Adorned in Dredms: Fashion and Modernity PDF by Elizabeth Wilson


Adorned in Dredms: Fashion and Modernity
By Elizabeth Wilson

Adorned in Dreams - Fashion and Modernity


Acknowledgements vi
Foreword vii
A rationale for the new edition.
Chapter One: Introduction 1
Chapter Two: The History of Fashion 16
A brief history of fashion from its rise in the courts and cities of the early mercantile period, its further evolution in the period of industrialization and the growth of huge cities, the increasing separation between public and private, and the development of modern individualism.
Chapter Three: Explaining It Away 47
A survey of theoretical writings on fashion, suggesting that none of the theorists who have relied on a single theoretical perspective have completely or satisfactorily explained fashion. Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption is rejected, as is Alison Lurie’s theory of dress as language. The possibility
of utilizing the concept of ‘modernity’ is explored.
Chapter Four: The Fashion Industry 67
An account of the development of manufactured clothing, and particularly of the modern mass production of fashionable styles.
Chapter Five: Fashion and Eroticism
A survey of attempts to explain fashion in terms of sexuality, and of aspects of dress especially associated with eroticism: underwear, corsetry and cosmetics; a discussion of the use of clothing in pornography, and the relationship of fetishism to fashion.
Chapter Six: Gender and Identity
The distinction between ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ and between the feminine and the erotic. An exploration of bisexuality, androgyny and cross dressing in fashion, and the
development of new and more ambiguous tastes in ‘beauty’ associated with ‘modernity’.
Chapter Seven: Fashion and City Lzfe
A further exploration of the effect of metropolitan life on
fashion and its development. A survey of the development of shopping in industrialized society.
Chapter E@t: Fashion and Popular Culture 155
A brief survey of the influence of sports, entertainment, theatre, film, photography and travel on fashionable styles, and their relation to the development of mass-produced and
mass-marketed fashions.
Chapter Nine: Oppositional Dress
Counter-cultural, sub-cultural and other ‘devianf forms of dress, and their development in industrialized society. The relationship of counter-cultural styles to political dissent.
Chapter Ten: Utspian Dress and Dress Reform 208
A brief history of the nineteenth-century dress reform
movement and of twentieth-century developments; and a
survey of dress and fashion in utopian literature: the
attempt to abolish fashlon.
Chapter Elmen: Feminisw and Fashion 228
The feninkt condemnation of fashon is rejected, and it is suggested
that it 1s inapproptlate to see fashion as a moral problem,
or as evidence of mautfienticrty, ‘false consciousness’ or
subjection to fdse values. We should rather see it as an artistic
and political means of expression, albeit an ambiguous one.
Chapter Twelve: Changing Tirnes/Altered States 248
An overview of developments in fashion and dress since
1985. The rich developments in the study and theorisation
of dress are discussed and an attempt is made to chart
changes in attitude to dress and in its representation and

Fashion resembles photography. Both are liminal forms, on the threshhold between art and not-art. Both are industrially produced, yet deeply individual. Both are poised ambiguously between present and past: the photograph congeals the essence of the now, while fashion freezes the moment in an eternal gesture of the-onlyright- way-to-be. Yet nothing more poignantly testifies to transience than the embalmed moments preserved in those old snapshots where we pose in yesterday’s clothes. Far from stopping time, they locate us in history. ‘Now is past’ wrote the eighteenth century poet, John Clare, and the ‘now’ of fashion is nostalgia in the mahng.

Clothes are among the most fiaught objects in the material world of things, since they are so closely involved with the human body and the human life cycle. They are objects, but they are also images. They communicate more subtly than most objects and commodities, precisely because of that intimate relationship to our bodies and our selves, so that we speak (however loosely) of both a ‘language’ and a ‘psychology’ of dress.

Adorned in Dreams explores the multi-faceted nature of dress and its ambiguities. It is a pioneering work; it appeared at an early stage in the expansion of dress studies that has taken place in the last two decades, but its agenda is still relevant, for it sets out a field that endeavours to transcend the differences in approach that continue to traverse the discussion and study of dress. It links past and present in that, like some earlier books on fashion, it is the work of an avvtateurin the original sense of that word, of an enthusiast, even an addict of fashion, (though never a victim).

An intense interest in fashion and one’s appearance is, contrary to the common view that it arises from vanity, as likely to be a form of compensation, the result of shyness and self-doubt, for fashionable dress or a strihng appearance provides an armour against the world. The sexual allure of dress is central, but dress is as often used to astonish and impose, to ward off as well as to attract. Dress, indeed, is so protean as to render its essence almost ungraspable. The Hollywood star flaunts her beauty at the Oscar ceremony, clad in an exiguous gown, but the German graphic artist Jeanne Mammen used dress in order to disappear in Weimar Berlin: ‘Small, nondescript, dressed in an old raincoat, wearing a beret over her short-cut hair, with a drawing pencil in one hand and a cigarette in the other

. . . Mammen enjoyed the freedom to be overlooked.’l Adorned in Dreams is a polemic as well as an exploration. To that extent it is rooted in the time when it first appeared, the 1980s. At the beginning of that decade women were wearing long skirts and heavy jackets, but by 1985 skirts had risen thigh-wards and jackets were tight fitting, while feminism was split between antipornography campaigners and those who explored the interface between ‘pleasure and danger’.2 Adorned in Dreams thus appeared at a moment – now long past – when feminist debates were still being passionately argued through, to contest the view that fashion is anti-feminist. After all, as the Australian feminist Meaghan Morris pointed out, the radicals of the 1970s, far from ignoring the details of everyday life, had been obsessed with them:

We hear a lot these days about superficial style-obsessed postmoderns: but . . . we’re the ones, after all, who installed a ruthless surveillance system monitoring every aspect of style – clothing, diet, sexual behaviour, domestic conduct, ‘role playing’, underwear, reading matter . . . interior decoration, humour – a surveillance system so absolute that in the name of the personal-political, everyday life became a site of pure semiosis.3 Adorned in Dreams also challenged what Jennifer Craik has termed the ‘set of deniaW4 whereby it is asserted that men are outside fashion, a collective disavowal, that as Craik pointed out, has been historically connected to the specific form taken by male domination in industrialised societies, so that for many years costume historians, even one as distinguished as James Laver, treated fashion as an exclusively feminine realm.

The 1980s saw the development of new ways of understanding culture and cultural artefacts. There was a move from an appreciative mode, with its emphasis on the production of beauty through the skill of the artist, to an emphasis on the hidden injuries of class, race and gender: ‘When an article analyses the images of women in paintings rather than the qualities of the brushwork, or when a gallery lecturer ignores the sheen of the Virgin Mary’s robe for the Church’s use of religious art in the counter-reformation, the new art history is casting its hado ow.’^ In a parallel move, cultural studies shifted its emphasis to the audience and the use groups and individuals make of cultural artefacts, not passively receiving them, but actively re-appropriating and even ‘subverting’ their intended purposes. Thus the teenage punk, for example, turns her granny’s corset into an angry statement. Pleasures previously despised as ‘feminine’ – the reading of pulp romances, the watching of television soaps, the enjoyment of ‘women’s melodrama’ in film – were now differently evaluated. Female pleasure was promoted, in the cultural as in the erotic sphere. Thus, while a traditional, unreflective pleasure in, say, reading Jane Austen’s Mansjield Pad (a pleasure that ignored the sinister role played by the ownership of slave plantations in creating the wealth of the privileged protagonists) was to be challenged, pleasure and the appreciative mode was unexpectedly recuperated as audiences were encouraged to revel in the ‘trashiest’ forms of mass culture.

It is not hard to see how fashion could play a crucial role here, since it stood on the cusp of the feminine and the erotic, the cultural and the social, and one result was an explosion of fashion studies. In the past decade there have been many serious publications in the field and, perhaps most important of all, a scholarly journal, Fashion Theory, the brainchild ofValerie Steele, of the New York Fashion Insitute of Technology, and Kathryn Earle at Berg Publishers, which has provided a much needed platform for the publication of new research.

It is easy, on the other hand, to see how critics of postmodernism have viewed these developments with suspicion. All too easily, the study of mass culture can become merely an endorsement of the market, a facile populism that applauds every latest fad from ‘Big Brother’ to Alessi kettles to Hawy Potter, on the grounds that not to do so is to be guilty of sneering ‘elitism’. Llewllyn Negrin has forcefully made these points, reminding us that while the use of fashion and style in masquerade and play may be liberating to some extent, there are stringent limits to the emancipation offered by the use of dress in this way. Instead: ‘it is the very notion of self as image which needs to be interrogated. It is one thing to recognise that, in the postmodern era, self-identity has become equated with one’s style of presentation and another to accept this ~ncritically.’~ Llewellyn Negrin assumed that Adorned in Dreams was a ‘postmodern’ text, but I reject this view – and certainly the belief that I am a ‘postmodern’ author. It is ironic that I should have attracted this label, since I have never deviated from the view that Beethoven outclasses the Beatles (even if the comparison is not entirely apt). I regard as htile the idea, advanced by some cultural theorists, that if they were alive today Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare would be writing soap operas. At one level – the level of form – this might be true (we can never know), but at another level it is not, for I do not believe that in 300 years time our descendants will be studying the texts of East Enders and Dallas: the beauty and originality of language and vision are simply not there.7 My argument is not that fashion is important because it is part of some postmodern cultural regime in which all cultural values are relative (they are not), and that the traditional hierarchy of taste was a product merely of snobbery and the desire for distinction. It is rather the simple and obvious anthropological point that clothing is central to all cultures, including western – European and North American – cultures.

Adovned in Dveams has been received as revisionist, to the extent that it challenges the stereotype of feminists as uninterested in fashion and of socialists as hostile to the surfaces of life, yet to applaud dress as presenting possibilities of empowerment is not to endorse an underlying system of production – the sweatshops and exploitative conditions that have dogged the production of clothing for hundreds of pears – nor is it to deny that contemporary culture is vulgar and shallow in many ways and that fashion currently plays a part in the creation of celebrity cults that if not pernicious are at least futile. On the day when a full page of the London broadsheet, the Guardian, (admittedly in the features, not the news section) was given over to the fact that footballer David Beckham varnished his toenails pink for his appearance at the celebrity christening of actress Liz Hurlefs son, one must concede that there can be too much of a good thing: it is good, after all, if a heterosexual footballer, and icon to millions of youths, is not frightened of experimenting with his ‘feminine side’, but how does the reporting of a celebrity event such as this rate alongside the wars and famines, the vanity and stupidity of politicians and the crimes of corporate capitalism that currently dog the planet?

A new final chapter discusses some of these issues, as part of an assessment of the changes that have taken place in fashion since 1985, and an appraisal of the developments in their study. The basic premise of Adovned in Dveans, however, stands: that dress (and in western societies dress is fashionable dress – a continually changing phantasmagoria of styles -) is socially central, a symbolic system of crucial importance; and that garments as objects, so close to our bodies, also articulate the soul.

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