In our recent off-topic post about The Romantic Spirit--the finest television treatment ever given to European Romanticism--we noted the series' specificity of focus and commented that if one wished to supplement it with a broad survey of the history of Western culture (from a noble though not particularly Romantic point of view), one could turn to Kenneth Clark's magisterial BBC documentary, Civilisation.
While we were reminiscing about Civilisation, we recollected a passage from the seventh episode in Lord Clark's series, one that is highly relevant to the topic of this forum.
The following video shows the excerpt in question, followed by the text of Clark's narration. The clip is only two and a half minutes long, so we encourage our readers to view it, as the host's delivery is quite compelling.
The episode as a whole deals with the Counter-Reformation: the Catholic Church's organized effort to overcome the challenge of Protestantism in the 16th century. Although, in this particular clip, Clark voices the Catholic position, the Judgment of Paris venerates both traditions. Each served Western culture very well, with Protestantism suiting the austere character of Northern Europe as much as Catholicism befitted the voluptuous character of the South. We highlight this passage not for any religious purpose, but because it has an applicability to our core themes (as we will presently discuss).
Here is the transcript of Lord Clark's commentary:
The leaders of the Catholic Restoration had made the inspired decision not to go half-way to meet Protestantism in any of its objections, but rather to glory in those very doctrines that the Protestants had most forcibly--and sometimes, it must be admitted, most logically--repudiated.
Luther had repudiated the authority of the Pope. Very well, no pains must be spare in making a giant assertion that St Peter, the first Bishop of Rome, had been divinely appointed as Christís Vicar on earth.
Ever since Erasmus, intelligent men in the North had spoken scornfully of relics. Wery well, their importance must be magnified, so that the four piers of St Peterís itself are gigantic reliquaries. This one contained parts of the lance that pierced Our Lord's side, and in front of it stands Longinus, looking up with a gesture of dazzled enlightenment.
The veneration of relics was connected with the cult of the saints, and this had equally been condemned by the reformers. Very Well, the saints should be made more insistently real to the imagination, and in particular their sufferings and their ecstasies should be vividly recorded.
In all these ways, the Church gave imaginative expression to deep-seated human impulses. And it had another great strength, which one may say was part of Mediterranean civilisation, or at any rate, a legacy from the pagan Renaissance: it was not afraid of the human body.
Titian's Assumption of the Virgin, a Baroque picture almost 100 years before its time, was painted in the same period as his great celebrations of paganism.
Early in the 16th century, Titian had given his immense authority to this union of dogma and sensuality. And when the first Puritan influence of the Council of Trent was over, Titian's work was there to inspire both Rubens--who made superb copies of it--and, I think, Bernini.
Protestantism, in its over-zealous condemnation of the sins of the flesh, had also cut itself off from the kind of comforting physical presence that one finds in Bernini's Charity.
The latter point that Lord Clark makes, contrasting the pagan/Catholic celebration of the flesh with the Protestant repression of the body, gives credence to the long-held view that one of the reasons why the androgynous, emaciated aesthetic took hold over the United States was due to America's puritanical origins, which were marked by an "over-zealous condemnation of the sins of the flesh" (as Clark puts it).
Keep in mind that the Classical ideal originated in the pagan world of Ancient Greece. As Clark observes--using the work of Titian as an example--Catholicism harmoniously absorbed this pagan aesthetic tradition, while the Protestant North condemned it on theological grounds.
which the video shows dissolving into Rubens's free copy, from the following century:
Given that the United States originated as a colony of Protestant England, America may indeed have retained in its cultural outlook the mother country's puritanical tendency to be "afraid of the human body"--or at least the generously indulged female form.
* * *
However, in the above video, Clark makes an even more significant point, which is the following:
In confronting the Protestant Reformation, instead of "going half-way to meet Protestantism" in some sort of mushy middle ground, the Catholic Church did the opposite: it entrenched itself and "gloried in those very doctrines that the Protestants had most forcibly repudiated."
Instead of diminishing the role of saints and relics, the Catholic Church augmented their importance. Instead of democratizing the pope, it make him more supreme. Instead of de-sanctifying Mary, it reaffirmed her status as the divine Mother of God.
Rather than becoming less Catholic, Catholicism became more Catholic. In combating the Protestant Reformation, the Counter-Reformation defined more precisely what Catholicism actually meant. And this determination to dig in its heels and reaffirm its own identity saved the Catholic Church and made it more powerful and persuasive than ever, even in the face of a powerful opposition.
Why is this exemplum relevant to the topic of this forum?
Because Clark's account of Catholicism's spirited counter-attack against Protestantism offers an instructive analogy for how the plus-size fashion industry should confront the modern androgynous aesthetic.
In this 16th-century war of aesthetics and ideology, a traditional cultural force (Catholicism) confronted a new, antithetical cultural force (Protestantism). But instead of watering itself down or meekly compromising itself, instead of renouncing its own tenets and making concessions to the opposing faction, the traditional entity (Catholicism) reasserted its own identity more forcibly and defined itself more precisely against its opposition.
In the recent 20th-century war of aesthetics and ideology, a traditional cultural force (the Classical ideal of plus-size beauty) similarly confronted a new, antithetical cultural force (the modern standard of androgynous emaciation). But unlike the resolute stance of the Counter-Reformation, plus-size beauty has abnegated itself.
The current approach that plus-fashion professionals adopt in contending with the fashion world's underweight standard is appeasement, which involves shrinking the size of plus-size models to the point that they nearly resemble straight-size models.
The "regular" fashion industry has, of course, made no effort to meet plus-size beauty half-way. Its modelling standard remains a skeletal size 0 or 2. But the plus-size industry steadily diminishes its own identity, declining into an unhappy echo of straight-size modelling, restricting itself to faux-plus false advertising. The result is a generation of full-figured women who feel alienated from plus-size fashion, who feel that its models represent them scarcely better than the waifs do.
(It would be as if the Catholic Church, instead of mounting the Counter-Reformation, had minimized the pope, downplayed the saints, desanctified Mary, and simply become an unfocussed denomination occupying a muddled position between its previous identity and its Protestant antagonist.)
Instead of such a self-abnegating practice, the plus-size fashion industry should learn the lesson of the Counter-Reformation. It should refuse to meet modern feminist-driven androgyny in any of its objections. Rather, it should glory in those very physical attributes of full-figured femininity that the thin-supremacist fashion industry has most forcibly repudiated.
Thus, to adapt Lord Clark's text:
The curve-o-phobic fashion elites have decried facial fullness in favour of an androgynous oval facial shape.
Very well, plus-size models should more insistently have rounded faces exhibiting visible weight, including a luscious curve under the chin.
The anorexia-pushing fashion establishment enthuses over grotesquely jutting collarbones as visual signs of a model's starvation.
Very well, plus-size models should be sufficiently full-figured that their clavicles are wholly submerged in soft fullness, leaving a plump expanse of fleshiness at their neck-and-shoulder area.
The androgyny-worshipping fashion regime insists that models' frames either be cadaverously gaunt or exhibit a repulsive, ropy musculature reminiscent of a male physique--in either case, lacking any trace of female secondary-sex characteristics.
Very well, plus-size models should exhibit generous hips, voluptuous busts, full waists, curves along their back, and luxuriously untoned, natural figures suffused by feminine softness--all of the visual hallmarks of well-fed womanliness.
Rather than making self-defeating concessions to the anti-plus aesthetic of straight-size fashion--which, after all, has as its goal the elimination of any trace of the female gender (consider the source!)--the plus-fashion industry should more resolutely, boldly, and enthusiastically champion the very qualities that visibly distinguish full-figured femininity, the very attributes that identify a girl as a plus-size model.
This uncompromising approach enabled the Catholic Church to defend itself against the ideological and cultural challenge of Protestantism (which sought its destruction), and this approach would also enable plus-size modelling to more resolutely establish itself as an alternative to the minus-size industry, giving full-figured women the sense that they have an aesthetic of their own, an aesthetic that is just as valid as (in fact, more valid than) anorexia-inducing androgyny, a timeless ideal that has the sanction of three millennia of Western history behind it.
Rather than whittling down the size of its models to paltry faux-plus proportions, the plus-size fashion industry should feature models in sumptuous sizes 16, 18, 20, 22, and so forth, who are everything that the starving, androgynous models are not: full-figured, fleshy, and feminine; soft, natural, and beautiful.
A culture only dies when it loses its foundations. It never declines when it is too traditional; rather, it declines when it is not traditional enough. Timeless beauty was displaced by the alien aesthetic because it lost confidence in itself and became easy prey to the destructive forces of modernism, which were united in their resentment-driven desire to topple noble, Old-World culture in all of its manifestations.
Now is the time for the Classical ideal to reaffirm its own identity, to reassert its own distinct qualities. Far from aping the minus-size standard (which creates so much misery among women worldwide), plus-size fashion should glory in the fact that it runs counter to this inhuman death aesthetic and celebrate the fact that it is a visual expression of the robust enjoyment of life.
This is the most important lesson of Civilisation.
* * *
The sumptuous beauty of Shannon Marie, still today the most gorgeous plus-size model of all time, a goddess whom Titian or Rubens would have clamoured to immortalize in their canvasses, if she had lived during the Renaissance or Baroque: