PRINT December 1979

Form Follows Fashion

OUR CULTURE REGARDS FASHION and clothing highly ambivalently. Just as we would like to believe that such individual characteristics as skin color, height, weight and qualities of the facial features should have no substantial effect on one’s life, we would also like to believe that clothing is inconsequential. Having the ability, and taking the time and energy, to be concerned about clothes is thought by many to indicate shallowness. Yet an individual who fails to dress appropriately for a role or occasion can provoke irrational social responses. And such reactions may be as irrational and intense as deep fears caused by racial difference or the horror aroused by physical disfigurement; or they may be more directly situational and personalized, like the anger and indignation expressed in response to an insult. Clothes, like physical characteristics, are crucial aspects of attraction (and repulsion) between humans: this stems from the assumption that those who are physically beautiful seem deserving of love without their having to earn it. But clothing can serve as an equalizer, elegant attire transforming a person of average looks into an individual of greater attraction. Because clothing is capable of eliciting such emotional responses, it can be considered a deep cultural mechanism whose functions have not yet been clearly or adequately defined.

Attitudes toward clothing are further complicated by its protective function. Although protection alone does not explain the vicissitudes of fashion through history, as a need that is constantly manifest in some form in clothing it is a starting point from which to interpret the progression from early struggles for physical security to the symbolic manifestation of the ability to survive. At what point do clothes become more than protection? The development of fashion has been possible only in societies with sufficient resources to be concerned with comfort and luxury, societies producing more goods than are actually needed for survival. In this way clothes implied a kind of survival while simultaneously seeming wasteful. They also became the outward manifestations of conflicting survival mechanisms, and came to embody the notion that material goods will make one happier.

Thus clothes are deeply associated with the fulfillment of two basic and real human needs, love (beauty) and protection (material goods), both of which overlap in our associations with what we wear. (The possession of goods can make one more desirable, and being beautiful may insure the possession of goods.) Clothes can also engender a suspicion of false messages about both physical and liquid assets, particularly in freer cultures where social mobility is not prohibited by the class structure or by law. Clothing readily indicates increased status (or its illusion), and in cultures where there is the greatest fluidity the most rapid changes of fashions occur.

Physical and emotional well-being depend on the fulfillment of material and psychological needs—needs which, however, are never fully satisfied. In the Western capitalist structure survival has come to be based on the personal exploitation of inequality, the individual’s use of his or her personal currency as it can be applied to cultural needs and values. Clothes in this culture package the individual as a social being with appropriately socialized values, even as a commodity. The realities of physical and material inequality are mediated (at once potentially exaggerated and eliminated) through this socially necessary nonverbal medium. Clothes are, then, a locus of paradox in this culture, and perhaps historically as well. We do not value clothes, yet values are expressed in them, and they influence likes and dislikes.

Of these two influential factors the issue of beauty and physical difference is more often denied. Since we are able to change our minds much more readily than our bodies, especially our features, we have developed an enormous awe of physical beauty, even as we attempt to devalue its importance. For the same reason, the relationship between physical and esthetic appeal has been largely ignored and is generally thought to be beneath serious artistic concern. Now Ann Hollander has tackled just this issue in her book Seeing Through Clothes (1978), a lengthy study of the relationship between clothes in art and in life that traces the development of dress from Ancient Greece to the present.

Hollander’s theory connects changes in fashion almost exclusively with changes in visual art. She asserts that these changes occur only in cultures having an evolving figurative tradition. “The function of Western dress,” Hollander states, “is to contribute to the making of a self-conscious individual image, an image linked to all other imaginative and idealized visualizations of the human body” (p. xiv). This self image is modeled on the image found in art, including painting, sculpture, photography and film: “Dressing is an act usually undertaken with reference to pictures—mental pictures, which are personally edited versions of actual ones. The style in which the image of the clothed figure is rendered—in whatever representational art is most comfortably consumed and absorbed as realistic at a given time—governs the way we create and perceive our own clothed selves. Such images in art are acceptable as models because they are offered not as models at all but as renderings of the truth.”

The image then is, on the one hand, idealized by us and, on the other, seen as the truth. Thus we identify with these ideals as seen in figurative art, and we mimic them. This explains why almost everyone looks the same in a particular period—because all refer to similar images.

The visual images change as the result of visual need or of esthetic lust, a trait which Hollander has presented as a basic human need that creates and fulfills itself. Furthermore: “Dress has status as visual art because it abides by the same rules pictures follow; the look of clothes borrows whole perceptual modes from style in art. The esthetic alterations within fashion have a visual autonomy that is granted by that of art itself, which, in turn is generally granted despite all its connections with religion, politics and the wealth of princes and nations.” (p. 454).

The one-sided estheticism of this theory is in response to other explorations of the subject that have emphasized a narrow socio-cultural approach. One of the earliest of these, put forward by J.C. Fleugel in his Psychology of Clothes (1928), points to the need for increased sexual attraction as the reason for changes in fashion. According to this theory, the focus of sexual interest necessarily shifts from one part of the body to another. Quentin Bell in On Human Finery (rev. ed. 1976) follows the principles of Veblen in claiming that the drive for status is the primary source of these changes. According to him the purpose of dress in the middle and upper classes is to display wealth upon the person. He has updated Veblen’s categories of “Conspicuous Consumption” and “Conspicuous Leisure” with a new category “Conspicuous Outrage,” which takes the form of dressing offensively by confronting the rules of good taste.

While Fleugel did attempt to deal with the subject of physical attraction he overestimated the role of modesty and ignored everything else. Bell, on the other hand, focused on symbolic protection to the exclusion of any more physical considerations. The costume historian James Laver sought to incorporate a broader range of influences but stopped short of any clarification due to oversimplification. Statements such as “Directoire licentiousness expressed itself in the transparent dresses of the time,” or “Victorian modesty was satisfied in volumes of petticoats and the emancipation of postwar flappers in short hair and short skirts,” indicate a tendency to concentrate on single motivations successively, offering a kind of serial causality rather than any real analysis of the contextual complexity of fashions.

The anthropologist A.L. Kroeber examined the subject of dress in relation to developments of visual style as a whole. In Style and Civilizations (1957) he defined style as a set of values with common goals that arise during a period of time. Changes result from individual creativity in developing toward a clearer expression of shared goals and values. For clothing and fashion, however, the cycle is different. Change is the primary goal, and the other values of the culture conform to these alterations as they occur. Kroeber examined the visual qualities of the changes in women’s clothes between 1788 and 1930 to see if, by correlating them with the other events in the culture, any responsive pattern would emerge. The results show only that the most radical changes occur during times of excessive social stress, e.g., war or revolution, and that during periods of peace and prosperity alterations tend to be gradual variations on basic shapes. Kroeber contrasted the periods just following the French Revolution and World War I, which involved total changes in the shape of women’s clothes (from very full and elaborate to simple and tubelike), with the rest of the 19th century, when a gradual waxing and waning in size and emphasis of the variable parts prevailed. The primary limitation of Kroeber’s viewpoint would seem to be its unconcern with stylistic goals and values as modes of satisfying deeper human needs which, as such, become part of the structure of survival. This leads him to maintain a change-for-change’s-sake theoretical approach toward fashion, even though his data seems clearly to indicate a connection between changes in sociopolitical values (revolution and war) and changes in dress.

René König used many of Kroeber’s theories as the basis of his À la Mode: A Social Psychology of Fashion (1973), viewing fashions as temporary variations on more permanent styles, bringing them closer to their goals (using Kroeber’s meaning here). Each new fashion has within it the potential to create an entirely new style. Such a theory removes these categories even further than Kroeber did from a connection with human need and effort. Missing here is an understanding of the individual’s contribution, and of the fact that fashions break ground by meeting particular needs that can open possibilities for change in goals and values. Then these will, if deemed socially or practically necessary, eventually result in style changes.1

Because Ann Hollander has based her work on the theories of Kroeber and König she makes many similar assumptions, all stemming from devaluing the relationship between the style of a culture and its deeper needs and values. Since Bell, Fleugel and Laver went too far in the other direction—by connecting the visual manifestations too directly with the social—a closer examination of these relationships will help to clarify the issues.

Specific environments adjust the physical and psychological needs of individuals and dictate how they can be satisfied. From such circumstances develop values that aid survival, the most successful of these becoming customs which are the most difficult to change. One of the earliest, most enduring and most pervasive of these is the expression of both social rank and sex through dress or ornament.

The establishment of social custom usually indicates the point of secondary survival at which the individual becomes separated from direct means of satisfying needs. The less essential life phenomena become equally necessary, and it becomes almost impossible to distinguish primary from secondary, or even tertiary, needs. Social customs that have solidified into laws change slowly because they seem to satisfy deeply entrenched needs, and, when transgressed, they have traditionally deprived individuals of their own needs as punishment (incarceration, execution). Thus the expression of status in dress was limited and punished by civil codes from as early as the third century B.C. to the middle of the 12th century, due to Roman sumptuary laws. Earlier and later it was controlled by social customs, transgressions against which are punished socially, but sometimes in ways that can also interfere with survival (ostracism).

Most value systems limit behavior in some way, and customary values are the most limiting, the most unarguable, of all. Adjustments in values usually result from changes in needs, and the more complex and free a society, the more frequently adjustments would seem to occur. If a society satisfies its needs according to a rigid system of customs and laws, individuals must conform with few possibilities for variation. In small, technologically primitive or rural cultures, based on kinship or on government-by-discussion, individuals conform to common values, and the look of clothes remains static, as does the look of practically everything else. There is no real impulse to change if the system seems to satisfy needs equally. Hence deviation in such cultures generally had special significance. Individuals with experiences that we might classify as irrational and insane, such as hearing voices or communicating in some way with forces outside direct experience, are thought to have special powers, instead of simply being ostracized for nonconformity. Physical beauty might also be considered such endowment that might in turn have a special role in survival.

Bodily adornment and clothing arose early in human history to create the illusion of physical beauty, increasing in complexity as knowledge of materials grew. It is commonly accepted that the impulse to adorn the self was among the earliest of esthetic expressions. It is, of course, impossible to determine if the earliest clothing was more physically, or more psychologically, protective. Records would indicate that climate is the primary consideration, although there are many exceptions. Today, for example, inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego wear little or no clothing, despite the climate; conversely, the loincloth (or its variations), which is generally attributed to sexual modesty, may have developed for the practical purpose of protecting the genitals in hot climates where nakedness might be comfortable. In either case, once invented, the possession of body covering became associated with self-respect and dignity.

When larger, more stratified cultures replaced smaller tribes, clothes became hierarchical. Such societies induced a desire (often resulting in a struggle) for these goods. One might conclude that since physical inequalities were given less weight than social inequalities, the lifestyle of the power structure became idealized. Certain customs and values of rulers might remain desirable even when actual oppressors were abhorred: in dynastic Egypt, for example, slaves were usually naked, and the amount of bodily adornment increased with rank. The physical beauty of the powerful was enhanced by esthetic beauty in the form of jewels, gold and sumptuous trimmings. The beauty of these ornaments, which combined rare substances with workmanship and symbolic images, became, in turn, bound to the power structure and remained idealized and desirable, even after the oppressors were overthrown and conquered. Revolutions, conversely, attempt to establish different values and to destroy previous power symbols, denying that any deeper and more lasting values are expressed through them. Creativity can be viewed in two ways: as a contribution that conforms to the more functional or refined systems of satisfying needs within a specific power structure, or as an act that alters the power structure (war or revolution).

Roles are customary patterns that exist in order to carry out specific cultural needs and that require certain behavior and embody values. Tribal cultures needed few role changes while totalitarian societies enforced status. The barbarian invasions and general decay in the Roman Empire forced most individuals back to the level of basic survival. Eventually, the capitalist structure that evolved permitted more transgressions of roles and their customs—and dress—than had before existed in human history. It maintained the status imbalance of static hierarchy but permitted some social and economic fluidity, with individuals given some access to respected specialized roles through creative effort. Thus, survival came to be based on specialization, which distorts individuality and forces competition. Because much of the population had increased resources, the fine fabrics and trimmings that had once served to express status became available to all who could afford them. To balance this, a new creative form in clothing arose: tailoring—which distorted the shape of the body rather than simply adorning it, echoing the distorting specialization of the individual at the origin of capitalism—only became a matter of status from the 12th century on.

The new system allowed for appropriate transgressions of custom, that is, for exercise of individuality, encouraging exploration and discovery. As the number of roles fulfilling valued needs increased, a greater range of behavior was tolerated. Style in dress, here defined as the range of roles and their expression through custom—including the appropriate visual and social choices for each individual and the degree of tolerance for individuality—consequently became much broader. And those with the means aspired to emulate their betters, following the belief that dressing similarly would satisfy them. This, in turn, forced superiors to change in order to maintain their own superiority, creating the need for a new custom, fashion, all to express the order of rank that was still socially necessary.

At this point, the expression and satisfaction of basic needs have expanded to include many categories. Modesty, Christianity’s contribution to fashion, originated as an expression of social equality in the first century and gradually acquired anti-sexual—and yet, conversely, potentially highly erotic—overtones. This newly evolved category, combined with the restrained expression of status, defined taste. Taste came to express an individual’s particular balance between change and stability, which was controlled by the customs of his/her role as well as by personal resources (beauty and capital). And because maintaining status necessitated some change, taste had to face up to novelty. Similarly, taste relates private need and public display.

Some roles still offer greater penalties for change, the transgression of custom considered to be in bad taste, while others require periodic novelty. Figures on which we rely in times of stress—doctors, nurses, clergymen, military officers—are almost never allowed to change the style of their clothes. The role of the group with which one is identified provides the context for dress and the range of possible values. Hence custom seems to represent static values; fashion, the possibility of change, with style and its changing range of choices in between.

Fashion is the custom of change. Simple adjustments to maintain status are made so that individuals can feel reassured that needs continue to be satisfied, including the need to emulate status (and then the need to recapture advantage). This qualitative change in the elements of status eventually causes values to change. Clothing can thus embody the temporal relation between custom and its changes and can, in its moment, create the illusion of resolving contradictions.

An example of this can be found in the value structure of 19th-century France. Although the Revolution had been directed to the overthrow of aristocracy, the tastes of aristocrats were adopted by the middle class. By 1850 businessmen were aristocrats in miniature, with enforced leisure in their families, especially for their wives. Aristocratic excesses of dress, so abhorrent a half century earlier as to cause one of the most abrupt changes in the history of fashion, were now acceptably reincorporated into women’s clothing, balancing male austerity in the same period. Previously inaccessible goods remained desirable as the most familiar, and perhaps the only, means of satisfying the desires for beauty and comfort. So confused value structures produced contradictory and conflicting needs that were resolved in opposite sex roles, male (austere) and female (opulent). Needs became located in values rather than the reverse.

At the same time, the element of antifashion arose as an alternative ideal to that of the pseudo-artistocratic middle class. This has acted, ever since, as a periodically radicalizing element (of fashion and thus of values). Because antifashion quickly became a fashion itself (the dandy as an antiaristocratic man of real, not illusory, leisure), it lost much of its immediate social power. However, it did establish a convention of individual experimentation, thus encouraging a more personal development of values. This is also true of the present antifashion movement, which began in the late 1960s and is now reaching a kind of ultimate nihilism in late Punk.

It is this relocation of needs according to changed standards that Hollander perceives when she proposes that we dress ourselves on the basis of figurative images. Western culture has idealized successive types in order to keep needs standardized. Hollander recognizes this but, unfortunately, explains it tautologically by calling it a visual need, or the need for a change of look, rather than recognizing it as an expression of actual social change.

Most seriously, Hollander’s argument seems to rest on a mistaken formalism (meaning responses inform alone in terms of the preceding history of forms, rather than anything like symbolic gestures). The author seems oblivious to the displacement of expression, preferring to believe that general cultural tensions and shifts have no effect on visual components. She has thus developed a theory in which the changes themselves are seen to be basic. Just as physical appearance is distorted by fashion, Hollander, trapped by her argument, becomes, like the other theorists mentioned, a mere expression of her own role, distorted by her speciality. Such simplified theories ultimately contribute little to the understanding of clothing and even continue to devalue its importance.

Maureen Connor is a New York artist.