The Cinderella myth that we can’t leave

Margaret Qualley has achieved mega-fame lately, in two very disparate roles: She is the star of “Maid,” a Netflix series (based on the namesake memoir by Stephanie Land) about a young single mother’s struggle against poverty, homelessness and hunger. . And she is “brand ambassador” for Chanel, representing one of the most exclusive luxury brands in the world.

How to make sense of these two concerts, which seem light years apart?

In “Maid,” Ms. Qualley’s character Alex runs away from an abusive partner, takes refuge in a women’s shelter, and ends up cleaning the toilet for a living, barely able to feed himself and her young daughter – all. caring for her struggling mother (emotionally played by Ms Qualley’s current mother, Andie MacDowell).

While the series has an uplifting ending, the overall message remains bleak: It’s a story about America’s inadequate social safety net, generational cycles of poverty and addiction, and hard-working people still within a few. dollars of extreme hunger or eviction. As Alex, Ms. Qualley downplays her striking beauty, with minimal makeup, a haphazard ponytail, and a wardrobe of shapeless, worn out clothes, including her drab maid uniform.

An accomplished actress with a training in ballet, Ms. Qualley is very good at creating compelling expressions and evoking strong emotions with her voice, face and body. It does not take away from these talents to recognize that they do not exist apart from its beauty. Knowing how to use your physical instrument is a sine qua non of modeling and action. Ms. Qualley has a fashion physique – tall and slim – with a cinema face: mobile with well-defined features; large, almost childish blue eyes; and a matching wide charismatic smile.

In “Maid” we support Alex, admiring his courage and determination. And part of our attachment to her is undeniably visual: It’s nice to watch Ms. Qualley, and that pleasure encourages us to follow – to consume – her story and therefore the series.

Hollywood has associated storytelling with the beauty of women for over a century now. It is a process that is an integral part of the star system; and Ms. Qualley is a star. The way she wears her beauty is woven into the experience of “Maid” – inextricably linked to the story. In a sense, Ms. Qualley also carries the story; the story is draped over her shoulders, like clothes on a mannequin. And even as we follow Alex’s almost constant crises and catastrophes, we are sustained by the expectation of his salvation and elevation at the end, in part because of how beautiful he is.

Centuries of fairy tales, novels and movies have conditioned us to expect the oppressed beautiful young woman to be saved – revealed as a secret princess, out of obscurity, saved by a prince or, with the twist more contemporary of “Maid” (spoiler alert): recognized for her talent as a writer and winner of a college scholarship.

It’s still the old Cinderella story embedded in pretty much all of popular female culture. (In a tragic and thwarted Cinderella subplot, Alex’s mother, Paula, a beautiful artist, repeatedly tries and fails to find a decent man to save her from poverty.)

The planet Chanel feels light years away from the world of “Maid”. As a brand ambassador, Ms. Qualley uses her face and figure to evoke Chanel’s classic fantasy landscape of ultra-French luxury and elegance – a place where no one cares about the money in the house. gasoline or food stamps. Here, Ms. Qualley’s beauty is more evident, her glam quotient has become “stunning”. As the literal “face” of Chanel, Ms. Qualley is offered as another consumer product, positioned on backdrops designed to convey global sophistication, refinement and indulgence.

Last July, for example, Chanel presented its fall 2021 collection at the Palais Galliera, the neo-Renaissance mansion and fashion museum in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. There, Ms Qualley slipped into the finale, resplendent in a breathtaking wedding dress: a white silk tailoring whose silhouette – fitted waist, voluminous flared skirt and slightly puffed shoulders – telegraphed “storybook princess. “. Beaming beneath a sequined mesh veil, Ms Qualley made a radiant, albeit fictional, bride.

Concluding a parade with a bride is an old-fashioned tradition, which Chanel has practiced over the years. Presenting a wedding dress as the finale confirms its status as the most powerful and transformational element in a woman’s wardrobe, the signal of her social elevation to the rank of wife. And Creative Director Virginie Viard’s spectacular princess-style gown only amplified that, punctuating her collection with a note of happy grace forever. Here again, Mrs. Qualley has been anointed a modern day Cinderella.

Sometimes the fantastic power of fashion doesn’t even require clothes. Two weeks ago, Ms Qualley posted a photo of herself on Instagram, coming out of the ocean, naked but for five strategically placed Chanel handbags. Did Botticelli’s Venus stop at Rodeo Drive? Was this a vacation selfie taken by a leisure lady? (Who else would risk these bags in salt water? Prices start at around $ 4,000 and go all the way up to $ 10,000.)

The photo was taken by Cass Bird for Hommegirls magazine, and like most luxury fashion imagery, it wasn’t about making sense but equating the allure of celebrity with allure. – and the purchasability – of the commodity. The objects are placed next to or directly on the beautiful female body, to indicate that consuming them – buying the bags – will somehow transfer the pleasure of this scene to the viewers, bringing them into this carefree view of the sea, of sex, of beauty and wealth.

No brand understands this process better than Maison Chanel, a company whose founder, Coco Chanel, used fashion to rise from poverty to global billionaire status. And this is where we begin to see that Ms. Qualley’s two – seemingly jarring – professional roles are actually intertwined: Like Alex the Maid, Coco Chanel spent her youth struggling to survive utter destitution and hardships. miserable low-wage jobs.

But she designed her way out. She created a whole luxury signage system: the CC logo, the tweeds, the pearls, the perfume, intended to give herself an aura of charm belonging to herself, which she then marketed to her millions of customers. . And rather than dismissing its working-class past, Chanel exploited it for design inspiration, basing many of its most successful fashions on working-class clothing. Most famous, her little black dress recalls the typical uniform worn by French housekeepers at the time.

As an avatar of the House of Chanel, Ms. Qualley turns out to be the perfect casting choice for the “Maid” star, because just beneath the luxury of the Chanel brand lies a story similar to that of “Maid”, a story of extreme deprivation and ambition – which spurred the creation of the entire company. In other words, there’s an Alex-the-Maid hovering right out of sight in every Chanel commercial.

The reverse can also be true. Sometimes that is, Ms. Qualley helps us see the Chanel-style element of luxury that lurks in Alex the Maid. In one episode, for example, Alex “borrows” an expensive cashmere sweater from Regina (played by Anika Noni Rose), a wealthy housekeeper, and wears it to entertain a date at Regina’s house, which she wears. claims to be his.

Wrapped in beige cashmere, fully made up, sitting on expensive furniture with a wineglass in hand, Mrs Qualley looks like she belongs there. She looks, that is to say, as if she could be the kind of woman who can afford a lot of Chanel bags.

“Maid” uses times like this to prepare us for Alex’s possible escape from poverty. “See?” that seems to reassure us: “Alex belongs to this other more beautiful world. This world that you saw her (or this actress) portray in magazine ads. In the last episode of the series, college-bound Alex tries to return the cashmere sweater, but Regina insists she keep it, noting that it costs $ 1,400. Alex gives in and accepts the gift, and with it, his own inevitable upward mobility. She accepts the status of princess from a queen, the aptly named Regina.

On opposite sides of the pop culture continuum, “Maid” and Maison Chanel contemplate different strata of women’s lives, their social class, aspirations, desire for escape and indulgence, and the way in which society commodifies. images of femininity and perpetually inserts them into narrow, even predictable, narratives. In her unique stance simultaneously representing the extreme poles of ‘rags’ and ‘riches’ of classic Princess story, Ms. Qualley reminds us of just how close these two sides remain.

Rhonda Garelick is the Dean of The New School / Parsons School of History and Theory of Art and Design and the author of “Miss: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History”.

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