Contra la moda toda lucha es inútil.
Fashion: A despot whom the wise ridicule and obey.
The haute couture is a degenerate institution propped up by a sycophantic press.
What most of us immediately associate with the word fashion is its ephemeral nature, likewise its capacity to generate irrational attachment. The most familiar object of such an attachment is clothes, anything from haute couture to jeans with holes scratched out at the knees, where the banal nature of the product is disguised (or in fact celebrated) by brand marketing. Moreover the emetic cult of catwalk celebrity and the narcissistic economy of fashion design would collapse if the majority, at any rate the majority of women, became so contented with last year’s fashion that they just decided to keep their closets unreformed. “The fashion industry is loath to see many days go by,” wrote Kennedy Fraser in The Fashionable Mind (1981), “without trumpeting new eras, and whenever a style emerges, or reappears after an absence, it hurries to coin a title before shoppers can rummage sinfully in closets.” “Fashion,” remarked the Queen of Romania dourly, “exists for women with no taste, just as etiquette is for people with no breeding.”
Happily for the industry, the particular nature of what has been tweaked to make a new frock is less important than the necessity of its purchasers to be, and be seen to be, up with the latest fashion. To quote Fraser again:
If, for many women, the choice of clothes is an anxious, irrational affair, it is made doubly so by our craving to be fashionable. The vagaries of fashion are a denial of constant aesthetic standards, objective ideas of grace or flattery, and the fact that women’s bodies remain much the same from one season to the next.
Dressing in fashion is therefore a matter of status as much as aesthetics, part of what Thorstein Veblen described as “conspicuous consumption”, now expanded to tempt those on lesser incomes with what the drugs industry calls “generic” versions of the stuff paraded before the fakes, cynics, psychopaths and allegedly creative geniuses at the annual fashion shows.
In Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) Veblen explained that, after the second industrial revolution, the emergent nouveaux riches established their social status through patterns of consumption, a conscious attempt to distance themselves from the less well-off and advertise their position in “the leisure class”. An unashamed contemporary demonstration of this phenomenon is afforded by a weekend supplement of the Financial Times stuffed with advertorial matter and the glossiest of glossy pictures, which emphasises the nature of the readership it aims at through its title, How to Spend It. Its critics have dubbed it the “Argos catalogue for the 1 per cent” (Argos being a downmarket mail order business), and it specialises in ludicrous and ludicrously priced goods for the über-rich, especially alpha males (a Rolex Steve McQueen Explorer II watch at £20,000, which is ridiculously cheap when you could instead buy a Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega watch for £2 million; or how about a Maybach Exelero car at £6 million or a Learjet at the giveaway price of £550,000?). Two things are notable about this supplement: first, the rest of the FT is emphatically liberal, even leftist, in its editorials, comment and news coverage. Second, the magazine is by far the most profitable part of the paper and indeed the editor apparently lamented recently that they hadn’t invented another money-spinner like How to Spend It.
This situation mirrors a larger paradox whereby today (and very much in the columns of the FT itself) condemnation of “inequality” is all the rage, especially among rich leftists. Fashion needs to be both a leader and a follower: it must reflect social aspiration, but must also pay heed to the image of “concern”. It sits uneasily between ostentation and the shibboleths of political correctness, an industry that thrives on inequality trying to establish its credentials as the great leveller. However, as W.S. Gilbert put it, “When everyone is somebody, no one’s anybody.” And as James Laver put it in his classic work on fashion in 1945, “contrary to the expectations of Liberal reformers in the nineteenth century, the more you abolish differences of caste and rank, the more desperate does the struggle for chic become, because it is only so that a woman can demonstrate superiority”.
The truth of this is underlined when we learn that, for example, Burberry incinerated £28 million worth of unsold product in 2017-18 alone and £90 million worth over the last five years. Partly this is to ensure, as the firm candidly admitted, that the “wrong sort of person” should not be seen wearing Burberry coats after having obtained them from a discount outlet. Richemont has apparently destroyed £400 million worth of luxury watches over two years because of excess stock in the Asian market. Nike has said it smeared green paint over trainers to make them unsaleable at cheaper prices. Further down the pecking order, even the Swedish clothing company H&M incinerates so much stuff that it helps to heat a small Swedish town, although it claims that this is imperfect stock. However that may be, fashion being dependent on brand snobbery makes it a prime suspect in the war against the seamy and wasteful side of capitalism, whereby environmental considerations can easily be sacrificed to profit and customer aspiration. Not that the public is entitled to feel smug, having binned £12.5 billion worth of clothes last year, some 300,000 tons of it ending up in landfill.
On the other hand, some contemporary brands attempt to ape the fashionably rebellious, promoting a cult of inverted snobbism. On the whole, the spectacle of the privileged trying (ostentatiously) to dress down is not particularly edifying, as Melania Trump discovered when she ventured out wearing a grungy jacket with “I really don’t care, do u?” written on the back at the very moment when children of illegal Mexican immigrants were being separated from their parents. This was seized upon by Trump opponents, who claimed that it showed an unrepentant lack of compassion, and it prompted a fashion backlash: the subsequent sale of T-shirts with the slogan “I really do care, don’t u?” raised a lot of money for the sequestered children. The “fashion statement” in such examples is also a political statement, like a Che Guevara beret, or, under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the luxurious whiskers sported in Vienna by Franz Joseph lookalikes (usually concierges, porters and other public-facing employees). With such statements your personal allegiance can be openly or defiantly advertised.
The politics of dress
The political statement through dress can however be subject to radical transformations. An Austrian example is the taste for Tracht, that is, the style of traditional costume preferred by country people, which the liberal Erzherzog Johann, Governor of Styria, adopted as his preferred attire in the first half of the nineteenth century. Johann was a brother of the none-too-liberal Emperor Franz I (of Austria) and indeed had to contend with obstruction from that quarter when he decided to marry Anna Plochl, the daughter of the Styrian postmaster at Aussee. Wearing the elegant Steireranzug (Styrian suit) was a deliberate symbolisation of his attempt to be close to his people, and subsequently the taste for it percolated through to the Vienna court under Franz Joseph. Soon enthusiasm for Volkstracht took wing: in 1893 the Tyroler Trachten Verein was founded, partly stimulated by the interest shown in Tracht by well-to-do tourists to Austria. However, here is where the ironies begin: Tracht, like the famous Loden coat of Salzburg, was made by Jewish tailors, and assimilated Jews of the upper bourgeoisie and minor aristocracy were fond of wearing it. This affronted the Nazis and in 1938 a Trachtverbot (prohibition of wearing Tracht) was promulgated for Jews. Thereafter the Nazis adopted it as a classic (Southern German) nationalist form of dress, leaving a stigma from which it has never quite recovered.
Two points are worth noting about this tortuous history: the first is that the associations or acceptability of a particular style of dress can shift quite radically in the light of political or social changes. For example, we used to see war films where some of our heroic British submarine officers wore duffel coats that were also occasionally affected by Churchill. The coat was knee-length, had very large pockets and was fastened with toggles—an aesthetic “fashion statement” it was not. It was spacious enough to fit over another coat if necessary and the famous wooden toggles allowed it to be fastened when wearing heavy gloves, while the capacious hood fitted over a peaked cap. However, deprived of its association with war heroes, the duffel coat frankly looks pretty naff in peacetime, although Susannah Conway gallantly defends it as an enduring fashion item because there is, or was, a cashmere Aquascutum duffel coat; also trend-setting pop star Liam Gallagher favours the duffel, although his thousands of followers appear to be sitting this one out. Apparently it was also mysteriously popular with the Japanese (40 per cent of the market for its main producer, Gloverall, in the 1990s), and a generation of children has vicariously enjoyed it due to its association with the delightful Paddington Bear, whose adventures were first brought to us in 1958.
In reality duffels have evolved into something more than an iconic weather-defying form of protection for naval commanders and are now made, when at all, from “cashmere, neoprene, nylon and elysian”, which is a far cry from our man in the conning tower braving a North Atlantic storm. “The duffel is enjoying a renaissance thanks to Hedi Slimane’s ultra-luxurious autumn/winter reinvention of the old favourite for Saint Laurent,” claimed the Daily Telegraph in 2013, with a photo of the same costing a mere £1490. However, turning a decidedly unsexy functional item into a fashion statement is hard work and one doubts that even the combined endorsements of Gallagher, Churchill and Paddington Bear can really rescue the duffel, whose original density recalled the heavy woollen garments traditionally manufactured in the Belgian town of Duffel. Fashion from Belgium? Surely you must be joking?
The fate of the duffel may be compared with that of the Gannex raincoat, which became the trademark of Socialist Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s due to his friendship with its maker, a Yorkshire entrepreneur called Joseph Kagan. The PM’s endorsement did wonders for exports of the Gannex, whose peculiarity was that it had a nylon outer skin and a woollen internal one separated by an air pocket. Although it was rather ugly, it became a fashion icon and was worn by Lyndon Johnson, Mao Zedong, Nikita Khrushchev—and even the British royals. (The ultimate seal of aspirant glamour was bestowed upon it when the fashion-conscious royal corgis were fitted with Gannex raincoats.)
Top of form
On the other hand, a political association may kill off a fashion altogether for a while—one thinks of the “sinister” dark leather coats that the licensed thugs of communism favoured in Central and Eastern Europe, but which you virtually never see today (this notwithstanding that “retro-communist” style is slowly making a comeback as the memories of Stalinist savagery fade). Then again, in Fascinating Fascism (1975), Susan Sontag explored the fascist equivalent of communist chic, which most certainly has made a comeback, albeit mostly in the fairly rarefied field of sado-masochism. As the Weimar Republic wallowed in sexual licence, the up-and-coming Nazis were advancing a subliminally homosexual counter-cultural look “that fetishized boots and leather and muscles and racial superiority, which then (as now) had a special appeal for inadequate people”.
In this remarkable essay Sontag illuminated how the ideals of fascism itself, usually with suitably disingenuous editing, have crept back into fashion:
It is generally thought that National Socialism stands only for brutishness and terror. But this is not true. National Socialism—or, more broadly, fascism—also stands for an ideal, and one that is also persistent today, under other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders).
The connection with submerged sexuality is also apparent, says Sontag, in the appeal for the sado-masochism community of SS regalia and objects associated with inter alia Nazi violence:
In the sex shops, the baths, the leather bars, the brothels, people are dragging out their gear. But why? Why has Nazi Germany, which was a sexually repressive society, become erotic? How could a regime which persecuted homosexuals become a gay turn-on? …
Sadomasochism has always been an experience in which sex becomes detached from personality, severed from relationships, from love. It should not be surprising that it has become attached to Nazi symbolism in recent years. Never before in history was the relation of masters and slaves realized with so consciously artistic a design. Sade had to make up his theater of punishment and delight from scratch, improvising the decor and costumes and blasphemous rites. Now there is a master scenario available to everyone. The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.
Contemplating such lingering allure, one can’t help wondering what will happen to the plain Maoist tunic worn by the Chinese nomenklatura (same style as hoi polloi, but much better quality cloth), when and if communism fades away in China and the crimes of Mao and his successors can be openly discussed. In fact, although Mao adopted this tunic as a symbol of proletarian unity, it was originally popularised by Sun Yat-sen, who founded the Republic of China after the demise of the imperial dynasty. Its political symbolism was therefore not all that different from what Mao wanted, so it survived, although becoming less popular during the ideological adjustment of the Deng Xiaoping era. Perhaps significantly, it has made something of a comeback under Xi Jinping, though evidently not among the sort of Western intellectuals who formerly sported it to show their solidarity with the great socialist experiment that destroyed so many millions of lives.
One of its main purposes originally was to provide an alternative to the Western business suit, which the capitalist Japanese had adopted (although in fact Sun Yat-sen had lived in Japan and retained some elements of Westernising influence in his own tunic). It also has significant symbolic importance: the four pockets supposedly represent the Four Virtues cited in the classic Guanzi: Propriety, Justice, Honesty and Shame. The five front buttons represented the five Yuans (branches of government), while the three cuff-buttons symbolise Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People: Nationalism, Democracy and People’s Livelihood. The jacket is in a single piece, connoting China’s unity and peace. In view of this, today’s “Mao jacket” is not loaded with the associations of horror evoked by (invariably militaristic) fascist attire, even though it was worn, and insisted upon for the population, by one of history’s greatest murderers. Indeed it remains a sort of national costume adopted by China’s paramount leaders on formal occasions and by its diplomats. Sadly, it is a barren of inspiration for sado-masochists.
Top down or bottom up?
The second—more interesting—point about the Austrian Tracht is that it is a comparatively rare example of fashion trickling upwards from its “völkisch” base, whereas art historians will tell you that most design trickles from above to below in society. Something similar happened with the Viennese waltz, which had its origins in the peasant Ländler of Oberösterreich, but which eventually found acceptance in a sanitised salon version at the highest levels of society. This was an entirely authentic transformation helped by some composers of genius; its enthusiastic adoption across all levels of society contrasts with the rather self-conscious artefacts of the arts-and-crafts movement at the turn of the twentieth century, which were often the products of middle-class artists infusing folk design with utopian socialist notions.
The modern version of “trickle up” does not however work in the same way, or often at all. For example, the cult of ugliness manifest in “punk” or “grunge” music and clothes is good for an anti-glamour article or two in the faux-democratic glossies, but this rather tends to emphasise that it is satirising just such publications and their clientele. In fact the designer Vivienne Westwood, whose huge success started with the commercialisation of punk, moved on from that rebarbative style to a so-called “Tatler girl” look that parodied the clothes of upper-class girls, many of whom nevertheless seemed happy to purchase a parodic representation of themselves. Next up from Westwood was the mini-crini, an abbreviated version of the Victorian crinoline. Its mini-length and puffball skirts were seen by some as consciously antithetical, the crinoline recalling a “mythology of restriction and encumbrance in woman’s dress”, while the mini-skirt represented an “equally dubious mythology of liberation”.
Of course this contradiction may be more apparent than real, since erogenous zones lie entirely in the eye of the beholder—to some, a flash of ankle or a pair of lovely jade eyes peeping out of the slits in a niqab may represent the height of eroticism. Westwood’s career spans the eras of the mini-skirt (known disrespectfully as the “pussy pelmet”), the reversion to demure Victorian styles via Laura Ashley, and then another violent lurch to crotch and buttock emphasis with “hot pants”. “The female body,” wrote James Laver:
consists of a series of sterilised zones, which are those exposed by the fashion that is just going out, and an erogenous zone, which will be the point of interest for the fashion which is just coming in. This erogenous zone is always shifting, and it is the business of fashion to pursue it, without ever actually catching it up. It is obvious that if you really catch it up you are immediately arrested for indecent exposure. If you almost catch it up, you are celebrated as a leader of fashion.
Westwood herself was adept at the art of that pursuit, whether in terms of eroticism or fashionable attitudes, social and political. Her fashion leadership resembled that of the French socialist leader in 1968 who famously defined his role with the proclamation, “I am their leader, I must follow them!” Haute couture was never like that; as Kennedy Fraser explains, the “new generation of ready-to-wear designers—the closest thing we now have to fashion leadership—[takes pride] in interpreting the often contradictory inclinations of the masses rather than commanding a receptive elite”. Moreover Westwood and a few others have brilliantly caught the zeitgeist, where contemporary works of art, however feeble, are made immune to criticism by claiming to embody “an ironic statement”. The urban English elite, with its mockney accent and carefully cultivated egalitarianism, embraces this sort of commercial exploitation concealed beneath a pose of social awareness precisely because it mirrors its own modus operandi. Westwood loudly proclaimed her own political commitments to the environment, to the battle against climate change, and even to a critique of the consumerism that her own burgeoning empire was encouraging. Her heroes are a roll-call of fashionable counter-culture: Noam Chomsky, Julian Assange, Bradley (Chelsea) Manning. After (for her followers) an embarrassing flirtation with the Conservatives, she signed up as a radical Green; and after falling out with the Greens, she became a gushing supporter of Saint Jeremy Corbyn.
Inevitably the contradictions between commerce and virtue signalling came to haunt the by-now “Dame” Vivienne Westwood, whose commercial success had catapulted her into the Establishment. Although she was fond of lecturing the public on the evils of excessive consumerism, it was pointed out that her company had opened a three-storey outlet in midtown Manhattan in late 2015.That was to be followed in 2016 by a new 3200-square-foot shop and company offices in Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris. It transpired that the firm had also set up an offshore entity in Luxembourg to avoid tax. In 2013, Eluxe Magazine, which promoted “sustainable fashion”, revealed that Westwood had lines made in China which incorporated PVC, polyester, rayon and viscose, all allegedly derived from harmful chemicals. Eluxe also pointed out that, despite Westwood urging consumers to “buy less”, her company produced nine collections a year (compared to the average designer’s two). Her excuse seemed even lamer than mega-hypocrites at Facebook and Google trying to square bowing to Chinese censorship with their much vaunted company values: “I don’t feel comfortable defending my clothes. But if you’ve got the money to afford them, then buy something from me. Just don’t buy too much.” Finally she was exposed in the satirical magazine Private Eye and elsewhere for using unpaid interns and requiring them to work over forty hours per week.
Westwood’s double standards and virtue signalling are very twenty-first-century, a world in which mission statements, mendacious branding and “greenwashing” pullulate. She has been rewarded for her counter-cultural posturing by the capitalist system she claims is so wicked, but which she exploits with such remarkable success. This speaks to a wider resurgence of what Tom Wolfe memorably described as radical chic—even Teen Vogue has commemorated the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth with a gushing article describing how he exposed the evils of capitalism (but the article was notably silent about the cruel disaster of Marxism once it was actually applied under communism). All this, as Toby Young remarked, “in a publication that depends on its advertising revenue on gulling teenage girls into spending hundreds of dollars on tat produced in Mauritian sweatshops”.
The disconnect between a frightening reality and its sanitised celebration by amoral and greedy Tartuffes defines a shallow, image-conscious world where the vicarious has driven out the authentic. “The greatest disservice that fashion does,” writes Kennedy Fraser, “is to turn life’s most precious and fragile assets into marketable products of transient worth.” Fashion reflects in a startlingly vivid manner the society in which it is produced, which nowadays is the have-your-cake-and-eat-it society. Virtue signalling and identity politics provide excellent cover for sharp practice and greed. This strikes a chord in a narcissistic and sanctimonious environment where the only important thing is to feel good about yourself, for which there is ready-made palette of slogans to adopt. As Goethe put it, “everybody wants to be somebody; nobody wants to grow”.
Nicholas T. Parsons is a freelance author, translator and editor based in Vienna. Among his books is Worth the Detour: A History of the Guidebook.