As semiotics becomes fashionable, more and more writers tell us that fashion is semiotic—a language of signs. No one has yet provided the structuralist grammar of clothing I suggested in this magazine two years ago,1 or even a serious study of a single dialect. There are, of course, plenty of dictionaries of a practical, indeed a materialistic kind. For over a hundred years at least books and magazines have been busy translating the current language of fashion, telling women what to wear to seem simultaneously sexy, proper, rich, and beautiful.
The latest of these, John T. Molloy’s The Woman’s Dress for Success Book, breaks the pattern in two ways. First, Molloy claims that his “wardrobe engineering” is based on scientific research and opinion-polling; second, he is interested in telling women how to get promoted, not how to get married. The secret, it turns out, is to wear an expensive but conventional “skirted suit” in medium gray or navy wool with a modestly cut blouse. No sweaters, no pants suits, no eleavage, no long or very curly hair. Anyone interested in scenic variety must hope that Molloy is off the wall; but my own opinion-polling, unfortunately, backs him up.
A fast-rising lady executive in a local bank reports to me—reluctantly—that “suits do help separate the women from the girls—provided the women can toierate the separation, which is another question altogether.” She follows Molloy’s rules, but remarks that “wardrobe engineering won’t do much for you if your work is lousy…or if you’re one of an army of aspirants in impeccable skirted suits all competing for the same spot. As with investment advice, once everyone agrees that it’s the thing to do, it’s time to look for value somewhere else.”
If a grammar of dress is ever written, it will have to deal not only with individual items of costume (makeup, hairstyle, etc.) as words in the sentences formed by complete outfits, and with the linguistic structure of these sentences, but also with most of the problems that face semioticians: ambiguity, dishonesty, intention vs. interpretation, irony, framing, etc.
One difficult question would be how to deal with the uniform. Fashion is free speech, and to put on livery is in some sense to be (willingly or reluctantly) censored, to be reduced from a person to a thing. It is no accident that people who wear uniforms often also have to repeat mechanical lies instead of speaking to us like human beings. “It was a pleasure having you on board,” they say. “I cannot give you that information.” “The doctor will see you shortly.”
Closely related to the professional uniform is the outfit so conventional that it is informally spoken of as one—the businessman’s three-piece suit, the jeans and t-shirt of the high-school student. (Of course, the costume may only look like a uniform to outsiders—peers might recognize many subtle differences.) There seems to be a range in dress as in language, from the most conventional statement to the most bizarre. At one end we have the costume which is the equivalent of a cliché—safe, bland, boring (in context, at least)—each “word” chosen to match all the others. At the other end of the spectrum is the outfit which does not match at all and marks its wearer (if off-stage) as temporarily or permanently deranged. Imagine, for instance, a transparent sequined evening blouse worn over a dirty cotton petticoat and black rubber galoshes.2 If this costume were worn by a man, or if the usual order of the sentence were reversed—one of the galoshes on the head, for example—the effect of insanity would be even greater.
Between cliché and madness in the language of dress are all the varieties of interesting speech known to the spoken word: eloquence, wit, information, irony, propaganda, jesting, personal style, and even (though rarely) true poetry. Just as a poet combines unexpected words and images, risking (and sometimes temporarily earning) the reputation of insanity, so certain gifted persons are able to combine odd items of clothing, old and modern, native and foreign, into a new and brilliant elegance of statement. The OED of dress, when it is written, will note their contribution to the language. Meanwhile, their achievements are celebrated in histories of costume, including the books reviewed here.
The nearest thing this year to a semiotic study of costume, and a remarkable achievement in its own right, is Anne Hollander’s Seeing Through Clothes. Ms. Hollander writes with great wit and style; most of what she has to say is interesting, and much truly original. Her subject is the relationship between dress in art and dress in life, and her thesis that we can only know what past fashion looked and felt like through its record in painting and sculpture—and more recently, photography and films. After reading her book, it should be impossible to see any figurative work in the history of Western art the same way again.
Above all, Anne Hollander has the gift of asking the right questions, the sort that make you wonder why on earth you never thought of that before. In the first section of the book, “Drapery,” for instance, she asks why so many paintings, from the early Renaissance to the late nineteenth century, are full of extra material. What is the reason for all those intricately folded skirts and robes that fill most of the foreground in religious paintings; for those elaborate swags of velvet and satin that hang behind the subjects of portraits or billow around groups of half-naked mythological figures? Ms. Hollander has several answers. First, she points out that in pre-industrial Europe, cloth was the most important manufactured commodity, “the primary worldly good.” Beautiful material was as admirable as gold or blown glass, and occupied more space.
For centuries, the wearing of elaborate and expensive materials was an important sign of wealth and social dominance. A single aristocrat sitting for his portrait, however, could only wear one luxurious costume; the display of many yards of velvet behind him would suggest that he owned more such stuff, and was able to, in modern terms, fling it around. Later on, when rich men took to sober broadcloth instead of embroidered satin, the principle of conspicuous consumption still demanded expression in drapery. The usual solution, as Veblen pointed out, was for a man to be represented in life—and, as Ms. Hollander shows, also in art—by his expensively dressed female relatives. Lacking these, however, all was not lost:
Elemental drapery…could swag, loop, drip, or flow in shimmering paint behind and around a likeness, sneakily giving a flavor of luxury to a man’s austerely dressed person; or it might convey the energy of his personality, otherwise shown by his sober face to be under strict control.
Sometimes both overdressed female relatives and superfluous drapery appear in the same painting, as in the Frick Collection portrait of the Earl of Derby and his wife and daughter. This
shows the family out of doors, standing on bare earth with shrubbery in the foreground and trees behind. But on the right side of the painting, behind the earl, next to a column that might conceivably be part of a house, fifty yards of dark red stuff cascade to the ground from nowhere. So skillfully does Van Dyck fling down these folds that their ludicrous inconsequence is unnoticeable.
The use of superfluous material to create an impression of expensive elegance is not limited to the human figure. Even today, as Ms. Hollander remarks, “shop windows displaying bibelots, silver and china, or small sculpture will often show the objects set in cascading puddles of mussed-up taffeta.” (The same ploy is used in advertisements, often very inappropriately—or perhaps with camp irony—as when a new brand of soup or soap is pictured in a spotlit nest of baroque folds.)
For the late medieval and early Renaissance artist cloth was not only expensive and elegant; it also had the advantage over the unclothed human body of being without sin. Especially in the northern European religious art of this period, clothing conferred
an extra ennobling or decorative dimension on the essentially wretched and silly human form. The seemingly legless angels…are buoyed up not so much by their wings as by gloriously wrought masses of bunched skirt, which do not clothe but appear to replace unangelic and awkward limbs. Cloth is not only better than flesh, more purely beautiful, but it can also seem to be more holy.
Loose drapery derived additional prestige from its association with classical art, and thus with nobility, dignity, and the ideal. Marble columns and toga-like folds (occasionally, actual togas) were felt to transform the political hack into a national statesman and the grabby businessman into a Captain of Industry. As Ms. Hollander points out, Westminster Abbey and the Capitol in Washington are full of such attempted metamorphoses, frozen into soapy marble. And even today, I have noticed, official portraits often include what in the Middle Ages was called a Cloth of Honor—a curtain of expensive, heavy material, usually red, suspended behind the sitter. Successful academics are often painted in this manner, with their gowns and hoods and mortarboards treated in a way which recalls the idealized drapery and stiffened haloes of Renaissance saints. (Appropriately, the haloes of professors and college presidents are square rather than round.)
The sections of Seeing Through Clothes which consider “Nudity” and “Undress” are almost as interesting, though they cannot help owing a good deal to Kenneth Clark’s The Nude. Anne Hollander’s most original insight is that the naked human body in art changes its shape to fit the fashions of its time:
An image of the nude body that is absolutely free of any counterimage of clothing is virtually impossible. Thus all nudes in art since modern fashion began are wearing the ghosts of absent clothes—sometimes highly visible ghosts.
Rubens’s women, for instance, are invisibly dressed in the bulky, bunchy skirts and puffed sleeves of the mid-seventeenth century; Modigliani’s are squeezed into the long, tubular foundation garments of the early 1900s.
Artists, of course, do not set out to distort the human figure. Nor do contemporary viewers see their work as distorted; rather, it looks perfectly natural and right. This is because we generally see each other dressed, our bodies molded or disguised into the currently stylish shape. “When, after such conditioning, nudity is confronted directly, the observing eye may tend to idealize it automatically—to edit the visual evidence.” Also, when we take our clothes off, we tend to maintain the posture they impose, preserving a Victorian droop of the shoulders or a Twenties’ slouch.
Moreover, as Kenneth Clark has shown, different physical types are in fashion at different periods, and thus in demand or disfavor as artists’ models. Photography, rather than liberating our perception of the human body, has helped to tie it closer to fashion, since it seems to offer scientific proof that we are the same shape as contemporary clothes. (When posing for photographers, late-Victorian nudes protruded their behinds like bustles, while contemporary nudes tighten theirs and tuck them in to fit jeans.)
In her chapter on “Costume” Anne Hollander examines the history and conventions of theatrical dress, from its earliest beginnings to the most recent films. She makes an interesting distinction between what she calls “dramatic costume” which transforms an actor into the character he is playing (Hamlet, Uncle Vanya, etc.) and “theatrical costume,” which “is an expansion of the performer’s own self.”
Such costume idealizes the wearer—it subtly depersonalizes him even while glorifying his person and his personality. It makes an image of him, ready for desire and worship…. Cher in sequined net and feathers and Mick Jagger in skintight white plastic with glittering nailheads are dressed in stardom, as Louis XIV and Charles I were dressed in kingship.
Even when a serious attempt at historical authenticity is made in the theater or films, contemporary style will shine through just as it does in painting, Ms. Hollander says. At the time the costumes may look historic, because we see only the differences from contemporary fashions; later viewers will see the similarities. In Gone With the Wind, for instance, Vivien Leigh wore a 1939 hairdo and makeup with her hoopskirts. When the picture was first released, nobody noticed this; now it looks dated in the wrong way.
The final chapters of Seeing Through Clothes are a disappointment, though mainly because the earlier part of the book is so remarkable. In “Dress” Anne Hollander tackles the most difficult problem of all: Why do styles change? Alas, all she can say is that they respond to visual need”—whatever that is. She agrees that a change in social and cultural patterns will usually be accompanied by a change in fashions, but sees no necessary relationship between any particular style and its meaning at the time. Yet though she does not really answer the largest question, she remains very good on lesser ones. Her discussion of the influence of photography and the film on fashion is excellent, and she is interesting on the wearing of black, from medieval mourning to beatnik chic, and also on the use of the mirror in art.
Ms. Hollander knows an astonishing amount about the history of costume, and her respect for her subject is very great—some may feel too great. She does not believe that, outside art, true virtue can shine through ugly or ragged clothes, as in the story of Cinderella.
In real life,…rags obviously cannot be “seen through” to something lovely underneath because they themselves express and also create a tattered condition of soul. The habit of fine clothes, however, can actually produce a true personal grace.3
Prudence Glynn, who writes on fashion for the London Times, is one of the few weekly journalists in her field who is always worth reading. In Fashion, like her column, combines a light but biting humor with a lot of solid information. She knows, for instance, what held up Rita Hayworth’s dress in Gilda, where every British queen for the last hundred years has bought her clothes, and why you have Velcro fastenings on your ski parka (“A Swiss called George Demenstral in 1955…noted two interlocked burrs blowing down a hillside”). Her book is full of good illustrations and agreeably written, in spite of her obsession with the word “ergonomic,” which she seems to think means both “economical” and “ecological.”
Unlike Anne Hollander, Ms. Glynn downplays the role of the fine arts in setting fashions, stressing instead the example of popular theater and films, as well as economic factors, especially the invention of the sewing machine. Though she records the history of English (and to some extent European) fashion from 1900 to the present, she has no single theory to explain why styles change. But her comments are often very acute. She is especially good on the relation of fashion to war, remarking that in the past “one of the purposes of designing a uniform was to inspire terror in hand-to-hand combat. With high-powered guns [however] you never got close enough to frighten anyone except your own side.” She thinks that war produces overtly sexy styles, because it “diminishes the numbers of the species, and a fundamental need of a powerful species is to maintain its numbers. Thus dress reflects the need to make mating a primary consideration.” Mating; not promiscuity. The World War II sweater girl, with her obvious maternal charms encased in the stiff cone-shaped bra of that period, provides “a bank account for the soldier’s children which he can enjoy fondling but which must for the world be presented as cast-iron brassièred and as impregnable as Fort Knox.”
Prudence Glynn was one of the first to point out the internal contradictions of much post-feminist fashion. One current example of this (as I have noted elsewhere) is the “Annie Hall” look of menswear worn by women, but in a size much too large—as if to say that they can’t really fill a man’s pants, and are only playing dress-up in their father’s or brother’s clothes. Similarly, Prudence Glynn remarks of platform shoes: “By their height they cater to an instinct in women to be taller and thus of more consequence vis-à-vis men. By their construction, which makes walking extremely difficult, they cater to an instinct to remain vulnerable.”
She is also interesting on menswear, pointing out that male clothing promotes either “sexual allure or the territorial prerogative—the offer of the safe nest. Depending on the social climate…these two prime factors take turns of prominence, going in and out like the little figures on a weather clock.” In 1900 territorial rights were dominant:
What those frock coats and morning coats and snug overcoats said to women was that the men who wore them were…able to provide a well-appointed nest in which the females and young could be tucked up safely. Trespassers entered upon the hearts and laurel shrubberies of these men at their peril.
After the Pill, however, fewer eggs were laid, and women began to favor a more dashing and colorful sort of fellow, causing a revolution in male clothes and grooming.
Prudence Glynn, like most writers on costume, enjoys and respects fashion almost as much as Anne Hollander does. Michael and Ariane Batterberry, the authors of Mirror, Mirror, appear to disapprove of it, and to positively detest most of its wearers. Their elegantly designed, lavishly illustrated, and very informative book is marred by a recurring clever spitefulness which recalls the most disagreeable sort of gossip column. If anything really unpleasant is known (or even rumored) about any important figure in the history of costume before 1900, they are sure to repeat it. Thus they tell us that Samuel Pepys was a “fretful slave to fashion” who had lice in his periwig; that Empress Eugenie was “a shallow, calculating adventuress” and “untouchable trollop” who adopted the crinoline so that she might simultaneously attract and repel the sexual advances of men. They are especially nasty, for some reason, about the “vain and self-conscious” Lord Byron:
When the boyish waistline, after bouts of dissipation, began to bulge, he dieted on soda water and dry biscuits. Should it go limp, the cropped springiness of his windblown curls was restored by a bristling nightcap of butterfly curlers. Byron helped revive a flagging interest in hair fetishism; it is a wonder that his incessant sentimental exchanges of locks did not leave him baldheaded.
If you like this sort of thing, there is plenty more of it in Mirror, Mirror. It will be no bar to the book’s success, I am sure: nasty gossip about the intimate lives of the famous has always been popular. Fans of the genre should be warned, though, that the final chapter of the book, covering developments from 1900 to the present, is free of such slurs. Perhaps it was written by the other author; or perhaps a consciousness of the laws of libel was operating. Whatever the cause, it is straight social history, unenlivened by anecdotal material of any kind. The pictures in this section, however, are wonderful.
Writing about costume (or any art) without the help of pictures is like trying to make love through a blanket; only a genius can do it. Both fashion magazines and historians of dress have always relied on artists to illustrate their text, and recently they have relied most heavily on the record left by the camera. But a photographer like Richard Avedon does not need a text. His pictures do more than record fashion—they interpret it. The models he chooses, the poses they take, the backgrounds against which he places them, all suggest what a particular style means at a particular moment. This is especially clear in the selection of his work just published—and also currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum—under the title Avedon: Photographs 1947-1977. The book is superbly produced, and its juxtapositions of striking images from different periods well demonstrate Avedon’s range, wit, and technical brilliance as a photographer; but the show, which is arranged in chronological order, is a better record of his development as an artist and social observer.
Avedon’s early pictures feature the high-fashion models of the postwar period: impossibly thin, haughty, sophisticated, and static females wearing Paris couturier styles in expensive French surroundings. Their clothes are stark, sculptural; fantastically and intricately cut and stiffened, often heavily beaded and embroidered. It is clear that they are not especially comfortable (Audrey Hepburn can hardly walk in her short evening dress with the tight jeweled band around the knees); but they are, in the then up-market meaning of the term, very glamorous. These models make little contact with the observer; or, if they turn to meet our eyes, it is briefly and disdainfully over an elegant shoulder.
Of course most women did not look like this in the Forties and Fifties; but the style was part of our fantasy life, and available to us in watered-down versions. Copies of these clothes, and copies of the copies, could be bought at stores in London and New York, and from time to time some of us chose to assume the Selfridge’s or Lord and Taylor version of world-weary sophistication and sexual challenge, though perhaps only as a kind of wishful thinking. (I well remember the devastating effect of a strapless black satin evening dress worn by one Isabel Kennedy to a house dance at Harvard, suddenly eclipsing the fluffy pale tulle and chiffon jeune fille frocks of every other female in the room.)
When he first appeared, Avedon was, or seemed, only a very gifted and observant fashion photographer. He was famous for his ability to make a dress look elegant and a woman aristocratic; most of all, for his photographs of real aristocrats of the period: rich and titled European beauties in stark black and/or seminudity, dramatically posed and lit to resemble Italian Renaissance portraits, Greek coins, or the Egyptian Sphinx. When we look at these pictures now, a strong undertone of satirical comment appears. We see that Dolores Guinness has a neck like a nervous goose, and that one of the Sphinxes, the Viscountess de Ribes, bites her nails down to the quick. Famous models like Dorian Leigh and Dovima are shown drinking alone at cafe tables with lookalike Afghans and expressions of snobbish worry which only their great beauty and superb clothes render tolerable. We see them regarding themselves without enthusiasm in bleak bathroom mirrors, or gambling in casinos in the company of depraved types out of Proust. As Harold Brodkey writes in his perceptive preface, “Avedon gravitates to those moments in which the oscillation between pretense and revelation is most intense.”
The fashion photographs taken in New York in the late Fifties make another kind of comment. Ostensibly they show happy, ordinary upper-middle-class women in the kind of everyday clothes we wore then: bunchy, boxy, square-cut dresses and pillbox hats (the Jackie Kennedy look); clothes that, unlike the sculptured gowns of a few years earlier, did not seem to have an artistic and emotional life of their own, yet which refused to shape themselves to their wearers. Rather they enclosed us like ill-fitting padded armor. It was an appropriate costume for the years of the Feminine Mystique, when all women were supposed to fit into the standard mold of Happy Housewife. Avedon, very acutely, poses his models from this period in groups of two or three, all wearing identical outfits; they also wear identical expressions of hysterical, phony feminine gaiety of the sort associated with bridge luncheons.
Equally sardonic, and even more original, are Avedon’s photographic comments on the world of fashion and fame. With a stroke of inventive genius, he pulls his camera back to show not only the model in her elegant costume, but also the barren, dingy studio around her, the harsh light, and the makeshift, tacked-up backcloth. For another memorable shot, of a Paris designer’s collection, he steps back to include the gaggle of French journalists and photographers who have been sent on the same assignment: a crowd of comic human types shouting and pointing and simpering round the impassive, inhuman-looking mannequins. There is a frightening picture of one of his most famous models, Suzy Parker, literally in the grip of the couturier Gabrielle Chanel. Parker, smiling girlishly and showing her famous dimples, leans against the much smaller designer as if unable to support her own weight; Chanel, looking like a murderous lesbian alligator, clutches a heavy chain in one claw and thrusts the other into her model’s neckline, so that we want to ask, Why Is This Woman Smiling? Avedon does not spare his own profession: a brilliant series of shots shows Suzy Parker and Mike Nichols besieged and terrorized by mobs of photographers (one of whom, of course, must be Avedon himself).
It was in the Sixties that Avedon came into his own as an artist as well as a satirist. He still produced elegant fashion plates and portraits—sometimes so exaggerated that the skinny, stylized models seem to be creatures from outer space.4 But he also began a series of women (and occasionally men) dancing or jumping, often awkwardly, impeded by their stiff Feminine Mystique cocoons. Their faces are still anonymous and unformed; this was the period when the ideal age of female beauty was about fifteen. But at last they are alive, moving, taking up space. At the same time he began to make a different kind of portrait of Sixties’ celebrities like Janis Joplin and Joan Baez, portraits which acknowledge what they stood for in the public imagination by showing them as real women with irregular features and crumpled clothes rather than as perfect spot-lit dolls. Anyone who saw these portraits and the “jump” pictures together, as they appear in the exhibit, might have predicted the women’s liberation movement.
Avedon’s most recent works are giant portraits of women of all ages. Though some of them are rich or famous or beautiful, they are photographed in an almost documentary style—informally dressed (often in jeans and old shirts and sweaters), without makeup, facing the camera head-on.5 These are by no means casual snapshots, however, but (like his earlier portraits) magical images. At the Met they appear at least four times life-size, staring down at us from all four sides of the last gallery like avatars of the Mother Goddess in some futuristic temple. Instead of, like most pictures, being the helpless objects of the photographer’s and the viewers’ leisurely contemplation, they challenge us—even judge us.
Fashion photographers, Richard Avedon not least among them, have been criticized of late for reducing women to things, and perhaps we are intended to read these last pictures semiotically as his apologia, his promise to sin no more. Perhaps, though, in another thirty years, they will seem only another astute comment on the metamorphoses of the feminine ideal by a remarkably gifted artist.
December 7, 1978
NYR, November 25, 1976. ↩
I have observed this get-up in real life; it was worn to a lunch party in a famous Irish country house. ↩
After this, it is surprising to find that in her jacket photograph Anne Hollander, a very good looking woman who is usually most imaginatively dressed, is wearing a rather wrinkled man-tailored shirt. ↩
The most oddly beautiful of them all, Penelope Tree, bears a strong resemblance to the benevolent aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. ↩
One of them is his daughter-in-law Elizabeth Paul, who designed the show and may be partly responsible for its strong feminist message. ↩