24 June 2009

Jolie-Laide: The Beauty of Imperfection

I'll never forget being at a party in London years ago when a woman turned to me and said, "Sure you're pretty, but your looks are expected." Even if she needed a few lessons in manners, she had a point. Tall, blonde and blue-eyed is somewhat banal. And as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "After a certain degree of prettiness, one pretty girl is as pretty as another."

It is much more interesting to look at something that is slightly imperfect, slightly askew - whether it be a room (MC would purposely pull her curtains off one or two hooks) or a face. And who else but the French would come up with a term for this? "Jolie-laide" or "pretty-ugly" is hard to define, and perhaps, like many French expressions, isn't meant to be.

I posted a few days ago on Les Dames de Bois de Boulogne which featured the actress Maria Casares whom I referred to as jolie-laide. A reader - in France no less - disagreed that she qualified, and immediately served up Bette Davis as a prime example.

Mr. Worthington sent me the 1963 cover of Harper's Bazaar (top photo) which apparently caused quite a stir: "Only recently it occurred to me that there was an elaborate insider's joke going on~ Richard Avedon was channeling Diana Vreeland with this model's navy blue hair, makeup, cigarette holder (inside the magazine, the same model wore a snood). Then, Walter Winchell ran a squib which implied that the model was in fact not a real woman at all! It was never verified and has intrigued me ever since...."

And intriguing is the point of the jolie-laide.

Click here for an excellent New York Times article exploring this elusive quality.


P.Gaye Tapp at Little Augury said...

I do find the most beauty in dissonance. My header has a Bacon quote that relates, it is my feeling too. I thought I left a post on the Del Rio thing,which obviously didn't reach you. I adore it, and it is a classic, and I very much like a spontaneous musing from you!Always a knowlegdfest. Your Book got a mention in my comments section as Most Chic recent read. la

Emily Evans Eerdmans said...

"There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Tish, what a great quote.

Anonymous said...

Love the article titled
"How to Raise an Eyebrow" - what do they suggest? KDM

Mrs. Blandings said...

Clearly the commenter had not had the opportunity to talk with you; at that point she would have found your beauty quite outside the norm.

balsamfir said...

How few cover girls have that much personality these days. It takes intelligence and self confidence to look like that, whether you're pretty and blonde like Lempicka, or dark and witty, like Vreeland, or the Dutchess of Windsor(not that I'm a fan of hers) .

balsamfir said...

Looking at that photo again, it occurs to me that it might be a man. Just an idea.

hansaxel said...

Lovely post. Yet I am wondering if this expression "jolie-laide" is actually French... I am French and I never heard it in France while I was it several times in American magazines... Is it an American creation?

Toby Worthington said...

It is positively a French expression!
In conversation with the french reader who took exception to the idea that Maria Carsares represented a jolie-laide type of chic, she pointed out the unassailable fact that standards of beauty are never consistent from one era to another, nor from one country to another. Mention of Jeanne Moreau as jolie-laide gave her pause; she could not, as a French woman, find anything "laide" there. But she agreed that a face like Anna Magnani's fit the bill perfectly.

Toby Worthington said...

One more thing about the Bazaar cover.
If indeed the model wasn't a woman, it would have carried an elaborate tease to another level. There was sufficient shock value in the basic idea of a magazine cover bearing an image that had nothing whatever to do with perceived notions of beauty in the USA circa 1963. The Winchell columns were known for their spurious "facts', there were never retractions and whatever was printed, remained unchallenged. I'd hate to think that someone's life was made uncomfortable by my resuscitating this bit of arcania.

TJB said...

This debate could go on forever, simply because notions of beauty change not only from era to era and place to place; but also from individual to individual.

However, accepting the broad notion that "conventional" beauty means more or less the same to everyone, I would propose that the term jolie-laide is far-ranging enough to encompass both Maria Casares and Bette Davis, who gave at least the impression of beauty through their work and images; but specific enough to exclude (with due respect to my darling Mr. Worthington) Ms. Magnani, who was an actor who gave beautiful performances, but was not a beauty by any standard, conventional or otherwise.

To my way of thinking, jolie-laide doesn't conform to the bland, cookie-cutter kind of beauty; but I think it's too often and wrongly used as a euphemism for a physically unattractive person. I also think the fact that it clumsily translates to "pretty-ugly," we get too hung up on the "ugly."

Diana Vreeland is one of my heroines: she had style, charm, glamour, chic, and pizazz to spare - but she was not beautiful, nor was she jolie-laide, and she'd be the first to admit it.

On the other hand, Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren - all widely considered to be great beauties, and none of them are truly conventional, or have perfectly symmetrical features, or cookie-cutter measurements. They'd probably never be described as jolie-laide, and yet, somehow, it would be apt.

Like chic, which doesn't have a literal English translation, and is therefore always hard to define and pinpoint, jolie-laide remains elusive - which, I suppose, it part of the reason for its lasting, maddening charm and mystique.

Emily Evans Eerdmans said...

KDM - Maybe it's to have fiendishly skinny hands?

Mrs Blandings - Thank you for that. I must say I was a bit stunned initially, but then realized - as is usually the case - that it was more about her than me.

Balsamfir - I think there is definitely some 1960s photoshop action going on. Mr. Worthington found a photo of a model who looked almost identical to the one featured here, but with less bulbous forehead and chin and quite pretty. Maybe I should post it?

balsamfir said...

Definitely post Toby's find; it would be very interesting. I know nothing about magazine history. I only had the strong impression that the model has an inside joke going on, and if they never found out who it was back then, that could be why, since no one would have admitted it.

I'm going to have to revise my idea of what Jolie Laide means after reading all of this. To me, it always meant someone who was clever enough to be attractive,or often just sexy, when they really weren't. Certainly Hepburn and other canditates were just plain old beautiful, if not "perfect".

LINDA from Each Little World said...

Are you familiar with the movie "Kissing Jessica Stein"? The two women in it describe a certain kind of male allure as "sexy ugly." Examples would be Mick Jagger or Harvey Keitel. Sounds like the same concept just a gender difference if we're only talking about looks.