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She could have been Miss Tang Dynasty

I GET my hair cut at one of those ``trendy'' salons whose unspoken mission is to bring the latest word in hair styles to the fashion illiterates of Bucks County. I go there because my stylist, Monica, happens to cut hair very well and is tolerant of my middle-aged conservatism. It also amuses me. The women who work there are uniformly young, svelte, and outr'e insofar as their hair in shape and color bears little resemblance to a head of hair found in nature. Within the walls of this establishment hair is treated like sculpture, or at least a decorative art. Geometrical constructions project from the head ornamented with spikes or scrollwork and perhaps a splash of color - magenta, say, or even chartreuse.

Mousse, which I gather is the beauty salon's equivalent of Crazy Glue, is the miracle medium that makes possible not only these creations but also their instant alteration - with the mere touch of an aerosol can. Monica has never looked the same in the two years I have been going there, and I marvel at the lepi-dopteral capacity for metamorphosis she has achieved with not only her hair but also her makeup and costume changes. But she always looks hard.

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These young women are clearly in the viselike grip of a fashion I would guess falls into the category of neo-punk. But no matter how outrageous they may appear to women of more conventional taste, their common bond with almost all women of all generations, all periods, even all cultures, is that they are bent on beauty. They interpret beauty differently, but this dedicated, even obsessive, manipulation of hair style, makeup, and wardrobe points to the common end of making themselves as attractive as possible.

What they don't know is that beauty has very little to do with fashion or style. We look at pictures of our mothers or even movie stars of bygone days and laugh - until the fashion industry tells us to ape them or until we take the time to study their faces. It is not faces that change over time but fashions, and like the frame around a painting, they can alter the appearance of a painting slightly but not essentially.

I believe there is a universal recognition of beauty that transcends national and ethnic differences as well as time and that renders considerations of fashion and style irrelevant. The late British art historian Lord Kenneth Clark (of ``Civilisation'' fame) asserted in his book ``Feminine Beauty'' that ``some degree of symmetry'' is a common denominator in the faces of all beautiful women, but he then went on to muse about its more spiritual dimension: ``... physical beauty must reflect a peaceful or integrated frame of mind. There have been furious beauties and sulky beauties, but they exist on the margin of a calm integrity.''

The ``Woman with a High Chignon'' pictured on this page could have been Miss Tang Dynasty, but she's no beauty by today's standards - either Monica's or Miss America's. An 8th-century tomb figure made of delicately painted earthenware, she was the epitome of beauty in the fashion-conscious Tang period - plump, dressed in long, loose-flowing garments that conceal any hint of sexuality, and coifed in an elegant style that softly frames her face. Soft. Everything about her seems soft - her body, her clothing, her face and hair - and they all flow together in a cascade of gentle curves. If she were an animal, she'd be a seal; if she were an object, she'd be a pillow - a source of warmth and comfort.

This is clearly not a modern woman. She is not sexy. She is not active. She is not liberated. She is not even thin. I try to imagine their making her over at the hair salon. I try to imagine her doing a Jane Fonda workout or jogging around the block. I try to imagine her going to work. She obviously is unfit for work, certainly not physical and probably not mental, and to today's frenetic superwoman juggling career and family her languor appears perhaps more bovine than serene.

Yet she is beautiful. We know why she was considered beautiful then, and we recognize her as beautiful now despite cultural differences. She evokes both the Eternal Feminine and the Earth Mother. She reminds us of medieval and Renaissance madonnas - fragile, ethereal, and maternal. It is difficult to imagine a figure less relevant to our times, and yet she makes me want to tell the young women at the hair salon to wash their hair and faces and put on some weight, to rid themselves of the harsh angles and garish colors, to throw out the heavy metal jewelry.

Fashion reflects roles as well as periods, and there's no reason why women should look ``feminine'' as they did in more oppressed times. Yet there is something to be said for softness, not just as a form or texture but as an attitude with the connotation of kindness rather than weakness. There is something to be said for seeing in the face of a young woman the past and the future - the face of the child she once was and the mother she might become. In both of these visages there is softness and a beauty, uncontrived and undisguised, of ``calm integrity.''

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