Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Thoughts on a Word: Vainglorious

Sarah Frye Valencius creates clothes that serve as a uniform for the creative mind: “I want to design unfussy, non-body-conscious clothing for women who care about fashion but can’t afford to be distracted by it all day,” she says. Minimizing fuss and maximizing concentration, her work incorporates features like playful pocket and closures, always with an eye toward clean, elegant lines. (You can follow one strain of her style inspiration at French Spy Movie.) Given that one of the goals of my mirror fast is increasing opportunities for reaching a flow state, is it any wonder I’m eager for her work to hit New York? Her ready-to-wear line will debut this fall—but it’s the name of her just-launched custom clothing website, Vainglorious, that prompted me to ask her to do a guest word post.


It’s rare you happen upon the word vainglorious anymore. A tantalizing word, even if its meaning isn’t readily apparent.  There is something in all those vowels, the exotic v, the sexy s, the righteous glory tucked in the middle, that elicits an emotional understanding. The first time I read the word vainglorious  I was compelled to say it aloud. I wanted to feel all those shapes in my mouth—archaic, ornamental, indulgent.

Vainglory is derived from the medieval Latin words vāna (empty) and glōria (boasting).The entry for vainglory in my dusty, trusty, 1936 Webster’s Unabridged reads as follows:
noun. glory, pride or boastfulness that is vain; vanity that is excited by one’s own performances; empty pride; undue elation of mind
Originally, vainglory was part of the Eight Deadly Sins (which were, by the way, gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride) but Pope Gregory the Great found the list a bit redundant, and in the 6th century vainglory got folded into pride. This same pope also shook up the sins’ traditional order of severity, naming the new pride-combo-sin as offense numero uno, for being the greatest crime against love.

So if vainglory is such a dangerous thing, what happened to it? Why isn’t vainglory a word hissed in girls’ locker rooms, or thrown at crowing politicians? It’s as though getting bumped off The Deadlies was the equivalent of becoming a Hollywood has-been, and vainglory went the way of avarice and acedia—so last century.

But that little Latin vāna soldiered on, becoming vain and finding favor with English speakers via Old French.  It maintained its meaning of “empty” until the late 13th century, when it started also being used to describe “conceit”. Did the ostentatious finery of the Baroque period prompt this expansion of vain’s applicability? I wouldn’t be surprised.

The use of vain to describe self-obsession has had impressive staying power over the past 700 years, and it maintains the stigma of sin, even if unofficially. Vain characters rarely go unpunished in western tradition. It’s the driving motivation behind many a storybook villain, most blatantly the Wicked Queen in Snow White.  It was also Madame Bovery’s vanity that had her questing for the fine clothing and jewelry which would be her downfall. My favorite childhood film, Death Becomes Her, features Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn’s comic efforts to stay young and beautiful that leave them literately shattered by movie’s end.

Perhaps the most memorable appearance of vanity in the past fifty years is Carly Simon’s infectious tune “You’re So Vain”, a '70s slander song whose subject's identity has been much speculated on over the years. Simon’s refusal to name names may speak to the staying power of vanity as a slur. It also made it a hit. Pop music has been singing about “you” since its inception, a neat trick that offers the listener a choice of identifying as the singer or the song’s subject. When the Beatles howl “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” you could just as easily imagine singing the lines to your crush, as you could John Lennon singing directly to you, wanting to hold your hand. That’s part of the appeal and discomfort of “You’re So Vain”—if you don’t have a narcissistic someone in mind as you sing along with the radio, it starts to feel like she might be singing about you. An ingenious lyrical maneuver on Simon’s part—she bends the accusation back on itself, trapping you with the line: You probably think this song is about you, don’t you? (Don’t you?)

Maybe Pope Gregory was onto something when he said vainglory and pride were the deadliest of sins. A vain woman is easily more scorned than a lusty Lothario, an angry bus driver, or a slothy college student. It just rubs us the wrong way. When we tease apart those twin sins of pride and vanity, pride is obviously the more forgivable (the proud papa, proud employee, or proud fiancé). The vain are rarely humored like the proud are.

I’d go as far to say that we have a fear of vanity. What else could send our words stumbling when we receive a compliment on our appearance after we put so much effort into it? One of the first feminine acts we teach our girls is how to demure...right after we’ve instructed them on the value of being beautiful. Why are we guarding ourselves so closely against vanity accusations? I think there’s guilt that lies deep in our puritanical bones, for all the hours we spend primping and all the dollars we lay down at the cosmetics counter. We feel guilt for wanting to be beautiful, trying to be beautiful, and the audacity for thinking our efforts might work.

The mind is a clever thing and has no trouble justifying our labors of beauty as “fixing imperfections” rather than conceiving of them as acts of vanity. The latter is a sin but the former is expected of us. It’s perfect pro-American-consumer-Calvinistic behavior—fed by advertisers, reinforced by magazines, handed down from mother to daughter, and passed around like a gossipy note from girl to girl. The scorn of vanity and the contempt of ugliness form a double-edged sword that cuts us however it falls. 

All Is Vanity, C. Allan Gilbert, 1892

It’s fascinating that we live in a culture that expects us to worship the mirror, but not (god forbid) what it reflects. We line up like doomed queens and await the mirror’s judgement. But we aren’t asking “Who’s the fairest?” We are asking “What’s wrong with me?”  And the mirror answers so readily: dark circles, fine lines, large pores, furry brows, zits, yellow teeth, thin lashes, sagging jowls. We know what to look for and we know the correcting products available.  It’s not considered vanity to work on these crimes against beauty; self-hate is your saving grace. But if you dare admire what you see, you are surely damned as Dorian Grey. The only vanity allowed is the table and mirror you sit at. 
Walk the walk, don’t talk the talk. Put on heels, swing your hips, and pucker those lips. Celebrities, the current standard of beauty, are well trained in this dance. When stopped on the red carpet they know exactly how to slide out of questions about their beauty. Just once I want Angelina Jolie to say: “Yeah, I am beautiful and it’s fucking awesome.” And then I want Brad Pitt to say: “Damn straight.” Wouldn’t that be refreshing? I think that’s why I find characters like Amanda from Ugly Betty or Santana from Glee so delicious. I can’t get enough of them. It’s not just their vanity I love, it’s their vainglory.

Of course vainglory extends beyond proclaiming one’s hotness. Its boasting and folly applies to all types of inflated ego and self-promotion or, really, any pursuit of grandeur. Considering we are neck deep in the Internet Age—masters of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblrs, blogs, and experts in self-branding—I think we are ripe for a return of vainglorious to our lexicon.  I also think it’s time we stop beating ourselves up in front of the mirror. If you are going to spend so much time and money on beauty, you might as well take a little pride in it.

And so we are at the beginning again. I saw that beautiful word, vainglorious, boastfully bursting off the page. And I thought: Yes. Perfect. Glorious. This will be the name of my fashion endeavors. Even though my dresses were conceived in the most humble manner, my effort and doubts puncturing the fabric with every stitch, I am proud of the finished product. I’m getting better with each thing I make and I am going for it—going for the glory. And when a woman puts on one of my designs, I hope she is too.

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