The Beauty Experiment

Read Excerpts

On applying the mask of femininity. (From Chapter 11, Burn like the Sun at Midday)

IMAGINE A WOMAN in the throes of getting ready to go out: jewels are strewn across the surface of the vanity, the lipstick and eyeliner are uncapped, smudged tissues are balled in corners, clothes are heaped on the bed, and the hairdryer is still warm. Everything has been used and tried. Everything has been hauled out and considered. Still, this woman is in her underwear. Every choice is, in some way, a liability; in some other way, an asset. Her public face is half-finished and many of her decisions unmade. Her blood pressure is mounting as time ticks away—she has to wear something; she has to like it; it has to work. Above all, she has to recognize the necessity of imperfection: this thing is not solved, is not even solvable were she to spend her whole life figuring out what to wear!

On Hong Kong, where The Beauty Experiment began. (From Chapter 1, The Red Dress)


WHEN YOU WAKE UP EARLY in Hong Kong and open a window, the fecund, slightly tangy odor wafting in is the smell of the sale. Hong Kong is one of the world’s great shopping capitals, not only because so much merchandise is produced there, but because retail, especially garment retail, pervades every possible urban crevice and rural alley. You can browse in a boutique while a phalanx of saleswomen ply you with oolong tea, or you can haggle with a one-armed, gold-toothed vendor in a seaside market. You can order a one- of-a-kind crocodile-skin handbag with your monogram inlaid in gold. Or you can ascend to the fifth floor of a condemned building, give the secret knock, and watch the walls slide back to reveal the epicenter of the faux–designer handbag universe, replete with hundreds of one-of-a-kind pieces made in the very same factories, with the very same materials, possibly using the very same crocodiles. An army of tailors can make you a bespoke suit overnight, and miles of street-level stalls offer samples and designer knockoffs right next to chandeliered, marble-floored retail palaces. They are malls, but it’s hard to call them that.


 On cleaning out the closet. (From Chapter 9, A Language Every Body Speaks)


WHATS MOST IMPORTANT about my castoffs—the many I made that day and the fewer I make now—is their volume. A thousand years ago, trends in clothing were pegged to political or religious regimes and changed every few hundred years. Today, mass-produced garments and global distribution networks have melted this slow-moving glacier of taste into a tsunami that has six retail seasons, a two-week runway-to–sales rack turn- around, an average 300 percent retail markup, and a legion of people with box cutters standing by to destroy proprietary overstock. In such a climate, it’s no surprise the unsuspecting life-artist-in-all-of-us gets overwhelmed by this flood of gar- ments, nearly drowns in the choices, and then gets washed up on a bleak shore alongside sixty tons per day of outdated, poorly made, or simply unwanted clothes.*

* Some 29 million pounds of textile clothing were donated to Goodwill in 2009, including 800,000 pounds of shoes and 285,000 pounds of purses.