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Fashionable Dress

ISSUE:  Spring 1978
Dress and Society 1560—1970. By Geoffrey Squire, Viking $16.95.

Geoffrey Squire’s philosophy of clothes is epitomized by his initial epigraphs—the traditional street cry “Clothes; clothes; any old clothes?” followed by a quotation from Edvard Munch to the effect that the way we see depends on our mood and weather and another from Jung, which concludes with the paradox that “the image of the world is a projection of the world of the self, as the latter is an introjection of the world.” Each epigraph has bearing on Squire’s assumptions, and taken together, from the street to epistemology, they metaphorically duplicate his position.

Assuming dress to be a minor art form, he reminds us by the street cry that it is, however, more prone to obsolescence, to be beached by the tides of taste, than any other. Like Cinderella’s ball gown returning to rags at midnight, the beauty of fashionable dress is the effect of glamour in the old sense of the word—a magic spell (or enthrallment puritans and cynics would have it.) Glamour wears off, the impression made by the dress initially can never be regained, for the magic spell is woven from the contemporary mood and social climate. Beauty is in the seeing, not in the being: the heavily padded shoulders, the peg-bottomed pants, and the boned strapless bodices of the fifties bemuse but do not enchant us as they did their wearers.(The revival of the fashions of the recent past or the wearing of antique clothes is not a contradiction of the view that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but rather a confirmation, for the attraction of the old, aside from cheapness and workmanship, lies in its looking new again.)

For a style to catch on, however, it must imaginatively express the personality of the period, embody its atmosphere and aspirations. Jung’s paradox is inescapable; as with any other art form, fashionable dress is both microcosm and macrocosm; it appeals because of the way we see ourselves and it incorporates our conception of ourselves. This paradox rescues us from a hopeless solipsism, and “old clothes”— clothes divested of the glamour of fashion—become artifacts, the study of which reveals the characteristics of the age. Is Squire merely tricking up the shopworn proposition that “dress” is a reflection of society?

The serious student of clothes and the compiler of fashion plates for the coffee-table book alike assume a connection between dress and culture. The title of the encyclopedic Modes and Manners of the Nineteenth Century (1909, 1927) by the historians Max Van Boehn and Oskar Fischel proclaims its social concern. Thorstein Veblen and more recently Quentin Bell in his book On Human Finery (1949, 1976), extending Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption” analysis, assert a causal relation between the rise of capitalism and the inception of fashion in Europe. James Laver, the leading exponent of the seductive theory of dress, correlates sexual allure with changing mores. Squire’s originality is in his treatment of dress both as an art form with its own inherent advantages and limitations and as a reflection of its period; its history is therefore as much a matter of convention and revolt against inherited forms as it is an expression of societal needs, values, and technological advances. While he sensitively traces the insular development of dress, which proceeds at its own pace, for the arts do not exhibit at the same time all the same period traits, he demonstrates how closely style in dress corresponds to the period style in the other arts.

Using painting, architecture, and landscape gardens as well as literature, he establishes a family profile on the model of Panofsky for each style and then examines the parallels in clothing. His observations on Mannerism are typical, though difficult to summarize without the benefit of his handsomely reproduced illustrations of costumes, paintings, and fashion plates. Mannerist artists carried the Renaissance tendency to improve and idealize the human figure to an extreme and played havoc with the rational organization of space and proportions. Ambiguity, contrariety, and complicated symbolic artifice are some of its other features. Correspondingly, clothes ceased to be molded to the body or draped upon it in the Renaissance mode but by the 1540’s “impressed it firmly and encased it in a rigid abstract shell.” The man appeared as an isosceles triangle on its point and the woman a broad-based cone, both shapes being abstract forms of the human body sexually differentiated. The codpiece developed from a triangular gusset into “an abstraction of the male organ—rigidly padded—so that the entire population of [fashionable] Europe above the age of three appeared to be suffering a severe epidemic of priapism.” By the latter quarter of the 16th century, the ideal perfection of the human body is contradicted: the doublet of a peapod shape suggests the belly of middle age while the legs in close fitting hose are youthfully slender, The neck ruff or band cut the head off from the rest of the body, and a comparable exaggeration of sleeves separated the arms from the trunk, suggesting that the whole was conceived as an aggregation of parts rather than as an entity in which parts depend on the whole. Squire is less than convincing in relating this “attitude of aggregation” to a Gothic revival of poetry at the end of the 16th century, but he succeeds otherwise, showing how Mannerist dress represents the disintegrative forces at work at the time and how its complex surface patterns and textures form a visual equivalent of a verbal style.

Squire’s informative and unpretentiously interdisciplinary book is perhaps the most promising sign of a growing recognition of the importance of dress as an art object and of the value of relating it to other expressions of the creative imagination. The moralistic belief lightly mocked by Jane Austen that “dress is at all times a frivolous distinction” and the conventional association of fashion with femininity, which Squire dates as developing in the 18th century, have lost some of their force, Now that we are in a period when it is questionable if fashion in the old sense exists at all, a new consciousness of dress as an art form is in the making, as attested by recent exhibits in New York, The unusual mountings of the Russian costumes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and of the exhibit called The Look at the Fashion Institute of Technology were designed not only for visual effect but to illustrate conceptions about clothes and their wearers. Bill Cunningham’s Facades, also at the Fashion Institute, consisted of photographs of a live model in antique clothes juxtaposed to buildings in a corresponding style, the flare of a velvet cap of the 1890’s echoing the exuberance of the entrance to a Beaux Arts structure.

As a study of taste, Squire’s book has implications beyond its primary subject, raising questions common to the arts, especially that of universal versus relative aesthetic values. Unfortunately, he backs away from the contemporary problem of whether or not post-modern art is a break with the Western tradition since the Renaissance or a continuation in a different guise. His analysis of the 20th century is drastically foreshortened—so much so that one wonders why he nominally included the decade of the sixties. It would be possible, however, to infer from his discussion of recurring traits of style that a hierarchy of permanent aesthetic values exists and that the motives of dress today are not as radically different from the past as they appear to be. I hope Squire takes up the challenge of the contemporary in another book. If not, he has provided for others a provocative point of departure.


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