Commerce, fantasy, fetishism

Should we care about fashion?
September 18, 2013

Brooke Shields in her controversial 1976 Calvin Klein ad ("What comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing"). (© The Advertising Archives)

A friend’s daughter, visiting my family in New York, noticed a faded purple pea coat, worn through at the elbows, its lining partly shredded, hanging on a hook in our entrance hall. “Marc Jacobs,” she pronounced with calm authority.

Amazed, I asked how she’d recognised it; the label had long since fallen off. And she looked at me as if I were asking how she happened to know that the earth revolves around the sun.

Perhaps I should have known better than to ask. I’d seen how, in the spring and summer of 2011, hordes of people hurtled blindly past the Caravaggios and Van Goghs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to stand in line (sometimes for hours) to view the Alexander McQueen show. Before his suicide in 2010, McQueen had been celebrated, honoured with major awards, and demonised for the originality—and the extremity—of designs that evoked Victorian Gothic and bondage wear, science fiction and Harry Potter, Japanese street style and Scottish history. What had impressed me was the enormous range of visitors: out-of-towners from the American heartland and Japanese tourists, Brooklyn hipsters and Upper East Side society matrons, schoolchildren and their grandparents, men and women, most of whom could no more have worn the outfits on display than Cinderella’s stepsisters could have danced away in the glass slipper.

What were the museum-goers seeing as they contemplated the mannequins dressed in clothes that represented the ultimate convergence of commerce, fantasy, self-presentation, outrageousness, fetishism, and sex? What did their transfixed attention say about who we are and where we have come from, how we define ourselves in terms of gender and social class, physical beauty and consumer branding?

Quite possibly they were hoping for a museum experience that was closer to a fantasy shopping trip than to the awed, respectful pilgrimage from masterpiece to masterpiece that more often characterises our encounters with great art. And it also seemed likely that to the visitors dressed mostly (with a few chic exceptions) in the sweatpants, jeans and T-shirts with which we declare that, in our daily lives, comfort is more important than formality and display, the McQueen outfits—which could hardly have seemed less easy or cosy to wear—represented the secret life, the dream in which we do become Cinderella and shed the concealing cocoon of the ordinary and the everyday to become the romantic, exotic, nocturnal butterfly that we truly are, if only in our own imagination.

It also seemed obvious that even the most casually dressed were absorbing and appreciating the transformative power of fashion—a force that is impossible to deny. Years ago, a friend who works in the fashion industry gave me, as a present, a pair of leather trousers and a cashmere sweater, also by Marc Jacobs. When I wore them, I not only felt different (I’ll mention Cinderella just this one more time) but I also couldn’t help noticing that people treated me differently—with a new attention and respect. I mentioned this to the friend who had given me the gift, and he said: “Ah. Now you finally understand why people bankrupt themselves to buy clothes.”

Three new books—Colin McDowell’s The Anatomy of Fashion; A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk, edited by Valerie Steele; and Fashion: The Whole Story, edited by Marnie Fogg—have appeared to inform or remind us that the history and the implications of fashion are more complicated than we might have supposed, and that our obsession with shirts and skirts is not necessarily a shallow or a new one.

Fortunately, all three volumes are lavishly and handsomely illustrated. For with a few notable exceptions (the snake-green dress that the villainous Aksinia wears in Chekov’s novella, In the Ravine) literature is full of forgettable attempts to describe what a character wore. Most of the words one might use—“velvet,” “tight-waisted,” “baggy”—seem woefully inadequate to conjure up an image specific enough for the reader to remember. We may all have a vague sense of what the gowns Scarlett O’Hara wore looked like, but any particular memory we have is more likely to have come from the film version of Gone with the Wind. If we’re going to talk about clothes, we want to see how they look—preferably on a human being.

The Anatomy of Fashion is at once a lot of fun and intentionally or unintentionally (quite honestly, it’s often hard to tell) the funniest. Perhaps anxious that there may be nothing left to say about clothes, McDowell has broken the subject down into its component parts—which in this case means anatomical parts. “The Body Anatomised” includes sections entitled “Wrists”, “Genitals: Modesty + Practicality,” “Legs Exposure” and “Bottom Display.” The book’s second half, “The Body Clothed,” takes a rather less intimate approach: “Grunge,” “Military,” Ethnic,” “Eccentric” and so forth.

Everywhere are passages that beg to be read aloud to entertain one’s friends: “The bottom’s association with sexuality means that it features successfully only in fashions for young people. The more august members of society—professors at universities, judges and clerics, for example—still hide the outline of their buttocks securely beneath all-enveloping robes or long frock coats. The same is true of monks and nuns.” Elsewhere McDowell informs us that “Lycra cycling and running shorts have brought the shape of the penis back into clear focus—but (perhaps mercifully) mainly among a specific and limited group of young and active, if not athletic, men.”

As amusing as such reflections are, they suggest that the challenge of coming up with a fresh take on fashion is daunting enough to drive one to ruminate on recondite subjects such as the purpose of pubic hair and the “innocence” of “natural make-up.” Even those with only a passing or minimal interest in fashion may search the book in vain for something that might shed new light on the subject.

A Queer History of Fashion is considerably more cerebral, addressing questions that tend to recur in casual conversation but are less commonly raised between the covers of a book: why are so many gay men so interested in style? Why have such a large proportion of our greatest designers been homosexual? Though several of the essays remind us of what happens when an aspect of popular culture is cloaked, so to speak, in the ponderous mystifications of academic jargon, the book provides an engrossing history of the relationship between homosexuality and dress, between gender identity and self-presentation as it has evolved over the last 300 years.

It’s fascinating to find out about the “Molly houses,” the 18th century’s equivalent of the gay bar and to learn that, in 1793, “the whores of Paris were trying to have sodomites outlawed, as they were bad for business, and wanted them to be forced to wear hats surmounted by a motif such as a penis so as not to waste their time.” Many readers may feel a surge of nostalgia for the semiotics of the coloured bandanna dangling from the back pocket, with which, in the 1980s, gay “clones”—in tight jeans and plaid shirts—communicated their sexual proclivities. The book also pays homage to the outrageous drag creativity of San Francisco’s Cockettes and Leigh Bowery’s mid-80s London club, Taboo, “where the entry policy was, ‘dress as though your life depends on it, or don’t bother.’”

Yet in their efforts to disprove the homophobic insinuations that often underlie (and poison) discussions of gay men and fashion, and in their desire to defend certain gay designers against the charge that their work insults and degrades women, the authors either avoid—or else provide facile, unhelpful, and evasive answers—to any number of important questions that one might reasonably ask. Yves Saint-Laurent may well have epitomised “the image of the homosexual designer as the friend of women” and there is no reason to doubt Narcisco Rodriguez’s assertion that, for him, designing is about his “love for women.” But how are we to explain the fact that so many runway models are so distressingly thin that one searches in vain for the features (breasts, hips) that might distinguish them from anorexic boys? Are we really to believe that gay men are any less prone to misogyny than straight ones? And what are we to make of the book’s evasive non-explanation—“the gender gap exists, of course in many other professions also”—of why such a small minority of successful contemporary designers are women?

By far the best of the three books, Fashion: The Whole Story is less concerned with offering analyses, theories, and opinions than in providing encyclopaedic, frequently surprising and enlightening information that encourages us to draw our own conclusions. In the process it convinces us that the subject of fashion is not only meaningful—but inexhaustible.

Arranged more or less chronologically, the brief essays adopt the broadest possible perspective—global, political, economic, aesthetic, and sociological—to understand why humans have made, and continue to make, certain choices about what we design, create, buy and wear. Flipping through just a few pages takes us from the Hermès Kelly bag to the motorcycle jacket that Marlon Brando transformed into an icon, from the first bikini to the brilliantly coloured and elaborately patterned shawls worn by the women of eastern Nepal.

Many of the essays concern the history and the production of textiles—among the indigenous tribes of the American southwest and the Incas of Peru, from the Kinte cloth of west Africa to the woven stoles that, in the early years of the British empire, were imported from Kashmir until the growing demand exceeded the supply, and an industry devoted to manufacturing facsimiles of the Asian original grew up in the Scottish town of Paisley. The book has a great deal to say about how much of fashion was borrowed from, and influenced by, fine art (Yves Saint-Laurent’s Mondrian dress, Versace’s Warhol print gown, the 1993 Jil Sander collection that evoked Grant Wood’s famous painting, “American Gothic”) and about the extent to which Hollywood actresses (Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor) and rock stars (David Bowie, Debbie Harry, the Sex Pistols, Madonna) determined how women (and men) longed to look.

The Greek and Roman togas make a new sort of sense when we learn that the production of the cloth from which the garments were made was so labour intensive that the material was considered too precious to cut, and so the custom of draping evolved. Everything one might want to know about the decadence of the 18th-century French court (and, quite possibly, the inevitability of the French Revolution) is encapsulated in this account of the ladies’ rococo hairstyles. “Some wove flowers, strings of pearls, and other ornaments into their hair. The Duchess of Chartres even had tiny figurines of her children and household placed in her coiffure. The chien couchant headdress comprised a horizontal cushion in the form of a dog in its basket. Hairstyles could also allude to contemporary events—the ‘Montgolfier,’ a huge silk cap hung with a miniature hot air balloon basket, celebrated the balloon flight at Versailles in 1783.” And anyone left doubting the historical significance of fashion might want to read this account of its role in the revolutionary movements in Latin America: after Argentina’s revolution in 1810, intellectuals disseminated political ideals under the guise of fashion writing, thus escaping the attention of the authorities.

An essay on the conical 1950s “bullet bra,” which was “probably the most rigidly constructed undergarment since the corset” and which, in advertisements, was “always shown in a virginal white,” speaks volumes about the conflicted and paradoxical ideal of female beauty (innocents with breasts like rocket ships) predominant in the aftermath of the Second World War. And a section on the controversial 1976 Calvin Klein jeans ad, featuring the young Brooke Shields (“You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”) functions as a highly compressed treatise on how the advertising industry figured out how best to exploit the commercial appeal of youth and sex.

What Fashion: The Whole Story makes clear is that the history of fashion is nothing less than a lens through which to view the history of civilisation: of capitalism and colonialism, of freedom and repression, of the ways in which vastly different cultures have changed and influenced one another, and of how profoundly women’s lives have been affected by the degree to which their clothing allowed or restricted their ease of movement. Even a brief immersion in the world revealed here makes it clear that fashion is, and always has been, about a lot more than fabulousness, the hottest designer and the newest trend. Matters of fashion transcend the cyclical variations in skirt length and heel height, and transcend the all-important question of whether it’s time to stop wearing the leopard-skin prints that one saw everywhere—last season.

Though these books leave no doubt about the fact that fashion is worthy of serious consideration, and that the subject is a broad and instructive one, they don’t finally resolve the perhaps insoluble question of whether even the most inventive and outlandish dresses, hats, and shoes really deserve to be shown in museums, just down the hall from the Van Goghs and Caravaggios. Certainly many of the people in the crowds waiting patiently to see the Alexander McQueen thought so.

On the other hand, I have never forgotten the withering look of pure contempt I received, as his only answer, from designer Bill Blass when, during an interview late in his career, I asked if he thought that fashion was a form of art.