Hannah Rose Dalton recently posted an image to Instagram of herself in a pink outfit. But this wasn’t some Barbie princess fantasy. Instead she wore a draped wrap jacket over a feathered skirt, 15-inch-tall platform boots without heels that gave her the appearance of levitating, and a neck brace.
A design resembling barbed wire or lightning bolts ran from her cheek along the side of her bald, conical head; there was a smooth patch where her nose should be, and her eyes were a blank sea of putrid yellow. The caption read, “Gurl bye.”
In another post, Dalton stands alongside Steven Raj Bhaskaran, her partner in life and business, who wears a white buttoned shirt and leather harness over a black asymmetric skirt and towering black platform boots. From his mouth hangs a long black appendage, like a swollen tongue or overgrown tail. Two stringy black locks of hair dangle from the sides of his head.
Together Bhaskaran and Dalton post under the name Fecal Matter, broadcasting their unnerving interpretation of beauty to almost 300,000 followers. Taking up to five hours to assemble, it’s a vision influenced heavily by horror films, Japanese manga cartoons and science fiction: a stark departure from the typical Insta-fare of designer clothes and beauty products.
“We’re not trying to be an influencer,” Bhaskaran, 24, said during a recent phone call from London. “We’re not trying to follow the rules. The rules were not made for us. Instead of trying to reach a standard that’s not going to happen, we want to have fun and create what we want to create.”
Tired of banal and homogeneous standards of beauty, some social-media users have begun exploring aesthetic territory once thought of as underground, alternative or even ominous, and they’re exposing it to the mainstream.
“Looking at what we’re afraid of, that fuels what we do,” said Dalton, 23. She and Bhaskaran design accessories and apparel, which is sold on the e-commerce platform Depop. But “we’re not going into it, like, ‘What’s dark? What’s scary? What’s going to shock society?’” she said. “Society looks upon your fears and your vulnerabilities, the negative side of your mind, as something that’s ‘bad’. We’re trying to make our fears into something positive and beautiful.”
Accounts like Salvia, Hungry and Aunt Petunias Friendz are also marrying the macabre and the glamorous. They have antecedents in the work of Alexander McQueen, 1990s club kids, Cindy Sherman (currently posting eerie self-portraits on her own Instagram account) and Lady Gaga.
Salvia, the Instagram persona of Lilith Morris, a 17-year-old who lives in Wales, is ethereal and scary, like a fairy possessed by a demon. “My look is inspired by science fiction and drag, I find inspiration in so many places,” Morris wrote in an email. “Recently I have been feeling very inspired by tarot cards and the women depicted in Pre-Raphaelite art.” Her posts can recall the familiar hyperfemininity of Amanda Lepore, the downtown transgender nightlife fixture, or be more shocking, featuring animalistic and extraterrestrial imagery. Theresa Yee, the senior beauty editor at the global trend forecasting firm WGSN, said that “this otherworldly aesthetic comes from the rise in the spiritual and mystical beauty trend that’s so current right now.” Last fall, Yee and her team named a strain of the trend “Dark Wonder,” highlighting the “overlap between reality and virtual reality coming to the fore and inspiring beauty looks that are experimental, futuristic and with a sci-fi twist.”
As artificial intelligence and automation threaten the job market, is it so strange that some would like to dress up as robots? With the looming threat of ecological disaster, what’s the harm in using make-up to explore life as a post-human mutant?
And why be so negative? Maybe accounts like Salvia and Fecal Matter are in fact heralding an imagined, idealised future of pan-gender, post-racial identity. “Beauty was very narrowly defined for a very long time,” said Sarah Brown, an editor and a consultant who was the longtime beauty director of Vogue. “It was a type of person, it was a type of look. I’m talking about beauty, race, body, everything.”
Now, she said, “I think we’re at this incredible moment where people feel comfortable enough to express themselves. They’re being accepted and celebrated for what their idea of beauty is.” While the images may be off-putting to some, they also require an impressive technical virtuosity. “The level of artistry is just off the charts,” Brown said. She was accustomed to seeing that level from elite make-up artists, like Pat McGrath, she said, but “not used to seeing that from an average, aspiring person. I’m just amazed by what people are able to do, the prosthetics and the theatrics and how dramatic it all is.”
Bhaskaran and Dalton stress that this extreme form of dressing isn’t a way to get attention — which, when they get it, is often negative, they point out. “Our whole lives, we didn’t look the way we look right now,” Bhaskaran said. “We had eyebrows, we had hair, we wore flats. For us specifically, the way were are living right now has been the way we always ‘wanted’ to live.”