Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century

by Philippe Perrot, translated by Richard Bienvenu
Princeton University Press, 273 pp., $22.95

The Afghan Amulet: Travels from the Hindu Kush to Razgrad

by Sheila Paine
St. Martin’s Press/a Wyatt book, 278 pp., $21.95

Fashion, Culture, and Identity

by Fred Davis
University of Chicago Press, 226 pp., $11.95 (paper)

It is strange that social scientists have paid small attention to dress, as each of these writers complains is the case. If we kept a dressing diary, the way people dieting or quitting smoking are advised to do, we would surely find that next to working, sleeping, and eating, clothes occupy most of our time. There’s buying, washing, repairing, wearing, and thinking about them, and there is the vague anxiety they bring, or express, always present.

Yet sitting some afternoon at a sidewalk table at the Café Flore, in fashion’s capitol, looking at what people are actually wearing, you notice they aren’t wearing anything special. The only fashion statements are made by very young people, as if we each have only a decade or so in us of fashion consciousness before eccentricity or indifference sets in. At the Flore, the only things that might be noticed as a trend are polar-fleece jackets in printed designs, looking American. Sometimes an older woman walks by in a beautiful suit, but one she could have been wearing for many seasons. All the men look pretty much alike, and pretty much like most of the women, same hair, jackets, and jeans. The contrast with fin de siècle fashions of a hundred years ago is dramatic in that almost all the women are wearing trousers.

We all want to be fashionable, sort of—we cannot help it—and we understand that fashions are “visible, bobbing markers of the otherwise hidden course of some of the great currents of the times,” as Kennedy Fraser noticed, and “instruments to aid in the interpretation of those currents.1 Yet most of us, like the French passers-by, do not consider ourselves pawns of the fashion system. Fraser also observed that fashions do not exist until a fashionable mind is turned on them. The five books under review are by two sociologists, an art historian, a cultural historian, and an adventurous ethnologist, and they all have fashionable minds with which to modify the received view of fashion, laid down by Herbert Spencer, Veblen, Marx, and others, as essentially an aspect of the class struggle, an opportunity for the outward display of wealth, driven by the competition for status.

In the classical theory, upper-class fashions trickle down to the lower orders, becoming cheaper and more vulgar as they do so, until the upper classes turn in disgust to something new that will again demonstrate their superiority. The aristocrat’s costume of yesteryear becomes the current waiter’s costume; Victorian waiters wore powdered wigs. Roland Barthes and others have added that fashion is also cyclical—what is short will be long and short again, like hems. Each of these books suggests directly or indirectly that judging from the trend to casual clothes and trousers for women, we are headed for the comfortable unisex dressing of ancient Rome, a longer cycle, perhaps, than Barthes foresaw. Several writers suggest further that an emphasis on the body beneath the clothes, the form itself, fit, trim, and perfected into whatever shape is currently fashionable, is replacing an interest in clothes.

It could also be added parenthetically that in these books a certain confusion reigns between the idea of fashion and the subject of dress. Fashion is the rapid change from popularity to unpopularity of a sleeve, a hairstyle, or a skirt length. Dress is a choice by which a person can express his solidarity with every other fashionable person who has chosen or can afford the sleeve of the moment, or by which, as Anne Hollander puts it, “the individual psyche can privately illustrate itself in some detail for its own satisfaction, using the modern visual vocabulary of dress that has been accumulating for generations.” Fashion, with its preoccupation with the new, its disgust for the recent, can also be even more narrowly defined to denote the media/promotion/art nexus concerned with women’s clothing: the November 1994 “fashion” issue of The New Yorker magazine, for example, talked mainly about the personalities of the contemporary dress-manufacturing world, and much less about matters of chic. We are all drawn into the fashion-selling world if only because we must choose among those objects that are prescribed and provided for us by this world, wherever we are on the continuum that trickles down from the haute couture.

Dress when tracked over the centuries expresses in its evolution broad social changes and advances in technology—those changes are observable in front of the Flore—to do with wash-and-wear fabrics, central heating, changes in attitudes about femininity and masculinity, the increasing number of women in the work force, modesty, and cultural appropriateness. Dress and fashion are mined with paradoxes, a central one being that a fashionable act may at the same time express one’s individuality and one’s group identity. The actress tries to be unique in her eccentric hats or her men’s suits; the teen-ager signifies belonging by wearing the colors of his gang. As Hollander puts it, fashion “provides the ability to look like everyone else, in the ancient tribal way; but, at the same time, it provides a choice of tribes.”

It was not always so. Fashion is a Western phenomenon; in primitive societies styles in dress do not change. In the beginning our own ancestors were not ridden by the urge to dress fashionably. Historians agree that fashion began in the West in the fourteenth century, though Philippe Perrot in Fashioning the Bourgeoisie notes that signs of fashion were visible as early as the twelfth century. The point is that fashion appeared with capitalism, competition, and Western ideas of individualism. Using the techniques of French historiography, which infers broad changes from the details of the everyday life of people at any period, Perrot gives a lot of fascinating information about how the movement of fashion in France revealed social circumstance, for instance, black taffeta dresses for country day wear were worn by aristocrats in the 1850s, but to wear a black taffeta dress out walking in 1860 was “to advertise a precarious budget or imposed thrift.”

Perrot accepts the class struggle explanation of fashion change, but he adds considerable sophistication in considering how rivalry in appearance, snobbery, and the erotic have always been driving forces behind it, particularly in the sex-obsessed nineteenth century. He knows quite a bit about underwear. In his book, originally published in French, in 1981, as Les Dessus et les dessous de la bourgeoisie, Perrot quotes a writer of 1896, Pierre de Lano, on the subject of color in women’s “secret clothing” by which we see that what we have gained in sartorial freedom we have lost in suggestibility. For him it is

a completely modern notion, born of the nervous torments of our imagination, the dulling of our sensations, and the insatiable desire that makes us suffer, almost, and that drives us in all the manifestations of our fevered life.

The terms of the erotic have changed, just as the form of the human body has changed, now favoring the slender and the young instead of the substantial, mature, and rich. And there is some evidence that eros is losing his grip.

Perhaps because of its perceived frivolity, fashion has been seen as the provenance of women. Most studies of dress, including both French books—Perrot’s and The Empire of Fashion, by Gilles Lipovetsky—seem to hold uncritically that men have been relegated to the lesser fashion role because they are higher-minded, more serious, less imaginative, or busier than women. (It was Veblen’s idea that women wear the livery of the man who pays for it, and thus express his status for him.) Anne Hollander, however, has written Sex and Suits because she has “come to believe that male dress was always essentially more advanced than female throughout fashion history, and tended to lead the way, to set the standard, to make the esthetic propositions to which female fashion responded.” One can intuitively accept this idea, since it is the case with most things, and if it were not true here, dress would be the first instance of human social arrangements where women led the way, lifeboats perhaps excepted. But Hollander gives many examples.

She believes that men, from their early clothing, its layers loosely based on the form of armor, through a phase in the eighteenth century of frantic expressiveness, have evolved a more modern and more attractive (not necessarily more comfortable) costume than women. It has a “more advanced seriousness of visual form.” One would certainly agree with her that a group of men, especially in evening dress, look collectively much better than the women they are with. She explains it that “for the past two centuries, men have dreaded looking like fools much more than women have.” Can this be true? In any case,

the greater uniformity among clothed men that characterizes the last two centuries, by comparison with the variety among women,… represent[s] the brotherhood of moral clarity and evenness of temper, and yet paradoxically offer[s] a way to focus on the individual.

Like Pierre de Lano, Hollander emphasizes the erotic nature of dress:

Suits are still sexy, just like cars and planes. One even deeper secret of their erotic appeal is the unified ease that seems to link them to the unself-conscious natural dress of animals.

Is this true? One can’t help thinking of all those ads in which an uncomfortable man tries to loosen his too-tight collar or pull up his sagging pants, the suit symbolizing oppressed, exasperated modern man. But Hollander is talking about an ideal, as must all commentators on fashion, for fashion seems to exist more as an idea than actuality. And anyway there is much merit in a book that makes you say, every few sentences, “Is this true?”—contradictions being part of its charm, and perhaps also even the intellectual style required by the intrinsic mutability, if not chaos, of the subject.

What you find sexy probably depends on how you feel about what Dad wore, or what was sexy when you were a teen, or your age, or where you live. Sex appeal has always been considered part of the point, especially of women’s fashion, but Hollander makes the astute observation that today

a crowd of adults at a museum or a park now looks just like a school trip. Everyone is in the same colorful zipper jackets, sweaters, pants and shirts worn by kids…

The one-color jump-suits and sweat-suits made for adults… now suggest the rompers and playsuits once worn by infants of both sexes….

Such clothing moreover strongly connotes freedom from the burdens of adult sexuality.

Or perhaps the arrival of the unisex dress world that others predict and that would have consternated Pierre de Lano?

Hollander looks at dress as an aspect both of personal taste and of art history, the “accumulated vocabulary.” Fashion “has claimed its place in a new mutable optical world,” confirming “the deep importance of all appearance…. We live in a world of visible projections, and we are all visible projections in it. Like it or not, we all have looks, and we are responsible for them.” For each of us to see what we actually look like would mean “deep detached study in multiple mirrors… the sort of thing associated with expensive French courtesans.” So, like the semiotically inclined Perrot, she agrees on the sign-function of clothes. “It is much safer to rely on signs and forget real looks; to project the desire that you and your clothes be read and not really seen.”

To Hollander’s art-historical eye, seeing the form beneath the substance, suits suggest the naked body underneath. (One gets the point of the necktie but otherwise this is a little hard to visualize.) She also finds jeans and a T-shirt to suggest the “Naked Man, the universal human being, dressed in a neutral bareness to show that sex is not the issue for the moment,” as with track suits. Here, too, one is tempted to disagree. Surely, since the days of Marlon Brando and James Dean, cowboys and Guess?, jeans are meant to be sexier than suits.

A current exposition of jeans at the Musée de la Mode et du Costume in Paris makes the point that while in the nineteenth century, wearing jeans signified that you were a worker, “moins d’un siècle plus tard, le jeans n’est plus représentatif d’un statut social particulier. A partir des années 1970, il devient vraiment portable en toute occasion.”2 Everyone wears them. In any case, as Hollander points out, whether one wears suits or jeans, “It’s in fact clear that ‘uniforms,’ so vigorously despised in much current rhetoric about clothes, are really what most people prefer to wear.”

Most of human costume is uniform, and is designed to say that you know and accept your place and that you know how to behave, whether as a policeman, Burger King chef, judge, veiled woman of Islam, or homeless person, in which case you dare not dress up. There is an equation of dress with morals in all societies, or at least the assumption that others are entitled to “read” your clothes3—rape victims wearing low-cut blouses being said to “deserve” their fate, or all those bar-room incidents involving off-duty policemen, i.e., unreadable men out of uniform who suddenly behave like policemen.

Sheila Paine (The Afghan Amulet) is an ethnologist who went to Afghanistan looking for the origin of a piece of embroidery that had interested her. The embroidery was from a part of the world where costume is such a marker of identity that this small piece of handiwork could pinpoint which tribe its maker belonged to, living in what mountain region a day’s donkey ride from other people whose different embroidery would be entirely characteristic of them. The slightly dotty Victorian eccentricity of her search contrasts ironically with the modern-day warfare of these regions, where she is always being menaced by Kalashnikovs and mortars. But in the favored tradition of intrepid British woman travelers, she is always spared real harm. Naturally she dresses carefully for her dangerous journeys, for warmth, protection, and not to send the wrong signals.

Ms. Paine found her embroidery in a smart London shop. In his analysis of the inadequacy of most theories of fashion to account for this infinitely complex and fluid phenomenon, Fred Davis in Fashion, Culture, and Identity argues that in a shrinking world, fashions also trickle up and sideways, a point perfectly illustrated by the jeans exhibition, which began with working pants worn by cowboys and miners, and ended in an array of (rather horrifying) denim concoctions by such couturiers as Lagerfeld, Lacroix, and Gaultier. Davis makes the point that ethnic groups stake out costumes to distinguish themselves, and that these fashions are then often adopted by the majority. He might have added that since difference in costume is also a form of aggression, replete with symbols of harm (punk, for instance), when it is copied by other social classes it may be less from admiration than as protective coloring.

Then, too, fashion’s interface generates unexpected dynamics. In the Sixties in Berkeley, in the newly integrated schools, while the well-off white children believed themselves to be expressing peace and freedom by adopting hippie costumes and bare feet to look like the college kids, black children brought up by their southern parents to be tidy and, especially, to wear shoes, were disgusted and offended, continuing de facto segregation. In any case, Davis points out that “fashion pluralism and the rapid globalization of the fashion market-place have begun to disrupt and deflect the once-neat dialectic obtaining” between trickle-up and trickle-down theories of fashion change, and to disturb ethnic dress traditions everywhere. The once neat dialectic, in any case, surely has always had more force in the minds of social theorists than on us when we go shopping.

In the West we have fashion but from the moment Isaiah ordained bald heads for the vain women of Israel, from the minute Pilgrims saw the City, we have inherited an unease, a mistrust of the fashionable, or at least, as Davis puts it, “strategic ambivalences” between our wish for acclaim and our respect for humility.” Alone in his postmodern optimism about what fashion portends, Gilles Lipovetsky in The Empire of Fashion extends his definition of fashion beyond clothes, to refer to fashion in broader areas of collective life in Western societies—in ideas, entertainment, fountain pens (the French of his title is L’Empire de l’éphémère, ephemera, or almost anything with a short life). Lipovetsky thinks class struggle alone cannot explain the appearance of fashion in the fourteenth century, so instead follows a line first suggested by Tocqueville that would understand the modern generally as being an effect of evolving ideas of individualism. As we become differentiated, or isolated, in our individual lives, and with the perfection of social mechanism to protect our privacy, he suggests, fashions, or the idea of the fashionable, are what actually hold democracies together.

He also takes issue with the thinking of Marcuse, David Riesman, Veblen, and Vance Packard, and others “shored up by the conceptual tools of Marxism,” whose disapproval of consumerism has become received, almost reflex. These thinkers told us, with “a sort of critical overkill,” that we are all being controlled by advertising, standardization, hyperregulation, media manipulation, and by intellectuals feeling they needed to stand up to all that. But now it may be we can have our new clothes and our self-respect too, for if Lipovetsky’s view is right, Veblen was wrong in thinking that we only want to display fashionable and/or expensive possessions to flaunt or improve our social status. Lipovetsky argues that with the haute couture in decline, with multiculturalism and dissolving social classes, we are increasingly prompted to acquire things for our private use, without reference to other people. We buy a VCR not to impress, since everybody has one, but because we want to see movies:

The critical tradition has been blind to the power of individual autonomy that has been ineluctably encouraged by mass hedonism… The goal of realizing one’s potential, of deriving immediate pleasure from life, cannot simply be equated with the training of the homo consumans; far from lulling people into a stupor with programmed entertainment, hedonistic culture stimulates us all to take greater charge of our own lives…

Faced with ten different brands of detergent, we are obliged to perform an act of critical judgment in choosing one. This requires information, available, if on a minimal level, through advertising:

[Fashion] has forced individuals to inform themselves, to embrace novelty, to assert subjective preferences; each individual has become a permanent decision-making center, an open and mobile subject viewed through the kaleidoscope of merchandise.

Overall, Lipovetsky argues, the availability of choice and expression socializes individuals and makes them better citizens. Hence the world of fashion is the analogy on which the media and political worlds, the Western world itself, is organized. Like Hollander, Lipovetsky is a good phrase-maker: “Where we used to have faith, we now have infatuation” and “soft ideology, information, choice and change.” Politics, availing itself of the techniques learned from advertising, becomes more spectacular and more trivial, and voters vote with the superficially informed inconstancy of detergent-users. (A woman interviewed on television recently said she was now against Clinton because “he had been in office too long.”) Gone or going is party loyalty and rigid ideology, replaced by a process of political fashion which is, he feels, in the long run a smoother, better climate for democratic stability, if only because indifference and malaise vitiate the impulse to revolution and fanaticism. Where kindness and frivolity gain a foothold, passion is too much trouble. The undeniable rise of libertarianism and religious fundamentalism can be seen as a reaction to the dawn of fashion politics, the nostalgic downside, the yearning for uniform.

We assent to all this because, up to a point, Lipovetsky is describing a society we recognize—malaise, voter drop-out, fitness crazes and all. But at a certain point we leave Lipovetsky, or he leaves us. It is when he says, “Western Europeans can coexist in a heterogeneity of viewpoints because contemporary mores are governed by a peaceful relativism, because everything that relates to physical violence is rejected at a visceral level.” Can we really say that about America? In an epilogue to his views in 1987, when The Empire of Fashion was first written, he addresses whether he could any longer say this about Europe, conceding the problems. But like others in France he draws a larger distinction between Western and Eastern Europe than Americans are apt to do:

If it is manifestly—and regrettably—the case that the frivolous democracies do not prevent racism and xenophobia, at least we must note that up to now they have succeeded in confining bloody violence to small numbers of young people who lack a legitimate and credible ideological program, and who are not supported by governing political parties, public opinion, or the press. Here is where the present situation differs from the one that prevailed between the two world wars…. There is no longer any party whose declared goal is the destruction of democracy…

Even if we aren’t imminently facing the destruction of democracy, we all know the disappointment of feeling wrongly dressed: one day something about the proportion of our legs to our hemline suddenly makes it impossible to wear that skirt. Hunger and desire are straightforward, but, like politics, your clothes are never right. In this sense clothes are a continual disturbance, a yearning after perfection, metaphor of the imperfection of man’s temporal condition. No wonder people wear jeans. All of these writers (except Paine) provide some revision of the Veblen/Marx and Spencer way of explaining fashion change, but from here it does seem that underlying all explanations, the only constant is the motive power of anxiety,4 that malaise provoked by different sources at different epochs, whether from sexual, economic, nationalistic, or other wellsprings, which differs from society to society.

How dangerous and expensive the choice of a new dress has always been—think of all the discussions of dress in Jane Austen, in Balzac. As in politics, anxiety provokes action, preferably fashionable action, and missteps provoke ridicule. Dress is an eternally powerful subject. It sometimes has its satisfactions—the beautiful or well-made thing for its own sake, and then the narcissistic pleasure of adding it to our own bodies. It is a reflex of the individual and social psyche, awaiting a monumental synthetic thinker, a Freud of clothes.

  1. 1

    The Fashionable Mind: Reflections on Fashion 1970–1981 (Knopf, 1981), p. 147.

  2. 2

    Histoires du jeans, Musée de la Mode et du Costume. The experts at the costume museum agree with Hollander, finding James Dean in his jeans “semblable à ceux de son enfance,” and T-shirts to be expressing no more than youthful rebellion.

  3. 3

    See Alison Lurie’s The Language of Clothes (Random House, 1981) for much more about reading clothes.

  4. 4

    See Marjorie Garber’s fascinating discussion in Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety (Routledge, 1992; HarperPerennial, 1993) of transvestism as a product and sign of social “category-crisis,” and omni-present in most cultures.