 1909 that phi became the symbol for the ratio, as given by Mark Barr, an American mathematician. Today even more exciting connections are being made to the golden ratio by individuals such as Roger Penrose among others.

Gustav Theodor Fechner did studies that show that 75% of people prefer golden ratios, and subtle (highly unscientific) evidence in our culture seems to support this. Others, like George Markowsky, say it is all coincidence. But we may find that is not even the point. The point is that we find things such as order and symmetry to be worthy of our time. The point is that when we see beauty, we joy in it. H.E. Huntley says this is a response driven by an inner desire to create, and to see that it is good. He says:

Man is by nature a creator. After the likeness of his Maker, man is born to create: to fashion beauty, to originate new values. That is his supreme vocation. This truth awakens a resonant response deep within us, for we know that one of the most intense joys that the soul of man can experience is that of creative activity. Ask the artist. Ask the poet. Ask the scientist. Ask the inventor or my neighbor who grows prize roses. They all know the deep spiritual satisfaction associated with the moment of orgasm of creation.

I would add that beauty shows us our values. Do we value order & intelligence or do we value the dark primordial chaos from whence we came? Do we value this beauty we find even on ourselves? Do we value that we are perfectly made, by God or nature, to be beautiful?

I will end with the ratio as defined by Adolf Zeising.

[A universal law] in which is contained the ground-principle of all formative striving for beauty and completeness in the realms of both nature and art, and which permeates, as a paramount spiritual ideal, all structures, forms and proportions, whether cosmic or individual, organic or inorganic, acoustic or optical; which finds its fullest realization, however, in the human form.

Is that not something we can value?
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