Alfred Wainwright once said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” That tends to be the way I look at it. Shopping for clothing and shoes is a practical endeavor, and I much prefer utility over trying to make a fashion statement any day. However, there are times when an occasion merits more than Birkenstocks and a skort. I found that ordering clothing online takes the stress out of trying to navigate through the perfume aisle and evade the clerk at the entrance to the women’s dressing room.
I began the virtual search for a dress, and after some looking, I thought I had finally found something that would satisfy me. It was a long, flowing, cotton dress with white dogwood flowers on a black background.
I was content with the idea that I had found something perfect, at least pleasing to the eye, my eye that is. In a moment of delight, thinking that I was done, I asked my twenty-year-old son to assess my choice.
With a gleam in his eye, he reached over to the computer keyboard, and with the lightning speed of millennial fingers, typed the word “Narwhal” into the Google Images search box. In a flat tone of voice, he emphatically stated, “You will look like a Narwhal. They are the unicorns of the sea.”
My immediate response was, “What?!? A porpoise?!!”
I peered at the images, the dress… then the Narwhal… and back to the dress. I had to admit, in a brilliant manner of spatially intelligent pattern recognition, my son had proved that he was right. The dress design, from a distance, looked like the counter-shading camouflage on the dorsal side of a Narwhal. How wonderful is that! My rising rage came to a screeching halt.
Who determines our concept of beauty? Why would I immediately jump to the conclusion that being referred to as a porpoise had any negative connotations at all?
Beauty is not reducible to anything determined by the senses, not sound, light, form, color, texture, fragrance, or pattern. Beauty does not allow “itself to be reduced under any angle… in such a way that it promotes our sense of existing: I feel so much more present in the world when I leave it; in the same way, the beautiful captivates our gaze through what absence opens up within it” (Jullien, 2016).
Through that gaping chasm, my cultural viewpoint was starkly visible. How far do you have to go to see through the illusion? Are you looking at the black and white markings on a Narwhal’s skin? Or are you gratefully aware of the millions of years of aquatic mammalian evolution that lead a four-legged carnivore back to the sea? It is the journey that is beautiful. It is finding the story and recognizing the meaning that is beautiful, and therein lies the Divine. Simone Weil has said that if something is truly beautiful, you would not want it to be any other way (Weil, 1951). How often do we experience that?
I never did buy the dress.
In a fit of cowardice, I settled instead for basic black…the color of a wet California Sea Lion.
All photos are public domain (Sea Lion by Michelle Maria). The Dogwood flower photo was taken by one of my biology students, Morgan Hughes (2016).
Thank you to my son for keeping me fashionably honest.
Jullien, Francois. (2016). This strange idea of the beautiful. New York: Seagull Books.
Wainwright, A., & Brabbs, D. (1987). Wainwright’s coast to coast walk. London: M. Joseph.
Weil, S. (1951). Waiting for God. New York: Harper Perennial.