Fade to Greige

Elaine Showalter

  • A Dedicated Follower of Fashion by Holly Brubach
    Phaidon, 232 pp, £19.95, October 1999, ISBN 0 7148 3887 X
  • Fashion Today by Colin McDowell
    Phaidon, 511 pp, £39.95, September 2000, ISBN 0 7148 3897 7
  • Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender and Society in Clothing by Diana Crane
    Chicago, 294 pp, £19.00, August 2000, ISBN 0 226 11798 7
  • Historical Fashion in Detail: The 17th and 18th Centuries by Avril Hart and Susan North
    Victoria & Albert Museum, 223 pp, £19.95, October 2000, ISBN 1 85177 258 8
  • Don We Now Our Gay Appalrel: Gay Men’s Dress in the 20th Century by Shuan Cole
    Berg, 224 pp, £42.99, September 2000, ISBN 1 85973 415 4
  • The Gallery of Fashion by Aileen Ribeiro
    Princeton, 256 pp, £60.00, November 2000, ISBN 0 691 05092 9
  • Giorgio Armani by Germano Celant and Harold Koda
    Abrams, 392 pp, £40.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 8109 6927 0

One of the biggest draws in New York this season is the Armani retrospective at the Guggenheim. Designed by the Post-Modern artist Robert Wilson, who has draped the Frank Lloyd Wright spiral ramps with white gauze, bathed the museum in patchouli and musk, and created a Japanese soundtrack to accompany the show, the exhibition is a perfect example of the blend of fashion, art, commerce and academic analysis that marks the current cultural scene. How we dress now is a subject that engages semioticians, social historians, political analysts and gender theorists – ‘fashion civilians’, in the words of Colette’s biographer Judith Thurman – as well as superstar designers, magazine editors, high-spending celebrities, and chic purveyors and curators of front-line style. Fashion studies involves men as well as women, and has its own scholarly quarterly, Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture, which takes as its ‘starting point a definition of “fashion” as the cultural construction of the embodied identity’ and aims to provide an ‘interdisciplinary forum for the rigorous analysis of cultural phenomena ranging from footbinding to fashion advertising’.

Armed with these definitions, feminist intellectuals can honourably participate in the fashion blitz of the 21st century. The new term for an overflowing wardrobe is ‘archive’; rummaging through your cast-offs has become a form of research, and, if you have shopped wisely, your archive may deserve an exhibition of its own. A professor of drama at Columbia has just donated 193 pieces to the Perry Ellis archive at the Fashion Institute of Technology. ‘Traditionally most designers did not think of archiving their careers,’ Valerie Steele, the curator (and editor of Fashion Theory), points out. ‘Only very recently have they become aware that to establish their place in history, they need a material record of their work.’ Without a cadre of scholarly customers, the archives may be woefully incomplete. ‘Even in the Armani show,’ Steele laments, ‘you don’t see much early work.’

The Armani show has been controversial less because of its archival gaps than because of its high-art production values and streetwise commercial subtext: Giorgio Armani is reportedly giving the Guggenheim $15 million for various projects. Do the clothes of a living designer warrant this aesthetic shrine? Is the exhibition a crass promotion for the Armani empire? (‘Life is promotion,’ the Guggenheim’s director, Thomas Krens, has cheerfully noted.) Arranged by colour and genre rather than chronologically, the four hundred garments cover the phases and influences of Armani’s career over the past twenty-five years, emphasising androgyny, minimalism, cinema, sensuality and the exotic East. A separate gallery showcases the Oscar gowns and suits of stars from Jodie Foster and Samuel Jackson to Jakob Dylan against the background of a silent video loop of American Gigolo and other Armani-designed films. Sections devoted to elaborately beaded, exquisitely embroidered and sleekly tailored garments in black and white, red, greige (Armani’s trademark, a subtle mixture of grey and beige) or romantic floral prints, are accompanied by text comparing them to the paintings of Ad Reinhardt, Rothko and Matisse. At the same time, the catalogue stresses power and money: ‘To acquire an Armani suit has become a right [sic] of passage, a symbol of success sought or won.’

Judith Thurman, who reviewed the show for the New Yorker, thinks, however, that Armani is passé and that the exhibition denotes his historical status. At his flagship store on Madison Avenue, she sniffily notes, ‘many of the shoppers were foreign and no one was under fifty.’ The streamlined elegance that made Armani a talismanic designer for the 20th century is no longer subversive, she argues, and Armani ‘prefers, as he once put it, “to be a reassuring figure”’. Returning to look at the Guggenheim installation, Thurman detected ‘a faint whiff of embalming fluid’. Où sont les greiges d’antan?

Yet the Guggenheim is crowded, and the protesting voices much more subdued than those that greeted the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Yves Saint Laurent exhibition in 1983, which it resembles in many respects. The ‘first tribute to a living designer at such a high-profile institution’, according to the fashion journalist Holly Brubach, the Saint Laurent show ‘was hailed by people in and around the industry as a sign that finally the rest of the world was giving fashion the serious consideration they had always known it deserved’. But many art historians and scholars regarded it as scandalous. In Selling Culture (1986), the UCLA cultural historian Debora Silverman excoriated the way Diana Vreeland, then director of the Met’s Costume Institute, had organised the Saint Laurent show as a promotional, opulent, imperialist spectacle of decadent social privilege, the aesthetic embodiment of the Reagan era. There was a room devoted to lavish Chinese-influenced robes (Armani has versions of Chinese, Indian, Polynesian and Japanese dress, including couture versions of the kimono and samurai armour); the clothes were arranged by seasonal theme rather than by date; Saint Laurent was compared to Goya and Picasso, whose paintings were used as backdrops for the dresses, and he was celebrated as an artist rather than as one of mass merchandising’s brilliant successes.

‘Feminist dogma has always been hostile to fashion,’ as Holly Brubach reminds us. As recently as 1991, writing about the style of American feminist academics in Lingua Franca, Valerie Steele called fashion the ‘f-word’. But by the early 1990s, feminist hostility to fashion began to abate, and here and there a few bold voices spoke up on behalf of clothing, not only as legitimate self-fashioning, but also as that most prestigious of academic theoretical categories, a discourse. In their collection of essays, On Fashion (1994), Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferris traced the change to French feminist theory, ‘whose stylish, wickedly witty, playful intellectualism made our heads spin’. Indeed, they argued, there was no escape from fashion, just as there was no escape from literary theory. Protest it how you will, fashion will consume and co-opt you in the end. True, ‘the proponents of anti-fashion are vocal and aggressive in their resistance to the oppression of fashion and bourgeois conventions.’ Nevertheless, anti-fashion – punk or grunge – was only another style: ‘it cannot escape fashion’s dictates, only despoil them – and it is only a matter of time before high fashion exploits anti-fashion.’

The feminist semiotician Kaja Silverman, in her brilliant essay in On Fashion, ‘Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse’, predicted the rise of retro as the approved sartorial style of feminism. Through the 1980s, she reflected, ‘feminism has not demonstrated the sartorial audacity and imaginativeness of some recent subcultures, nor has it evolved a single, identifying form of dress.’ But retro, or vintage clothing, was the ideal feminist choice, an ironic style that ‘inserts its wearer into a complex network of cultural and historical references’, and yet ‘avoids the pitfalls of a naive referentiality; by putting quotation marks around the garments it revitalises, it makes clear that the past is available to us only in a textual form, and through the mediation of the present’. Thriftily recycling ‘fashion’s waste’, vintage clothing is a Post-Modern genre, ‘a highly visible way of acknowledging that its wearer’s identity has been shaped by decades of representational activity, and that no cultural project can ever “start from zero”’.

Colin McDowell, chairman of the Costume Society of Great Britain, also writes about retro in his outsize (it weighs about five pounds) history of fashion and fashion photography. Because of the exigencies of fashion merchandising and ‘the craving for decorative excess’ that he believes is essential for fashion, McDowell argues that ‘the only way for a fashion designer to look forward is by taking the past and realigning it so that it can serve the purposes of the future. That is why retro fashion has been not only the obsession of the last fifty years, but also, in the opinion of many, the source of virtually everything new.’ Of course, designer retro, which plunders museums or assembles the thrift-shop look, always at great cost, is not quite the politically correct style Silverman had in mind. But who is to know whether your garments are jumble-sale ‘finds’, or luxury items in the ‘pauperist’ style bought off the peg at Harvey Nicks?

In Fashion and Its Social Agendas, Diana Crane, who teaches sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that clothing is about the ‘social construction of identity’, and traces its economic, class and consumer implications in France, England and the United States over the past two centuries. Crane notes that before the Industrial Revolution, clothes were a valuable form of property, even a form of currency, that marked people’s precise position in the class structure. In 1780, she tells us, of 278 people arrested in Paris, only 28 had more than one set of clothes. In contrast, the clothing of the aristocracy, as Avril Hart and Susan North show in their study of 17th and 18th-century costume detail, was costly, elaborate, lavish in craft and ornamentation.

Once fabric and clothing were mass produced, they became matters of choice rather than class. For the past hundred years, Crane argues, women have used ‘clothing behaviour’ as a form of ‘non-verbal resistance’ to oppressive and constraining sex roles. Crane describes two styles for women that existed side by side in the late 19th century: a dominant feminine style that followed fashion, and an alternative style that mixed masculine clothes like the suit jacket, the shirtwaister, the boater and the tie, with conventionally feminine ones. The black necktie became the ‘feminist uniform’ of the New Women of the 1890s, while dress reformers advocated the split skirt or the bloomer, and campaigned against the corset. Especially in ‘secluded spaces’ outside the gaze of fashionable society – the American frontier, the French munitions factory, the British pithead – women wore trousers. Because these fashion statements were non-verbal, Crane suggests, they were open to a wide range of interpretations, and were tolerated more than feminist rhetoric.

She concludes, however, that today’s women are more modern than Post-Modern in their fashion choices. Judging from their responses to fashion magazines, the majority of women she interviewed did not see clothing behaviour as a form of Post-Modern role-playing and ambiguity, disliked outfits that sent conflicting messages, and ‘rejected Post-Modernist confusion of styles and genders’. Instead, contemporary women insisted on seeing clothing as personal, an expression of a stable, unique identity.

And what about male clothing? According to Crane, men’s fashion was once differentiated by class, and neatly divided into work and leisure. But now these stable signifiers are disappearing, with the decline of the hat and even the business suit. The contemporary fashion signifier of class and social location, she maintains, is the T-shirt, a garment first marketed by Sears, Roebuck in 1938, and now purchased six times more often by Americans than by Europeans. But identifying a person’s social status simply by T-shirt is a task of Jamesian delicacy and nuance, no matter what it advertises or declares.

The use of clothing to signal what Crane calls challenges to ‘hegemonic masculinity’ is a whole subject in itself, entertainingly and learnedly discussed in Shaun Cole’s perfectly titled Don We Now Our Gay Apparel, which shows in fascinating detail how ‘clothing has been a primary method of identification for and of gay men.’ Gay fashion signifiers have included red neckties, suede shoes, pale blue or pink shirts, Lacoste shirts, the notorious hanky colour code, piercings and tattoos. Gay styles have ricocheted from post-punk to rockabilly, from Doc Martined Buffalos to L.L. Bean-shirted Bears, including on the way leather-clad bikers and mustachioed, short-haired clones. At Oxford in the 1920s, gay aesthetes like Cecil Beaton displayed themselves in ‘fur gauntlet gloves, a cloth-of-gold tie, a scarlet jersey and Oxford bags’. In Brighton in the 1950s, queens wore ‘flared trousers, Hawaiian shirts, flamboyant hairdos, kerchiefs around their neck’. Drag, cross-dressing and ‘effeminate’ style of all kinds have a complex history, as does their direct opposite, an unmarked and ‘invisible’ form of gay dress that challenges stereotypes of homosexual identity and identification. The December 2000 issue of Fashion Theory also addresses the question of masculinities, especially through those who designed and marketed male style from Playboy to Carnaby Street. Alistair O’Neill’s article on John Stephen, ‘The King of Carnaby Street’, for example, shows how Stephen successfully adapted a gay style to the mass heterosexual menswear market in the 1960s.

Indeed, men’s clothing choices in general seem to produce a wider range of ambiguous interpretations, affects and responses than women’s, as the US elections demonstrated. Everyone seemed to agree on the semiotic message given out by Florida’s Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, who appeared in Nancy Reaganesque red suits, blue eyeshadow and false eyelashes, and was roasted by the American press, with one especially cruel review from Robin Givhan in the Washington Post: ‘She took fashion – which speaks in riddles, hyperbole and half-truths – at its word, imbibing all of those references to the 1970s and the 1980s, taking cues from the Versace ads in which models are made up as if by a mortician’s assistant.’ (In the current Versace campaign, supermodel Amber Valetta looks like Belle de Jour in towering blonde hair, turquoise blue eyeshadow and French manicure; as Donatella Versace told American Vogue, ‘it’s a collection about exaggeration and volume.’) Everyone agreed, too, on the professionalism, utilitarianism and democratic simplicity of the six black trouser suits mentioned by Hillary Clinton in her Senate victory speech. After the election, Ivana Trump was asked if her black trouser suit was a homage to Hillary. ‘No, darling,’ she told the journalist. ‘This is Dior couture.’

Journalists are still trying to figure out the embodied identities of Gore and Bush. Rather than consulting psychoanalysts, the New York Times called in its fashion writers in the post-election turmoil. In ‘Read My Clothes: Dressing Presidential’, Ginia Bellafante and Guy Trebay analysed the post-election costumes of the candidates, Gore’s ‘cologne ad jock’ and Bush’s ‘laconic rancher’, Calvin Klein Man v. Ralph Lauren Man. The lengthy feature quoted experts from the menswear designer Alan Flusser to the fashion historian Anne Hollander, who noted that ‘Bush looking casual on his ranch appears as if he’s the master of untold acres . . . It looks as if he owns Texas rather than governs it.’ Gore’s efforts to look relaxed were mocked by Flusser, who said his clothes ‘seemed to say, “tell me what to wear until I get to be President.”’

Hollander and other fashion theorists were in demand again when the president of General Electric introduced his successor to the press, and neither man was wearing a tie. Hollander expressed surprise and concern to the New York Times. ‘Ever since the Middle Ages,’ she observed, ‘powerful men have covered their throats.’ The anthropologist David Givens, coiner of the important term ‘neck dimple’ for the area concealed by the tie, saw the moment of the exposed male throat as a true paradigm shift. ‘In the old days of just a few years ago, you had to look powerful in business. But now information has won out over brute politics and corporate hierarchy . . . When you’ve been to Information Mecca, you no longer need to wear the veil.’

Hollander’s view is confirmed by Aileen Ribeiro in The Gallery of Fashion, a study of the clothing in 100 paintings, drawings and photographs from the 16th to the 20th century at the National Portrait Gallery. Scarves, cravats, hoods, chains, furs, high collars, ruffs, beards, frills, ascots, ties, turtlenecks or Nehru jackets are the rule for men, with only four neck dimples in sight: Henry VIII as a young man, heavily jewelled, but in a scoop-neck shirt beneath his doublet; and three men of the 1930s in the liberal uniform of an open-necked blue shirt – the anthropologist Humfry Gilbert Garth Payne, Stephen Spender and Sir William Walton. Conversely, almost all the women pictured in the book expose neck dimples, if not deep décolletage. Those who do not, whether the Duchess of Windsor in a triple-pearl choker, Dorothy Sayers in a mannish coat and tie or Margaret Thatcher in high pie-crust frills, send messages about power rather than vulnerability.

One of the most striking portraits in the book juxtaposes two images of female exposure and protection. Dame Laura Knight’s self-portrait of 1913 shows the artist at her easel, back to the viewer, painting a female nude model who also stands with her back to us. Knight is very fully dressed for the work of painting: she is even wearing a hat, in addition to a grey skirt, a scarlet cardigan (bought for half a crown at a jumble sale in Penzance – early feminist vintage chic) and a black and white scarf round her neck. The nude, another artist, Ella Naper, has her arms wrapped over her head, clasping her black hair, which resembles Knight’s black hat. The nude Naper also has a modern look, a strength, grace and solidity that echoes the artist’s controlling stance, and would probably be wearing vintage herself if she were dressed. As Anne Hollander writes in her classic Seeing through Clothes (1978), nudity, too, is a social construction, and ‘all nudes in art since modern fashion began are wearing the ghosts of absent clothes – sometimes highly visible ghosts.’

These ghosts are certainly present in Juergen Teller’s photograph of the model Kristen McMenamy in the nude, one of 500 spectacular illustrations in Colin McDowell’s Fashion Today. Clad only in necklaces, bracelets and a ring, unmade-up except for chipped nail polish, smoking a cigarette, and defiantly displaying a bruise on her shoulder, a scar on her abdomen, and a heart scrawled on her flat chest in lipstick with ‘Versace’ written in eyeliner, McMenamy is the opposite of glamour, and yet, in her stony indifference to the viewer, she is a Versace mannequin just the same. She might just as well be wearing sables and gold chains.

McDowell argues that fashion is ‘the art form which, albeit minor, reacts more speedily and completely than any other to the social, political and cultural nuances of our time’. His analysis of fashion since World War Two emphasises the designers who deliberately confronted the history of their time. He admires Saint Laurent’s collections of 1976 and 1977, with their Russian and Chinese influences, as political ‘in motivation and effect’. He gives high praise to Ralph Lauren, ‘the first designer to base a fashion philosophy on American history. He took the Wild West of cowboys and homesteaders, the Native Americans and their traditional crafts skills, the Long Island Edwardian country life of the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys, the American dream of 1930s movies – and added the ice-cool sophistication of Manhattan in the 1950s and 1960s.’ Lauren, unlike his predecessors, had a firm ‘commitment to the past and such confidence in his own beliefs. He literally took the history of a nation and re-presented it to itself through his clothes.’ McDowell also sees Lauren as a ‘movie-maker manqué’, whose designs for The Great Gatsby and Annie Hall exerted broad cultural influence.

On the British side, McDowell praises Laura Ashley as the English counterpart of Ralph Lauren. ‘Her inspiration came from the lives of ordinary folk: Victorian schoolrooms and vicarages; the dress of countrywomen – neat, decent and seemly; dresses with sprigged patterns and soft shapes of the sort that would have equally delighted the village Sunday school teacher and the daughter of the manse.’ (Today, I would guess, Lauren’s merchandising counterpart is Johnnie Boden, whose Christmas catalogue, with its floral wellies, Tweed Cottage, pony-riding kids, ski chalets, St George sweaters, dogs and fireplaces, offers a perfect image of casual English affluence.)

At the other extreme, English fashion has been revolutionary in its historical themes and psychosexual references. John Galliano’s degree show at St Martin’s School of Art in 1984, as Colin McDowell explains, was ‘based entirely on the reworking of the dress of the French Revolution’. It was called Les Incroyables, and featured cockades, the tricolour, boots, long linen shirts and knitted Phrygian caps, whose drooping phallic form had been analysed by the Freudian literary critic Neil Hertz in the journal Representations as a symbol of the castration anxieties produced by the viragos of the Terror. Last year, pictured in Vogue wearing a green carnation and top hat, Galliano showed a collection for Dior based on images of the decadent French aristocracy. One model, described as ‘wind-up courtesan’, was an elaborate Marie Antoinette doll, with a powdered face, a huge white yarn wig topped with plumes, and a white satin gown with paniers, beribboned and embroidered with a shepherdess on one side, and a guillotine with a knitting Madame Defarge in a Phrygian cap on the other. The Dior show also included some elegantly sadomasochistic items, especially the ruby-red satin gown with built-in fake ruby and diamond handcuffs, resembling the fetishistic costumes of the bride of the Marquis in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. ‘I am mad for the handcuff bracelets,’ Steven Spielberg’s wife Kate Capshaw told Vogue’s reporter André Leon Talley. (The article on the show was called ‘Let them eat cake’.)

Anthony Burgess anticipated much of the contemporary fashion scene in A Clockwork Orange, where Alex, a devoted follower of fashion himself, describes

three devotchkas sitting at the counter all together . . . dressed in the height of fashion too, with purple and green and orange wigs on their gullivers . . . and make-up to match (rainbows round the glazzies, that is, and the rot painted very wide). Then they had long black very straight dresses and on the groody part of them they had little badges of like silver with different malchicks’ names on them – Joe and Mike and suchlike. These were supposed to be the names of the different malchicks they’d spatted with before they were fourteen.

Among the influences spotted on the catwalk in last year’s autumn collections were ‘Neoclassical buildings’, ‘storm trooper leathers’ and ‘the pumped-up physique . . . ugly but fascinating’, that the New York Times fashion writer Ruth La Ferla labels ‘fascist chic’. Yeohlee Teng describes the ‘lineage of darkness’ in her fall collection as inspired by the ‘forceful geometry of Mussolini-era convention halls she saw in Italy’.

Fashion Today concludes with what McDowell considers the great fashion dilemma of our time: the reconciliation of designers’ dreams or fantasies with clothes ‘which, although they may incorporate the ghosts of past designers’ extravagances, are so normal that women of all age groups and walks of life feel safe to wear them without the risk of attracting ridicule’. How, McDowell asks, can ethnic inspiration be controlled so that it doesn’t suggest ‘Ruritanian romance’ or crass ethnic exploitation or repellent regimes or misogynist violence? As fashion pervades every moment of life, from the layette to the shroud, getting dressed becomes ever more creative and ever more fraught.

At least one of these fashion decisions, however, has been solved for me. My mother’s funeral in Miami was beautiful in almost every respect. The flowers were exquisite, the weather was balmy, the rabbi was eloquent. There was just one problem: after the funeral my sister revealed that there had been a mix-up with the coffin and she was not sure the person we had buried was actually my mother. Some of my relatives were all for exhumation (this was, after all, Florida, where everyone demands a recount). But we decided to interrogate the mortician instead. Who was in the coffin? ‘A white-haired old lady.’ But what was she wearing? ‘A pants suit.’ But what kind of pants suit? ‘Purple lurex.’ It was enough. There may have been many white-haired old ladies in pants suits being laid to rest in Miami that morning, but only my mother was in purple lurex.

For me, the detail was oddly consoling, a moment of closure. I don’t know when I’ll be going, but at least now I know what I’ll be wearing.