The Duty of Beauty: Vanity in Downton Abbey

Any of us who are into fashion and beauty watch Downton Abbey with an eye for the details: the clothes and jewelry, and of course, the hair and (imperceptible) makeup. But I’m also struck by all the beauty and dress rituals going on in the background: the starching of collars, removing of stains, the help bathing and doing hair. Those of us behind the scenes in photography know how much labor goes into a “flawless” look, and that the series provides these details gives a glimpse into the glamour of wealth and title.

Looking at these rituals, we have this modern wish that we could also have this help in looking good. After all, with a house full of servants working at furnishing a graceful life, who wouldn’t look her most exquisite? But there’s more to that than personal vanity: yes, the Ladies of Downton Abbey have lots of help in looking their best. But when there’s a team behind your beauty, there are more egos than your own to consider: looking good becomes obligatory.

We assume that beauty is a personal possession, but in this context, it’s not: family propriety and the skill of servants combine with natural assets and taste to form a surprisingly communal creation. A Lady simply can’t let everyone down by appearing sloppy, or spilling food on herself at dinner. The servants take pride in keeping their employers looking good as well – it’s a matter of professionalism. And it’s not just the Ladies of Downton who must look their best for the sake of the House, either: whenever there’s a wardrobe crisis concerning one of the men, there’s a flurry of frenzied activity behind the scenes.

Modern identity may have individualized the concept of self, and beauty along with it, but there is still a relationship between how we present ourselves and who we want to impress. Whether it’s “looking fabulous” or “not trying too hard”, we all have social expectations on our looks – from our peers at work, play, or in romance. Our appearance never exists in a vacuum.

And while most of us don’t have servants, our good looks still depend on the labor of others. That labor is far more invisible – most of our beauty products come off a factory line, and we don’t often meet the people who sew our clothes for us. When most our beauty relationships aren’t so personal, obvious moral labor and environmental issues arise, but the obligation to support a cosmetic company is far more diffuse than keeping a personal maid employed, so we’re freer to say “no” when we’ve had enough.

Do we in modern, affluent society have a duty to look good? For those we know? For those who help us be pretty? It’s a question far too complex for me to answer. What do you think?

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