Applied Fashion: it's only when you go on holiday that you see how shiny we have become. Rebecca Willis explains what it says about us...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2012
Are you having a matt holiday or a shiny one? That’s what determines how relaxed you’ll be at the end of it. At least, it is according to a theory I evolved last summer, on holiday on the Kenyan island of Lamu. Let me explain. As the beachside days passed, my toenail varnish began to chip—sand is an excellent exfoliant for the feet, but less good for Chanel’s Particulière. At first I retouched it (the sly advantage of a dark colour) but soon I just gave up and took it all off. Meanwhile, beach hair set in—salty, lustreless—and it felt better and easier than the shimmering locks we’re urged towards by adverts. Putting on make-up, even the tiniest bit, seemed ridiculously self-conscious and try-hard. Call it what you like—laziness, letting go, letting myself go, returning to nature—but one day I realised I was a shine-free zone.
Modern cities are shiny, slick creations of metal and glass, so it follows that getting away from it all should involve the opposite: going matt. That is why patent leather looks fine on Bond Street and weird on a beach, and why those new blackboard-finish cars that glide around London like stealth bombers look so incongruous (though in their case, that’s the attention-getting point). It’s no coincidence that traditionally glamorous fabrics—silk, satin, velvet—have a sheen that signals sophistication, urbanity. We dress “up” in them, the sartorial version of a skyscraper clad in gleaming glass; but we dress down in textured tweed or grainy denim when we go out of town or to the wide horizons of the seaside.
The dustiest, least shiny place I have ever been is a road in Tanzania that goes past the Olduvai Gorge. The jeeps travelling along it got covered in dust, as if they belonged to the landscape that was doing its utmost to reclaim them. It was at Olduvai that Louis Leakey’s excavations proved to the world that man had his origins in Africa, that it was the cradle of mankind. If you choose, you can read the biblical phrases about man being made “from the dust of the ground”, and our lives going “from dust to dust” as metaphors for the same. What I’m saying is that matt-ness—or dust—is our fundamental state, and that shiny-ness is the veneer (another shiny word) of civilisation.
Throughout history, shiny things have been synonymous with success and power. The gleam of metal in the Bronze Age signified progress and survival, just as, in America’s gold rush, a glint in the panhandler’s sieve meant the hope of it. In the crepuscular light of an early Greek Orthodox church, the religious magic of an icon resided in the gleam of its gold paint; in the same way, the bright glow of the dragon’s treasure illuminated Beowulf’s dark world.
People, though, are not shiny, despite the REM song. Some dark skins have a sheen, but it’s only ever an eggshell finish, not high gloss. That’s why the oiled limbs of front-row fashionistas and the matching torsos of male models are just plain spooky. Our shine is on the inside—cut open, we glisten—and in our blood, sweat, tears, semen, which can be spilt back into the earth and drain away. We are containers of liquid, and that liquid is literally our life-blood. Without it we return to dust. Is our magpie-like attraction to shiny stuff, then, part of our quest for immortality?
The fragments that we shore against our ruin may shine—gold and jewels, precious metals, steel, polished marble—but they are not in their natural states. Jewels have to be cut, metals smelted. They represent the strivings of man, and the getting of them requires effort. The opposite of all that straining is letting go and not fighting the tidal tug of time. Obviously we wouldn’t have evolved as a species if that were our permanent condition, but it’s effective for a while, particularly now the shiny bits of life have accelerated to such high speed. So a matt holiday is, by definition, likely to be the most relaxing. That’s why it makes sense to forget about the nail varnish and the hair conditioner.
On the way home from Kenya, in a Pavlovian response to arriving at Heathrow, I found myself reaching in my bag for lipstick. I fought the urge. A few days later, the nastiest shiny invention of the modern world came to Lamu, in the hands of Somali pirates. Guns. The world of the tourism-dependent locals was torn apart, and paradise lost. I rest my case.
Rebecca Willis is the associate editor of Intelligent Life and a former travel editor of Vogue
Illustration Bill Brown