Without Looking

Anne Hollander

  • The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy by Gilles Lipovetsky, translated by Catherine Porter
    Princeton, 276 pp, £19.95, December 1994, ISBN 0 691 03373 0

The first striking thing about Gilles Lipovetsky’s book is the complete absence of illustrations, even diagrams and graphs. This may be the first book about fashion without pictures – even Roland Barthes used diagrams. Of course, Balzac’s ‘Physiologie de la toilette’ didn’t have any, but that originally appeared in a magazine, and journal publication can preclude pictures even now. Books on clothes are conventionally believed to require them, however, and Lipovetsky’s naked text thus instantly announces itself as a work of thought, of vision only in the metaphorical sense. The absence of graphs and other graphics moreover makes him a sociologist of the old-fashioned literary stamp, again in the Balzacian mode, with some of the same energy and perversity in propounding unexpected theories. And there the comparison must stop, since Lipovetsky is not a story-teller, not an acute student of humanity, nor any kind of literary stylist.

He is a very bracing social critic, however, since he refuses to deplore what everyone else deplores about the modern, fashion-bound universe the Western world inhabits. He refuses to deplore anything, in fact, and has vigorously optimistic views of the present and even of the future, while acknowledging all the grimmer social ills no one can ignore. His optimism is the more unconventional for using fashion as its illustration. He sees the present pervasiveness of fashion in life as a symptom of fundamental health rather than a telltale excrescence on the skin of an afflicted society. The mutable and spectacular medium in which Western living is now cast, with its emphasis on present and attainable pleasure, its new televisual reality whereby everything (not just merchandise) is advertised, packaged and marketed – religion and politics, love and death, horror and laughter, culture and nature, besides news-stories about all these – appears to Lipovetsky a Good Thing.

The book’s French title is L’Empire de l’éphémère, and ephemerality itself is what the author finds most valuable in fashion and its systemic cultural dissemination. He sees fashion in dress as having arisen in the Western Middle Ages to prefigure, then to illustrate, and ultimately to inform the modernity we have all come to value, simply by being based on two principles – that of individual desire, and that of constant change for its own sake. These principles, latterly translated into general custom and not just costume, together represent for him that celebrated ‘eternal vigilance’ which forever fends off the spread and maintenance of rigid dogmas, of deadening or pernicious traditions, ultimately of holy wars, political tyranny and totalitarianism. Lipovetsky sees fashion as the living engine of the concept of personal freedom, which must be shifty and stay on the move in order to survive and do its work. As heirs of the Enlightenment, he explains, we should rejoice in its fickle, facile rule over the entire current scheme of things, not feel ourselves the victims of some ultimate threat to true value.

If we do nonetheless feel that, clothing historians would point out that we are only sharing in what denouncers of fashion have felt ever since it fully emerged in Western Europe in the 14th century. Outrage against fashion thunders down the ages, mostly on the part of the clergy – sometimes about wicked erotic exposure and offensive hairstyles, sometimes about wasteful display and offensive hairstyles, about blasphemous sexual crossover or scandalous social presumption and offensive hairstyles, about crude barbarism when it isn’t about effete refinement, about fashion’s wicked love of bodies or its wicked harming of bodies, always about the hideously swift rate of its changes. In harmony with the thundering clergy were the satirists, sneering and whooping with laughter, most often at modish ways of doing the hair.

By this century, sneers came to be aimed by journalists and publicists at eclipsed or outgoing styles, not current ones. After the market economy had annexed the movement of fashionable change, new modes began to be promoted as obvious aesthetic improvements over old ones, and natural shifts in collective visual taste had to be flattered as signs of superior judgment, even moral judgment. Former clarity had to be described as rigidity or dullness and a new buzzing confusion hailed as imaginative vitality, until an emerging austere simplicity could again be welcomed as elegance, and the earlier random, coloured carelessness scorned as crazy or sloppy.

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