Scary Beautiful (Leanie van der Vyver)
From the curators: The history of reshaping women’s feet in the name of aesthetics and social control is as old as the practice of foot-binding. The stiletto heel first emerged in the 1930s and was popularized by fashion designer Roger Vivier’s (1907–1998) work for Christian Dior in the 1950s. This innovation has fomented an obsession with re- and deforming the female silhouette in the name of fashionable footwear. Leanie van der Vyver’s design pushes this vertiginous quest to its limit, exploring in the process the friction between pain and pleasure experienced by the wearer (and, in some respects, the viewer). Scary Beautiful requires its wearer to insert pointed toes into the shoe openings; shins rest on extensions that tower upward from the heels, forcing the body forward into a taxing semi-squat position. The traditional position of the heel is effectively reversed, moving from the back of the shoe to the front. The wearer can perform no more than an awkward shuffle forward. Van de Vyver’s design critiques the often harsh standards of beauty—both self- and society-imposed—that women feel compelled to meet, highlighting the absurd bodily violence that must be enacted before such pain and discomfort might begin to be reassessed.
Received wisdom tells us that the purpose of fashion is to make women beautiful, so that they will be attractive to men. When women are attractive to men, men will then want to have sex with them and/or marry them and/or buy them nice things, and any or all of these will validate the woman in the eyes of the world.
This is what underpins the design philosophy of, among others, the formerly disgraced but now seemingly rehabilitated John Galliano, who went on record to say, “I want men to look at a woman wearing one of my dresses and to think ‘I have to fuck her.’” Whether the woman wants to be fucked, by this mythical gentleman or anyone else, is neither here nor there. A man sticking his penis in you is to be welcomed as the highest accolade you can get as a woman.
As with most received wisdom, the really interesting stuff happens when people reject it, question it, or interpret it in different ways. In fashion, it happens when the necessity of heterosexual penetrative sex is jettisoned in favor of an entirely different endgame. We see this is the work of the late Alexander McQueen, in particular, who was often accused of misogyny, but whose stated aim was, in fact, to make women “so fabulous you wouldn’t dare lay a hand on her.” We see it in Rei Kawakubo and her famous distortions of the female form. We see it in Iris Van Herpen, and her use of sci-fi-esque shrinkwrapped models suspended in bags above the runway. And we see it in the Scary Beautiful shoes by the South African designer Leanie Van Der Vyver.
With conventionally attractive body modifications—stiletto-heeled shoes, for instance, or corsets—it is anticipated that the wearer will adapt to the discomfort and restricted movement, and will learn how to function comparatively normally while still looking as fabulous as the modification intends. With Scary Beautiful, no one would ever adapt to the requirements of the item. Instead, the wearer becomes monstrous—another kind of fabulous entirely from the one usually associated with fashion. The elegance associated with high-heeled shoes is replaced with awkward lumbering. The quality of movement the shoes engender in the model is like something from Pan’s Labyrinth, not a Fashion Week sashay. Although the model is, as Vyver says, “ready [for sex]…and sticking her butt out,” there is nothing conventionally erotic about her posture. Quite the contrary, in fact. She looks awkward, distended, mis-shaped, deformed. The man of John Galliano’s dreams would most certainly not want to “fuck her.” He’d run a mile at the very idea.
We live in a world where women are expected to be compliant and acquiescent, and are rewarded for providing men with beauty and the type of sex they require. What makes Scary Beautiful so radical is that it rejects these expectations, and declines their reward. It suggests instead that the distortions women perform to fulfill the expectations placed on them, when taken to their logical conclusion, are deformations of the self. Body and soul become twisted and contorted beyond recognition.
Scary Beautiful crosses the imaginary line between what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in terms of fashion and feminine sexuality, and in doing so shows how arbitrary the very existence of that line actually is. Beautiful and ugly, sexy and scary, are creations of our own imagining, but there is still the tendency to assume that these things are natural, inevitable, and unchanging. Scary Beautiful is a timely and helpful reminder that they’re not.