Hair supremo Sam McKnight and style maven Lady Amanda Harlech discuss vanity, inconspicuous consumption and 17th century harlots.
Sam McKnight and Amanda Harlech
Sam McKnight: At 10am today, seeing you in a fluoro pink jacket that’s 17 years old at the couture show for Chanel, this season in Paris, you told me you decided not to wear a white dress, because…?
Amanda Harlech: It’s very, very tight and because about five hours later it’s not going to look so great. And in my vanity, if you can call it that, and respect for clothes, respect for Karl Lagerfeld and the occasion, I decided to wear a beautiful black tulle ball gown, which is really easy and like wearing a T-shirt.
SM: I don’t see that as vanity, I see that as your version of practicality and logic. Which is Amanda. There is probably an element of vanity in there, I would imagine.
AH: Yes, self-protective so you don’t end up looking like Miss Havisham or a blob… unless I’m going for that look.
SM: I’ve been reading these old ideas around the theme of vanity. Selling Beauty: cosmetics, Commerce and French Society 1750-1830, it’s a book [by Morag Martin]. To quote: “Vanity as an ultimately feminine and necessary trait was part of a traditional emphasis on female reproductive functions, which dates back to the Renaissance. Yet vanity also demarcated a new role for beauty as social necessity and respectable families.” So this is a new kind of vanity.
AH: A class system, in other words.
SM: Then the wealthier classes that were emerging at the time.
AH: They could afford to purchase some rose water etc…
SM: “It came through the use of make-up, however. This was not an extravagant display of luxury but a subtle form of tasteful and literally inconspicuous consumption.” Which we are now in today – we are conspicuous today.
AH: If you think of Marie Antoinette and where it actually went over the scale and where vanity lost the plot a bit. People got their heads chopped off.
SM: “Unlike the early 18th century, artifice the invisible beauty age was meant to underline the individual’s taste and worth in the enlightened family unit. Private, and thus hidden make-up was necessary for public presentation, yet it was not to be openly discussed or noticed.” So I’m seeing from that there’s two different threads, there’s the over-the-top and there’s…
AH: Well, is that meant to be a disguise to protect your personal persona from your public persona, or that’s conspicuous consumption as opposed to inconspicuous consumption?
Where vanity becomes pride – and, therefore, in the old books a sin – is when it is self-obsessed and all-consuming, it’s nothing to do with anyone else.
SM: Inconspicuous consumption, for me, is the girls who don’t put selfie pictures on the internet.
AH: Who haven’t had fillers at 14.
SM: Who are not changing their faces as teenagers where there’s a whole other tribe, which is to do with conspicuous consumption, which to me is all about the internet. So I guess things haven’t changed that much.
AH: They have just got ramped up by access to the internet where you actually proliferate, send your image right across the world, where you get more followers. Therefore you imagine this virtual reality celebrity status which makes you feel good. And your vanity, is it satisfied? No. You go on and pursue another celebrity that you try to replicate. It’s a never-ending addiction.
SM: I think vanity is definitely a necessary trait because it keeps me, and all the people I know, in check. It makes me look after myself. Because I’m too vain to become a fat old slob too early in my life. Vanity for me is a kind of self-respect, honouring my body and myself. I think there is a different type of vanity, in that you see some young people who look at themselves with confusion, and they butcher themselves to satisfy their vanity. For me, vanity has negative overtones.
AH: Vanity can be lonely.
SM: Rampant vanity is really unattractive. Just enough vanity and discipline can make you look and feel good or be attractive. Does that make sense?
AH: Yes. It’s like cooking, a pinch of salt, it’s a recipe. Otherwise you’re gonna cook up poison, baby!
SM: It’s the balance of life. A little bit of vanity goes a long way. Just a spoonful of sugar.
AH: Where vanity becomes pride – and, therefore, in the old books a sin – is when it is self-obsessed and all-consuming, it’s nothing to do with anyone else. Their self-worth is so absent that they have to construct themselves in order to feel good.
SM: So here we are, Amanda, backstage at Chanel Haute Couture, Spring 2018. Where does vanity fit in here? It would never enter my mind here, it’s unglamorous. We’re in a big marquee with hairdressers, make-up artists, dressers, all kinds. It’s a lovely atmosphere but you wouldn’t say it’s a room full of vanity.
AH: It’s a room full of highly trained teams…
SM: …to realise Karl’s dream of a vision of a woman to be seen at the show. That’s conjuring up a dream for the public, a dream of Chanel. I don’t see anything vain about that because what we do is aspirational.
AH: It’s not self-inverted. It’s not you, Sam, as a pompadour with a comb stuck through it screaming, “Look at my hair!” – which would be vain. It’s all about creating something to articulate Karl’s vision to absolute perfection.
Don’t let vanity become a prison. Live! Life is too precious to be on a constant diet and selfies. Smiling is the most beautifying thing you can do.
SM: So where does vanity sit?
AH: Egoism, narcissism.
SM: Which is the selfie?
AH: Yes. This selfie equals Narcissus, the pool that he looked in.
SM: To my mind, that really inward bubble of self-love and aggrandisement is really unattractive and it’s not modern at all. We need to return to another era, one of inconspicuous consumption.
AH: Well no, it goes back to 1740. If you think of the 16th-17th century, you know the strumpet, the harlot, the prostitute, the noblest art of all, not that far away from fashion in some respects. What they did to display their wares was more vulgar, it had to be more brightly coloured, more pushed up to attract. The balance here is the inconspicuous consumption where it’s about looking after yourself. You’re not having to flog your wares. Instant gratification.
SM: Bringing us back to vanity, is it a good thing or a bad thing?
AH: I think a bit of vanity goes a long way and helps the medicine go down.
SM: You think it goes hand in hand with insecurity?
AH: I do. Listen, we both work in fashion and that is the most insecure industry, which is why we can be accused of being superficial. But it’s not that the fashion industry is full of highly visual and extremely sensitive individuals who necessarily feel insecure because they are super-aware. The fashion industry is often belittled because a lot of people don’t understand the depth and the profound feeling that people in this industry create. Like you said, dreams.
SM: For me, the idea of vanity is that having a little of it helps.
AH: Eyelash extensions, I don’t know, something that intrinsically you do not need. You are already good, but there’s some insecurity that makes you want to add on.
SM: But do you think anybody really wants to be Becky Sharp?
AH: No, she was a very lonely person.
SM: And the person in the Carly Simon song? [Both sing You’re So Vain]. That kind of vanity perhaps stems from weakness, and that’s too much vanity.
AH: We are talking about degrees of vanity. Take someone like Karl Lagerfeld, you are full of respect and admiration just for the dignity of this man’s vanity.
SM: That’s mixed with a sense of humour, too.
AH: The best thing about vanity, there’s an organic vanity, self-obsessed fitness, colonics, not living their life anymore, another green juice delivered to your door! Don’t let vanity become a prison. Live! Life is too precious to be on a constant diet and selfies. Smiling is the most beautifying thing you can do.
SM: And put the iPhone down.
AH: Sam, do you wanna have a chat show?