Frock Consciousness

Rosemary Hill

  • The Penguin Book of 20th-Century Fashion Writing edited by Judith Watt
    Viking, 360 pp, £20.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 670 88215 1
  • Twentieth-Century Fashion by Valerie Mendes and Amy de la Haye
    Thames and Hudson, 288 pp, £8.95, November 1999, ISBN 0 500 20321 0
  • A Century of Fashion by François Baudot
    Thames and Hudson, 400 pp, £19.95, November 1999, ISBN 0 500 28178 5
  • The Hidden Consumer: Masculinities, Fashion and City Life 1860-1914 by Christopher Breward
    Manchester, 278 pp, £45.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 7190 4799 4
  • Black in Fashion by Valerie Mendes
    Victoria & Albert Museum, 144 pp, £35.00, October 1999, ISBN 1 85177 278 2

In A Journal of the Plague Year Defoe’s narrator keeps an eye on premises belonging to his brother, who has taken his own family out of the stricken city. Walking one day towards the warehouse in Swan Alley near London Wall he meets, in the otherwise deserted street, three or four women coming toward him wearing high-crowned hats. Reaching the warehouse he finds it broken open. Inside, half a dozen more women are trying on a consignment of the hats, meant for export, ‘fitting themselves ... as unconcerned and quiet as if they had been at a hatter’s shop’. It is a dream-like scene: the fashionable looters, each looking for her size, while around them London rots and grass grows in the Strand. It is also a striking demonstration of Freya Stark’s maxim that ‘there are few sorrows through which a new dress or hat will not send a little gleam of pleasure however fugitive.’

Clothes, the things that intervene between our naked selves and the world, affect our sense of both. They speak for – or against – us in complex, sometimes unpredictable ways, and they speak even when we are silent. ‘Dressed in a tramp’s clothes,’ George Orwell, quoted by Judith Watt, observed, ‘it is very difficult ... not to feel that you are genuinely degraded.’ The hope that a change of clothes will actually redress our situation is not therefore entirely vain, in either sense of the word.

In the 20th century, of which three of these books offer surveys, the appearance of men altered relatively little while women’s was transformed. An Edwardian office clerk meeting his modern counterpart in the City would know him at once, even without a hat. His wife, however, would be thunderstruck by a trip to Selfridges, for so much of female clothing has been invented since her day, including things it is hard now to believe were ‘invented’ at all. Among the innovations of the last hundred years are knickers with a closed crotch; separates (tops and skirts that could be worn in different combinations); trousers; and, the great couturier Paul Poiret’s stroke of genius, a dress that a woman could put on without assistance.

This discrepancy between women’s experience and men’s may be one reason why dress has come to be seen as a predominantly female subject, or at least one that is expressed in female terms. It is common enough to find books which purport to be about some universal aspect of human experience but turn out, on closer inspection, to be mostly about men. In the glass of fashion, however, all is reversed. Mendes and de la Haye write in their introduction that fashion is ‘an indicator of individual, group and sexual identity’ whose ‘fluidity reflects shifts in the social matrix’; yet of the 280 illustrations that follow, nearly 250 are of women.

High fashion, defined by Oscar Wilde as ‘a form of ugliness so unbearable that we are compelled to alter it every six months’, has been a predominantly female phenomenon since the late 18th century. For reasons historians tend to associate plausibly if vaguely with the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the ever emerging middle class, male dress has been relatively sober and static for two hundred years. What happened in the 20th century, Judith Watt suggests in her introduction to Fashion Writing, was that the whole subject of clothes came to be seen as feminine or effeminate. Hence her anthology, which includes journalism, extracts from novels and some verse, is disproportionately short on male writers. Dickens and Thackeray could use clothes to establish character in a way that was not, it seems, so readily available in the next century.

It is hard to find instances that she has missed. She could have had Betjeman and Eliot – Prufrock after all exists largely through his clothes. But I doubt many men born since 1918 could equal the precision of ‘my collar mounting firmly to the chin,/My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin’. As for descriptions of women’s clothes, Watt is surely right about the decline of what Virginia Woolf called ‘frock consciousness’ in literature. Ted Hughes’s ‘A Pink Wool Knitted Dress’, from Birthday Letters, which Watt includes, is an account of his and Sylvia Plath’s wedding. She wore what the title suggests, but beyond repeating the phrase twice within the poem Hughes is terribly vague. Was it long? Did it have sleeves? What shade of pink?

He is much too much of a man to notice – though he describes his own outfit well enough. What might be gained from saying more about Plath’s is clear from the use of clothes in her own writing. Watt includes a passage from The Bell Jar but not the one where Plath’s narrator, increasingly unable to inhabit the personality she has tried to assume, comes to resent her fashionable clothes, which take on a ‘separate, mulish identity’. One night she throws them off the roof of her hotel in Manhattan, starting with ‘a strapless elasticised slip which, in the course of wear, had lost its elasticity’. Waving it ‘like a flag of truce’ she lets it flutter off across the New York skyline, bearing with it in the precision of description, some of the false promise of Fifties push-up, long-line femininity.

Neither Plath nor Woolf, though ambivalent about high fashion, ever seemed to worry that an interest in clothes would trivialise them. Feminism has occasionally taken that point of view but it has never prevailed. Mrs Pankhurst encouraged her supporters to dress smartly if discreetly, realising that slovenliness is next to sluttishness in the public mind and would make them and their cause more vulnerable. Women are taken more seriously if they obviously take care of their appearance. So why should men have felt obliged to profess such indifference to dress in the last century? One explanation offered by historians is the emergence of ‘homosexuality’ as a supposedly discrete syndrome. The trial of Oscar Wilde is cited, most recently by Christopher Breward, as a turning point after which any deviation in male clothes was seen as simply deviant. Like the French Revolution argument, this is surely only a partial truth.

For whatever reason, however, it is true that the average heterosexual man, once he hits middle age, becomes wary of expressing an interest in clothes, his own or anyone else’s. He is not unaware of them, merely inarticulate. There are certain key garments – dinner jacket, shell suit, cardigan – on which he will know at once where he stands. But when he wants to project his physical identity on the world, drop designer names and spend thousands of pounds on useless accessories, he does it with a car. His role in the insider-out world of fashion where women and homosexuals (and, since the late Fifties, the young) are in apparent charge, is oblique.

It is sometimes suggested that fashion is either something inflicted by men on women or that it is engaged in by women for the benefit of men. Neither is usually true, nor do the proponents of such ideas fall into predictable political camps. Joan Smith, quoted by Watt, blows John Berger’s famous dictum that ‘men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’ smartly out of the water as just another male fantasy. If they are interested in clothes, women look at other women, because their clothes are more interesting. It might be truer to say that fashionable women’s clothes were, for most of the century, the area in which certain aesthetic and social ideas concerning both sexes found their expression.

De la Haye and Mendes offer a thorough if unadventurous account of what these have been. Baudot, who does not have to fit into a series format, goes further in making links with other art forms. Occasionally his unblushing Gallic conviction that nothing of any importance ever happened outside Paris stretches credulity. Swinging London cannot be entirely dismissed as an ‘eccentricity that coincided with the loss of empire’, but like de la Haye and Mendes he writes with clarity and authority about broader events. Two world wars, the disappearance of domestic staff, Constructivism, contraception and the Ballets Russes all have a part to play. However, the myth that hemlines fell in 1929 because of the Wall Street Crash is not allowed to stand. The collections, de la Haye and Mendes point out, had already been designed before it happened, fashion in this instance being more forward-thinking than finance.

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The question of what is cause and what effect, of who is influencing whom – men or women, designers or consumers, world affairs or waistlines – is a recurring theme. If historians sometimes simplify connections between fashion and other cultural trends they do at least provide an antidote to the megalomania of designers, who often think the opposite is true, that history actually follows fashion. ‘Lucille’, the nom de salon of the couturière Lady Duff Gordon, was convinced that the short skirts and clean, liberated lines of interwar styles were entirely a product of the fashion houses’ need to economise. ‘Critics wrote learnedly of the “modern girl’s emancipation”,’ she noted contemptuously. ‘But neither the “modern girl” nor her critics knew she was a creation of ... the rue de la Paix!’ Such claims, like Poiret’s, must, as de la Haye and Mendes say, be treated with caution, but not incredulity.

Paris couture, which dominated fashion for the first half of the century, was taken seriously far beyond the salons. Both Sam Goldwyn and Adolf Hitler tried to manipulate it – Hitler tried to attract the couturiers to Berlin. Neither got what they wanted. Hitler, of course, like Mussolini, who actively set out to found an Italian fashion industry to compete with the French, was associated with some of the most stylised and stylish garments of the century. The SS uniforms were the epitome of male fear of fashion, all elements of personal expression denied and sublimated to the point of fetishism. From the Forties onwards overtly fashionable male dress was by definition anti-authoritarian or counter-cultural. In 1943 the ‘zoot-suit’ riots in Harlem, in which young Malcolm X took part, set a fashion for the Parisian ‘zazous’, men whose clothes marked them out as jazz fans and passive defiers of the German Occupation.

It was in the interwar years that, in Europe at least, women dominated fashion as designers. Chanel, Vionnet and Schiaparelli created clothes intended (whatever Lucille thought) to liberate women and to feel as good on the body as they looked to the eye. If Watt’s anthology has a fault – apart from a shocking number of transposed lines – it is the absence of E.M. Delafield, whose ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’ appeared throughout the Thirties in Time and Tide, making brilliant cartoon-like use of clothes. Her description of an artistic party in Little James Street is worth a chapter of sociohistorical analysis of the interwar garçonne: ‘Emma – in green sacque that looks exactly like démodé window-curtain, sandals and varnished toe-nails ... Am struck by presence of many pairs of horn-rimmed spectacles and marked absence of evening dress ... Strange man enters into conversation with me ... (Query: Who was Sappho and what was Isle of Lesbos?)’

Watt does include part of Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means set in the May of Teck, a women’s club, during the Blitz. For special occasions the girls share a taffeta evening dress by Schiaparelli, its warm colours and panniered hips setting off each wearer slightly differently. Spark shows how the eroticism of clothes goes way beyond wearing a dress to attract a man, allowing the reader to observe, as the girls themselves do not, that the sharing of the dress is in itself exciting to men.

After the war the range of garments available to women expanded hugely, while those acceptable to men who did not want to make a spectacle of themselves continued to dwindle until the Sixties. Plus-fours, spats, hats and even waistcoats largely disappeared. The tie was almost the only thing left that allowed a degree of personal expression without attracting suspicions of camp. Watt includes Alan Jenkins’s touching elegy for his father, whom he conjures up through the ties he wore and which Jenkins remembers borrowing down to the last – ‘a sort of crepe he bought for funerals, and hated’.

As Breward argues was the case for the 19th century, so today the vocabulary of conventional male dress, though limited – almost covert – is precise and meaningful. A tie is still enough to mark one male out to another and provoke a clash of antlers. One of Watt’s best passages is from Joe Orton’s diary for 22 July 1967.

Went to Peter Willes for dinner. When we got there he stared at Kenneth in horror. ‘That’s an old Etonian tie!’ he screeched.

  ‘Yes,’ Kenneth said, ‘it’s a joke.’

  Willes looked staggered ... ‘Well, I’m afraid it’s a joke against you then. People will imagine you’re passing yourself off as an old Etonian.’

  ‘I’m sending up Eton,’ Kenneth said.

  ‘Oh, no!’ Willes cackled ... ‘You’re just pathetic! ... People will know.’

  ‘Not the people I meet,’ Kenneth said. ‘They’ll think it’s funny.’

  Willes said ... ‘People dislike you enough already ... it’s permissible ... as a foible of youth, but you – a middle-aged nonentity – it’s sad.’

‘Irony’, the most prized fashion accessory of the late 20th century is, as poor Kenneth Halliwell discovered, a fragile thing, entirely dependent on context. His tie was funny when he left home but all the humour evaporated when he got to Willes’s. Whether a clothes joke is on the wearer or the world is another of the tricky demarcation lines in dress. De la Haye and Mendes note that after the war some French couturiers, accused of collaboration, defended themselves on the grounds that the clothes they made for German women were so obviously meant to make them look ridiculous they counted as resistance. It is an argument any number of designers might still deploy in the event of a sudden change of regime.

By the end of the Fifties couture was virtually extinct. The catwalk shows of today come somewhere between cabaret and performance art, promoting an attitude rather than specific garments. Fashion houses make their money on scent and accessories. So far, indeed, has design come from couture that Issey Miyake’s current collection takes irony to the edge of credibility by offering clothes, or rather cloths, that buyers have to cut out and make up for themselves.

Since the Eighties, women have shown signs of following the male example, retreating into the kind of sombre dress for work and evening wear men have favoured for so long. Suits, plain fabrics and dark colours, especially black, predominate. While this can still be interesting, as Valerie Mendes’s Black in Fashion shows, we may be in danger of losing frock consciousness both in life and writing, which would be a loss indeed. H.G. Wells thought it was of little literary importance, saying of Henry James that he was ‘a formalist. He always thought of clothes. He was never intimate with anyone.’ Yet James’s was by far the subtler understanding of human personality, that phenomenon that crystallises where the self and not-self meet, as they always must in clothes.