“Fashion’s secret is that it is cunning”
Why do men today dress in suits and women wear tights? Literary scholar Barbara Vinken presents a different take on the history of fashion.
Early on in your new book, entitled “Angezogen” (“Attired to Attract”), you describe a streetscape that draws your attention to what you call “the new legginess” in women’s fashion. The emphasis on shorts and dark tights, and on drainpipe jeans means women are again showing lots of leg. Why did this strike you so much?
Prof. Barbara Vinken: In the book, I wanted to wrest the subject of fashion from the monopolizing grasp of sociology, to view it from an aesthetic perspective, and make it accessible to investigation with the rhetorical tools that literary scholars use to analyze. To do this, I first had to define the phenomenon. What do we wear, and what are we doing when we decide to put it on? I set out to provide a phenomenological description of the silhouettes that are such a conspicuous feature of our streets. And it suddenly occurred to me that today women’s legs look like men’s did before the French Revolution. The women have, as it were, appropriated the legs of those male French aristocrats, who wore tight, opaque stockings to show them off.
These days, men wear suits instead of stockings. How did an item of apparel that used to be restricted to men become a typical component of the female wardrobe?
After the break with the ancien régime in the French Revolution, fashion began to emphasize the distinctions between the sexes, rather than those between the different estates. Prior to the Revolution, you were indeed what you wore. If you dressed like a courtier and moved like a courtier, you had a good chance of being taken for one. Once the break had occurred, however, men began to define themselves as being immune to the frivolity of changing fashions. Fashion became synonymous with femininity. And since the beginning of the last century, women’s fashions have systematically appropriated male styles, partly in order to escape the stigma of being slaves to fashion.
You cite Hegel’s remark that the two-piece suit makes “elongated sacks with stiff folds” of the limbs. But the suit has been a major element of men’s clothing for over 200 years. Why has it become so indispensable?
The suit has a transcendent function; it points to a sphere beyond the individual wearer. It indicates the fusion between the individual and his profession or office, it marks him out as a member of a guild, a corporation of his peers, and it reflects the ethics of the bourgeois. In essence, the suit is a uniform, conferring a “corporate identity” on those who wear it, an identity that will outlive the individual. The suit is an icon of Modernity. It would become a global success and has attained an almost classical invariability.
What was happening to women’s fashion, while the men continued to insist on wearing suits?
Menswear, as it evolved in opposition to the image of the French courtier after the Revolution, has remained relatively stable since 1830. Women’s apparel, on the other hand, has undergone some astonishing transformations since then. From three-dimensional, literally space-filling, dresses that cascaded from the waist, it developed in the direction of a slender two-dimensional form. This begins towards the end of the 19th century with the demise of the corset. Fabrics are now cut so as to accentuate the figure. During the 20th century Chanel systematically translated men’s fashions into styles for women. Chanel simply dispenses with all the constraints intended to sculpt the female figure, the three-dimensional shaping – tournure and cul de Paris, corset, everything that tightened the waistline and raised the bosom – and replaces it with a two-dimensional mode of dressing that cites typically male styles. But there have always been countercurrents, hyperfeminine styles such as the New Look. One can say that women’s fashion continually oscillates between Chanel and Dior, between garconne à la Chanel and the overemphasis, even fetishizing, of the feminine à la Dior.
You speak of fashion’s secret: where does it lie?
Modern fashion is always cross-dressing. It borrows from the other sex, from a different class, from another culture. The new legginess is a very good example for cross-dressing. Fashion corrodes every aspiration to true individuality. But its real secret is that it is cunning: It doesn’t do what it purports to do.
But does unisex fashion not mean that both sexes wear the same clothes? Like men, women wear jeans and a T-shirt or wear suits at work.
When one looks a little more closely, it turns out that the unisex label is a particularly misleading one. What unisex fashions actually do is to incorporate into clothing for women those features of menswear that highlight the male erotic zone. Legs and rump, which women long concealed under flowing gowns and voluminous flounces, are now revealed by deliberate modeling. In effect, with the rise of unisex styles, the whole of the female body becomes an erotic zone. In other words, instead of blurring the contrasts between the sexes, unisex fashion accentuates the male/female dichotomy even more insistently than before. Business costumes and business suits like those designed by Jil Sander, who certainly played a major role in the translation of the suit into the repertoire of women’s fashions, drape the body in a very much more revealing way and mold its silhouette in a more pronounced manner than suits made for men normally do. Men’s suits, with their inner linings, are designed to clothe the body in a schematic mode that levels every trace of particularity. This levelling effect, this neutralizing function of the suit, has never been carried over into women’s fashion.
How do you expect fashion to develop in the future?
All theorists of fashion from Friedrich Nietzsche to Adolf Loos looked forward to the imminent disappearance of fashion. When the age of equality truly arrives, when women have unfettered access to the labor market, and we no longer have to put up with parasitic classes, then fashion too will be a thing of the past. This kind of argument, a commonplace of modernist discourse, stigmatized fashion as effeminate, superficial, frivolous, as a means of presenting one’s wares on the wedding or the sex market – the only markets open to women – in a calculated contrast to the mature and rational being, who is indifferent to fashion and is, by definition, male.
One thing is certain: Fashion has not disappeared. Fashion is still alive and kicking, and completely unimpressed by all the sociopolitical criteria enlisted to forecast its demise. It still divides the sexes into a fashion-conscious one and an indifferent one, as shorthand for accentuated and muffled sexuality. One can conclude from this that we still have powerful oligarchies and that equality between the sexes with respect to access to money, power and authority are still a long way off – and all that may well be the case. But one can also tell the story of fashion in a different way: women’s fashion breaks down the principle of transcendence asserted by the suit. It accentuates the elegance and beauty of the body in the here and now. The attire lends form to the figure, and clearly makes no claims to anything beyond that – power, riches, authority. In this sense, the body circumvents its socially ordained mantle and is revealed in its uniqueness and beauty, in its vulnerability and transience, and becomes manifest in its own right. To me that seems much more appealing than signaling the subjection of the body to the demands of corporative entities, and its assimilation into its functions within them.
So women would be better advised to leave their suits in the wardrobe?
I don’t think we should strive to remove all traces of femininity from the public sphere, or make the abandonment or rejection of the feminine a condition of access to authority, money and power. We have to create an institutional sphere in which femininity is not just tolerated, but which provides a space for it because it is valued and appreciated. It’s a question of cultural standards, of constructing civilized environments which are not subservient to the business operations of a purely male world – a male world whose inhabitants are probably not all that happy with the sense of privilege it brings.
Prof. Dr. Barbara Vinken holds the Chair in Romance Philology and Literary Studies at LMU. Her new book, entitled Angezogen. Das Geheimnis der Mode (“Attired to Attract: The Secret of Fashion”), is published by Klett-Cotta.