La beauté sans vertu

“La beauté sans vertu” by Genevieve Valentine is a vicious little swipe at the fashion industry as certain disturbing trends are amplified in the future and a famous fashion House prepares for an important show.

These days they use arms from corpses—age fourteen, oldest, at time of death. The couture houses pay for them, of course (the days of grave-robbing are over, this is a business), but anything over fourteen isn’t worth having. At fourteen, the bones have most of the length you need for a model, with a child’s slender ulna, the knob of the wrist still standing out enough to cast a shadow.

The graft scars are just at the shoulder, like a doll’s arm. The surgeons are artists, and the seams are no wider than a silk thread. The procedure’s nearly perfect by now, and the commitment of the doctors is respected. Models’ fingertips always go a little black, tending to the purple; no one points it out.

 

Maria’s already nineteen when the House of Centifolia picks her up. You don’t want them any younger than that if you’re going to keep them whole and working for the length of their contract. You want someone with a little stamina.

The publicity team decides to make England her official home country, because that sounds just exotic enough to intrigue without actually being from a country that worries people, so Maria spends six months secluded, letting her arms heal, living on a juice fast, and learning how to fire her English with a cut-glass accent.

The walk she already had, of course. That’s how a girl gets noticed by an agency to start with, by having that sharp, necessary stride where the head stays fixed and the rest of her limbs seem to clatter in that careless way that makes the clothes look four times more expensive than they are. Nothing else is any good. They film the girls and map their faces frame by frame until they can walk so precisely the coordinates never move.

She’s perfect from the first take. The House seeds Maria’s audition video as classified amateur footage leaked by mistake so everyone gets interested, then pretends to crack down on security so people think her identity was a hidden asset and they got a glimpse of something clandestine. She becomes the industry’s sixteenth most searched-for name.

Rhea, the head of the House, likes the look of her (“Something miserable in the turn of the mouth,” she says with great satisfaction, already sketching). Maria does one season as an exclusive for Centifolia’s fall collection that year, opening a single catwalk in a black robe weighed down with thirteen pounds of embroidery, her feet spearing the floor and her hands curled into fists. After that the press comes calling.

“The Princess of Roses and Diamonds,” the Bespoke headline calls her, conjuring the old fairy tale in an article nobody reads. People just look at the photos. She scales the dragon statue on the Old Bridge in thousand-dollar jeans; she perches in the frame of an open window with her hair dragging in the wind like a ghost is pulling her through; she stands naked in a museum and holds a ball gown against her chest.

The photographer can’t stop taking pictures of her face—half in shadow, half-hidden by her hair as the wind plays with the cuffs of her silk shirt. Her thin, borrowed wrists curve out of the arm of a coat; an earring looks as if it’s trying to crawl in her ear just to be closer.

She’s already very good about turning down questions without making it seem like she’s actually turned them down; roses and diamonds fall from her lips. No one bothers with the interview, where she talks just as she’s supposed to about the curated past Centifolia drilled into her. Six months’ prep for nothing.

There’s the occasional complaint, of course (from outside, always, those inside a couture house wouldn’t dream of it). But it’s a precision business. The models don’t even suffer phantom aches from their old arms. The doctors clean up anything else that’s wrong while they’re in there, as a special service—faltering thyroids and kidney troubles and moles that are suspicious or unsightly. These girls are an investment; they’re meant to live.

 

The Old Baroque Concert Hall is on the edge of town, and only the House of Centifolia’s long history and Rhea’s name could get anyone from the industry crowd to come out this far.

The runway snakes across most of the derelict space, weaving back in on itself in a pattern that came to Rhea in a dream—it reminded her of the journey through life, and of the detox trip she took to Austria.

The narrow walkway crosses itself at different sloping elevations to mimic the mountain trails; the oily pool sliding beneath it all reflects the muted tones of this season’s collection, and pays homage to the foot-buckets of cold and hot water in the Austrian spa that drained lipids and negative thoughts from the body.

With thirty-five looks in the fall collection and six points of varying heights across which the meandering runway connects—“It’s more of a maze than a trail,” Rhea explains to potential choreographers, “it’s very spiritual”—the timing has to be precise, but there are only two windows in which the girls are available to practice: once during the fitting the day before, and once mere hours before the show.

Three of the models have to be fired for having scheduled another show the day before this one, which makes them traitors to the House (you don’t book something else without permission, rookie mistake, Rhea cuts them so fast one of them gets thrown out of a cab), and the three alternates have to be called up and fitted. It means six hours of all the girls standing in the unheated warehouse, loose-limbed and pliant as they’re ordered to be for fittings, while assistants yank them in and out of outfits and take snapshots until the new assignments emerge and they’re allowed to go rehearse.

The choreographer—he has a name, but no one dares use it when speaking of him, lest he appear before they’ve corrected their posture—thinks carefully for a long time. He paces the length of the runway, hopping nimbly from one level to the next at the intersections. He doubles back sharply once or twice in a way that looks, horribly convincingly, as if he’s actually become lost and someone will have to risk breaking ranks to go get him. Then he reaches the end, nods as if satisfied, points to six places on the stage, and shouts, “The girls, please!”

 

There were two girls—there are always two, so one can be made an example of.

The one who was kind to an old beggar woman was gifted with the roses and diamonds that dropped from her mouth with every word; the one who refused to get water for a princess to drink spent the rest of her life vomiting vipers and toads.

As a girl, Rhea listened and understood what she wasn’t being told. (It’s how she climbed to the top of a couture house. Rhea hears.)

The one who was kind married a prince, and spent the rest of her life granting audiences and coughing up bouquets and necklaces for the guests. The one who refused was driven into the forest, where there was no one who wanted anything fetched, and she could spit out a viper any time she needed venom, and she never had to speak again.

 

The runway’s barely finished. The polymer designed to look like luminous soil hasn’t quite dried, and the models sink half an inch with every step. They don’t mention it; their job is to walk, not to speak.

The idea is the ringing of a bell, which starts with a single tone being struck and builds in its echoes until every strike becomes a symphony. One girl will walk out first, then two closer behind one another, then four. It should build until every outfit can be seen perfectly and in full only at the first turn. The reveal is precious and fleeting, and isn’t meant to last.

After that the show becomes the girls in formation like waves of sound, and the wash of the looks across the runways as they pass. Spectators, no matter where along the uneven rings of bleachers they may be sitting, should be in awe. There should always be more to look at than anyone can catch, that sense of being doomed to miss something wonderful; that’s how a presentation becomes a show.

“Angry walks, quiet faces!” the choreographer calls, clapping his hands emphatically, slightly off from the beat of the music.

The first girl, an unknown from the ranks who was chosen to lead the show because her eyes are sunk so deep in their sockets that they look like diamond chips, shakes the boards with every step, trying desperately to keep her face quiet and look forward while still watching the choreographer for signs of disapproval.

The girls who follow the beat of the music get corrected—one sharp flick on the shoulder with a steel pen—by the PA as they come around the first big turn. The ones who follow the clapping are also wrong, but they don’t know it until the second turn, and the assistant choreographer can’t flick shoulders without knocking them into the reflecting pool, where the water has already been oiled (too early) and would cost a fortune to re-gloss before showtime.

Eventually the choreographer gives up on trying to explain the vision to a bunch of girls who can’t even walk on the right beat, and he resorts to a cap gun, fired twice at each model as she passes the first turn to give her the metronome ticks of her stride. The shape of things visibly improves, but they spend another hour after that on quiet faces, because for a bunch of girls who claim they’re professional, they flinch like you wouldn’t believe.

 

Maria knows, from her real home, how you make silk. You boil the pupae and draw out the single filament of their cocoons from the steam, a pot of glistening threads with maggots roiling underneath.

There’s no thread like it; it works miracles.

 

The action group ends up calling itself Mothers Against Objectification of Young Women. There had been some impassioned complaining early on during the drafting and ratification of bylaws and clauses that young men were also being objectified, probably, and it was important to make sure they felt included. But one of the internal factions pointed out that then the acronym would just be MAO, and the moment of patriotic consumer hesitation lasted just long enough for Young Women to reassert itself as the primary concern.

Mothers Against Objectification of Young Women pickets the House of Centifolia show; Rhea’s been a target ever since Maria stood naked in the photograph with that ball gown in front of her, and there was more parking this far on the edge of town than near the tents in the city center. The different factions arrive two hours early, pile out with signs and fliers, and stand not-quite-near each other, as close to the door as security allows.

“Modesty is the greatest beauty!” they shout. “Keep your arms to yourself!” “Role models, not clothes models!” Role models of what, they never reach; the shouting cycles through to “Shame on the industry!” next from the oldest ones, and a few rugged idealists try their best to sneak in “American jobs!” in between the agreed-upon call and response.

The attendees squeal with delight, shifting their gold-leafed invitations under their arms so they can photograph the Mothers Against on the way inside. “Trust Rhea to provide immersive atmosphere before you even go through the doors,” one of the reporters says into his recorder, shaking his head. “This collection is going to be such an amazing statement about the cultural position of the industry.”

A group of audience hopefuls gathers to the right of the door crew, hoping they’ll be allowed to sneak in and fill seats for the no-shows. A few of them—Fashion Week veterans who have done shows long enough to gauge the capacity of a venue from the outside—realize it will be standing room only, and start to cry. One tries to make a desperate run for it, and is still taking photographs of the interior as security lifts her away, her shoes dangling a few inches in the air above their shoes. She’s a blogger, and her shoes are white brocade; the picture she takes of her feet floating between their feet will get the most clickthumbs of her whole Fashion Week report.

Mothers Against Objectification of Young Women gets increasingly concerned as spectators file in. Several of the young women are wearing revealing shirts that don’t look at all American-made, one or two are wearing shirts cut straight down to the waist despite the risk of sunburn, and one woman is sixty if she’s a day, wearing a shirt that’s absolutely transparent except for the enormous middle finger appliqué carefully fastened to the front with tiny, elegant studs.

As she passes, she gives the MAOYM a single, long look through eyes that have been made up with a line of driftwood flakes along her eyebrows. It looks like two mouths full of teeth. By the time she’s passed them and vanished inside, the Mothers Against have faltered so badly they have to start the chanting over from the beginning.

 

The Princess of Roses and Diamonds is closing out the show. It’s supposed to be a wedding dress—traditionally, a wedding dress still closes runway shows, the pinnacle of womanly expectation nothing can shake—but Rhea wouldn’t stoop to send a white wedding gown down the runway unless she could finally figure out how to stabilize the chalk filaments she’s been working on.

Instead, the dress is carefully woven on a frame of horizontal reeds looped around Maria’s body like scaffolding, laced in vertical threads of silk dyed the colors of earliest morning—nearly black, deep blue, murky gray, a sliver of gold—and not fastened. No seams, no knots; the thread is loosely looped at arbitrary heights, just waiting to slip free.

“It will fall apart,” Rhea explains to her in a voice like a church, as the six assistants ease Maria into the gown and weave the entry panel closed. “It’s supposed to. This is the chrysalis from which the moth emerges and takes flight. Help it.”

Maria looks at the mirror, where the last two assistants are looping the final threads. Rhea’s looking at the mirror too, her eyes brimming with tears, and Maria realizes this must be a masterpiece, that she must be wearing something that will be important later. It’s important that this fragility turn into a pile of thread and reed hoops, because nothing beautiful lasts.

Maria’s meant to go out and walk the runway until she’s naked, to prove that nothing beautiful lasts.

Silk moths can’t fly. It’s been bred out of them for five thousand years. The adults are only needed to make more worms. Most aren’t meant to live long enough to break the chrysalis; flight’s an unnecessary trait.

The Princess of Roses and Diamonds swallowed blood for the rest of her life, every time she opened her mouth.

 

The capacity of the auditorium is four hundred seats, and fire rules are very strict this far into the old side of town, where there’s God-knows-what piled up in the abandoned buildings and it takes a fire truck longer to reach you if anything goes up in flames. But by the time Rhea’s show starts, they’re running 476, not counting crew.

The program outlining the thirty-five looks becomes a scarce collectible (highest offer, seven hundred dollars) before the lights even go down. The guests who had their places reserved for them with a little place card hand-engraved with poured gold on a sliver of mother-of-pearl don’t see one clear second of the show because of all the people standing in the aisles and blocking the view.

“Democracy Comes to Fashion,” runs the headline in The Walk the next day, under a picture of the lead model with the pair of girls behind her closing in, the shot framed perfectly by the shoulders of two people who turn the rest of the runway into a curtain of black.

The models are terrified—half the reason the sequin jackets and metallic-thread tartans look so impressive is how roughly they’re shaking—but they walk as they’re meant to walk, their purpling fingers held to showcase their knuckle rings, their gazes fixed, heads steady and bodies a series of angles dressed in clothes that make one aspire, crisscrossing one another within a hairsbreadth of each other, just above the oil.

The press assumes that in such a display of transience, the pool was meant to be the primordial sea, to accent the flashes of gold in the clothes that must represent the minerals within the earth itself. Rhea never corrects them.

The music is a little tinny—sound check had been canceled in favor of the cap gun, and union techs don’t sit around and wait for people who can’t keep to a schedule—but the press assumes that’s on purpose, too. “It’s a recreation of the womb,” writes The Walk, “in which the beginning of life itself is met with such overwhelming sensory input: music like whale song, extraordinary tartans layered over pinstripes with red flannel jutting out from underneath, a reminder of the vast amounts of blood that life requires.”

The girls walk beautifully. All thirty-four of them.

 

Mothers Against Objectification of Young Women scatters as soon as Maria appears. They don’t know why, since she’s hardly violent about it. She’s barely strong enough to open the doors.

There will be arguments among some of the Mothers later, and clauses put into the bylaws about when the picket line can be broken for humanitarian reasons and when they’re expected to hold their ground.

She walks past them all without turning her head. She walks past the building and into the street and toward the empty cul-de-sac at the edge of the parking lot, where the field starts. With every step the threads shake loose—that walk is a killer, that walk gets the job done—and the first hoop’s rattled to the asphalt before the Mothers Against have quite caught their breath.

It’s not a mathematical process, of course—a labor of love never is—and a few of the hoops clack together as they slip down, only to be caught up in the dam of silk threads until she can jar them loose. She sheds everywhere, strands of silk in single filaments that shine along the ground like something from a fever dream, every color so expertly dyed it casts a halo against the asphalt as it falls. Once or twice threads catch and sink in a cluster all at once, and a hoop will clatter to the ground, so as she steps out of it she leaves behind a circled map to a place no one will ever reach.

She’s naked long before everything finally goes, of course—a few hoops and some string do not a garment make, and the white knobs of her spine and of her borrowed wrists and blackened fingertips and the purple hollows at the backs of her knees are shaded by the deep blues and the strings of gold that are still left. She keeps walking without looking left or right. Once she hits the tall, muddy grass of the field and the gold-tipped heels of her shoes sink with the first step into the soft earth, she abandons them and continues barefoot, but she never breaks stride; she’s a professional.

When she disappears into the woods beyond the field, there are three hoops hanging around her knees at strange angles, and a few vertical streaks of blue still holding them up.

After a long time, one of the Mothers Against says, “I suppose we should tell them.”

One of the others—the oldest, the one wiping away tears—says, “I’ll go.”

 

The threads were mapped over the course of eight months. Rhea had a vision. She wanted a legacy.

She dyed each one by hand in a room in her apartment that got light like a Vermeer. She medicated to avoid sleep for a week so she could determine where every thread should start and end. She consulted a physicist the next week, to make sure she was right about the rate of tensile decay on a body in motion, just in case she had hallucinated during the original sketches. It wouldn’t be perfect—Maria had a way of walking that no application of metrics could fully predict—but it would do what it had been made to do.

The team of dressers that wove Maria into the silk-thread gown spent the two weeks before the show locked in a hotel room with no outside connection and a half-wage stipend, with a PR vice president stationed outside to make sure no one from room service could ask them anything. Each dresser was given a garment map and practice threads from Rhea’s dry runs. (She’d done sixty.) By the end of two weeks, they could do the whole dress in three hours. The day of, with the real thing, they wept once or twice as they worked; a miracle affects people in strange ways.

 

If it panics Rhea that her centerpiece and her prize model have vanished, no one ever gets wind of it. You don’t become the head of a house by being easy to read. As soon as she hears what’s happened, she cancels the finale and just orders the models to walk straight through the crowds in the aisles and hold rank outside. The attendees file out in pairs after that, past the gauntlet of thirty-four girls, and see what’s left of Maria. There’s a constellation of silk snakes, filaments disappearing into the tall grass, hoops leaving ghost marks where they fell, pale blue threads suspended in a little puddle of antifreeze.

No one claps. Some cry. The reporters shoulder-check each other and take hundreds of pictures at speeds that sound like someone wheezing.

“Did you see it?” the audience asks the picketers, and when the Mothers Against nod, the guests don’t ask what it must have been like. They just shake the Mothers’ hands, and shake their heads at Rhea as they would a brutal saint, and file silently past towards the city proper.

 

They never find Maria.

It could be foul play—she’d run from a house to which she owed at least six figures. There were consequences when a girl bolted on a contract, and Rhea would have taken the loss rather than let such an artist move under someone else’s roof. Centifolia signed girls for life; casualties were a cost of doing business.

The cops don’t make a particularly thorough search for Maria. If she’s moved couture houses without approval it’s a legal matter above their pay grade, and if she’s vanished in the process it’s a business matter, and they’ll never find the body.

There are routine checks on the morgue from time to time, but they figure in that case the call will come in to them. She was healthy unless her arms malfunctioned, so it could be a while, and they’ll know if something happened: Maria’s is a face not even death could hide.

The girl who opened the show becomes a media darling. Someone at Bespoke decides she must have known what was wrong and had bravely decided to begin the show anyway, and it catches on. Rhea’s team tells her to let them believe it. It’s a good angle, and somebody’s got to close out the spring show. They’re working on a new image for her, maybe something with mermaids, something with ghosts; the sunken eyes, they’ve decided, will become her trademark. Rhea starts dying fabrics for her.

When the press goes wild for the story, and the MAOYM find themselves at the center of more attention than their clauses had ever planned for, a lot of things happen. Some just amplify their slogans regarding the right kind of woman, with the unblinking intensity television can lend someone, and get picked up for church work. Some split from all that and argue for transparency and freedom of industry, and precipitate updates to regulations in some of the major Houses.

The oldest Mother Against—the one who broke the news about Maria to an assistant who thanked her, threw up, and sprinted for Rhea—left the organization before she ever got in her car to go home.

Sometimes she drives all the way out to the edge of town and stands in the doorway of the Old Baroque, where the runway was never torn down, and looks from the runway to the trees on the far side of the field. The dye from one of the silk threads has held fast to the asphalt all this time, a dusting of gold pointing to the place between two trees where Maria disappeared.

Maybe she lives in the woods, the old woman thinks. She doesn’t know why that comforts her.

The runway’s going to seed. Reeds have sprouted from the oily pool, and there are beginning to be frogs, and the moss has started to grow over the sharp edges, a pool of pale blue algae skimming every imprint of a shoe.

 

The nail polish for spring is from Centifolia, in collaboration with Count Eleven. Out of the Vagary beauty line they design that year, the most popular by a factor of ten is the shade called The Woman Vanishes; it’s a hundred dollars a bottle, and was sold out before it ever saw the inside of a store.

It’s nearly black, tending a little purple. You dip your whole fingertip in it, so it looks like the blood has pooled.

 

“La beauté sans vertu” copyright © 2016 by Genevieve Valentine

Art copyright © 2016 by Tran Nguyen

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