I have never been able to understand why cheap clothes are more likely to have gaudy or unnecessary ornament, while expensive clothes tends to be austere, or in fashion-copy terms, “timeless.” In the same way bottled water is often more expensive than sugar water, plain clothes are more expensive than the clown clothes you see at H&M and Charlotte Russe and other stores dedicated to disposable fashion. Is it planned obsolescence in cheap clothes, or is it that they are aesthetically worthless at the same time they become functionally useless? Is it a distinction derived from social capital, that allows those with expensive taste to appreciate minimalistic design, or that those with social capital don’t need to indulge in ornamental displays to make their identity felt, to communicate a sense of personality?
All of these reasons are suggested in architect Adolf Loos outrageous 1908 manifesto “Ornament and Crime,” an essay designed to infuriate fine artists, as it suggests they are decadent if not infantile, stuck in a primitive state of mental development. “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use,” Loos declares, flatly rejecting the idea that lack of ornament implies an ascetic self-denial—and then proceeds to insult anyone who might disagree. For those who ornament their bodies with tattoos, he declares, “The modern man who tattoos himself is a criminal or a degenerate. There are prisons where 80 percent of the inmates bear tattoos. Those who are tattooed but not are not imprisoned are latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats” (or post-collegiate hipsters). Of those who like to dress up, he wonders how they can stand to “walk about in red velvet trousers with gold braids like monkeys at a fair.” Of the impulse to paint, he explains that “Erotic excess” drives painters to make their marks on canvas, the way caveman marked walls and vandals graffiti lavatories. Those who look to the past in nostalgia to revive the accoutrements of past luxuries, he says “impede the cultural development of nations and humanity itself,” and are thus “criminals.” In response to the fallacy that planned obsolescence in fashion creates more work and thus propels the economy, he suggests that the Austrian empire be burned to the ground every so often so it could be the most prosperous nation in the world.
Loos accuses ornament of being a drag on the economy, wasting labor and artificially inflating the cost of things while adding no utility, subscribing to a pretty narrow utilitarian view of things and presuming a kind of rationality that we would probably fell straitened by. He compares ornamentation to “lighting cigarettes with banknotes.” It seems to me that the best way to relate to Loos now is to imagine him railing against the crowd of pseudo-artists and hipsters whose main art is the presentation of themselves. Behind much of Loos critique is the idea that ornament is a debased form of personal self-expression, a desperate form of self-promotion that taints all artistic practice, reducing it all to advertisements for oneself. Loos critique becomes specifically grounded in class; he claims that the lower classes need ornament “because they have no other means of expressing their full potential,” whereas aristocrats have legitimate culture—Beethoven’s 9th and so on. According to Loos the aristocrat’s “individuality is so strong that it can no longer be expressed in terms of clothing. The lack of ornament is a sign of intellectual power.” What this really means is that aristocrats have earned the liberty from having to make displays of their power; they’ve achieved a kind of hegemony whereby their natural practice—allegedly “unornamented”—seems like the pure, unfettered way to do things, the expression of intellect being used without distraction.
Rather than reflect some evolution toward perfect humanity that the higher orders have achieved, deornamentation is simply a matter of amassing cultural capital; our culture continues to place greater value on the subtler pleasures that require a grounding in education and leisure time over the more straightforward pleasures that require no such preparation. Reading Loos, it becomes clear that class provides the definition for what ornament is to him—it is those very markers of class difference, the rhinestones on the shirt or the tinted windows in a car or the tacky lawn ornaments in a yard. A lack of ornament is an attempt to make one’s taste invisible, and in a sense omnipresent, omnipotent.