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The Cinderella Myth We Can’t Quit

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Margaret Qualley has attained mega-celebrity of late, in two very disparate roles: She is the star of “Maid,” a bingeable Netflix sequence (primarily based on Stephanie Land’s namesake memoir) a few younger single mom’s battle with grinding poverty, homelessness and starvation. And she is a “brand ambassador” for Chanel, representing one of many world’s most unique luxurious labels.

How can we make sense of those two gigs, which really feel light-years aside?

In “Maid,” Ms. Qualley’s character, Alex, flees an abusive associate, takes refuge in a ladies’s shelter and winds up scrubbing bathrooms for a dwelling, barely in a position to feed herself and her younger daughter — all whereas taking care of her troubled mom (movingly performed by Ms. Qualley’s precise mom, Andie MacDowell).

Though the sequence has an uplifting finish, the general message stays bleak: It’s a narrative about America’s insufficient social security internet, generational cycles of poverty and habit, and hard-working folks at all times only a few {dollars} away from excessive starvation or eviction. As Alex, Ms. Qualley downplays her placing magnificence, with minimal make-up, a haphazard ponytail and a wardrobe of shapeless, used garments, together with her drab maid’s uniform.

An completed actress with ballet coaching, Ms. Qualley is extremely adept at creating compelling expressions and evoking sturdy emotion together with her voice, face and physique. It takes nothing away from these abilities to acknowledge that they don’t exist independently of her magnificence. Knowing use one’s bodily instrument is a sine qua non of each modeling and performing. Ms. Qualley has a style physique — tall and slim — with a cinema face: cell with sharply outlined options; huge, nearly childlike blue eyes; and a large, charismatic smile to match.

In “Maid,” we root for Alex, admiring her grit and dedication. And a part of our attachment to her is undeniably visible: It’s pleasurable to observe Ms. Qualley, and that pleasure encourages us to observe — to devour — her story and therefore the sequence.

Hollywood has been pegging narrative to ladies’s magnificence for over a century now. It’s a course of integral to the star system; and Ms. Qualley is a star. The approach she wears her magnificence is woven into the expertise of “Maid” — inextricable from the story. In a way, Ms. Qualley can be carrying the story; the narrative is draped on her shoulders, like garments upon on a style mannequin. And at the same time as we observe Alex’s near-constant crises and catastrophes, we’re sustained by the expectation of her salvation and uplift ultimately, partially due to her magnificence.

Centuries of fairy tales, novels and movies have conditioned us to count on that the gorgeous, downtrodden younger lady will likely be saved — revealed as a secret princess, plucked from obscurity, rescued by a prince or, with the extra modern twist in “Maid” (spoiler alert): acknowledged for her writing expertise and granted a school scholarship.

It’s nonetheless the traditional Cinderella narrative baked into nearly all of girls’s in style tradition. (In a tragic, thwarted-Cinderella subplot, Alex’s mom, Paula, an exquisite artist, tries and fails repeatedly to discover a first rate man to avoid wasting her from poverty.)

Planet Chanel feels light-years away from the world of “Maid.” As the model’s ambassador, Ms. Qualley makes use of her face and determine to conjure the basic Chanel fantasy panorama of ultra-French luxurious and magnificence — a spot the place nobody worries about gasoline cash or meals stamps. Here, Ms. Qualley’s magnificence is extra overt, her glam quotient dialed as much as “stun.” As the literal “face” of Chanel, Ms. Qualley is on provide as one other consumable commodity, positioned towards backdrops designed to convey international sophistication, refinement and indulgence.

Last July, for instance, Chanel confirmed its fall 2021 assortment on the Palais Galliera, the neo-Renaissance mansion and style museum in Paris’s ultraposh sixteenth Arrondissement. There, Ms. Qualley glided out for the finale, resplendent in a showstopper bridal robe: a white silk confection whose silhouette — fitted waist, flaring voluminous skirt and barely puffed shoulders — telegraphed “storybook princess.” Beaming beneath a sequined mesh veil, Ms. Qualley made a radiant, if fictional, bride.

Concluding a runway present with a bride is an old school custom, which Chanel has practiced all through the years. Presenting a marriage costume because the finale confirms its standing as essentially the most highly effective and transformational component of a lady’s wardrobe, the sign of her social elevation to wifedom. And the inventive director Virginie Viard’s spectacular princess-style robe solely amplified this, punctuating her assortment with a happily-ever-after grace observe. Here once more, Ms. Qualley was anointed a modern-day Cinderella.

Sometimes, the fantasy energy of style doesn’t even require garments. Two weeks in the past, Ms. Qualley posted {a photograph} of herself on Instagram, rising from the ocean, nude however for 5 strategically positioned Chanel purses. Had Botticelli’s Venus stopped by Rodeo Drive? Was this a vacation selfie taken by a woman of leisure? (Who else would danger these luggage in saltwater? Prices begin at about $4,000 and go as much as $10,000.)

The photograph was taken by Cass Bird for Hommegirls journal, and as with most luxurious style pictures, the purpose was to not make sense however to affiliate the desirability of the celeb with the desirability — and buyability — of the commodity. The objects are positioned subsequent to, or straight on, the gorgeous female physique, to point that consuming them — shopping for the luggage — will someway switch the pleasure of that scene to viewers, inducting them into that carefree vista of sea, intercourse, magnificence and wealth.

No model understands this course of higher than the Maison Chanel, an organization whose founder, Coco Chanel, used style to raise herself from poverty to global-billionaire standing. And right here is the place we start to see that Ms. Qualley’s two — apparently discordant — skilled roles are literally intimately associated: Like Alex the maid, Coco Chanel spent her youth struggling to outlive utter destitution and depressing low-wage jobs.

But she designed her approach out of it. She created a complete luxurious signaling system: the CC emblem, the tweeds, the pearls, the fragrance, meant to lend an aura of charmed belonging to herself, which she then marketed to her thousands and thousands of consumers. And reasonably than reject her working-class previous, Chanel mined it for design inspiration, basing a lot of her most profitable fashions on employees’ clothes. Most famously, her little black costume recollects the everyday uniform worn by French housemaids on the time.

As an avatar of the Maison Chanel, Ms. Qualley seems to be the proper casting alternative for the star of “Maid,” for simply beneath the posh of the Chanel model lies a narrative not not like that of “Maid,” a narrative of maximum deprivation and ambition — which spurred the creation of the complete firm. In different phrases, there’s an Alex-the-maid hovering simply out of sight in each Chanel advert.

The reverse could be true, too. Sometimes, that’s, Ms. Qualley helps us see the Chanel-esque luxurious component hiding inside Alex the maid. In one episode for instance, Alex “borrows” an costly cashmere sweater from Regina (performed by Anika Noni Rose), a rich housecleaning consumer, and wears it to entertain a date in Regina’s dwelling, which she pretends is her personal.

Wrapped in beige cashmere, absolutely made up, seated on costly furnishings with wineglass in hand, Ms. Qualley appears to be like like she belongs there. She appears to be like, that’s, as if she may be the form of lady who can afford many Chanel luggage.

“Maid” makes use of such moments to arrange us for Alex’s eventual escape from poverty. “See?” it appears to reassure us, “Alex belongs to this other, finer world. That world you’ve seen her (or this actress) representing in magazine ads.” In the sequence’ final episode, a college-bound Alex tries to return the cashmere sweater, however Regina insists she hold it, noting it value $1,400. Alex offers in and accepts the reward, and with it, her personal inevitable upward mobility. She is accepting princess standing from a queen — the aptly named Regina.

From reverse sides of the pop-culture continuum, “Maid” and the Maison Chanel ponder totally different strata of girls’s lives, social class, aspiration, the need for escape and indulgence, and the best way society commodifies pictures of femininity and inserts them perpetually into pretty slender, even predictable narratives. In her distinctive place representing concurrently the acute “rags” and “riches” poles of the basic princess story line, Ms. Qualley reminds us of simply how shut these two sides stay.

Rhonda Garelick is the dean of the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons/The New School and the creator of “Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History.”