Does Appearance Matter? The Case of La Callas, Part I

Does Appearance Matter? The Case of La Callas, Part I

This is a two part series, Part II is here

 

I want to open a conversation about appearance and the role it plays in our human experience by considering the story of one of the most famous women in modern history, who also happens to be one of the most renowned in terms of her physical appearance, the opera singer Maria Callas. This is a fashion website and I spend a lot of time here, maybe more than I should, thinking about how things look. I don't want to pretend that appearance doesn't play a role in fashion, and I also don't want to live in a world in which appearance plays the major role in fashion. So I'm left holding the question, and hoping to find a way to nurture a healthy relationship with appearance in this space. 

Part of why I am so interested in the topic of our appearance is that it deals with what exists in the balance between perception and reality. It is something about us available externally for all to see. Accordingly, people can use it to judge us, without ever knowing who we really are. But we may look one way and we are one way—those could be aligned, divergent, or somewhere in between.

I'm also interested in appearance because in many ways, it can seem superficial. But then our relationship with our appearance ends up being anchored, often deeply, to our substance- to our longing to fit in, to our desire to be acknowledged, accepted, and seen for who we are. Appearance accompanies us throughout our human experience. It is a constant. 

I've come across few stories on appearance more compelling than that of Maria Callas. So, over two posts, we'll explore this topic, starting with some context, largely by way of the biography of Maria Callas written by Arianna Huffington (which I highly recommend). I'd also like to briefly note up front that while this story involves Maria transforming herself through changing her weight, I don't feel that it does, nor that it should, place any absolute value on an ideal body type or size, and I very much hope that is not the takeaway. Rather, I'm curious about the motivation behind her change in appearance, what it did for the way in which people saw Maria Callas, and most importantly, for the way in which she saw herself. 

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The life of Maria Callas was both tragedy and fairy tale. As completely as anyone outside mythology, she transformed herself from a fat, awkward girl to a woman of magnetic beauty and personality.
— Arianna Huffington in Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend

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Date and photographer unknown.

Date and photographer unknown.

Photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1957.

Photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1957.

Callas photographed by Horst P. Horst. Date unknown. 

Callas photographed by Horst P. Horst. Date unknown. 

Date unknown. Photograph: Picture-alliance/dpa

Date unknown. Photograph: Picture-alliance/dpa

Callas in 1955. Photo: Magnum Photos/Catalogue Burt-Glinn

Callas in 1955. Photo: Magnum Photos/Catalogue Burt-Glinn

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BEFORE she was known the world over for her glamour and beauty, before that beauty made her a legend, Maria Callas was, as she describes herself, "the ugly duckling, fat and clumsy and unpopular." (1)

Callas in 1952. Photographer unknown. 

Callas in 1952. Photographer unknown. 

In 1951 with Giovanni Battista Meneghin, her husband at the time. Photographer unknown.

In 1951 with Giovanni Battista Meneghin, her husband at the time. Photographer unknown.

In 1951, before a performance of La Traviata in Florence. Photographer unknown.

In 1951, before a performance of La Traviata in Florence. Photographer unknown.

In 1952 in Milan before a performance of La Gioconda at La Scala. Photographer unknown.

In 1952 in Milan before a performance of La Gioconda at La Scala. Photographer unknown.

Date and photographer unknown. 

Date and photographer unknown. 

In 1952 in BBC Greek Service. Photo by Nikos Pantazis/Pbase

In 1952 in BBC Greek Service. Photo by Nikos Pantazis/Pbase

Performing La Traviata in Verona, 1952. Photographer unknown. 

Performing La Traviata in Verona, 1952. Photographer unknown. 

Callas struggled with her appearance, with her weight being a signficant part of that, for most of her life, from her early teenage years, through her twenties, well into the start of her career. She had a troubled relationship with her mother, which left her feeling unloved and unloveable, and short on self-esteem. Meanwhile an older beautiful sister left her feeling she couldn't play the beauty game; that she didn't have a place in it:  

"Through her childhood, she had been matching herself against her all-too-admirable sister, but she soon gave up, a self-protective reaction against what seemed unattainable. It must have been fairly early on, even before she entered her teens, when Maria decided that the whole traditional feminine side of life- looks, figure, clothes, the art of being agreeable, of keeping guests entertained, of making charming small talk- was her sister's domain." (2)

Years later, now a known opera singer, Maria was still struggling with her image and her sense of self-worth as linked to her appearance. She was accustomed to hearing terribly cruel things about her size; she describes "cry[ing] bitter tears for many days," after a critic wrote, "it was impossible to tell the difference between the legs of the Elephants on stage and those of Aida sung by Maria Callas." (3) By the end of 1952 (aged 29), she had enough. She felt her weight was impacting her health, and holding her back professionally. Of her weight at the time, she said, "My first instinct was to say that the face is too fat and I can't stand it, because I needed the chin for expression in certain very hard phrases, cruel phrases or tense phrases. And I felt—as a woman of the theater that I was and am—that I needed these necklines and the chin-lines to be very thin and very pronounced." (4)

"So gradually Maria came to a decision which was to lead to a fairytale transformation that would stun the world...Maria resolved to become in reality the sylphlike creature of her imagination...It cannot have been easy to look at herself in the mirror and then choose the almost invisible Audrey Hepburn as the model of what she wanted to become, but then Maria loved challenges—especially self-imposed ones." (5)

By August 1954, Maria had lost more than 60 pounds, and her appearance became the subject of global attention. 

When a blonde, slim Maria walked into La Scala after her dramatic weight loss, the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini remarked, "What have you done with all that weight? How did you make yourself so beautiful?"(6) | Photographed in 1955 by Angus McBean

When a blonde, slim Maria walked into La Scala after her dramatic weight loss, the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini remarked, "What have you done with all that weight? How did you make yourself so beautiful?"(6) | Photographed in 1955 by Angus McBean

In 1954. Photographer unknown.

In 1954. Photographer unknown.

By 1955, Maria had lost even more weight, and gained even more global adoration, but was no less settled on the matter of her appearance. 

Date and photographer unknown. 

Date and photographer unknown. 

In La Sonnambula during the 1954-1955 season. Photo: AP/AP/SIPA. 

In La Sonnambula during the 1954-1955 season. Photo: AP/AP/SIPA. 

"Maria's waist seemed to be getting smaller and smaller. After she had seen Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, she was determined to appear even slimmer, so she kept tightening her already tight corset..Maria's transformation from fat, awkward opera singer to slender, elegant singing actress was not and never would be complete in her mind. It had occurred with a speed that bewildered her, and part of her remained forever locked in that plump, clumsy adolescent she had once been. She knew she had been fat and might be fat again...But worse was the pervasive and persistent conviction that she was ugly, that the beautiful woman the world responded to was a mask, a disguise, almost a trick. She remained convinced to the end of her life that it was the package of clothes, hairdos, jewelry, figure and furs that was admired and never Maria herself. As a result her preoccupation with her appearance was almost obsessional, and much precious energy was absorbed by the presentation to the world's hostile eyes of little, insignificant, unworthy Maria." (7)

So it seems, weighing down on Maria Callas even more than any extra pounds was an intense desire to be loved, not as La Callas, not as the opera diva, or prima donna, or as elegant woman she transformed herself to be, but as Maria. 

At home in Milan, 1958. Photo by Franco Gremignan. 

At home in Milan, 1958. Photo by Franco Gremignan. 

Photo: M. Pevsner. Date unknown. 

Photo: M. Pevsner. Date unknown. 

At her home in Milan, 1958. Photo: Farabola/RDA/Getty Images.

At her home in Milan, 1958. Photo: Farabola/RDA/Getty Images.

Swimming in Ischia, 1958. Photo: AP/AP/SIPA. (ps. there is a 100% chance I'm swimming with chandelier earrings on my next time in the sea!)

Swimming in Ischia, 1958. Photo: AP/AP/SIPA. (ps. there is a 100% chance I'm swimming with chandelier earrings on my next time in the sea!)

Date and photographer unknown.

Date and photographer unknown.

Photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1957. 

Photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1957. 

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So, does appearance matter? What can we learn from a woman who became an icon by altering appearance? What can we take away from a story in which a change in appearance is tinged with extraordinary fame, deep self-doubt, an immense longing to be loved, and a desire to be seen and accepted as oneself coupled with a desire to be seen and accepted as something mightier than oneself? How do we piece it all together? Chime in if you're ready! Or tune in for the second part of this post coming at you soon. 

In the meantime, while you contemplate, here's Maria Callas as perhaps the best Tosca in the history of opera singing Vissi D'arte. 

 

Read Part II now

 

Source: Huffington, A. S. (2002). Maria Callas: the woman behind the legend. Rowman & Littlefield. 

(1) page 26; (2) page 25; (3) page 113; (4) page 116; (5) page 113; (6) page 131; (7) page 142

Feature image by Gari Julve.

 

 

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