Coco’s Blog: Inimitable

Classically beautiful women should be left to men without imagination. Or so said Marcel Proust. The French have an expression I adore: jolie laide. Literally, it translates to beautiful ugly; the Collins English Dictionary defines it as “a woman whose ugliness is her chief fascination.” I think that is, perhaps, too simple an explanation. When I think of jolie laide, I think of women like Anjelica Houston and Sigourney Weaver, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, models Erin O’Connor and Kristen McMenamy, and (one of our editor’s favourites) Diana Vreeland. And I absolutely think of Tilda Swinton.

Tilda Swinton, photographed by Raymond Meier

The first movie I saw her in was Orlando, an adaptation of a Virginia Woolf novel. Though the story was interesting – a man who decides never to age and, as if that wasn’t enough, wakes up one morning transformed into a woman – it was Swinton I wanted to see. Already people were talking about her extraordinary androgyny. Jolie laide. While many of the roles that came after were not nearly so unlikely, Swinton kept me interested with intense acting and unsettlingly green eyes. She could go from delicate and fragile to masculine and frightening in a space of moments. I liked her best in her stranger roles, though. As the despicable arcangel Gabriel, she almost made Constantine (a really terrible film) worth the two hour slog, and her palest of pale White Witch in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe was the perfect mix of diabolical beauty and avant-garde fashion.

Tilda Swinton in Lanvin at the 2009 Oscars

I’m pretty sure Tilda Swinton’s Oscar 2009 outfit made every “Worst Dressed” list in the western world. It was, in fact, a replay of 2008, when her long, black, one-sleeved Lanvin creation excited just as much censure. And yet both outfits were lovely – both ultramodern and understated elegant. I am convinced that on another woman they would have gone unremarked. But Swinton’s severe features transform her undeniably stylish clothes. There is something in her pale, almost alien features that defies all notion of conventional beauty. A true jolie laide, Swinton is both beautiful and ugly and impossible to classify – a complexity that does not lend itself to dividing the notions of “best” and “worst”.

Unattractiveness is an important thing. It binds us to the world and everything in it, just like beauty. If there is only one, it doesn’t make any sense. Proust was right. Ultimately, the state of jolie laide is much more interesting than just jolie. Despite Hollywood’s valiant (if misguided) attempt to assert a single, empirical beauty, women like Swinton will always appeal to those who are willing to use their imaginations.

Tilda Swinton, photographed by Craig McDean for Another Magazine

Tilda Swinton, photographed by Peter Lindbergh


7 thoughts on “Coco’s Blog: Inimitable

  1. Have you seen The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? She is simultaneously beautiful and plain, graceful and awkward. It’s true, you can’t categorize her. And you can dress her in anything and she’s always striking – she gets some of the best costumes in Benjamin Button.

  2. It’s so funny that you posted this; I was literally just gushing to my friends about Tilda. I think she is one of the sexiest women in Hollywood (my other favourites being ones you mentionned like Maggie and Charlotte). I find the nonconventionally attractive women who own their looks, who are graceful and elegant without showing everything off, they’re the most appealing ones.

  3. At the risk of sounding creepy, I love to watch her talk! In Constantine (the terrible movie I can’t help but love) and in Ben’ Button, all I could do was marvel over her sexy way of speaking. That’s all, I suppose! Except, I love her on a red carpet as well- she’s a sort of palate-cleanser after crowds of sugary, prom-like dresses!!

  4. (Just a little note – sorry about the wonky formatting. Our brilliant web editor is going to attempt to fix this first attempt of mine to self-publish my blog. Thanks for reading, even though it’s a bit of a nightmare!)

    The other thing about Swinton that I didn’t even begin to address is that her personal life as unusual as she is. After reading about her a little, and looking at interviews she’s given, I suspect she’s one of the last true bohemians, embracing a lifestyle that suits her regardless of outside criticism. On top of which, she’s quite solid on the matter of keeping her private life private.
    It’s interesting: when people say that clothing is a reflection of the person within, I feel that’s not always true. Often I find people dress to reflect the person they want others to see. However, in Swinton’s case (thought I can only guess) I suspect she’s got total aesthetic integrity.


  5. Great article g! I love Tilda and think she has such a uniqueness about her that is unclassifiable! On another note, her top outfit is gorgeous.

  6. tilda has a beauty that’s very wabi-sabi — totally organic, but brazenly off-kiltered. if you take her look now and compare it to her look back in the derek jarman days, she’s still got this particular essence/attitude that hasn’t changed, maybe it’s slightly ebbed and flowed though. she’s also really empowering to me as a female artist in her attitude towards fashion, designers, haute couture — she’s wears it, but it doesn’t wear her. And that’s an attitude that we can all carry — how important it is to make a look your own, but to feel free enough to channel inspiration and influences in our own ways. You can tell when she does these shoots, that she’s going after the same thing that the photographer’s going after, conceptually.

    (and we’re cool on the re-formatting — merci editor-in-pants!).

  7. All of these so-called jolie-laide women remind me of those Dove ads. Definitely no yellow teeth or cystic acne or missing arms, etc. etc. If they’re not UGLY, they’re not ‘laide’, with any modifiers. ‘Non-classically beautiful’ doesn’t equal ugly!

    I’m going to be a hater here, but ‘appreciating unconventional beauty’ can just be a conceit of the viewer. See how Proust’s thoughts so quickly turn away from women, and onto himself and his own superior imagination!

    Of course it’s easy to appreciate Tilda Swinton… She’s got delicate, unobtrusive features, a great wardrobe, and observers who want people to admire their distinguished taste. Nothing unconventional there!

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