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Rags!

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.”

  1. 1

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

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