Gaga in the famous 'couture hunch' pose.

Gaga in the famous 'couture hunch' pose.

If there is one image that sums up the spirit of high fashion, it'll have to be the infamous ‘couture hunch’. You know the pose – shoulders forward, arms akimbo – a genius positioning of the body that guarantees to shift the focus away from the size of someone’s arms to their visible discomfort. 

It’s a lesson in looking casual under the most bizarre circumstances. I’m constantly amazed by the models’ restraint in those poses. With deadpan expressions, their faces say, “I may be leaning on a giraffe in a limited edition Dolce & Gabbana gown, or Mimmicking an aggressive octogenarian with a back problem. But you know what? I’m okay about it.”

These days, most of us observe runway trends with a grain of salt. We giggle at the sartorial singular (“Have you seen that Balmain shoe? Beyond.”), make ironic observations on our favourite style blogs and cautiously feel the shapes of new buzzwords in our mouths like oversized hard candies.

Couture cool ... Chloe Sevigny in  Dolce & Gabbana. With giraffe.

Couture cool ... Chloe Sevigny in Dolce & Gabbana. With giraffe.

But in spite of our sartorial scepticism, one aesthetic ideology has exploded in popularity. It’s the ubiquitous description beloved by the fashion industry and glossy magazines; the accolade given to women who manage to look haphazardly perfect – it is, in short, the rise of ‘effortless beauty’.

For anyone who hasn’t already fallen under the spell of Alexa Chung and French actress Clémence Poésy, the concept of effortless ‘chic’ essentially describes a style sensibility that exudes casual grace. As far as the fashion phenomenon goes, it’s deceptively innocuous. In fact, so much more ‘approachable’ is the look that most women have embraced ‘effortlessness’ as the new fashion philosophy.

On the surface, the sartorial movement seems to herald a shift away from the stiffness of Haute Couture (see hunch pose above) towards a more spontaneous, inclusive interpretation of beauty. No longer should we worry about caking on heavy make-up and dressing designer from head to toe, the new order of the day is all about being ‘naturally radiant’ and looking good without trying.

Alexa Chung ... the face of effortless beauty,

Alexa Chung ... the face of effortless beauty,

The problem, however, is that the notion of ‘effortlessness’ can be incredibly misleading. Dissecting the concept will reveal a raft of mixed messages that are often comical in contradiction.  For instance, according to Harper’s Bazaar’s ‘Secrets of effortless fashion’, women who master the elusive look include model Erin Wasson – a poster girl for "dishevelled perfection” and French actress Lou Doillon, who always manages to be “artfully undone”. Readers are told to “perfect the minimalist look by imbuing just the right amount of nonchalance” and oh – no matter what you do, “don't force the issue.”

Similarly, a recent New York Times article states the key beauty trend for 2012 is ‘just out of bed with your lover’. It’s all about “coming home from the party”, not “going out to the party.” Both articles then give detailed instructions on “how to look hot without trying too hard”. Turns out, it takes a lot of work to feign insouciance.

As blogger and freelance writer Phoebe Maltz points out:  “The implication with "effortless" is that some women are simply born in Chanel suits and with perfect hair. [The term]... [never] accurately describes the look in question. How is a shot of someone who clearly ... took particular care to dress nicely that day evidence of a lack of effort?”

In a post-feminist era where excessive attention paid to our appearance can often be construed as vain or shallow, it seems like we’re making an uncomfortable concession with the ‘effortless edict’. We can’t be superficial if we “didn’t try”. The result, unfortunately, is that we’re perpetuating the myth of outward perfection without strain.  

Naomi Wolf famously wrote that “the beauty myth is always actually prescribing behaviour and not appearance.” In a 2005 report released by Duke University, undergraduate female students were found to be suffering from the crushing pressure of “effortless perfection” – a term defined by researchers as “the expectation that women should be smart, accomplished fit, beautiful, and popular –all without visible effort.”

In this sense, the ‘effortless ideal’ is possibly more damaging than other, more conspicuous female beauty myths. We are forced to mask our efforts – lest they tarnish our carefree image. So that even if we do succeed, it’s no cure for our anxieties because we secretly know how much time and effort we have actually put in.

Rather than supporting the elaborate performance, perhaps it helps to break the code of silence when it comes to taking stock of our ‘effort’. After all, there’s nothing embarrassing about wanting to take pride in our appearance. In fact, wouldn’t it be a shame if you truly didn’t care -- and had to stumble through life in an awkward ‘high fashion’ slouch?