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.

Most recently, however, it is true that denunciations of fashion in dress are much reduced in number and have taken a very classic turn. They tend to ignore specific targets among current or passing phenomena in favour of long-term modern staples such as high-heeled shoes, or of ancient generic issues such as fashion’s irrationality, its foundation in untrustworthy visual appearance, and the thrall in which it is thought to place women. Books and articles and letters to newspapers are regularly but only sparsely written on such themes; there is no general outrage and a great deal of general respect. Nevertheless the long tradition of contempt for fashion persists as a sort of stock response, and it’s refreshing to find someone prepared to describe fashion in unqualifiedly positive terms. Lipovetsky, a French sociologist now teaching at Grenoble, has written an earlier book called L’Era du vide, which is another undaunted and enthusiastic view of the modern condition.

He points out that there has latterly been a noticeable shift in the character of fashionable dress. Gaudy theatricals now appear on the high-fashion runways and are duly reported in the media; but he sees real men and women of all ages and conditions dressing fashionably in a homogeneous array of simple, essentially easy-to-wear garments suggesting youthfulness and freedom, designed in a range of current styles which are all simultaneously acceptable at most times and in most places. It is true that really dressed-up occasions are so few for most people that clothes for them – for weddings and ceremonial dinners, for example – have turned into masquerade costumes, often worn with the uneasy self-consciousness that afflicts all uncustomary public appearances, and often selected without the sureness of taste that marks everyday choices.

Gone, too, is any immense difference, discernible from a great distance, in everyday dress among social classes and among groups within classes, among social regions and social moments, between men and women and between adults and children. Truly operative fashion has in fact ceased to be the outrageous spectacle that once appalled the moralists and the guardians of common sense, when elegant dandies strutted in frizzy hair, striped tights and shoes with seven-inch points, or in curled wigs, lace cuffs and shoes with four-inch heels, and belles extended their necessary space with five-yard fur-lined trains and towering hats, or balloon-like skirts and towering hair.

Today, spectacle-fashion is only one among the many other spectacles we relish or ignore according to taste, mostly through media representation. Since it is engendered mainly for the sensation value that increases its commercial value, it has become a legitimate branch of show-business, available, like football or opera, for those who care. Haute couture still exists as a fount of serious sartorial thought, but genius is as rare there as anywhere else. Normal mass-market fashion-designing is done without huge fanfare, just like any industrial designing, although media attention is now creating public excitement about the ready-to-wear collections produced by couture-level designers. These must now look wearable, even if startling. Rarefied couture efforts are priced out of the general market, and therefore may look wholly grotesque as well as exquisite, unattainable and piquantly useless.

Changes in ordinary modern fashion are certainly constant, but they are actually rather minor – and there are many simultaneous fashions, all quite different. There is a great deal of variety in detail, in accessories, in ways of modifying extant themes; but it is no longer the case – if it ever was – that a whole wardrobe must become obsolete in no time, or that ridicule awaits the person in last year’s hat or hemline. Dressing outside of one’s group is no longer a grave social error, including outside one’s age or sex. Actually it’s not certain that fashion was ever so tyrannical, despite the frequency everywhere of the formulation about hemlines and whole wardrobes – it’s another example of rhetorical scorn for what’s passé.

Lipovetsky dates the current large change in fashion itself from the Sixties, which marked the end of what he sees as a completed era, the Century of Fashion (‘La mode de cent ans’) that began with Worth’s foundation of la haute couture in the 1860s. The era is now clearly over, he says, when high fashion was a lofty beacon emanating from Paris and directing the global mode in dress, imposing the course of its changes on the willing or unwilling public – female, of course – and also regulating the moments of fashionable shift according to periodic shows of designers’ collections. What succeeded this was Open Fashion (‘La mode ouverte’), when the true democratisation of fashionable dress was brought about: mass-market fashion created a seductive multiplicity of choices in all price-ranges, and everyone could play the game of endless fantasy without reference to a single standard of elegance. But this has lately been superseded by the condition he calls Consummate Fashion (‘La mode achevée’), whereby the whole of modern Western society has modelled itself on the women’s apparel business.

Modern fashion, Lipovetsky finds, has somehow got beyond what fashion used to be and has begun to insist on its great original theme of perpetual liberation, and the equal value of individuals. In dress he finds that an increased homogeneity, a lack of excessive distinction among groups and persons, is the sign of a benign and universal cultural tolerance, a belief in equality; and he takes this new fashion principle at the very core of society, a sort of advanced consumerism, to be a guarantee of political tolerance in the democratic West, equality achieved in life as in clothing.

The new permanent revolution is the constant insistence of the culture on promoting the present and rolling up the past, getting out of the grip of tradition again and again. This scheme necessarily includes the devout establishment of monuments and museums and historical societies where the past may be admired as if under glass, so that it may never, says Lipovetsky, be creatively built on and used as a model. A sharp difference in current value between Then and Now is insisted on everywhere, he thinks: the past is for entertainment, not instruction. This is to be welcomed, since perpetual and wilful superficiality may ensure easy relations among persons and keep off the ills of fundamentalist or totalitarian ideology.

Somehow all this does not seem right. Mainly it’s an explanation of history set up to oppose Marxism, but it seems also like the exasperated protest of a Frenchman fed up with respect for the patrimoine, with the dead weight of entrenched institutions based on immovable assumptions and fixed mental conditions, with what he seems to feel is an instinctively closed society only pretending to be a truly modern democracy. To him French cultural imitations of America look wonderful, not lamentable as they seem to many in France. Lipovetsky shares the zest with which the ephemera of Consummate Fashion have been welcomed by the youthful French public – rock music, fast food, the whole story.

In America itself, of course, we are all too used to the destruction of tradition and the perpetual present, being famously a nation of immigrants and accustomed for generations to seeing cultural phenomena replace each other, along with being accustomed to the shifting character of our overall ethnic composition, with its differing social existences. Such mutability as Lipovetsky welcomes does not look so appealing to many Americans, who often see what confusion a deliberate refusal of the past can lead to: not the peaceable kingdom Lipovetsky predicts for the ephemeral empire, but chaos and hostility.

Meanwhile, tradition asserts itself as a constant modern need. Current immigrant populations in America, along with parts of the African-American population and the long-suppressed people now called Native Americans, actively seek to retrieve, define and preserve all their different traditional pasts, rather than wishing to abandon them for a homogeneous present. Only America’s flexible and durable 18th-century Constitution has made it possible for it to keep constructing and reconstructing its pluralist present, by making conscious use of the traditional political past.

Since we in America have no 11th-century cathedrals or 17th-century palaces, no obtrusive signs of former institutionalised tyranny in our country, of heavy monarchy and strangling church power, perhaps we cannot imagine how they might still weigh on the soul of the people in modern democratic nations who have to live with them and with their obviously still-living aura. Our past is recent, and we know we still need it, even if we do tear down many good old buildings, and many good old institutions are proving corrupt. The rising generations of our incoming populations, along with those of all our long-term residents, have the perpetual choice of flouting their traditions, of trying to define and keep them – or indeed of inventing them. It has become generally clear that preservation is a creative art, and traditions are invented and re-invented just as much as present habits are. It is also likely that they always were. Cookery certainly shows how this can work. Traditional cuisines transported to new countries immediately start changing their character even while preserving it, and new versions can be carried back to the Old Country for inclusion in the original and doubtless originally shifting scheme.

Using no pictures at all in a book about the history of fashion in dress shows a lack of esteem for eyesight, which can only lead to a failure of insight. Assuming that you would not have to look at clothes in order to understand them is a common enough mistake, however, so Lipovetsky is not the first to write without looking. If you do look, it’s possible to notice that modern fashion is really no more homogeneous than that of any other time, even though the categories into which it is divided have changed, and perception of visual diversity has become much more sophisticated. This last reflects the delicate discriminations of vision made possible in this century by good eyeglasses and electric lighting, along with high-tech photojournalism and cinematography. Modern costume is as various as anything created in pre-industrial societies, perhaps more so.

It is also possible to notice how old most of the forms of current dress are. The presentness of fashion is largely made up of past formal elements and configurations, only some of them conscious retrievals. Certainly since the 16th century, at the time when the fake-ancient romances were written, fashion has used its own past along with the exotic past to create its modern effects. But it has also unconsciously preserved its extant forms in order to feel the visual bite in the contrasting ones. The idea that fashion simply signals the perpetual flouting of tradition is insufficient: rather, it makes use of tradition and flouts the idea of tradition at the same time, creating a much more complicated kind of subversive element in visual life.

Our jeans and t-shirts are the work clothes of a century ago; our tailored men’s suits go back two centuries, and feminine use of them almost as far, especially feminine use of their history. The newness of the new, somewhat like the oldness of traditions, is a favourite modern fantasy, recycled in the rhetoric about fashion more than appearing in fashion itself. True oldness actually consists in modified autonomous survival, often unconsciously permitted, much more than it is the result of careful preservation – which Lipovetsky notices is an aspect of modernity. In fashion, the visual mixture of all such elements is made up of what’s striking, some of it retrieved from what’s historical, significantly combined with what’s unnoticeable. Fashion depends on managing natural formal drift, and mixing it with new twists and old references. It can get nowhere without making use of the familiar.

Lipovetsky has the usual French habit of thinking that all fashion was always French, whereas the truth is that only most fashion was. Spain, England, Italy and America have had their own vivid fashion histories, developed certainly with an eye on France ever since the reign of Louis XIV, but not always one slavishly and constantly fixed there; and the influence of other countries’ modes on French fashions has not been much acknowledged. During Lipovetsky’s famous Hundred Years, when he claims France was despotically governing world fashion, Americans at the turn of the century were inventing the fashionable clothing of the working girl, the delicious ready-to-wear shirtwaists and neat skirts that had nothing to do with the modish costume of cosmopolitan ladies. Many American designers in this century delighted in operating at odds with the French scheme – Claire McCardell and Adrian among others. Although their efforts were not heavily publicised until after the Second World War, they had great power over American taste, which for a long time maintained its distrust of Frenchness in many aesthetic domains.

Lipovetsky also assumes that fashion was taken over by women in the late 18th century exclusively for the purposes of seduction, and that the more recent borrowing of male elements of dress had the same exclusive purpose. Masculine seductiveness in the modern world is left out of his account of fashion, unfortunately, although he can’t help noticing its power in the 14th century. The role of sexuality in current fashion in fact demonstrates a new complexity rather than a new simplification, and the sartorial exchanges between men and women in the modern game of love now include an acknowledgment of homo-eroticism that has positively Shakespearean overtones, laced with Freudian assumptions. Relations among persons are more profound and less superficial than ever, judging from the way fashion projects its conceptions of them, even though connections may be of short duration.

The chief thing unaddressed by The Empire of Fashion is that fashion is a wordless visual medium. It was invented to lead an independent imaginative life for the eye, based on the wayward life of the individual psyche, in among the world’s linguistic and political structures. The forms thus have their own way of changing, arising from unconscious collective fantasies, which are linked to visualisations in the pictorial arts. Social meaning gets attached to fashion usually after it shifts, and this meaning can change with changes in society. At the same time the forms change internally, following shifts in the feelings that engender them – skirts must keep getting shorter, shoulders must stop widening and start sloping, hats must go, hats must come back. But of course fashions are affected by the force of meaning attached to them, because the unconscious fantasy is also affected. Resulting fashionable phenomena are wonderfully complex, variable and perverse, often inexplicable. Meanwhile there are always straightforward political gestures, cockades in the hat or words on the t-shirt, to be added in due course to the common imaginative pool.

Interpretations of fashion can’t hope to take total account of it through studying the operation of language on it – the stories told about it as it happens and after it happens, including the excited and satirical outcry. The history of fashion has indeed most often been purveyed anecdotally – such and such a duchess invented this or that to hide her pregnancy or to fasten her hair temporarily – in a way that shows how frighteningly unaccountable all its changes are, how hastily they must be rationalised. If you study only the rationalisations, you can’t see all of the ways it works. You have to look and keep watching, if only to notice what hasn’t been explained and perhaps can’t be. For now, you watch the people on the bus; for history, you watch the people in the pictures.

Lipovetsky wants to analogise modern society and modern fashion, to see only the social importance in fashion’s celebration of change and individual desire, without taking account of the importance of its deeper imaginative work. And since his view of society seems as uninflected as his view of fashion, we can’t really take him very seriously as a sociologist or prophet of the future. The view he expounds has a lively superficial appeal, mostly because it is offered in so genial a spirit. Perhaps that sort of appeal is what he wants his book to have, since he assigns so much power to superficiality in the creation of that spirit itself.