New Statesman column

December 23, 2019


Stephen Davies

During the holiday season, homes are festooned with all sorts of decorations. But if we look around when they come down, we’ll notice the more modest ways we gussy up our living spaces — pictures, flowers, fabrics. We also decorate our bodies with makeup, jewellery, clothes, and more. Doing this is so commonplace that we rarely pause to consider its importance and ubiquity. In fact, this obsession with embellishment occurs in all civilisations, societies, and periods. We are the species that puts flowers in its hair and paints itself.

Jewellery’s use is ancient. Perforated seashells, presumably worn as necklaces or bracelets, have been found in graves more than 130 000 years old. Gold and silver were widely sought and traded across much of the ancient world, along with jade, amber, coral, pearl, obsidian, and more besides. By 3 400 years ago, there was a huge commercial market in glass beads, which over the following millennia were exported over much of the world, including by the million to Africa.

The application of makeup and body paint also have a long history. Our ancestors collected bright red shades of ochre from more than 100 000 years ago. Meanwhile, trade in scents, lotions, and cosmetics across ancient Egypt and the Middle East was continued by the Greeks and Romans. The bathhouses of all these civilisations included cosmetic facilities. A similar interest in scents and makeup was apparent also in ancient India and Asia.

Instruments for tattooing date back 20 000 years. The mummified remains of Egyptian priestesses from about 4 000 years ago bear tattoos, and there is also a long tradition of tattooing in Asia and the Pacific.

The use of self-decoration is not only ancient but nearly universal. Hardly any individual shuns all contact with aesthetic embellishments, and we have shaped our self-presentation and social interactions around practices that enhance us with carefully chosen aesthetic supplements. Given that many people are immoralists, atheists, or Philistines, bodily adornment provides a signature for our species that is even stronger than those of morality, religion, and art.

Decoration involves making things aesthetically pleasing by augmenting their beauty or sublimity. Typically, decoration is intentional and aims at uptake. The audience is supposed to notice the beautifying intention, the effort expended, and the improvement achieved. Of course, adorning practices can become conventionalised and institutionalised, and in those cases the relevant intention and response is only implicit. A vase of flowers decorates a hotel’s front desk, even if it isn’t admired by those checking in.

Many decorations have no meaning. Their sole function is to add beauty. But others, especially those connected to the body, convey important social messages while retaining their underlying aesthetic purpose. They indicate age, sex, gender, class, wealth, social status, religion, and occupation. We use them to commemorate our achievements or memorialize our losses. Our decorations also mark special occasions, such as Christmas, and they can indicate our social affiliations. Religious groups, for example, often wear distinctive attire.

Adornments identify and situate the people who bear them and the things they care about. By their adornments, we can get a fair idea of who we are dealing with and what they value. Mutual recognition of these matters greatly facilitates our social interactions. But decorations can also be used to send deliberately misleading messages. Someone might wear clothes they can’t readily afford, thereby intimating status or wealth that they lack.

Since reproduction plays an important role in most people’s lives, decorations often send signals about our circumstances as possible mates. The idea is that each sex caters to the preferences of the other in the adornments it favours. According to evolutionary psychologists, men seek fertility in women and this correlates with youthfulness and signs of health, such as facial symmetry and bright eyes. Correspondingly, women might use makeup to remove blemishes, alter their facial architecture, and highlight their eyes. For their part, women are said to seek the benefits for their children that go with status or wealth in their male partner. So, men’s decorations can be expected to mark achievements or indicate class or wealth. These crude, gender-based generalisations can be applied with caution and are supported by what happens in many societies and periods.

To the extent that wealth and reputation can be lost or gained, men’s decorations tend to be impermanent. Whereas those marking puberty, marriage, and childbirth in women can afford to be permanent. In many tribal and traditional societies, men’s decorations frequently take the form of body-paint or insignia, while women’s bodies are more often tattooed or scarred.

We can also predict that each sex will be inclined to distrust the reliability of the signals sent by the other’s adornments. This is particularly apparent in men’s ambivalence toward women’s decorations throughout history. Men are drawn to women who employ makeup, but are highly critical of what is regarded as its overuse. To mention just one case, an edict issued in England during the sixteenth-century observed that “any woman who through the use of false hair, Spanish hair pads, make-up, false hips, steel busks, panniers, high-heeled shoes or other devices, leads a subject of her majesty into marriage, shall be punished with the penalties of witchcraft.” And it isn’t as if the association of makeup with vanity, immodesty, and vice has been entirely left behind in modern times.

There are many exceptions to these observations. This is to be expected since decorations can be used to send many other kinds of messages, and we should also challenge the implicit gender-stereotyping such views assume. Reducing human beauty to youthful sexual attractiveness in females dismisses the many other human beauties that we value, such as those of graceful elegance or athletic prowess. Meanwhile, the ideas that the male parental role is that of provider and that mothers cannot possess status or wealth in their own right might be unfortunate consequences of socialised patriarchy rather than of biology. Besides, even if some decorative practices were once concerned primarily with mate attraction, they were long ago co-opted to broader social practises of self-presentation and social identity. It isn’t as if people give up their styles of ornamentation after mates have been found or children birthed.

It’s also important to notice the cultural relativity of many judgments both of beauty and of the effects produced by bodily decoration. Widespread indigenous adornment practices include tattooing, piercings, scarification, ear and lip plugs, neck coils, and labrets. (The latter are piercings, usually from the interior of the mouth, that support ornaments, such as veils of beads, that hang on the outside of the face.) While some of these occur also in Westernised societies, they have often been viewed negatively. Tattoos, for instance, have not always be employed as adornments, but instead were used to brand slaves and punish criminals.

Tattoos and scars, especially on the face, are sometimes repellent to people with cultural traditions deriving from religions in which people are said to be made in God’s image. But some other groups regard people as unfinished or uncivilised until their bodies have been marked. Many African peoples consider beauty to be an effect of scarification, not innate. Scars may serve as tribal insignia or as marks of achievements, but their beautifying function sits alongside these more practical ones. The same is true for tattoos. Some New Guineans regard a person as “raw” if they aren’t tattooed. Many peoples adopt tattoos for their beautifying effects. And when tattoos serve other purposes, aesthetic enhancement is a subsidiary function that is widely acknowledged.

This cultural relativity is apparent also in where people draw the line between bodily adornment and regular bodily maintenance. In one society, the removal of body hair might amount to regular bodily maintenance. In another, to body adornment where it is viewed as an aesthetic improvement. In a third, as so abnormal that it counts only as being weird.

In exceptional cases, decoration goes far beyond providing an aesthetic augmentation to its bearer. Indeed, it transfigures the bearer’s identity. Consider a jewel-encrusted sword with a gold blade. It can no longer function as a fighting weapon, though it might now become a ceremonial item. In a similar fashion, the body, rather than being highlighted via its adornments, can be demoted to the status of a canvas that supports them. The body’s owner disappears under the patina of decoration that is applied to them. Here, ornamentation aspires to the status of art – it, and not the bearer, is the intended focus.

Christmas lights can be so elaborate that they transform ordinary homes into kaleidoscopic castles. These can be compared to the bejewelled sword and might be viewed as examples of decorative art. But no matter how you dress-up your home this holiday season, the diverse ways we decorate ourselves and our surroundings make one thing clear: adornment is the mark of the human.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: