Angela Carter on the latest thing

  • Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity by Elizabeth Wilson
    Virago, 272 pp, £11.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 86068 552 7

‘The serious study of fashion has repeatedly had to justify itself,’ observes Elizabeth Wilson in the introduction to Adorned in Dreams, a study of fashion which, in itself, may help to render such justifications redundant; her book is the best I have read on the subject, bar none. Fashion is part of social practice: it is an industry whose demands have helped to shape modern history, and choosing our clothes is the nearest most of us will ever get to practical aesthetics. Yet analysis of this hybrid phenomenon has largely been left to the copy-writer and the pop psychologist, so that the subject may appear trivial because it has been endlessly trivialised.

It is tempting to hypothesise that this is because fashion, the province of the woman’s page, is deemed, like child care but unlike cricket, to be of interest to only one gender and therefore a marginal taste. A contempt for fashion as a particularly pernicious form of manipulative consumerism is also to be found among those who believe it to be a plot devised by men in order to turn women into sex objects, a view held with as much passion as was once used to promulgate an earlier theory: that fashionable clothes were devised by male homosexuals in order to render women terminally unappetising to heterosexual men. Elizabeth Wilson, however, approaches fashion as if with the commendable motto: ‘Nothing female is alien to me.’ Because women do love to dress up, and also to dress down: we dress to cheer ourselves up, to reward ourselves, to transform ourselves, to amuse ourselves, to incur the admiration and/or envy of other women, to pass unnoticed in the crowd, to pass messages about ourselves, to pass the time. ‘Women do not always dress for men,’ as Elizabeth Wilson observes tartly. ‘The belief that they do has confirmed many fashion writers in their view of women as essentially silly.’

Nobody who feels superior to fashion can write well about it. In her haunting fragment of autobiography, Mirror Writing, Elizabeth Wilson presented herself as always strikingly clothed.[*] The garments that she wore on well-remembered occasions form an integral part of the memory of those events, as if her relation to her clothes, in their changing glamour and personality, is somehow more reassuring and constant than her relation to her own remembered self.

Mirror Writing discussed dandyism and style informally, as one of the ways in which identity is constructed. Adorned in Dreams continues and considerably extends this discussion in much more concrete terms. The book is, as she says, an attempt ‘to view fashion through several different pairs of spectacles simultaneously – of aesthetics, of social theory, of politics’. She succeeds so well in this project that one only becomes aware of its ambitiousness as she starts pulling together the threads of her main argument. This is adequately summed up by the quotation printed on the jacket: ‘Fashion is essential to the world of modernity, the world of spectacle and mass-communication. It is a kind of connective tissue of our organisations.’ She is setting out, in fact, to restore its clothedness to the modern world, especially to the modern city, of which fashion itself is the offspring: she is giving the Emperor back his clothes, you might say, and in the process finding out why he needs so badly to wear them. Since he is ‘adorned in dreams’, we may very well learn more about reality from the secrets revealed by his disguises than we do from the naked truth, whatever that is.

‘Dress is the frontier between the self and the not-self,’ she says in the introduction, indicating some of the genuine strangeness of her subject, with its anthropological links with magical ritual and its almost metaphysical connection with the notion of the individual. Most commentators on fashion are themselves so powerfully seduced by the dreams that they never realise – or can’t bear to remember, or can’t be bothered to do the research, or simply forget – that the dreams, in the concrete form of clothes in shops, are the product of hard and ill-paid labour. Sweatshops and factories turn out the raw commodity; they exploit a primarily female work-force today, just as they did in the 19th century, when much feminist disapproval of fashion sprang from an awareness of the conditions in which it was made. (Around 1915, women blousemakers were being paid nine shillings a dozen for fancy garments in fine fabrics, four-pence each for ones in cheap silk.) The sweatshop and the factory are central to the history of fashion, for fashion is the child of the machine. There were certainly fine clothes before 1851, when Singer patented the sewing-machine, and styles could change with just as giddy a speed as they do now, but fashion as a hobby for everyone, and especially as an activity associated with looking at and choosing from the exultant displays of goods on sale in the great cities of the industrial revolution – this is the result of mass production, and of capitalism. Indeed, as Wilson says, fashion ‘expresses the ambiguities of an economic system which manufactures dreams and hope as well as squalor, devastation and death’.

Some of these ambiguities are explored in the chapter titled ‘Fashion and City Life’. The new cities of the 19th century, typified by London and Paris, and New York – which was to become the characteristic city of the 20th century – created new classes of people, strangers living in anonymous propinquity, for whom appearances, trusting appearances, not going by appearances and keeping up appearances, were of immense importance. These cities of strangers developed a whole culture based upon looking and innovation and consumption, the culture of shopping. There is a certain romantic grandeur about her account of the inevitable rise of the department store, concurrently with that of manufactured goods, and its speedy triumph as a free museum of the latest thing. Often the architectural style of the stores themselves was the latest thing. Victorian department stores share something of the style of those other unprecedented palaces of the period, the great rail termini.

These stores made a very great deal of difference to women’s lives. They provided new forms of employment for large numbers of women, mostly of the lower middle class; and, for their customers, they came to function as almost the equivalent of men’s clubs, places where bourgeois women could venture without chaperone or escort, meet friends, enjoy a snack, and live for a while in surroundings of a plush and marbly splendour that matched the aspirations the stores had helped to create. Zola’s marvellous novel Au Bonheur des Dames evokes the wild joy of a sale in one of these emporia during the heroic age of consumerism: ‘women were reigning supreme. They had taken the shop by storm, they were camping in it as in conquered territory, like an invading horde which had settled among the wreckage of goods.’

Zola saw his store, the Au Bonheur des Dames of the title, as a vast juggernaut crushing traditional tradespeople and small shopkeepers beneath its wheels in its headlong progress and, above all, transforming business methods. These department stores, abandoned hulks, may now be seen, empty of stock and bereft of custom, in the deserted downtowns of those American cities that have already committed themselves to the 21st-century vision of the total shopping environment embodied in the shopping mall. And when Elizabeth Wilson reaches the period when classical Modernism disintegrates in a mass of self-contradicting signs, she also loses confidence, somewhat, and her writing loses some of its beautiful clarity, although on the nature of Post-Modernism itself she is wonderfully cogent: ‘Post-modernism, with its eclectic approach to style, might seem especially compatible with fashion: for fashion, with its constant change and pursuit of glamour, enacts symbolically the most hallucinatory aspects of our culture, the confusions between the real and the not-real, the aesthetic obsessions, the vein of morbidity without tragedy, of irony without merriment, and the nihilistic critical stance towards authority, empty rebellion almost without political content.’

Here she sums up the present condition of aesthetics with positively majestic severity. Yet it is precisely when she discusses fashion in the present day and the recent past that bits and bobs of fashion journalists’ argot creep into and disfigure her prose. ‘Fashion anarchy,’ she says, speaking of the demise of ‘the single, Paris-dictated line’ which evidently once existed and now does not; she talks about ‘the ethnic look’, and this look, and the other look, with neither irony nor apology, but almost a kind of exhaustion, as if all that is solid really is melting into air, this time, but ‘wolf’ has been cried once too often. She fails to appreciate adequately the incorporation of fashion into the leisure industry; she, mysteriously, seems to admire Mary Quant.

Elizabeth Wilson blames the Sixties for a good deal, especially for the promotion of decadent images of Woman as Waif, and as ‘the art nouveau nymph, stoned and tubercular’. It is as if the capacity for dialectics deserted her when faced with something of which she did not approve, and evidently she does not approve of that ramshackle yet glorious decade. As a result, she tends to misread icons. For example, the whole point of Twiggy, whom she fingers as waif incarnate, was the contradiction between the extraordinary refinement of her features and the raucous cheerfulness of her personality. She looked, and, indeed, still does, like a creature from another planet where people are more beautiful than we are: and she sounded, as her then boyfriend remarked, like ‘a demented parrot’. She was promoted as an authentic working-class heroine. Twenty years later, she is not dead or mad, but a huge star on Broadway. She had very little effect on the way girls looked because, of course, it was impossible to look like her without that distinctive bone structure – but also, I suspect, because she led an utterly blameless life. Mums and dads were the ones who really thought she was lovely. Marianne Faithful, now ... Interestingly enough, Twiggy sponsored a range of clothes marketed under her own name in the late Sixties and it was a failure. Yet it is always difficult to achieve an objective stance towards the day before yesterday. I cannot in reason castigate Elizabeth Wilson for failing to stand sufficiently far back from something when there isn’t sufficient existential room to do so.

[*] Virago, 1981.