Rags

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 …

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