If there was any doubt in anyone's mind that style is fast becoming the dominant language of the world, tuning into the TV coverage of Barack Obama's second inauguration last month should have lifted any last gauzy veil away.
Once upon a time, the world communicated predominantly in English. Now it's What and Who You Are Wearing.
On CNN, as Piers Morgan and Erin Burnett co-anchored coverage of the Obamas' appearance at the Commander– in-Chief's ball, producers cut away to a fashion reporter moments after Michelle Obama walked out in the dress the world was waiting to see. The reporter's ear was sealed to her cellphone, as she tried to get official confirmation that the ruby-coloured chiffon and velvet gown was by Taiwanese-born designer Jason Wu. From her almost frantic, breathless reporting, one might have assumed she was about to give the world the final word on whether the planet was still in fact spinning.
In the age of technology, when an image wings its way around the world in milliseconds, for all to see, tweet, retweet and parse, style is our contemporary, word-less language. And every one speaks it with his or her own particular accent, even if there has never been any instruction – and even if she thought she couldn't or wasn't.
And, yes, that means that, on some occasions, one must think carefully about its articulation. Not to is a faux pas, as much of a social affront as telling your hostess that you think the colour of her living room is disgusting. There are certain things you shouldn't say – with your voice or your clothes. But does that mean that style is some kind of oppressive consumerist force dictating and sustaining some specific myth of femininity?
Phoebe Baker Hyde felt it did. Which is why she set out to not care for a year about whether she looked "right" and then write a book about it. The recently published result is The Beauty Experiment: How I Skipped Lipstick, Ditched Fashion, Faced the World Without Concealer and Learned to Love The Real Me. Her arm-wrestle with the beauty/style industry began when the young, pretty, happily married mother moved in 2007 to Hong Kong with her husband, John, and felt stylishly inadequate in the size-zero, designer-conscious city. Initially, Baker Hyde shopped to calm her anxiety, but, after one corporate evening when she felt she had tried too hard in a designer red dress, she asked herself what would happen if she decided not to play the game – one that she felt was taunting her with expectations of "unattainable femaleness." That her first-born was a girl also caused her to think about what kind of role model she was as a woman if all she cared about was how she looked.
Yup, this was a quasi-feminist thing.
So she made some rules. Baker Hyde allowed herself to use only deodorant, soap, shampoo, hand cream, sunscreen, a toothbrush and toothpaste, dental floss and a comb. (She did eventually relent on tweezers to yank out chin hairs. She also reinstated her home-wax strips to "reduce" what she calls her "Caucasian calf-Afro.") More dramatically, Baker Hyde had 14 inches of her beautiful strawberry-blond hair chopped off by a barber, opting for a "man-cut." She also put away all her jewellery and covered all the mirrors in her home except for the ones in the bathrooms.
To find her so-called true identity, Baker Hyde also spent the year on the periphery of shopping culture, thinking about her relationship with it. That she is funny and perceptive makes the book a good read. The designer dress she bought is like "cake before breakfast, a martini before noon." She wonders if the preoccupation with makeup to become more feminine-looking is "a bit like preferring the album to the live show or the margarine to the butter."
But the memoir is less about beauty pressures and more about her insecurities as an intelligent, stay-at-home woman in the shadow of her husband's career. What Baker Hyde was trying to find was satisfaction in her role as a mother, wife and struggling novelist, not simply comfort in her style choices.
Basically, Baker Hyde had a style tantrum, something she admits at the close of the book. "It was ... ultimately childish," she writes of her experiment. "If I couldn't have beauty as it was advertised, I wasn't going to settle for anything else. I was like the seven-year-old who tells all the little kids there's no such thing as the Tooth Fairy just to keep herself from crying over the loss."
Ultimately, Baker Hyde had to learn what we all eventually come to see: the necessity of imperfection in our lives and appearances. And in a way, that's part of the fun. If everything were perfectly scripted, including the style language we get to play with every day, there would be no adventure, no room for experimentation. Whatever you put on says something. Even not caring is a statement, as Baker Hyde discovered. In a mismatched outfit comprising a red tank top, a pink skirt and sneakers, "I looked cooler than I normally would have, like I belonged to some underground art scene," she writes.
While many can't have or afford high fashion, style is available to all of us. Come to think of it, that's part of the interest in (and power of) Michelle Obama's clothing choices. The first lady is the Jackie O of the street, her style language a perfect articulation of her political beliefs. As she proves, style is a level playing field, as easily achieved as a cut of the bangs, a pair of shoes from J.Crew, a dress from Target. We are her, and she is us. We can all speak the same language.