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Fashion

“Fashion” names three distinct systems, which have in common only that they determine what clothes are worn. For brevity I will call them fashion1, fashion2, and fashion3. In Western history they follow in periods. Fashion1 spans from the Renaissance to WWI; fashion2 spans from WWI to the 1980s; and fashion3, in the developed world, is ongoing. For each definition of fashion there is a corresponding adjective: fashionable1, that is, new; fashionable2, that is, popular; and fashionable3, that is, safe.

Fashion1 belongs to the artisan tailor. In short fashionable1 meant what tailors know how to make – reading, by the usual metonymy of the time, tailors as the best tailors, and the best tailors as the best tailors of the best cities, and the best tailors of the best cities as the king’s tailor. Fashion1 was slow to spread – from the court to the city to the country – slow in time, as the idea of fashion filtered down early in the period, and slow in space, as the tempo of technology picked up and the center was reflected everywhere.

(Of course there were court fashions before this – tall pointy hats and long pointy shoes – but we are only concerned with clothing styles after the decay of sumptuary class distinctions.)

The transition from fashion1 to fashion2 was due to mechanical reproduction, but not directly. Fashion is the only art that could embrace mechanical reproduction without a change in its system of values. It succeeded in subordinating mechanical reproduction for centuries. Fashion was, after all, the only art openly aspirational – “the clothes make the man” was an old saying while others arts still served patrons – and fashion was the only art no philosopher, ancient or modern, had bothered to establish standards for, or attributed any metaphysical or spiritual significance to – the only art (beside gourmandise) whose neglect, among those friendly to art in general, had been judged spiritually improving. And it was the first art to be industrialized – the textile mills were the first factories. Fashion had centuries to adjust to the conditions which overwhelmed other arts.

(Since fashion has always been the least self-consciously artistic of all the arts, if one is in search of the influence of industry on culture in general, fashion is not the anomaly but the control – the one area of study almost unpolluted by contemporary reflection.)

Even so, the balance of power between artisanship and reproduction did eventually upset. The shocks of WWI – textile shortages, government regulation of collar widths and skirt lengths – delivered fashion utterly to industry. This is fashion2, with the ascendancy of reproduction.

The interest of this change is that, even in its ascendancy, the effect of mechanical reproduction on fashion was paradoxical – the opposite of its effect on all other arts. Other arts became reducible (though of course they were not always reduced) to signs and tokens: the art on the wall; the music on the roll, the platter, the disk; the very buildings on the street. All came to be employed, at times, as instruments, as impersonal expressions of the kind of person that one was or meant to be.

But fashion2 was not about wanting to be a kind of person; fashion2 was about wanting to be a specific person. Fashion came to be dominated by vital personalities just as other arts ceased to be.

The phrase “mechanical reproduction” comes from Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Benjamin posits an aura to the handmade work of the artist, one lost to mass production. But it was in mass reproduction that fashion gained its aura for the first time. Where there was national costume, now there was aura — you know who – not a jacket, but so-and-so’s jacket, not jeans, but so-and-so’s jeans.

Fashion3 – the kind called post-industrial – is of interest as the most accessible member of the class of phenomena that can be prefixed with “post-”. In fashion we may observe and judge its real salience: first, that it was a real change; second, that it was shocking to those who lived through it; and third, that it was not, in the long run, particularly important.

But what was the change? Suddenly everything became cheaper; suddenly cheap became chic; suddenly the urgency of investing the clothes dollar in something fashionable was relaxed; suddenly, after a long suspension, the personal principles of choice and taste were restored. It is understandable that the first generation that had the chance to exercise that freedom would be very far out of practice: how variously and persistently they overdid, and underthought, does not need to be repeated.

But consider the years since; and ask what it means for fashionable3 to mean “safe.” Safety in fashion is safety from costume. In the presence of limitless choice costume is the one limit, the one failure. You may wear whatever you like as long as you do not go through with it. “A is a great look, try wearing it with B.” “X is a classic, but bring it up to date with Y.”

Fashion is never just a matter of personal expression. When you dress, you judge. A suit among T-shirts says “slobs”; a T-shirt among suits says “stiffs.” To favor a look is one thing; to commit to it is another. Mere favor retains free choice; commitment exercises choice only to renounce it. And to renounce choice is to demean those who have it – is to say “cowardly”, to say “soft”, to say “weak.”

(This analysis is easily extended if costume is replaced with religious conversion or political commitment or artistic style. But fashion is the perspicuous case.)

It may seem absurd to pay so much attention to clothing. Who thinks about clothes except people who are only fit to think about clothes? But dressing is the one art everyone practices, the one branch of criticism in which everyone is qualified. It is civilization in its most urgent, personal, and portable form. Certainly no philistinism meets quite so much resistance as going naked. And no other art shares clothing’s power to encapsulate civilization. Consider C.D. Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”, where the frock coat stands for all that civilization can contribute to the education of a human mind.