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Rags!

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. 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.

  2. 3

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

  3. 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.

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