From Castiglione to Kylie: The Role of Vanity in Fashion Media

Representations of vanity have routinely been linked with women’s role in patriarchal societies, having been used as a way to further diminish the female existence into something perceived as frivolous and superfluous. The discursive production created in regard to vanity has cemented the long standing philosophical tradition which separates the mind and the body, where the former belongs to men and the latter to women. The negative connotations surrounding vanity are often compounded and attached to prominent female figures represented in the media, where their bodies are transformed into sites of debate centered on moralistic behavior. This research investigated the role of vanity in fashion photographs by tracing a link between the images of the notorious Countess de Castiglione of the nineteenth century with the ubiquitous images published by Kylie Jenner in the twenty-first.

Both women are significant figures in the representations of femininity, beauty, and fashion within their respective lifetimes and each produced and self-published a sizable amount of images in order to control their own narrative and depictions in the media. Yet, in their attempts to produce a personal mythology about themselves, they remain unable to control how their images are consumed by viewers. Comparing and contrasting the lives and practices of representation conducted by the Countess and Kylie, this research analyzed how these two seminal figures influenced the dialogue surrounding vanity in fashion media. The primary research included a comprehensive look into the images Castiglione produced with the photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, and the images published on Jenner’s Instagram feed. By exploring the annals of a select group of photos, this research provided an overarching examination of their personal lives and their contributions to the discourse surrounding vanity both in the past and today.

Beginning with a biographical examination of the Countess, the first section contextualizes her creations and unpacks how her contributions to photography and fashion media may have been misinterpreted. The following section examines how vanity has been both historically and culturally determined as an inherently feminine trait using concepts from theorists such as Michel Foucault, Thorstein Veblen, and Judith Butler. This section examined the boundary between what is and is not considered vain, and how that boundary has been manipulated in order to perpetuate a misogynistic narrative. Finally, a comparison of photographs from each woman’s body of work helps renegotiate our understanding of vanity. This analysis reveals how the discourse surrounding vanity, although it has been historically entrenched in misogynistic perspectives, may be reinscribed within a contemporary digital context.