Dressing and Undressing

Anita Brookner

  • The Language of Clothes by Alison Lurie
    Heinemann, 272 pp, £10.00, April 1982, ISBN 0 434 43906 1
  • The Thirties Family Knitting Book edited by Jane Waller
    Duckworth, 95 pp, £5.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 7156 1601 3
  • Chanel and Her World by Edmonde Charles-Roux
    Weidenfeld, 354 pp, £25.00, October 1981, ISBN 0 297 78024 7
  • Dior in Vogue by Brigid Keenan
    Octopus, 192 pp, £9.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 7064 1634 1
  • Creative Dressing by Kaori O’Connor
    Penguin, 192 pp, £4.95, September 1981, ISBN 1 4004 6247 9
  • Doing it with style by Quentin Crisp
    Eyre Methuen, 157 pp, £5.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 413 47490 9

Fashion, according to Baudelaire, is a moral affair. It is, more specifically, the obligation laid upon a woman to transform herself, outwardly and visibly, into a work of art, or, at the very least, into a work of artifice, thus acknowledging the distance that must be measured between her natural and unredeemed state and the peculiar idol she must become if she espouses the work of self-admonition and self-regulation, and therefore of disguise, constraint, impassivity. She must do this because, naked and unashamed, she once performed the original act or sin of flouting God’s will and of bringing man to full knowledge of himself. Since that time she has served as a constant reminder of the fallen state, and, to Baudelaire, was only tolerable when her body was corseted, her legs disguised by a crinoline, her arms immobilised by the dropped sleeves of her low-cut bodice, and her face rendered unrecognisable by rice powder, rouge and kohl. At once travestied and made inaccessible, she could then take her place in a box at the opera, and inscrutably fulfil her duties both to the passing scene and to the demands of her conscience. Or, rather, to the demands of Baudelaire’s conscience. A failed dandy himself, he appreciated signs of effort in others; the loose, the slipshod, the revealing drove him to bitterness, and the unbound hair of his mistress was only too closely associated in his mind with her venality. ‘La femme est naturelle, c’est-à-dire abominable.’

Baudelaire’s dictum and the remedy he devised for this sadly fallen creature have become articles of faith for the fashion designer, or had done until recently, when the desire to be natural (c’est-à-dire abominable) led to extremes of both dressing and undressing, the two modes sometimes bewilderingly interchangeable. A five-minute survey of my immediate community reveals a preponderance of blue jeans, dungarees, pullovers, tennis shoes, boots, shawls, odd waistcoats, long skirts, plaid blouses ... To be sure, academic gatherings are not noted for their elegance, but if, as Alison Lurie tells me, clothes are signifiers, or signs, or if, to put it another way, dressing is discourse, then there are several messages to be read here that would have spelled out disquieting news for Baudelaire. The first is that all degrees of seniority are obliterated in the desire to look as young, as carefree, as natural as possible. The second is that these unreconstructed dressers, although brought together for purposes of work, some of it extremely recondite, are dressed for play, both urban and rural, as it might be for busking or the tending of a smallholding. They look extremely cheerful, extremely healthy and extremely relaxed. The third message is that a conscious and widely shared act of regression has taken place, and that women and men can now array themselves for certain tasks in the grown-up equivalent of rompers and that their errors of taste will be presented as calculated and disarming. The fourth message is that the rules have disappeared. The fifth message is that there does not seem to be the slightest awareness of the purpose of dressing: there is no disguise, no self-consciousness – and certainly no shame.

That fashion is somehow obscurely connected with shame is proved by the fact that it is extremely punishing. One does not relax in a couture garment. The famous Chanel suit of the Sixties, said to free women from the more rigorous and exacting designs of Dior, was only relatively easy to wear. The hem of the jacket was weighted with a gold chain, the sleeves ended above the wrist bone, the pleat of the skirt was off-centre, the silk blouse, tied at the neck with a bow, was enlivened with many necklaces and strings of baroque pearls. All these elements had to be kept in perfect play and none of them could be put on carelessly or worn with anything else. As Alison Lurie says, ‘luxury, waste, inconvenience and outrage are the main determinants of status in dress’. But the punitive element, so dear to Baudelaire, cannot be ignored. In terms of the recent past, the outstanding example of this was Dior’s New Look, in which an immense amount of material was constructed into a notional avatar of the crinoline, with full complement of padding, stiffening and corseting. The result was to make women look both luxurious and untouchable. Models at Dior’s were famous, not only for the narrowness of their figures, but for their expression of refined remoteness: they were suffering in the cause of art. But earlier, suffering in dress had a more deliberately sexual connotation. Children in the 17th century were weighed down, at the age of three, with the full panoply of adulthood, presumably in order to drive subversive or playful thoughts out of their heads. Women in Victorian England who might be tempted to ‘fall’ were impeded by a corset, ‘several layers of shifts or chemises, three or more petticoats, a crinoline, and a long dress that might contain twenty yards of heavy silk or wool and was often boned in the bodice and trimmed with additional fabric, ribbon or beads’. Even the outsize and ill-fitting garments worn by Diane Keaton in the film Annie Hall seemed to be inspired, not only by the heroine’s own confusion, but by her desire to obscure her sexual characteristics. It would appear that clothes have to do largely with one’s attitude to sexual morality: they can reveal or they can disguise, but they will always reveal or disguise the same thing.

The random and anarchic fashions of the present decade do not obliterate this message. According to Alison Lurie, the wearing of blue jeans, by both sexes, proclaims ‘sexual equality below the waist’. By the same token, the careless accumulation of items of clothing signifies a willingness to dismantle them again at a moment’s notice. More specific signals are codified by the homosexual who will wear a bunch of keys or an earring on the left hand side to advertise a desire for dominance or on the right to advertise a desire for passivity. Black is still associated with sinfulness or with diabolical propensities, although the black dress worn by Sargent’s Mme Virginie Gautreau – a picture thought so shocking that it was banned from the Paris Salon of 1884 – has mutated into the black leather worn by punks and motor-cycle gangs. None of this is exactly new, but what is new is, on the whole, disheartening. The categories or signifiers defined by Alison Lurie have their origin in the old emblem books and in some cases are very close to them. Pronouncements on colour, for example, are as arbitrary today as they were in the 18th or 19th century. According to Goethe, ‘the female sex in youth is attached to rose colour and sea-green, in age to violet and dark green ... People of refinement have a disinclination to colours ... ’ This is no more universally true than Mrs Lurie’s observation that ‘when purple is mixed with white it marks an aristocracy of the mind and soul ... it seems to imply special refinement, artistic or emotional sensitivity’. But it is Mrs Lurie’s own slicing up of her material – a brief psycho-social history of dress – that is informative. Her section headings include the following: ‘Sexual Signals: The Old Handbag’; ‘Phallic Clothing’; ‘The Shoe as Strategic Weapon’; ‘Business, Bohemian and Brando Black’; ‘Ethnic Chic’; ‘Aliens, Nobs and Proles’; ‘The Wilder Shores of Love’. Compare these with the ‘signifiers’ listed by Cesare Ripa in his Iconologia of 1593: Docility, Chastity, Benevolence, Hope, Magnanimity, Health, Spendour, Clemency, Moderation, Fidelity, Assiduity, Tranquillity, Inclination, Divine Grace, Contrition, Severity, Scandal, Amorous Contentment, Simulation, Generosity, Pertinacity, Bliss. That the appearance of a figure ever conveyed these qualities may now be open to doubt. What is true is that the emblems of today are totally divorced from such elevated concepts and have become downgraded into advertisements for one’s self, predominantly for one’s sexual self. After reading The Language of Clothes one is moved to conclude that of the various revolutions that have taken place in this century the sexual revolution may have been the most far-reaching of all.

It is in this context that one should read the fascinating collection of documents contained in The Thirties Family Knitting Book, for here is a social message remote from the often brutal realities catalogued by Alison Lurie, and as such remarkable. As the title indicates, this is a compendium of facsimile patterns, and illustrations, from Woman’s Weekly, Woman’s Magazine, Good Needlework and Weldon’s Ladies Journal from l933 to 1939, and it is replete with social information. The ethos of the decade is encoded in these fashions from Metroland. ‘Natural’, ‘confident’ and ‘ingenuous’ are the adjectives that spring to mind, and also, as is shown by the illustration on the cover, in which a man, a woman and a child of the 1980s are dressed unconvincingly in the jumpers and pullovers of fifty years ago, ‘dead and gone’. For the illustrations in the text body forth dainty competence, innocent satisfaction, all sorts of mildness, very much at variance with the style of today. It is tempting to reconstruct the nuclear family of the 1930s from these pages, and no doubt misleading, but it would appear that the man of the time was a dependable pipe-smoking breadwinner who returned to the suburbs every evening to be greeted by his busy feminine wife, and that his main function would be to hold the skeins of wool which she would wind up into balls in order to knit a jaunty cap, gloves and scarf ensemble, or ‘the Beatrice jumper’, or ‘a blouse for girlie’, or ‘a pullover he’ll appreciate’, or even ‘a dainty set of vest and panties’. A slightly hysterical ingenuity is suggested here: capes, frilled collars, sunray necklines, contrasting revers ... Amid all this unparalleled knitting the wife reigns supreme. The activity might have been designed to show off her domestic attainments and her pretty desire to provide for her flock. Her husband, flat-haired, holding a briar pipe, wears a sleeveless slipover which ends at the waist, where it meets the luxuriantly pleated folds of his grey flannel trousers. He would appear to be entirely asexual, but he is the father of an animated three-year-old who, naturally, wears a knitted frock with knickers to match. The illustrations and the commentary signal a mood of domesticated love, a matronly dependability, a world of traditional and not very interesting skills, a low degree of sophistication, no passion, no secrets, no sense of fatality. It is also a world of women who knew how to deal with a man’s nonsense and draped him in sexless garments in order to demonstrate the priorities to which she subscribed. A woolly embrace to greet the homecomer, he in Crocus non-shrink three-ply cable stitch, she in angora (‘a simple fern design ... with a band of stocking stitch at the neck’ which ‘rolls back to give a becoming line, finished with a pearl buckle’), was apparently but the prelude to another evening’s knitting. Other entertainments included seaside holidays (in knitted swimsuits), hiking and dancing. This world ended in 1939, when women took up war work or entered the services, and knitting for the troops was relegated to the elderly or infirm. As an urban or suburban skill it has never been entirely rehabilitated, but there is now a vogue for Thirties artefacts, which fetch high prices in the more sophisticated antique markets.

These rather dowdy garments are now fashionable and were presumably so at the time at which they were produced. Certainly that obsessive interest in detail, in necklines, in textures, seems to belong more in the world of the calculated statement, which is the prerogative of fashion, as opposed to the random display of information which is the language of dress. To enter the domain of fashion, as exemplified by the creations of Chanel and Dior, is to rejoin the world of Baudelaire, the world of the courtesan and the dandy. Chanel, in particular, would have been recognised by Baudelaire as a woman he could understand: beautiful, ruthless, solitary, femme du monde, perfectionist. Her almost mythic status can be appreciated in Edmonde Charles-Roux’s description of her at the end of her life, an old woman of 80 who looked like a bitter girl and who dressed, always and marvellously, in the full panoply of suit, blouse, pearls, chains, two-tone pumps and straw hat, a style which looked as natural on her slight, gnarled figure as it did on that of any younger woman. And she must be imagined in the secrecy, the alchemy of those final fittings before the showing of the collections, when she sat, impervious to fatigue, until well into the night, watching the models parade before her, her iron fingers palpating the folds for any suspect thickness, her scissors ruthlessly opening the stitched edge of an armhole for the resetting of a sleeve. She spoke little, implacably private, not much liked. On the day of the showing, wearing yet another Chanel suit, she would sit on the stairs, looking down into the mirrored salon, watching, unwatched.

Gabrielle Chanel was not a ‘legend’, as this handsome but somewhat indiscriminate collection of photographs with captions would have us believe. She was a true original, with the capacity of the phoenix to reinvent herself. The marvellous clothes she designed were all inspired by the need to suit herself; they were, compared with the fashions of the day, clothes for the active woman, for the irrégulière who also wished to appear irreproachable, for the woman who merely looked uncomfortable when dressed up. She was born in 1883 to a feckless pedlar and a peasant woman in a tiny village in the Cévennes; she ended her life in an apartment in the rue Cambon filled with priceless Coromandel screens, Chinese bronzes, lacquer tables, Régence furniture. She enjoyed a busy and successful life; her health was magnificent, her lovers – Etienne Balsan, Arthur Capel, the Duke of Westminster, Paul Iribe – glamorous and indulgent. That she was a sort of genius is indicated not only by her dedication to what she always called la mode (as did Baudelaire), not only in the unvarying beauty and excellence of her designs, but in her ability to anticipate the needs and the tastes of the century. As a shopgirl in Moulins she is already elegant in a striped blouse, a black skirt, and a gold chain looping to her waist. Or she is photographed, still very young, at Vichy, wearing a Prince de Galles tweed skirt and jacket with a blouse tied in a bow at the neck. The fact that the skirt is ankle-length and the jacket shaped and moulded to the figure does not disguise the fact that Chanel has created the first Chanel suit. A photograph taken in 1909 shows her to have been extremely beautiful, with the straight back of a dancer, wearing a simple silk dress which, though evidently fashioned for the full-bosomed Edwardian figure, falls in graceful natural folds, as if the bones and the canvas infrastructure had been removed. At the races, wearing a man’s overcoat, a long skirt, a collar and tie, and a straw boater, she is classless, and effortlessly chic. And already the main points of her style are established: the uncorseted figure, the straw hat, the white collar and cuffs, the preference for tweed.

It was her deadly impatience with imposed structure, which was the rule for all designers from Vionnet to Dior, that led her to invent the cardigan suit, to adopt the use of jersey as a fashion fabric, to define the little black dress as the ultimate mode habillée, to pioneer loose-fitting trousers for women and even, in 1938, to create a beautiful black print trouser suit, worn with a black belted blouse. Her sense of line was infallible: the famous square glass bottle that holds her Numéro Cinq scent – and which is in fact more distinguished than that scent – is 61 years old. Only once did she falter, and that was in the late Thirties, when faced with the rivalry of Elsa Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli favoured huge skirts, hard colours, odd asymmetrical hats. Chanel retaliated by increasing the volume of material used and embellishing it with embroidery and passementerie. She did not make this mistake again. When Dior launched the New Look in 1947, and she saw in it a return to the cumbersome creations and the restrictive corseting of the Belle Epoque, she returned to the fray, and at the age of 71 designed those ultimately simple little braided suits, her last style, with which her name is indissolubly associated.

Colette, in 1932, described Chanel’s solitary rages of creation, pulling, slashing, discarding, muttering a monologue in which no one dared to join. Twenty-two years later, her revenge – and it was seen as a revenge – was absolute, and she was finally unchallenged. She was also a work of art in her own right, always dressed to kill, always impeccable, always unapproachable. At an age when women decline into comfortable shoes and a vagueness of outline flattering to their ruined shapes she was the idol described by Baudelaire, upright, impassive, confiding nothing. She has never been replaced, and her concept of fashion as an instrument of self-definition has been in decline ever since her death in 1971.

It was left to Christian Dior, that other designer of genius, with the misleadingly mild and patient face of a pharmacist, to reintroduce the notion of fashion as punishment. It is no accident that a woman wearing his tight-waisted, full-skirted New Look was set upon in the rue Lepic in 1948 and her dress torn to pieces. To women who had survived the deprivations and the hardships of World War Two this style appeared to be élitist, as indeed it was. Not only was it very expensive, it demanded a greyhound slimness, considerable height, a lack of useful activity, and an expression of some grandeur. It proceeded from Dior’s romantic nostalgia for the 18th and 19th centuries and from his Proustian memories of his mother, dressed for the races at Longchamps in the sort of long fussy fragile and tightly-laced silks that Chanel had done her energetic best to banish. 1947 was the coldest winter in Europe since 1870, and the few women who turned up at the showing in the avenue Montaigne were wearing the short skimpy dresses with padded shoulders that were the hideous uniform of the austere immediate post-war years. They looked with astonishment at the swaying gait of the models, at the immense skirts, the tight waists; they were to learn that each dress was lined with tulle, then with silk, and padded and pleated to shape the hips and bodice, that, underneath all this, there was an obligatory corselette, frilled on the hip and the bust. Should they be rich enough to purchase one of the gala evening dresses (25 yards of material in the skirt), they would find them so constructed that they would be able to, and indeed were advised to, step into them stark naked.

The line was dramatic, sensational, and perceived as immoral. In England it was condemned by Sir Stafford Cripps as being out of touch with reality. That was its whole point. The length of the skirt alone was scandalous and the weight of the material must have been wearisome. Nevertheless, it was widely popular, although Bessie Braddock dismissed it as ‘the ridiculous whim of idle people’. Food shortages kept women slim enough to buckle themselves into it, although no one can have been comfortable. Dior, who never learned either to cut or to sew, liked heavy fabrics, and some of his designs relied on embellishments like flying panels, satin stoles, pockets trimmed with buttons, tucks and seams spiralling round the body, all of which would have been scorned by rigorists like Balenciaga and Chanel. Although the New Look was to modify into the Ligne Princesse, with its pretty high waist, the Ligne Coupole, with its barrel-shaped coat, the A Line, the H Line and finally the Sack, Dior is still remembered for that 1947 collection, which reinstated woman as an object of luxury, a creature designed to adorn and be paraded, a creation, in other words – but a creation of the designer, not of the woman herself.

It now looks punishing, romantically bizarre, occasionally splendid, and totally out of date. Dior’s career spanned a mere ten years and was interrupted by the famous alternative proposed by Chanel. It is said, by Brigid Keenan, that the loose-waisted chemise dress that he presented in his last collection was to anticipate the style of the Sixties, when ladies became girls overnight, skirts rose to hitherto unimaginable heights, and the long descent into the culture of youth began. But it is difficult to see the connection, in the many splendid photographs in Brigid Keenan’s book, not only between Dior’s designs and anything that came later, but between his conception of how a woman should look and anything that can be seen today. Idle, splendid and immensely cool, the Dior model conforms perfectly to Veblen’s three categories of Conspicuous Consumption, Conspicuous Leisure and Conspicuous Waste, and thus can be seen as a revival of Edwardian tastes rather than anything that corresponds to the movement of the latter years of this century.

This century is now cheerful and eccentric in matters of dress, intent on going its own way and having lost sight of the rudiments of correct form. Recent recommendations, in a curious book entitled Creative Dressing, emphasise style, but this is nowhere apparent in the complicated designs set out, relying as they do on brilliant dyes, weak and unconstricting lines, and efforts at transcultural chic. Their eclecticism is bewildering. Yet style, according to Quentin Crisp, depends on consistency. Mr Crisp is, of course, a dandy – once, and famously, a dandy without means. Faced with the task of self-creation, of self-validation, Mr Crisp propounds for others rules for dressing, speaking, performing, marrying, divorcing, entertaining, and aging with style. Style, he says, can survive beauty. Artifice and outrage will help. The public appearance can and should be perfected in private. Style is also, or should be, an affair of the spirit, a moral undertaking. It thus falls to Mr Crisp to echo Baudelaire and to fulfil many of his recommendations. The rest of us may be content to fashion ourselves in some image or another that will be appropriate both to our inner desires and to our outward form.