Fashion and Its Discontents
Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street; fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.
One of the wackier episodes of my erstwhile suit days was an impromptu tie-tying lesson in the men’s room given by not one, but two senior-vice presidents at the company where I worked. I was a freshly minted junior executive, caught in the crossfire as two “big wigs” tussled over relative merits of the sleek modernity of the four-in-hand knot vs. the staid traditionalism of the full Windsor. I eventually came to understand that rather than being merely an exercise in vanity, the exchange was deeply symbolic of the shift in power then underway to the new order within the corporate chain of command, and the decline of the old regime. The Rise of Fashion, edited by Penn State professor David Leonhard Purdy, takes its cue from the idea that fashion is key to understanding life in the modern age.
The Rise of Fashion is an anthology of literature by philosophers, social theorists, critics and writers dating from the dawn of the Age of Reason to the middle of the 20th century, with introductions to each entry by the editor. Inspired by the references Walter Benjamin used in working on his legendary unfinished Arcades Project, the book contains primary sources that are important chapters in the backstory of current theories on the relationship between fashion and modernity. A number of essays and excerpts from larger works appear in English for the first time, translated by Kelly Barry especially for this volume.
In many respects, the fashion debate is a product of the emergence of modern culture and its various forms of accommodation and resistance. The book begins with a passage from The Fable of the Bees by Bernard Mandeville. The 1724 essay is perhaps best known as the source for the doctrine in political economy of “private vices/public virtues,” that the luxurious consumption of the wealthy classes ultimately serves the best interests of all because of the “trickle down” effect it has for those in service to it. The excerpt chosen by Purdy deals with pride, the swelling up of personal self-image that Mandeville sees as the necessary accessory of increased net worth in the burgeoning capitalist market economy.
One of the earliest revolts against modernity was the Romantic Movement, the initial salvo of which is represented in The Rise of Fashion by the “back-to-nature” ethos embodied in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” originally published in 1750. For Rousseau, luxury, including intricate and refined apparel, is superfluous and deceitful, an artifice keeping humanity from realizing its true nature as free and self-determined. Indeed a little more than a century later, the social and political implications of the prison house of burdensome layers of restrictive clothing became the clarion call for dress reform that went hand in glove with the women’s suffragist movement in America. The dichotomy between what the Romantics termed “civilization” and “culture,” one representing artifice and the other nature, thus becomes the logical organizing principle of The Rise of Fashion.
For some authors, fashion-as-artifice has many positive qualities. The release from sumptuary laws (medieval restrictions for various social classes on attire and other forms of consumption) and the subsequent ability to “put on airs” by dressing above one’s station, for example, signaled a new and welcome era of egalitarianism for Enlightenment thinkers like Christian Garve and Samuel Simon Witte. For later writers like Karl Kraus and Magnus Hirschfeld at the turn of the 20th century, the ever-changing and social nature of clothing constitutes a dynamic language that gives meaning to human interactions, such as erotic attraction, and provides a mechanism for negotiating roles of sexual orientation and gender through the “masquerade” of practices such as cross-dressing.
Critical perspectives typically respond to the call of nature issued by Rousseau. They include an excerpt from the familiar and enduring rant by Thorstein Veblen on conspicuous consumption and the affectations of what he famously terms “the leisure class.” The early feminist rejection of fashion artifice is represented by 19th century dress reformers Mary Bloomer and Katherine Anthony. They are joined by Simone de Beauvoir (represented by a section from The Second Sex), who interprets the objectification of women by fashion in a way that rebuts Veblen’s often-acknowledged misogyny. One only wishes there were more women’s voices on a topic in which they have historically figured so prominently.
The Rise of Fashion has many of the usual suspects when it comes to fashion theory. There’s Lord Chesterfield’s admonition to his son to dress exceedingly well and adopt all manner of refinement, Thomas Carlyle’s meditations on the finer points of dandyism, and Oscar Wilde’s advice on dressing as suits the occasion and one’s occupation. And as befits a collection that rummages through the ruins of the Arcades Project, there’s more than one selection by Charles Baudelaire, the doomed mid-18th-century French poet who was the prototype of Benjamin’s modern cosmopolitan, and the intellectual gadfly Georg Simmel, one of Benjamin’s mentors from his Berlin youth. One of the real finds is the chapter on bourgeois dress by Eduard Fuchs, a journalist, socialist and collector of mass-culture ephemera who Benjamin wrote about in 1937 and whose writings on costume history have never been translated into English.
The last selection is appropriately by Ferdinand Tönnies, the German social scientist who coined the terms gesellschaft and gemeinschaft (“society” and “community”) to describe the traditions and relationships lost as modern urbanism eclipses small-town and rural ways of life. Tönnies restates his dialectic in the difference between fashion and custom, the styles of modern society and the “authentic” dress of traditional community. Yet as Purdy notes, “country” dress itself has been incorporated into the fashion market through brands like L.L. Bean and Ralph Lauren. The quest for natural authenticity can also be seen in the contemporary demand for organic fibers.
The Rise of Fashion will no doubt most interest those who follow fashion theory and its history. But there are a few essays entertaining enough to stand on their own. The entries on men’s and women’s fashion, respectively by Adolf Loos and symbolist poet Stephané Mallarmé, originally appeared in mass-circulation publications; “The Pervasion of Rouge” is a pointed observation of high society by Max Beerbohm, a noted dandy of the Edwardian Age. All are fascinating period pieces to read and enjoy.
I bailed from my corporate gig a few years ago but still wear the four-in-hand knot on those occasions calling for a necktie; though, I’m now more often found in black leather and denim. On the streets of New York City, the “punk-preppy” look is ascendant, an ironic pastiche of plaid, piercings and plimsoles. As Purdy’s anthology makes clear, whatever one’s fashion persuasion, to be stylin’ is, as it was in the beginning, to be thoroughly modern.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article