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Kate Moss’s “Fall”, or Ideology of the Kate Look

Supermodel Kate Moss is expected to be an aesthetic object of desire, a prim and proper paragon. Europe’s giant fashion house H&M dropped her for snorting cocaine and admitting to it. Is this the end of our glamorama?

Tomasz Kitlinski

Supermodel Kate Moss is expected to be an aesthetic object of desire, a prim and proper paragon. Europe’s giant fashion house H&M dropped her for snorting cocaine and admitting to it. Is this the end of our glamorama?

The looks business is in trouble. The glamour, grammar and “morality” of high fashion are in danger. It is an industry that, like any other, needs new blood. The personification of style, Kate Moss is suddenly persona non grata. But why can’t Kate Moss live the way she wants to?

Instead, brand managers want Kate to be immaculate, not only a whore, but a virgin too. Such manifest wishes for a double identity follow unconscious perceptions of the Kate Look.

Kate Moss’s look is betwixt and between. Her age is indeterminate: she looks somewhere between Lolita and Madame Bovary. She is both a teen (a Parisian “ado” from adolescente, and an adorable one, too) and stands behind the shadow line. She is both baby-face and dominatrix; she looks straight, lesbian and gayishly swishy. Moss is a femme fatale and a victim, the prey and preying mantis.

And what a man-figure she cuts — waif, wife, vamp, bimbo, and boy in one. Sigmund Freud’s grandson and outrageous painter, Lucian Freud, portrayed Moss pregnant. She is somewhere between the same and the other. Pregnancy, writes Julia Kristeva, constitutes the link between the woman and the other. Pregnant, Kate Moss looks human and ghostly; she is a drug vision of Baudelairean hashish — Mossish. Kate Moss stands at the threshold between postmodern artificiality and the ghostly return of post-postmodern instinctual drives.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Regina Cordium or the Queen of Hearts (1860)Vulnerable and ethereal, together with formidable and sadistic, Kate is a Pre-Raphaelite demonic and sickly muse, the current-day Elizabeth Siddal. Elizabeth was the narcotic of poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti. After she died of laudanum overdose Rosetti buried her with a bundle of his poems and depicted her in her paintings, as Freud did Kate.

As muses, Elizabeth Siddal and Kate Moss are more a scent than an image: airy, empyreal. Like perfumes, they contain the sublime, of course, but also the fecal. They sublimate the abject while drawing us to ideals. “Today, the individual is not supposed to buy high fashion in order to follow some imposed ideal of beauty, but rather to aid perception of him - or herself as ideal,” psychoanalytic critic Renata Salecl argues.

But there is a contradiction, and it is precisely represented in Calvin Klein’s Eternity perfume, advertised by Kate Moss: our humanity is corrupt. Substances and time taint the body of the model. There is an impossible sublimation, too. Coming from London’s working-class Croydon, Moss became the stinking-rich feudal lady of today’s British and global aristocracy. Her class is a riddle, though: she is white-trashy enough, but worth an obscene five million dollars a year.

British tabloids are hunting Kate. Scotland Yard is looking into her private life. The cultic Moss is becoming an ostracized Hester Prynne, a scarlet lip-gloss suspect A in the middle of global Puritanism. The crooked timber of humanity is taking care of Kate Prynne. Modernist Puritanism, of the sort condemned by Emma Goldman in “The Hypocrisy of the Puritans,” has mutated into a neo-Puritanism gone global.

Immorality is on the loose and the global morality police are running amok. Yesterday Kate’s name was immortality, Calvin Klein’s Eternity; today it is immorality. Yesterday she was Beauty, today Evil.

Public imagination links Moss with would-be partners: River Phoenix, Johnny Depp, and with late frontman of the British postpunk band Babyshambles, Pete Doherty. He admits his poete maudit inspirations: Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet. Pete was a teenage poet, sponsored by the British Council, and an Oxford dropout. He is known for theft of a laptop, throwing a vodka bottle at a gig audience, and a heroin possession arrest at a Scandinavian airport — perfect toyboy for tomboy Kate.

Photos of Kate and Pete are sold and analyzed ad nauseam. Moss’s portrait by Lucian Freud went for 3.93 million pounds sterling. It would be dearer now. Or will it be massively devalued, effectively burned by the corporate inquisition?

Kate won’t tell us a word. A Greta Garbo, she chooses to be silent: she never talks to the press. Greta’s face is there in Kate’s cheekbones, hazel eyes and impish perverseness. Yet she is too eventful, adventurous, and incorrigible for the mysterious Garbo. Moss’s mystique is messiness.

Kate’s fall from grace is the eternal return of past addiction. It is also revenge against her glorious past: a beauty discovered by scouts at JFK airport, making it big in Calvin Klein’s underwear campaign, cited by Forbes as one of the richest celebrities, the owner of perfume and sales companies. Does she own her own image? Or do we demand to own her?

The “Kate Moss affair” is changing H&M market indexes. But how does it index us?

Tomasz Kitlinski is a lecturer in philosophy at Marie Curie University in Lublin. He acknowledges assistance from Joe Lockard. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Regina Cordium or The Queen of Hearts (1860); image courtesy The Victorian Web.

Copyright © 2005 by Tomasz Kitlinski. All rights reserved.