Anne Hollander (1930–2014)

Anne Hollander.

ANNE HOLLANDER was an independent scholar and critic who transformed the way we look at art and fashion. Her first book, Seeing Through Clothes (1978), was a highly original—and brilliantly titled—exploration of the relationship between body and clothes through centuries of art history. At a time when fashion was widely dismissed as frivolous and irrational, Hollander argued that changing styles of dress, like paintings and sculpture, were “connected links in a creative tradition of image-making.” She demonstrated that even the way we perceive and represent the nude is influenced by the way artists portray the body dressed in the fashions of the day. Thus, for example, Goya’s famous Maja has the same “high, widely separated breasts and rigid spine” created by an invisible corset, which is clearly present in the clothed version.

I distinctly remember reading Hollander’s description of the nude and clothed Majas, because I had just had my own epiphany about the cultural significance of fashion. The year was 1978, and I was in my first term in graduate school, when I read two articles in the feminist journal Signs, debating the meaning of the Victorian corset. It was exactly as though a lightbulb had turned on, as I realized, Fashion is part of history! I can study fashion history! Seeing Through Clothes was one of only a very few books that I could envision as a template for the kind of work that I wanted to do.

Eventually, I met Anne, and we became friends. In person, she was not only brilliant but also beautiful and chic. I think that both her personal style and the originality of her work are not unrelated to her position as an independent scholar. Anne was never an academic. She had a bachelor’s degree in art history from Barnard College, but instead of going to graduate school, she became what she called an academic “fellow traveler” in places such as Yale, Harvard, and New York University—married first to poet John Hollander and then philosopher Thomas Nagel. To be an outsider without title or tenure is difficult but also liberating. Lacking an institution, colleagues, or students, she said, “I have only my public, and I have no idea who they are.”

In 1994, Anne published Sex and Suits, another stylish and intelligent exploration. In this book, she focused on the mystery of the men’s tailored suit: Why had this particular fashion lasted so long, virtually unchanged for centuries, when so many others had come and gone? Whereas most writers would have emphasized the relative “functionalism” of the suit, Anne argued that it was really the suit’s aesthetic or its idealizing characteristics that were most important. As she put it: “With the help of nearly imperceptible padding, curved seams, discrete darts and steam pressing,” the suit evolved into “an exquisitely balanced garment that fitted smoothly without wrinkles and buttoned without strain to clothe what appeared to be the torso of a Greek athlete.” This was, perhaps, not an entirely convincing argument, as it not only idealized the effect of the average suit but also minimized the suit’s significance as an indicator of global modernity and class identity. Nevertheless, it served as a useful corrective to the orthodox interpretation of the menswear.

Having heard Anne talk about cloth and clothing in painting, Patricia Williams, then the publishing director of the National Gallery Company, invited her to propose an exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The result was the 2002 exhibition and accompanying book “Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting.” Although I did not get to see the exhibition, the book remains a valuable document of Anne’s ideas about drapery, dress, nudity, and style. I wish that a publisher would collect Anne’s many articles on fashion, some of which can be found online. In her review of my 1999 exhibition, “Shoes: A Lexicon of Style,” for example, Anne zeros in, unerringly, on “the lethal weapon style, which usually involves a fierce high heel, often skinny and slanted in an odd direction, like a half-open switchblade.” If only there were more people who could write like that about fashion.

Valerie Steele is director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York and editor of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture.