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The Language of Clothes

by Alison Lurie, with illustrations assembled by Doris Palca
Random House, 273 pp., $20.00

Alison Lurie has speculated in some of her essays on the ways dress can be understood as a language, and she presumably intends to show how in The Language of Clothes. She begins, after a preliminary bow to semiology, by analogizing the parts of dress to the parts of speech and styles of dress to styles of utterance. In this vein she deals at length with clothing as it corresponds to verbal phenomena such as slang, cliché, polite formulas, insults, lies, expletives, and ritual speech, generally expanding the hackneyed term “statement.” There is no end to the exfoliations of the theme: foreign languages and their fluent or inept use, foreign accents, stammering—Lurie sweeps over a broad range of spoken behavior, remarking on how it might be matched up with habits of dress. Fortunately, she is not entirely serious about all this—she does not really think ruffles are like adjectives—and she has another purpose in using the analogy. Indeed, her book is less and exploration of dress as a possible language than a very different kind of manifesto—it is an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of language to clothes.

By stressing the raw communicativeness of clothing, the sheer inability of dress to “shut up,” Lurie suggests that the “language” of clothes is basically a primitive babble, often tiresomely intrusive, out of which we can regularly form messages with only fairly simple meanings or combined meanings. If dress really is the kind of language Lurie superficially observes it to be, it is a woefully undeveloped one for use by complex human beings. As she would describe it, it is a form of speech with no literature.

Lurie’s linguistic view of clothing leaves out the actual visual forms clothes take, with all their evolving meanings in the imaginative life—those formal conventions and inventions and representations that have shaped the drama and fiction of dress. Like art, clothes represent a constantly revised accord between private fantasy and collective tradition. All “messages” of clothing, as the pervasive presence of mirrors suggests, are in part reflexive. They may produce private satisfactions of which the significance or even the existence is lost to immediate public view. If dress works at all like language, it might possibly be said to work the way poetry does, even though most garments are hardly poetic.

The “language of clothes” is largely pictorial. It works rather like the visual language of the movies, where we are accustomed to having private fantasy jibe with public commercial fantasies, on a common visual ground that also forms part of a figurative tradition. Any individual costume has the impact of a picture, not a map—a single imaginative construction, not a diagram. It is first to be seen, not read—or rather, it must be seen whole in order to be read at all. Alison Lurie’s book tends to advance the idea that we can read without seeing and then believe we understand. Because clothing still gets thought of as a crude system of communication, it can still seem enough simply to anatomize it for some basic messages, translate those into English, and stop there.

Alison Lurie’s book has wonderful quotes from novelists which mainly attest to the superior skill of writers in contrast to the shouts and mumbles of those using clothing’s tongue. She quotes James to show how he reveals a character through clothes; but the amber beads worn by Verena Tarrant in The Bostonians appear at a carefully wrought moment in which James can describe them as seen through Basil Ransom’s eyes to suggest the quality of Verena’s limitations. That does not mean that amber beads always or only signified such limitations in real life in James’s time, or even in James’s view.

Ordinary perception, like ordinary dressing, does not usually work like this. We receive many signals to which we unconsciously give the large benefit of perceptual doubt. One function of sartorial imagery is to offer scope for the beholder’s imagination. We all take the medium personally, interpreting on our own terms, and we have a corresponding faith in the elasticity of the world’s eye. Clothes constantly offer many signals that are not so much sent as projected onto our surfaces in a densely complicated pattern, composed in pictorial terms but generated by our abiding or shaky sense of self, our whimsical or obsessional turn of mind, our varieties of public posture, the provisional self-portraits we are inwardly contemplating, our dim or vivid memories, and our taste—that indisputable quantity.

When Alison Lurie says, “The woman in the sensible gray wool suit and the frilly pink blouse is a serious, hard-working mouse with a frivolous and feminine soul,” she is not being realistic but novelistic—or possibly theatrical. Much costume for the stage or the movies is understood as realistic by conventional stage standards (red means sex or rage, black means death, ruffles mean folly), but discussing clothes as if they were costumes for characters has only the rough validity proper to a morality play or a soap opera. In life, there is usually more to it, or often much less. For one thing, there is always the state of our unavoidable personal negotiations with the proponents and products of the clothing industry. A high-necked blouse may be worn because of some bargain one is striking with the persuasive suggestions of commercial art, not because of one’s need to express modesty. Lurie sometimes writes as if clothes were made to order or made at home, just as they were when Jane Austen wrote.

As a novelist, Alison Lurie has a needle-sharp eye, and she is most illuminating when not categorically assigning meanings but deftly recording her observations:

The most striking thing about British dress, both urban and rural, is its tendency to follow the principle of camouflage. City clothes are most often made in colors that echo the hues of stone, cement, soot, cloudy skies and wet pavements: black, white, navy and the darker shades of gray…. These subdued and gloomy hues, like those of many British towns, are brightened here and there with color: the red of a pillar-box or tie, the orange and yellow of a bed of marigolds or a flowered blouse. British city clothes are also cut and ornamented so as to make the naturally rounded human figure seem more rectangular, helping it to merge into the urban landscape. The disguise is most complete in the case of the male, whose city suit turns him into an assemblage of oblongs accentuated by a rolled umbrella and a rectangular attaché case.

Lurie is very good on the differences in the regional costume of the United States, where we are all supposed to look alike, worship conformity, and be slaves to mass-produced fashion. She demonstrates that we indeed have distinct varieties of local native dress, a true folk costume that reflects local attitudes and circumstances prevailing in much earlier times, but that still survives to satisfy the inhabitants’ sense of self, however funny it looks to outsiders. The romantic, practical, or derisive use of “other-regional” costume is also a familiar enough ploy in America, here described with care.

The Language of Clothes has virtue as the record of Lurie’s cataloguing eye on aspects of sartorial culture not usually captured in print except in novels. She is penetrating, for example, about the sympathetic magic that can abide in clothes, about garments worn for secret reasons, clothes significantly given and exchanged, or religiously kept but never worn. She cleverly shows how status now attaches to having multiple personalities to express, instead of multiple social occasions to dress for, and she is very good on the character of modern children’s clothing, whether it is inflicted on children or adopted by adults.

The contemporary pictures that go with her observations are also best when they are what appear to be personal snapshots, although there is an undeniably dazzling color section showing photographs of disco-dancers, transvestites, and other modern citizens interspersed with reproductions of great paintings. The historical pictures are less original and also less illustratively apt, and it does seem wrong to use a Virginia Slims ad to exemplify the evils of nineteenth-century female costume, if you claim to be at all serious. If Lurie is in fact not serious, her book seems alarmingly overweight for its frame, and one essay would have served her purpose better.

Lurie is reductive altogether on historical costume. She tends to generalize from other people’s work, to which she has indeed given a great deal of respectful attention and ample quotation, but she seems uninterested in the clothes of the past. Many of her remarks present historical costume as just another funny dialect, good for setting off the writer’s wit—women in the nineteenth century are described as walking boudoir lamps or bundles of expensive washing.

Like many other writers Lurie has fallen for the idea that all mid-nineteenth-century female dress was something awful called “Victorian,” of which the very forms embodied an ideal of weak-minded and helplessly immobilized femininity, and of which the single right opinion is that we are well out of it. She fails to remember that the many-skirted, deep-bonneted, tight-corseted mode was invented in Paris and worn with great panache by the free-living “lorettes” and “lionnes” of French Romantic bohemianism, as well as by all the strong-willed grandes cocottes and sagacious grandes bourgeoises and petites midinettes who figure so vividly in French fiction and art. The complex trappings of the nineteenth-century female had their aggressive as well as their passive aspects; like modern high heels, they could be enabling as well as inhibiting.

Lurie’s book in general takes the “human folly” view of dress—that our clothes really have no other function than to enact before the eyes of others a perpetual, slightly grotesque charade of our pretensions and aspirations. Lacking is a sense of the pleasure and benefit we take from the very existence of clothes, from their beauty and suggestive imagery, the play of the inner and outer eye upon the enterprise.

The fundamental satisfactions of clothes are plainly important to Kennedy Fraser, whose essays are collected in The Fashionable Mind. This volume has the great advantage of its form: no attempt is made to arrive at basic principles of clothes in general or fashion in history, and no theory is being defended. Fraser notes that fashion is intimately connected with the way we live, but she never tries to say exactly how. We mainly get a cumulative view of her perceptions during the self-conscious and fragmented decade in which she began writing about fashion. Her book is a chronicle of immediate responses unencumbered with afterthoughts, a diary of the period offered “as is.”

The essay called “The Secret Power of Dress” begins with the perception: “The number of people who feel passionately about their clothes is far greater than their appearance or their conversation might lead one to suppose.” This suggests the famous utterance spoken by a woman friend of Emerson’s: “The knowledge of being well dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquility religion is powerless to bestow.” Sartorial doubt and anxiety, like zeal, are similarly private. Fraser observes how inward both the triumphs and confusions of dress are in contrast to its obtrusive externality, and how strong is the seductive pull of fashionable change:

It is fashion’s business to manipulate our memories. Fashion is in ceaseless pursuit of things that are about to look familiar and in uneasy flight from things that have just become a bore. Pretending frenziedly to market enthusiasm for novelty, in fact it sells disgust for previous modes.

Fraser’s subject is fashionable dress and its marketing. With a few exceptions, she is always considering the relation of the garment she looks at to the current state of its vogue, to the suggestions being sold with it, and to the presentation of it she and others are witnessing under the deceptive circumstances of the marketplace.

The old authority of fashion, with its confidence in itself as a minor art form, has vanished. Clothes exist far less in the eye of the designer than in the emotions of the beholder. This truth, which has been dimly perceived by customers for some years, is now being translated by designers in the way they present their fashion shows. Clothes have a mysterious and human life beyond their tangible selves. They are fragile ideas and symbols, subject to loss of vitality under the wrong circumstances and to increased value under the right ones. It was inevitable that designers should become concerned with manipulating the aura around their efforts.

The appeal of Fraser’s pieces is partly owing to the tension between her distrust of the fashion business and her belief in the value of clothes. She expresses the sense, shared by many, that the abstract power of fashion is the enemy of true worth and leads to the decay of judgment. Giving in to fashion renders the will powerless and the eye blind. Fraser is nevertheless clearly prepared to acknowledge that only by partly surrendering to fashion may the modern woman exercise her pleasure in dress. Fraser herself, in writing about clothes, keeps her sense of irony without ever keeping her distance. She can describe the most frivolous aspects of the fashionable world with a sharp appreciation that has no acid in it.

For the most part, Fraser’s pieces are reports about trends in the relation between women and fashion during the Seventies: she goes to collections, inspects boutiques, and looks at passers-by. Her commentary about the clothes themselves has the swiftly concentrated attention that fashion demands—the stuff is ephemeral; let’s not be too serious or its virtue crumbles. But there is always more to write about than what simply meets the eye. Fraser is interested not only in the flux of new style but in the very nature of contemporary personal elegance, since the traditional European way in which women presented themselves, and which the haute couture was invented to sustain, has been so thoroughly eroded and transmuted in recent decades. Several of these essays deal with the theme of the Woman of Style in the twentieth century. In a memorable one, “Symphony in Lilac,” she touches on the hazards of transcending fashion by adopting a personal uniform, a perfect individual mode that never radically varies.

The pursuit of such perfection involves a strict self-discipline and a sometimes intolerant dismissal of the sloppiness of others. In a tasteful world of one’s own creation, with rigid rules of one’s own concocting, one might well be prey to loneliness and prone to crabbiness. Coco Chanel, one of the most famous uniformed women ever, was notoriously difficult. Uniform wearers are more likely to converse in maxims and dicta than in gentle empathizings. The redoubtable Diana Vreeland…is in the long tradition of uniformed and cosmopolitan grandes dames, and has been known, upon occasion, to prove intimidating.

But in the end, she sympathizes with the impulse: “By selecting a restricted style and retaining it for years, a woman is freed to concentrate on quality and pursue perfection.” One might add, as men do.

The haute couture at its pinnacle indeed promoted rather than hampered such ideals. In another piece, Fraser visits the Balenciaga exhibition mounted at the Metropolitan Museum in 1973. Like anyone writing for The New Yorker about a visual medium, she must work without the help of pictures. Fraser’s success in this is brilliant, partly because she writes with such appetite about these vintage masterpieces:

Its skirt is sculpted in an astounding way into the shape of a spinning top, and formed from row upon row of pinked ruffles, so that the legs would seem to grow out of its heart, like stamens from a black chrysanthemum. To contemplate this dress is to feel an irresistibly mounting gaiety, and finally the viewer is impelled to utter a sort of snort expressing satisfaction in a world that has seen the birth of such a piece of work.

The old French tradition of personal style has always had an uneasy existence in American consciousness. Opposed to it was the invention of excellent, low-priced, mass-produced clothing that made the American populace better dressed than any other in the nineteenth century. Such a native enterprise for all its worthiness seemed incompatible with the very notion of fashionable elegance. Even in the 1920s, well after World War I, our most corn-fed American heiresses at the turn of the century did, and as all elegant European women did. American awareness of having high artistic and erotic standards distinct from European ones finally reached the realm of high fashion only after World War II. The first generation of famous American designers—Claire McCardell, for example—stressed the youthful, easy dash of their clothes, in accordance with established, denim-generated American traditions. All that has remained successful; but for subtle inventive flair and exquisite attention to detail, the claims of Parisian fashion remained absolute—until much more recent American fashion, with considerable help from England, discovered not just youth and freedom but paradox, absurdity, irony, and creative parody. French couture could only be deflated by laughter—not the ignorant guffaws of outsiders, but a stylistic laughter at the core of fashion itself.

Kennedy Fraser was a sympathetic observer in 1971 of the new ironic tone in which fashionable clothes were presented:

Far from being whisked out of hidden recesses to be placed, with reverent ceremony, on the dignified head of the customer, the new hats are displayed haphazardly and made to be pulled down and giggled over…. If, by chance, the new hats get sat on, their fashionable uproariousness is only increased….

The hat is gaining because it is an accessory rich in potential comedy, with a wealth of past examples to copy, and because some degree of historical horsing around is by now a necessary element of fashionable dress.

And so it has remained in the decade since.

Fraser sees the same parodic impulse behind the mode for flea market gear, army surplus get-up, and all versions of la mode rétro, as Paris came to call it once it got the point. All designers including the French soon began to invoke suggestions of the thrift shop, the armed services, the orphanage, and the Late Show. Meanwhile many people dressed in the detritus of the past. In 1975, Fraser remarked, “What the support for flea-marketry represents…is the desire to find style, but obliquely, and splendor, but tackily, and so put an ironic distance between the wearers and the fashionableness of their clothes.”

The Fashionable Mind” (1976) dwells directly on the way fashion—in all of culture, not just dress—debases what it touches. Things and people of true value are “swathed in accessible, simplified public-relations versions of themselves”—versions so lifelike that any true perception of them must wither, and their true value thus also wither for lack of it. The fashion for tastefulness destroys the capacity for taste; and real independence of mind gets so much taken up and admired that it vanishes under the strain of its own modishness. “The greatest disservice that fashion does is carelessly to turn life’s most precious and fragile assets into marketable products of transient worth.” Despite the length and perceptiveness of this essay, its slips into the very gloom and dyspepsia Fraser elsewhere deplores, and it is less convincing than some of her more incidental reflections.

The nervous fantasies of the Seventies that replace the old romance of fashion are the main subject of Fraser’s criticism; but she also addresses herself to related phenomena. She vividly describes the spurious excitement of recent fashion shows, where clothes have come to seem secondary to theatrical impact, no clear sense of style or trend is to be grasped, and the results appear sterile and forced. The hysteria in Vogue photographs is echoed on the runways, where models who formerly stalked with impassive dignity in hushed surroundings now skip frenetically to disco music. In clothes, quirks and gags mingle with boring repetitions. Certain new talents have emerged, such as Sonya Rykiel and Halston, but a genuine lift of the spirit has apparently been hard to feel throughout the period. At the end of the decade, in the piece called “Retro: A Reprise,” she writes:

Fashion appears to have reached an impasse…. Spontaneity is the whole point of fashion. It’s the golden egg, the jewel in the crown, the mainspring at the center of a mechanism of otherwise unworkable and irreconcilable contradictions—between commercial dissemination and amateur self-expression, between fashion and anti-fashion, between conservation and progress. If you take away the light in the individual eye, can there be fashion at all?

Kennedy Fraser has a special fondness for fashion in her native England, where originality and what she calls joviality have flourished all the better for the failures of England’s fashion-promotion system, which limps well behind those of France, Italy, and America. English fashion has a certain irrational wit and a bit of coziness, and it carries itself off with a careless ease that contrasts favorably with the heavy breathing across the Channel and across the Atlantic.

The material in all these essays has the glancing, antic appeal Kennedy Fraser thinks fashion should have. Because they are supported by excellent prose and an educated mind, her writings on this mercurial subject invite the conviction that fashion is in fact supported by the basic civilizing virtues of dress itself, not just by human vanity, greed, and weakness of will.

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