PRINT September 1991


FASHION IS EPHEMERAL. Those who are concerned with fashion have a motive to deny this, to say, no, you don’t understand: of course it is true that clothes are different every year, for it is only through change that standards can be maintained; only shifting restlessly, alert to the world’s alterations, can the ideal of timeless elegance manifest itself in the new season, now, at this instant. Those who are concerned with fashion also have reason to agree that it is ephemeral, to say, yes, how could it be otherwise: of course clothes have a fresh look each year, for only by renewing itself can fashion preserve its allure; only by reflecting and brilliantly transmuting the churning, shapeless patterns of the ordinary can elegance stay alive, now, at this instant.

Swirling in distracted circles, talk about fashion tends to arrive, if only for a moment or two, at absurd conclusions: fashion changes and it doesn’t change; or it changes but only to sustain the eternal; or the nature of fashion has undergone deep shifts in recent decades, though its changes still follow tight patterns that are themselves changeless; or—whatever. When I talk about these matters to fashionable people or to people in the fashion business (groups whose boundaries are not identical), the conversation soon gets to whatever. After all, the fashion world runs on intuition, not on critical rumination.

A passionate involvement with fashion requires one to register the subtlest of hunches. One must make judgments, the more daring the better. But one must avoid—better, one must abhor—any analysis of fashion, for nothing is less fashionable than that. Granted, semioticians, structuralists, and deconstructionists have subjected fashion to their various methods, but their conclusions have no weight in the circles occupied by designer Christian Lacroix, designer-photographer Karl Lagerfeld, or John Fairchild, the publisher of Women’s Wear Daily. In academia, the various styles of theoretical analysis have their own chic, which receives no closer scrutiny on campus than the chic a new Milan look receives in the pages of WWD. Chic wards off analysis with a flair that prompts a definition: the chic is that which devotees find so self-evidently alluring that questions about its allure cannot be formulated.

Accused of chasing after intellectual fashion, de-constructionists say the charge is unfair: one deconstructs because it is one’s scholarly, even moral duty to do so. The defense of the fashionable is always sanctimonious, whatever the target being defended—an academic method or a hemline. And there is much sanctimony in our culture, for we judge much by fashion’s standards: sneakers, neighborhoods, cuisines, slang, and so on. Yet only fashions in expensive clothing count simply as fashion. These clothes give the subtlest, most powerful form to the inanity that makes every fashion so questionable and so seductive, therefore so good at discouraging questions. Because the notion of timeless timeliness is obviously silly, fashionable conversation avoids the topic. Because it is the product of concepts mishandled, a timeliness untouched by time is difficult to render as a visual image. Yet the feat has been managed.

In 1934 Paris Vogue published Baron George Hoyningen-Huene’s photograph of a woman in an evening dress walking down three steps. As she extends her left foot toward the floor below, the train of her dress trails up the steps she has just descended. The tilt of her head, the arch of her eyebrows, the serenity of her downward gaze, the contrapposto she achieves with her elegantly slung right hip—every detail of her image announces the certainty of the equilibrium she felt the moment the shutter clicked. It is with casual irony, therefore, that she extends the fingers of her right hand to the wall beside her, as if to steady herself. Behind her, on a pedestal, stands a three-quarter-length statue of a nude female body. Its head and arms are missing. It looks classical at first glance, and, at second glance, faintly Deco. This figure, too, is nicely balanced. Observing a contrast, Hoyningen-Huene has drawn an equation.

The contrast is between a human form that is living and one that is not. This difference is great, and so are the similarities that mitigate it: the balance, the clarity, the voluptuous calm, the authority displayed by both forms, the fleshly and the statuesque. This play of contrast and sameness appears in several other fashion photos made by Hoyningen-Huene in 1934. One of them shows the head of a generically classical male figure, probably of plaster. He looks to the right and downward. In front of him stands a female model. She brings an ocular equipoise to the image by gazing upward, to the left. Another shot from that year shows two female models in gowns. One sits and the other stands. Behind them a column rises, topped by a fragmented, armless torso of a man. Their chic is absolutely fresh—one could say crisp—and all the more assertive for being understated. Yet it offers no reproach to the aura of timelessness, of the eternal, given off by the unclothed statue.

The photographer induces opposites to get along so well that they appear to set aside their differences. Classical form—or at least form with an air of Mediterranean antiquity—begins to look stylish, up-to-date, fashionable. The forms of high fashion assume the look of the statuesque, the hallowed, the classical. Living flesh has the smoothness, the soft luster of ancient marble. Stone, it almost seems, is as supple as flesh. Hoyningen-Huene makes an equation between living and not living bodies, and the equation enchants, for in his photographs the bodies that do not live are not dead. They are statues. His imagery argues that in the realm of fashion there is no death. To enter the fashionable instant is to live forever.

Fashion’s glamour originates with this promise, which is nonsense, and so must not be examined closely if at all. It is best if the promise is never made explicit, or not in so many words. Let the images make it, as fashion photographs of the ’30s occasionally did. In 1939 Louise Dahl-Wolfe photographed a model after dark, at the far edge of an outdoor pool. She wears a striped, one-piece bathing suit. From the surface of the water filling the foreground of the image rises a pedestal bearing a statue of a woman, nude, in an approximation of the Medici Venus’ pose. Or maybe this is a cast of that statue; the focus is too soft, the light too dim, to permit certainty. Bright light and sharp focus are on the model, who stands with her back toward us, her head arranged to display her profile. Almost, but not quite, she gazes at the statue, as if tempted, but not compelled, to assess her competition, for the model too is statuesque—voluptuous in a leggy, wide-shouldered way. She too assumes a contrapposto stance that reminds us of the Renaissance, of ancient Rome, of classical Athens. She shares with the statue the task of embodying what we are invited to recognize as an eternal ideal. But she is also fashionable, or was in her moment, not only in dress but in anatomical type.

Shot on the grounds of a country house, Night Bathing proposes a way of life or, more grandly, a way of being, an existence dedicated to the proposition that, in crucial matters, certain bodies are equal to the most august and beautiful statues. From this equality came a fantasy with the power to shape manners, to set standards for social acceptance and rejection, and to provide a rationale for denying death. Because it withers in the light of conscious reflection, a fantasy like this must remain unconscious if it is to exert its force, which is easy to exaggerate. No photograph of a fashion model in the company of an antique-looking figure in plaster can persuade those who live a fashionable life that, like statues, they will never die. By juxtaposing flesh and statuary, Dahl-Wolfe and Hoyningen-Huene did no more than establish a presumption in favor of a soothing absurdity that no one would be silly enough to believe if it were presented in a straightforward way.

To elaborate this absurdity without bringing statuary into the picture was the achievement of Hoyningen-Huene’s friend and colleague, Horst P. Horst, who often directed models into poses that are elegant but subtly odd. One senses that it was difficult to lean to the side, or to raise and twist an arm, or to arch the back with the refined exaggeration that the photographer required. His models must have felt a strain, for their poses belong neither to ordinary life nor to the fashionable repertory of the times. Yet that strain and the capacity to feel it are denied by the quick shutter, which freezes the body into postures more statuesque than human. Horst arranged women to look alive and yet excused, by artifice, from death. Many fashion photographers give women that look. Horst showed his affinity to Hoyningen-Huene by borrowing his death-denying artifice from the poses of bodies cast in bronze and carved from stone. Among Horst’s rare mixtures of flesh and statuary is one focused on feet: a human pair and two made of plaster appear in an orderly, almost Spartan picture taken in 1939 for a Vogue layout on nail polish and foot care.

During the 1930s, when Hollywood paid close attention to high fashion, publicity photos published by the studios often showed a female model posed with careful artifice, lit even more carefully, and wearing a flagrantly chic outfit. Unlike the women seen in Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, these had familiar names — Marlene Dietrich, for example. Among the most successful of the Hollywood portrait photographers was George Hurrell, who hit on the gimmick of posing his subjects with statuary at about the same time that Hoyningen-Huene did. Or possibly one stole the idea from the other. In 1932 a small press in Berlin gathered some of Hoyningen-Huene’s portraits into a book that includes shots of women with introspective gazes nuzzling plaster casts of male heads sculpted in the antique manner. That year, Hurrell photographed Norma Shearer in profile, her hair marcelled to vaguely classical effect. With its bent knee, a nearby statuette echoes her bent elbow. In 1936 Hurrell took a picture of Gene Tierney slouching tensely on a sofa. Behind her sits a nude portrait bust. Again, the style is Deco, though smooth surfaces, formal symmetries, and missing arms make direct allusion to Greek and Roman Venuses.

During the 1930s there was much classicizing and neoclassicizing. In 1938 Madeleine Vionnet designed an evening dress with an Empire look. Two seasons earlier, Jean Patou decorated a cape with small, sharp pleats that pay homage to Mariano Fortuny and give the figure the fluted surface of a Doric column. Antiquity was a fad. The introduction to Hoyningen-Huene’s 1932 book announced that “the ancient world celebrated its entry into Montmartre to the beat of jazz, Ionic columns rose alongside of factory smokestacks, Greek temples alongside of railway tunnels and depots. Monte Carlo became Hellas, Hellas became Monte Carlo; and the ladies and gentlemen from Paris, London, New York, and Biarritz enjoyed the sunshine among pedestals from which the gods of ancient Greece looked down in naked silence, between snorting stallions and muscular heroes.”1

The timeliness of the timeless, the timelessness of the timely—these were ideas whose time had come. Everywhere the fashionable eye looked, it saw the statuesque, the eternal. On a 1936 trip down the Nile to equatorial Africa, Hoyningen-Huene took pictures and kept a diary. Of the Sudanese tribesmen he wrote, “They hardly move as they get photographed. They are like living sculpture. . . .The intrepid huntsman with his long spear, agile and wiry. The hero of legend from times immemorial.”2

Sensibilities like Hoyningen-Huene’s did not originate the taste for the immemorial. Sensibilities like his tend to originate nothing, for beginnings have an unpleasant way of implying ends, and such implications are never fashionable. They disrupt glamour’s seemingly all-sufficient now, which lasts only for a season, at most, even if nothing disrupts it. As imperatively as the fashionable need new images, new attitudes, they need these things to appear unbidden, with an aura of the inevitable. It’s all right if the new is the old recycled—if Lacroix revamps costumes from Bizet’s opera Carmen or Isaac Mizrahi redoes the ’60s. The fashionable know that, strictly speaking, there is nothing new under the sun. But they are not interested in speaking strictly or in living in a realm where the relations between words and their meanings, images and their meanings, come under close examination. They want to live in the realm of fashion, where it makes local sense to say that the latest new look really is new, even if it really isn’t, because, whatever its origins, there is something truly new about its absolute rightness for this moment, now.

To sustain this feeling of rightness, it helps to attribute the new look to inexplicable powers of inspiration. Calculations about market cycles and the maneuvers of publicity must somehow be understood as incidental, not of the essence. That is a great problem. The solution lies in the esthetic theories of Plato, who explained poetry as the result of an influx of the gods’ energies. So the fashionable are latter-day Platonists who wait impatiently to see which designer, which photographer, which tastemaker will be the next to suffer the divine madness, the baffling spell of creativity, that turns high fashion in a fresh direction.

Under cover of this Platonism, the new enters the realm of fashion along paths that can be traced as easily as they are ignored by those who wish to see the next hot look as an impenetrable mystery. By 1932 classicizing images had been drifting in fashion’s direction for more than a decade. The source was ’20s avant-garde painting, or painting by artists who began as avant-gardists and underwent conversions to tradition. Nearly all pictured statuesque figures of some sort. Many learned this theme from works by Giorgio de Chirico.

In his memoirs, de Chirico recalled that, by 1911, “I had heard confused talk about...the ‘revolutionary’ painters, Picasso, cubism [but] I had soon realized that what I was doing was completely different from what was being produced in Paris at that moment.”3 De Chirico was never sharply at odds with the Parisian avant-garde until the 1920s, and his use of irrational perspectives or enigmatic symbols, as well as his tendency toward abstraction, always qualified him as a Modernist. Yet he had a rationale for presenting himself as an antirevolutionary, a defender of tradition. For he believed that the past shelters a “superior reality” that modern life induces us to forget. Only a finely tuned temperament could glimpse this reality in common things and, with much inspired work, reveal it to others in the images of so-called “arte metafisica” (metaphysical art).4 Naturally, the revelation would be oblique, and this troubles the superior individual. De Chirico’s uneasiness haunts the empty piazzas of his pictures, which immerse his most stylishly avant-garde devices in the calm light of a nostalgic longing. Of all the motifs that de Chirico permeated with his deep and pretentious melancholy, few recurred more often than his images of statues.

De Chirico liked Arthur Schopenhauer’s advice to the Germans “not to place statues of their famous men on columns and pedestals of excessive height, but to place them on low platforms ‘like those they use in Italy, where every marble man seems to be on a level with the passersby and to walk with them.’”5 The point was not that well-placed statuary makes the forms of monumental art more familiar, less intimidating. De Chirico proposed, instead, that the sensibility attuned to a “superior reality” sees itself reflected in grandiose marble figures like the ones that occupy so many of the immense, deserted thoroughfares in his cityscapes.

Statues and mannequins make regular appearances in pictures by Carlo Carrà and de Chirico’s brother, Alberto Savinio, the other leading members of the Scuola Metafisica. Guided by this “Metaphysical School,” European painters of the 1920s—in Italy, the Novecento Italiano (Italian twentieth-century) group; in Germany, proponents of the Neue Sachlichkeit (the “new objectivity”), and, throughout the continent, Magic Realists of all sorts—gave human bodies the look of automatons and robots, articulated dummies, and of course monumental statues. This period felt a rage for classical serenity, and naturally de Chirico was not responsible for all of it.

Pablo Picasso had his own reasons for devising a neoclassical, Ingresque style in 1918 and a more blatantly classicizing one—an elephantine Hellenism—in 1921. Nor did Salvador Dali and other Catalonian Modernists require de Chirico’s example to lead them to a celebration of their classical “Latin” past. Yet, of all the forces that charged classical imagery with glamour in the eyes of artists in the ’20s, de Chirico’s nostalgia for tradition was the most powerful.

Mario Sironi’s images of statues stand in useful contrast to Hoyningen-Huene’s. After a brief flirtation with the Scuola Metafisica, in 1920 Sironi helped write a manifesto, Contro tutti i ritorni in pittura (Against all nostalgia in painting). This was an attack on the effort to reconcile the forward rush of the avant-garde with the backward pull exerted by the authority of “the eternal laws of equilibrium.”6 Sironi demanded “a new structural synthesis” unshaped by history,7 yet his pictures of the early ’20s mix old and new in about the same proportions one sees in de Chirico’s urban scenes of the same period. De Chirico blends his ingredients with finesse; Sironi was more awkward, sometimes deliberately so. He wanted his pictures to be harsh. De Chirico let his politics be obscure. Like many other former avant-gardists, Sironi was not so coy. An enthusiastic nationalist, he hoped for a restoration of Italian power. These hopes led him rightward, to the Novecento, a group of painters in outspoken sympathy with Italian fascism.8 This loosely knit band of artists felt that Modern progress had been too quick, too liberating, too disorienting. The world, they feared, was unstable, and they believed artists had a responsibility to help it regain its equilibrium: pictorial order could show this way to social discipline.

The image of a woman fills the foreground of La modella dello scultore (The sculptor’s model), which Sironi painted around 1923-24. Like her severe features, the folds of her white dress ask to be called classical. Behind her stands a piece of studio apparatus, a full-length, articulated figure rendered in shades of gray that suggest marble. Line is sharp, tone modulates with sobriety. With its subtly adjusted posture and the tilt of its head, this statuesque figure looks human. With her steady gaze and monumental stillness, the sculptor’s model is statuesque.

Le amiche (The friends, 1924), a canvas by another Novecento member, Ubaldo Oppi, shows two full-bodied young women in severely cut evening gowns with their arms around each other’s shoulders. Behind them is a mannered rendering of a statue based on the Mattei Amazon. The women’s clothes look almost stylish, tempting one to suppose that Oppi consulted a fashion magazine while planning this picture. Yet here, as in other works by the Novecento painters, the effect is not entirely chic. It is solemn, even portentous. For Oppi and his colleagues did not want to delight a small, sophisticated audience; they addressed themselves to the Italian Patria, the fatherland.

Borrowing their view of history from Italian fascism, the artists of the Novecento believed that a glorious past implied a triumphant destiny. Therefore they looked for the prototypes of a revitalized citizenry among the monuments of ancient Rome, and they struggled to classicize the Italian sensibility, so that the people could understand the Novecento’s promise: with the return to order, living in the moment would be the same as living in history. Human form would so fully recover its ancient dignity that a body of flesh immersed in time would be equivalent to a body of marble preserved by history and rendered significant by traditions once sacrificed to modern life. Thus, in the Novecento’s version of the fascist future, the bodies that are not living will not be dead: they will be statues. There will be no death, or only the death necessary to maintain the equation of history and the present, of classical statue and fascist body. A policy this mad cannot be promulgated openly, not even during the most bizarre episodes of a fascist regime. It can only be implied through images, and the Novecento painters were only too happy to oblige.

De Chirico (who felt close enough to the Novecento artists to exhibit with them in 1926) also equated flesh and stone. Still, his variant of the equation is ironic, unlike Sironi’s or Oppi’s. I am not arguing that de Chirico’s irony redeems his ambivalence about fascism. I am arguing that the tone of his pictures is elegiac. De Chirico believed that hope of joining history and the present was lost, destroyed forever by World War I. At most, the artist could recall the hope, and mourn it. Order, tradition, and the classical heritage—all were shattered by the velocity of modern progress. Assuming the role of perpetual mourner, de Chirico saw himself as a touch ludicrous and therefore presumptuous when invoking the classical past. Not so the painters of the Novecento, who were earnest, even righteous, in serving their cause.

There is also a lightweight sort of earnestness to images by Hoyningen-Huene and Horst. Like the Italian painters, these fashion photographers induced bodies and statues to exchange traits. So it would be easy enough to argue that images of antique heads in the pages of Vogue signal the presence of cryptofascism in the world of ’30s haute couture. But I think that only an excessive taste for scandal would lead to this conclusion. The point here is that fascist polemics offered a vision of history: a cycle was to be completed, the old was to be made new. The polemics of fashion are ahistorical, so a classical motif in a photo by Hoyningen-Huene cannot bear the meaning it bears in a painting by a member of the Novecento. When Hoyningen-Huene equated the body of a model with an ancient statue, he did not wish to bring the past to the viewer’s mind. His only purpose was to trigger a few quick, shallow reflexes, chiefly, a delectation of clean line and a respect for the authority of classical form. Deeper responses would interfere with the image’s fragile argument for the equivalence of new fashion and timeless order. Since Hoyningen-Huene offers the classical past as pure image, not as a glorious national heritage, his photographs make no promises about the future, fascist or otherwise. In fact they acknowledge the future no more fully than they recognize the past. In fashion only now, the immediate moment counts.

Of course the fashionable remember old fashions and wonder what will come next, but they prefer not to see the past and future in any crucial relation to the present. For a decade or so, the fashion magazines have noted revivalist tendencies in new designs and sometimes a photolayout spans more than half a century—Jean Harlow in a negligee for example, will appear beside a contemporary model wearing an updated version of the movie star’s outfit. Juxtapositions like these do not so much appeal to history as deny it, for they acknowledge this past only as a decorative adjunct to the present. Likewise, Hoyningen-Huene’s antiquity was just a motif that he found useful for a few years during the 1930s. As the prose in fashion magazines tends toward disconnected strings of adjectives and nouns, so sensibilities attuned to fashion are disinclined to notice links between decades or epochs. They try not to get tangled in the syntax of history, so to speak. Therefore the fashionable world of the 1930s could accept a theme from painters of the ’20s, some of them fascists, and not be discomfited by the theme’s historical argument. By juxtaposing statue and body, Sironi supported a totalitarian plan for repairing the damage of World War I. With the same juxtaposition, Hoyningen-Huene supported something different, for his images do not recognize history. They present a region of sensibility where World War I did not occur. So, for the fashionable, there was no ruined order to renew. There was only the perennial order and the need to recognize it, now, as having always been in effect.

More devastating than the First World War, the Second incited no artists and writers to issue loud calls for a renewed order. Images of statuary did not crowd the works of painters in the ’40s or the ’50s, so none migrated to fashion photography. Yet this story has a coda. At the beginning of the ’80s photolayouts in fashion magazines began, once again, to mix models and classical-looking statuary. Using the same device, ads sometimes mixed accessories—jewelry, purses, shoes—with ancient forms. Now and then there was a direct allusion to Hoyningen-Huene, but more often the juxtaposition of the ancient and the brand-new felt perfunctory, a gimmick that looked exhausted the moment it was dusted off and put back to work. Still, antiquity has prestige, and in the ’80s a remarkable number of art directors nurtured the hope that some of its aura would infiltrate new things. That hope also arose in certain artists. Julian Schnabel liked, for a time, to throw images of ancient statues into his jumble. Similar images popped up in paintings by Jim Sullivan, Mark Tansey, and others. George Segal made a fragmentary cast of a woman with her hands arranged in the modest gesture of the Medici Venus.9

In 1983 Komar and Melamid painted the Discobolus, gave him a Nazi arm band, and surrounded his head with a halo of graffiti. Fascist regimentation degrades the classical and, the artists suggest, uninhibited self-expression does the same. Which, they ask, is worse? Little recent classicizing has been so pointed. Most of it looks like a befuddled yet opportunistic response to the slackening of avant-garde momentum. If art is not going forward, why not go backward? Why not go all the way back to the beginnings of Western culture for some especially weighty motifs? Prodded by the same questions, architects and interior designers launched mild fads for approximations of classical ornament. In the auction houses, there was a flurry of interest in neoclassical garden sculpture. As images of tradition overflowed the Reaganite ’80s, their meanings mingled and grew weak. In an ad for sporty canvas-and-leather purses, a chunk of antique stonework signifies little more than approval for stable, all-American family values at the upper end of the market, which is about what the presence of a split-rail fence signifies in an ad for Ralph Lauren’s quasi cowboy outfits. Some recent fashion layouts, commercial and editorial, have tried to juxtapose statuary and flesh with Hoyningen-Huene’s serene panache, but only Fendi’s advertisements succeed.

The Fendi layouts, photographed by Sheila Metzner, pattern themselves on Hoyningen-Huene’s pictures of women having tête-à-têtes with classicizing statues of male heads. What was austere black and white in 1932 appears now in a full range of colors keyed to a tawny beige. Here, marble is not icy but warm, like the woman’s flesh. As the statue’s eyes are blank, so hers are closed. His lips are still, naturally, but no stiller than hers as, in a trance of anticipation, they prepare for contact. Stone and flesh, the ancient and the new, the supposedly timeless and the indisputably timely—in this image, as in Hoyningen-Huene’s, contraries are united, and once more a promise is made. Fashion, designed to render itself obsolete, to kill itself off, will guide you into the realm of eternal life.

Carter Ratcliff is a writer who lives in New York. He is working on a book on postwar American painting.


1. Hoyningen-Huene: Meisterbildnisse, intro. by H. K. Frenzel, Berlin, 1932, quoted in William A. Ewing, The Photographic Art of Hoyningen-Huene, New York: Rizzoli, 1986, p. 39.
2. Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, African Mirage: The Record of a Journey, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938, p. 13.
3. Giorgio de Chirico, The Memoirs of Giorgio de Chirico, trans. Margaret Crosland, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971, p. 64.
4. De Chirico, “Sull’arte metafisica,” 1919, reprinted in Massimo Carrà, Metaphysical Art, trans. Caroline Tisdall, New York and Washington, D.C.: Praeger Publishers, 1971, p. 91.
5. Ibid., p. 90.
6. Léonce Rosenberg, “Tradition and Cubism,” 1919, reprinted in Edward F. Fry, Cubism, New York and Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1966, p. 150.
7. Mario Sironi, “Contro tutti i ritorni in pittura,” 1920. For a discussion of this manifesto and Sironi’s career, see Elizabeth Cowling and Jennifer Mundy, On Classic Ground: Picasso, Leger, de Chirico and the New Classicism 1910–1930, exhibition catalogue, London: Tate Gallery, 1990, pp. 240–41.
8. Among others in the group, in addition to Sironi, were Carlo Carrà, Achille Funi, Ubaldo Oppi, and Leonardo Dudreville.
9. See Barbara C. Matilsky, Classical Myth and Imagery in Contemporary Art, exhibition catalogue, New York: Queens Museum, 1988.