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. 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 …

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