“I aim to look effortless” – European slim university student wearing a simple white shirt underneath a simple designer jacket, combined with casual jeans and simple expensive trainers and, of course, a messy bun. Dangling from her arm is a simple designer bag with her MacBook safely hidden in a simple but stylish laptop case.
This look, although celebrated as ‘effortless’ throughout the fashion world, is a clear demonstration of privilege. The idea of ‘effortless beauty’ is rooted in colonial legacies of entitlement and cultural domination. It symbolises the pressure for assimilation into western uniformity as well as the exploitation of labour and nature. It thrives off capitalism, class and racial hierarchies and sexism. Effortlessness is simply not a luxury most of us can afford or ever dream to aspire to. Like most things, fashion is defined through gender, race and class and is therefore anything but effortless for people who exist outside the conventional imaginations of beauty. ‘Effortless style’ denominates a concept that is much more complex than a person who is blessed with good taste. Many of us understand it as being someone ‘practical’ who does not waste time in the bathroom but looks great nonetheless. In reality, this idea of effortlessness creates the expectation for women to always be (naturally) beautiful without doing much for it (like shaving, waxing, lasering, dieting, working out, straightening/curling/deep-conditioning/plaiting hair, daily facial routines, lotioning excessively, putting on makeup, getting plastic surgery, spending money on all these things that has to come from somewhere…). This definition also upholds the general consensus that natural beauty looks like what society has decided to be the most effortless (and easiest to aim for?). Namely, the chic, feminine, casual French girl. In other words: someone white, thin, tall, and privileged enough to wear seemingly ‘good quality’ clothes that are ‘not too much’ and at the same time elegant and feminine as defined by western society. Someone who falls into this narrow definition of attractiveness and has a full bank account certainly does not need to put a lot of effort into occupying the top of the beauty-pyramid.
Someone who looks the part but lacks the required wealth is already a bit lower in this system: In order to look effortless, she needs to work and save money/have someone to buy her heavily overpriced clothes. Luckily, this effort will not show once she puts them on casually in the morning.
Now, if her body shape does not make it look like her cute, slim body is disappearing in her baggy jeans whilst showing just enough curves, this poses another problem. Of course, once she’s lost/gained whatever it is that stops her from fitting the norm (meaning: once her body shape is slim/thick enough to be accepted in society), she can just forget about the effort she had to put in and casually slip on her jeans in the morning. This is more difficult for the brown skin woman whose thin white summer shirt doesn’t stay ‘clean and chic’, because of her pigmented skin cells ‘staining’ the fabric.
This is more difficult for the transgender woman who continuously has to prove her womanhood to the world, never mind her ‘effortless femininity’.
This is more difficult for the disabled woman who has to consider practical aspects that effortlessness claims to perpetuate when in fact it does not leave much space to manoeuvre in.
This is more difficult for the black woman who feels too uncomfortable wearing laid-back sweatpants for fear of being seen as even lesser. Who cannot wash her hair in ten minutes and naturally wear it in a quick ponytail. Who dedicates a huge amount of effort finding her shade in the makeup section. To her, effortlessness means spending 80 pounds and seven hours in a chair to get her hair braided so that, afterwards, she does not have to worry about it anymore. By now, the classist, racialised, sexist, transphobic, ableist aspects of ‘effortless fashion’-standards in our daily lives should have become clear.
Of course there is also the wider context: the environment and the people who make our clothes. The South Asian women and men that made your “Girl Power” and “Living My Best Life” t-shirts surely put a lot of effort into them and got next to nothing out of it. Whether you are wearing H&M or your edgy (but affordable) local brand (which probably has its clothes produced somewhere in Asia, too), most of them do not concern themselves with humane working conditions and fair pay. None of their work is effortless. Whether it’d be your rich parents, your poor but well-meaning parents or the weavers – someone definitely dedicated time and/or money to the making of your outfit. Your performance of putting it together casually is an act of silencing micro and macro power structures that all fit together as neatly as your effortlessly well-thought through look.
Finally, for a brilliant account of what fashion can symbolise for marginalised people and how much effort humans will put into the imagining and re-imagining of beauty and style, watch Pose. You will learn about the origins of and inspiration for Madonna’s Vogue.
Words by Amuna Wagner
Photos by Dina Elsawi (Insta: @dinaelsawi)
Models: Olamide, Hadeel and Amuna