One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.- Oscar Wilde, 1894
Fashion lives only in a perpetual round of giddy innovation and restless vanity…it is haughty, trifling, affected, servile, despotic, mean and ambitious, precise and fantastical, all in a breath.
Hazlitt’s tailoring of the word fashion was fitted in early nineteenth-century London to the reactionary taste of the gentry occupying the novels of Jane Austen. With the passing of time and an upper-deck crossing of the Atlantic, the disdain for giddy innovation and restless vanity was adopted by America’s mid-twentieth-century literary intelligentsia as the fashionable mark of a superior sensibility indifferent to the bourgeois comforts of money.
During my term as a student at Yale College in the 1950s the attitude was rated aesthetically and morally correct by an undergraduate bohemian avant-garde at a loss for a wardrobe of ready-to-wear alienation. J. Press on York Street, long-established supplier of yachting blazers and straw hats to the Whiffenpoofs gathered at the tables down at Mory’s, didn’t carry the look favored by William Burroughs and Jean Genet, didn’t stock torn fabric in liberating colors. The 1960s sexual revolution and antiwar protests were nowhere listed on the Yale social calendar, nor was the opening of admission to women; freedom now was the free beer at the Fence Club before, during, and after the Harvard game.
Not knowing where to shop for an appearance that wasn’t trifling or despotic, the undergraduate embodiments of superior sensibility wore their hair long and uncrewed, their white shoes scuffed, cashmere sweaters holed—not singed—by carelessly smoked French cigarettes. On the lawn fronting the Sterling Library they came and went talking of Bergman and Kurosawa, of the fifty degrees of blond separation between the girls at Vassar and the girls at Smith. The daring to eat not only a peach but also a pear was accessorized with the belief that in the void existential, art was salvation, truth was somewhere out there on the road with Jack Kerouac, up the creek with Holden Caulfield, in prison with Ezra Pound. Anywhere but here in Connecticut with the striped ties (haughty and precise) and the gray flannel suits (servile and ambitious) preparing to board the commuter trains come to carry them home to the shibboleths of their fathers on Wall Street.
Although I never qualified for full membership in the company of Yale’s bohemian elect—it was known that I played golf, that my father had been tapped for Bones, that I was blind to the genius not only of Ginsberg but also of Joyce—I was by no means at a loss for instruction in the casting of a cold eye on human affectation and folly. “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity” was the ecclesiastical lesson that Yale was born and raised to preach. Rooted in the soil of Puritan New England, the college was founded in 1701 by Protestant clergymen ferocious in their defiance of the world, the flesh, and the devil. The original intent was still there to be seen in neo-Gothic stone, present in the sound of the bells atop Harkness Tower, met with in the persons of a faculty wearing yesteryear tweed to mark their absorption in the life of a mind free of the need for a new hat.
The authorities at the blackboards in the classrooms of the liberal arts never failed to draw the all-important distinction between appearance and reality. The polarization was as fundamental to the nature of things as day and night, aphelion and perihelion, sun and moon, God and Mammon. The clearing away of the shadows in Plato’s cave was the key to the kingdom of what was then the literary New Criticism as well as to an understanding of Shakespeare’s plays, the Protestant Reformation, the causes of the French Revolution and World War I. Appearances were invariably deceptive, ruinously expensive and short-lived, most likely wicked. Reality was light in the darkness, simple and straightforward, sometimes unpleasant and often impoverished, but long-abiding, honest, and true.
Shanghai, China, c. 1930. © Pictures from History / Bridgeman Images.
I don’t now remember all the variations on the theme embedded in the undergraduate syllabus of the 1950s, but together with
Hazlitt’s at least two of them appear in this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. The Benedictine monk John of Reading attributes the coming of the Black Death into England in the fourteenth century to the new fashions brought into the country from Hainault, in particular the bodily adornments that make their wearers “look more like torturers, or even demons, than men,” and tempt people eager for spectacle and bored by prayer to the sins of rage, pride, lechery, and greed, which surely must bring down the Lord’s vengeance.
Alone on the shore of Walden Pond, safely removed from the threat of crowdsourced infection,
Henry David Thoreau in 1854 holds to the view that men and women in fancy dress are “sailing under false colors,” with the result “that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched, clothes than to have a sound conscience. It would be easier for [most people] to hobble to town with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon.”
Thoreau’s Puritan antecedents didn’t countenance the flying of false flags. They took offense at the sight of “people of mean condition” (i.e., anybody valued at a net worth of less than two hundred British pounds) dressed in a manner above their station “by the wearing of gold or silver lace or buttons, or points at their knees, [or] to walk in great boots.” The effrontery was punished with severe fines, as were the ambitions of servant girls seen wearing “silk or tiffany hoods or scarves, which though allowable to persons of greater estates, or more liberal education, yet we cannot but judge it intolerable.”
The judgment was uncharitable. Also hypocritical and ungrateful. The inspectors of souls in the Massachusetts wilderness depended for their existence on the market in London for luxurious bodily adornment, the shining city on the hill beholden for its daily bread to temptations of the flesh and the work of the devil. In the 1950s the teaching at Yale didn’t dwell on the point. Little time was left for class discussion of the Pilgrim colony as a financial speculation floated by venture capitalists intent on extracting a shameless profit from the wholesale slaughter of beavers. Beaver pelts sold in Jacobean England at the prices paid to rent nine acres of farmland. The fashionable nobility delighted in velvet and lace, but most extravagantly in the splendid magnificence of the mousquetaire, a beaver hat low-crowned and wide-brimmed, banded in silk, mounted with ostrich feathers. Prince Charles bought forty-three such hats in 1624, the year before he became king, his expenditure on clothing at one point equivalent to the cost of building and outfitting a pair of ships six times the size of the Mayflower. Between the Pilgrim landing at Plymouth in 1620 and John Winthrop’s arrival in Massachusetts Bay in 1630, the price of beaver pelts quintupled. Mercifully so. Had the price failed to rise, the colony might have perished. The salvation of the Puritan community of righteousness was the strength of the market in giddy innovation and restless vanity.
Fashion, n. A despot whom the wise ridicule and obey.- Ambrose Bierce, 1911
So also the survival of the American dream raised up by fashion’s slaves on the strength of their desire for the newest new look, the haughtiest or most trifling new thing. As I soon discovered upon being released into the wild from the cage of superior sensibility at Yale to find myself entered into a society eager for spectacle and bored by prayer, deaf to the wisdom of Thoreau, awake to the lesson in chapter 33 of the 1922 scripture according to
Emily Post: “Clothes are to us what fur and feathers are to beasts and birds; they not only add to our appearance, but they are our appearance. How we look to others entirely depends upon what we wear and how we wear it; manners and speech are noted afterward, and character last of all.”
The news wouldn’t have surprised Queen Elizabeth I or the Aztec emperor Montezuma II. The Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle notes in Sartor Resartus that “the first spiritual want of a barbarous man is decoration,” the first purpose of clothes, “not warmth or decency, but ornament.” The observation is sustained by the text and illustration ranging in this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly across all the world’s time zones, postmodern and primitive, cultural, political, and fantastical. Homer’s Iliad dates from the eighth century BC; its depiction of Hera—queen of the gods on Mount Olympus dressing herself in “every kind of enchantment” (golden brooch, perfumed cloud, elegant rose brocade) preliminary to her seduction of Zeus—deserves a spread in Cosmopolitan. Vatsyayana, author of the Kamasutra, composed in the third century, obliges the man of wealth to spend the better part of the day keeping up the appearance not only of his person but also of his house (birds in cages, pots of fragrant collyrium, a lute hanging from a peg made from the tusk of an elephant). A caption for Architectural Digest.
The coming in and going out of fashion across the millennia doesn’t lend itself to comprehensive history or academic theory. Possibly because fashion possesses what the German philosopher Georg Simmel notices in 1905 as “the quite remarkable quality that each individual fashion to a certain extent makes its appearance as though it wished to live forever...the fact that change itself does not change endows each of the objects which it affects with a psychological shimmer of permanency.” Mortality thinly veiled in immortality, the now briefly glimpsed in its passing on the road to the then. A similar thought occurs to Ulysses in
Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida:
Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes:
Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devoured
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done. Perseverance, dear my lord,
Keeps honor bright: to have done is to hang
Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail
In monumental mock’ry.
About the meaning of fashion what little can be inferred from the historical record—portraits of royalty, the sumptuary laws promulgated in ancient Rome and fourteenth-century Florence as well as in Puritan New England—suggests that prior to the ages of scientific enlightenment and democratic revolution, clothes served as statements of function and rank within societies grown accustomed to a presumably God-given distribution of wealth and privilege. Clothes didn’t make the man, they signified the man already made, usually at birth—as king or commoner, tinker, tailor, soldier, beggar-man, prostitute, priest.
The capitalist conquest of Europe that begins to gather momentum around the turn of the seventeenth century disrupts the medieval and Renaissance seating plans. The divine right of kings gives way to the sovereign rule of money, and the new bourgeois social order exults in flying false flags to signal a wished-for, not a given, identity. My reading of history is haphazard at best, but the fashion industry as we know it today—the marketing of the Midas touch that turns frogs into princes, wombats into duchesses, apparently makes its debut in France during the twenty-year run of the Second Empire in France (1852–1870), a hall of mirrors decorated with the splendidly pretentious reflections of Louis-Napoleon III and his Empress Eugénie. The arriviste monarchs rejoiced in their elaborate new clothes (billowing crinolines in white satin, the Zouave jacket and the garibaldi shirt, gowns in gold brocade). In a society enchanted by the music of Offenbach and abandoned to the pursuit of its pleasures, fashionable women changed their clothes six or seven times a day, obedient to the gossip column dictum that “money is always chic.”
Ceiling fresco in the queen’s bathroom antechamber, Palace of Caserta, Campania, Italy, c. 1760. © De Agostini Picture Library / G. Dagli Orti / Bridgeman Images.
Paris under the dispensation of make-believe empire emerges as the fashion center of Western civilization. Baron Haussmann decorates the city with grand boulevards; Charles Frederick Worth sets up the first haute couture dealership at 7 rue de la Paix; early prototypes of the modern department store open their doors to middle-class women eager to shop and spend in a manner above their station. Wishing “to create the poetry of modern activity” in his novel The Ladies’ Paradise, Émile Zola models his mise en scène on Bon Marché, finds his dramatic narrative not in the slow disrobing of character but in the brisk movement of new merchandise.
The Second Empire transformed fashion into a highly prized consumer good, a shimmering permanence as easily and profitably disposable as the puff pastry and wine in the garden of the Tuileries. The carrying of the product across the Atlantic coincided with the dawning of a Gilded Age in an America already bound at its beginning to the chasing of rainbows. The Declaration of Independence endows all present with the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, and Alexis de Tocqueville on his travels around the country in 1831 finds himself among people eager in their grasping for what isn’t there, who “clutch everything but hold nothing fast, and so lose grip as they hurry after some new delight,” forever hounded by the hope of rising or the fear of falling in a society made to the measure of money. The French aristocrat was surprised to discover that democracy shows itself to be more obsessed with appearance than monarchy, that the more equal people become in theory, the more urgent their need to show themselves unequal in fact, and therefore the more feverish their buying in the markets of self-esteem.
Which were the markets under analysis and review in
Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899 in the high summer of a Gilded Age America that was meeting the benchmarks for vainglorious display set by gentrified coal merchants and demimondaines in Louis-Napoleon’s France. Veblen’s guide to gracious living marks the price of a thing as the worth of a thing, declares—as did Zola’s ladies in paradise—that money is always chic. Expenditure on dress, says Veblen, enjoys an advantage over other methods of conspicuous consumption because “our apparel is always in evidence and affords an indication of our pecuniary standing to all observers at the first glance.”
Welcome news in America at the turn of the twentieth century, by which time consumer capitalism had become the heart, soul, and engine of the nation’s cultural, commercial, and intellectual enterprise. Then, as now, and had been in Puritan Massachusetts, the only dark cloud on the horizon of the American dream is the possible failure of markets for more—more beaver hats, more gold and silver thread, more railroads, more oysters, more wanton squandering of God’s gifts on rage, pride, lechery, and greed. The subversive doctrine that threatens to stop the music and turn off the lights is neither communist, socialist, nor anarchist; it is the one known to the ancient Greeks as the golden mean, to the early, precapitalist Christians as the virtue of temperance. Were a sufficient majority of Americans suddenly to say, “I have enough…No, I don’t think I’ll buy another banana today,” the economy would drift into ruin.
Under the flag-waving command of Theodore Roosevelt, the country in 1901 possessed the manufacturing capacity to produce almost anything anybody cared to name or invent. What was required was the production of limitless demand, and how better to do so than with selling the grasp for what isn’t there? To which purpose the will-o’-the-wisp, fashion, was readily available at a glance, in every shape, color, bird feather, and shoe size, stepping up and into the dance of the seven veils. Miguel Cané, Argentinian political essayist, had foreseen the possibilities in 1838, singling out fashion as “the first and most active of all agents of progress.” At pains to remainder the opinion voiced by William Hazlitt twenty years earlier in London—and to reduce it to a monumental mockery—Cané goes on to say:
Fashion is synonymous with movement, and movement is life. I believe that excess fashion is the least damaging of all excesses…You will tell me that the excess of luxury is ruinous, that the excess of liberty is tyrannical, but I will tell you that excessive opulence is always better than extreme misery.
A motion so moved and seconded by Buzz Bissinger, a high-end, twenty-first-century fashion plate, who tells GQ that in the years 2010–2012 he spent $587,412.97 on his “Gucci addiction,” that he owns “eighty-one leather jackets, seventy-five pairs of boots, forty-one pairs of leather pants, thirty-two pairs of haute couture jeans, ten evening jackets, and 115 pairs of leather gloves.” And why, dear heart, the extravagance? Because, says Buzz the enraptured, “Gucci men’s clothing best represents who I want to be and have become—rocker, edgy, tight, bad boy, hip, stylish, flamboyant, unafraid, raging against the conformity that submerges us into boredom and blandness and the sexless, saggy sackcloths that most men walk around in like zombies without the cinematic excitement of engorging flesh.”
The Beat Generation’s undergraduate auxiliaries at Yale in the 1950s—edgy, bad boy, unafraid—had neither love nor money for leather, but they grasped the idea that fashion was the placement of the product of self. Which, as I soon learned once outside the perimeter of superior sensibility, was also the great work in progress everywhere else in a society devout in its worship of graven images.
About the relative values of appearance and reality they had been seriously wrong, the old masters in sackcloth. Out there in the void existential, appearances were simple and straightforward, long-abiding lights in the darkness. Reality was short-lived and deceptive, most likely unknowable. Finding employment as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco and then in New York, I discovered the business at hand to be the parading of appearances, not the searching for reality. What was true was a matter of record, seldom of fact. What seemed to be true, from the camera angle, or with the placing of an adjective. What was said to be true, by the senator from the great state of Ohio or the Goodyear blimp.
Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro, by Piero della Francesca, c. 1472. © Nicolo Orsi Battaglini / Art Resource, NY.
The 1960 presidential election, the first one for which I was licensed to carry a concealed opinion, turned on the outcome of a televised debate about the “gap” said to exist between the numbers of nuclear missiles controlled by the United States and those in the custody of the Soviet Union. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate, pictured Russia’s tower of hideous strength overshadowing America’s arsenal of freedom. He held the Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon, accountable for the disparity on the ground that Nixon, as vice president in the Eisenhower administration, was in a position to have precluded it. Kennedy didn’t know or care to know what he was talking about. He was waving a false flag, talking through a hat as wide-brimmed as the mousquetaire on the head of King Charles I.
On the substance and strength of the argument the debate was clearly won by Nixon, who knew the gap didn’t exist, that America’s collection of missiles was bigger and better and a lot more expensive than Russia’s. The television cameras ruled in favor of Kennedy. The handsome face of money and youth seized at a glance the prize of the moment from the five-o’clock-shadowed mouth of the man tied in with the images of a cheap cloth coat, an unfashionable dog (spaniel, not terrier), and an unglamorous wife.
The lesson informed my approach to a career in journalism as well as my fittings in with various social scenes up and running in the 1960s in Manhattan’s theaters of trifling and despotic ambition. The Renaissance courtier
Baldassare Castiglione advises every man to dress in a way that causes him to be esteemed “even by those who neither hear him speak nor witness any act of his.” Following this advice, I took care to wear a gray pinstriped suit, cufflinks, silk pocket square when in the company of Wall Street gentry; navy blue suit, cheap watch, and heavy shoes when in Washington among low-ranking congressmen and high-ranking military personnel; threadbare tweed coat and turtleneck sweater in the presence of literary intelligentsia on the Upper West Side. The presentation of a reassuring appearance allowed for the asking of uncomfortable questions.
At large and well-publicized gatherings—museum and opera benefits, tributes to worthy causes, opening nights—it was important to be seen, not heard. All present on set could assume, at least for the moment, that the collector of alms for oblivion was working the crowds elsewhere in town. The truly fashionable party was over as soon as begun, once everybody had been seen or not seen. The rest of the evening was the conspicuous consumption of expensively tasteless food served with stale, leftover gossip.
To achieve harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance.- Jean Genet, 1949
Foreign observers like to caricature Americans as vulgar materialists devouring more of everything and anything that money can buy. They mark the appearance but miss the reality, which is the grasp for what isn’t there. Not the bird in the hand, but the two—better yet, twelve—in the bush. Among people captivated by the power and romance of metaphor, what matters isn’t the taste of the truffle or the style of the gown, it’s what the eating or wearing of the item represents, which is an immaterial state of being or grace. Diana Vreeland, editor-in-chief of Vogue in the 1960s, was clear on the point: “It’s not about the dress you wear, but it’s about the life you lead in the dress.”
In the dress, on the Facebook page, in the show windows of selfies and Instagram, wherever preferred identities, fitted to the measurements of both body and soul, are put up for auction and sale. The Internet is the fairy godmother fragmenting society into so many virtual realities that none of the puttings on of the Ritz or the dog stand up or in for anything other than themselves. Every Cinderella a princess, every pumpkin a coach. The proud hand of Homo faber reaches over the counters of abstraction for an icon, a label, a glass slipper, to maybe go viral on the perpetual round of restless vanity that is both symbol and movement of life itself. As extravagant and frivolous as nature in the shifting and combining of forms, changing fish into birds, clouds into snowflakes, apes into men.
All is vanity, and thank heaven for that. How or why does the world turn without it? Take vanity off the table or out of the picture, and George Washington doesn’t become father of the country, Steve Jobs stays in the garage, and the chicken doesn’t cross the road.