THOSE BEAUTIFUL SHOES OF CATHERINE DENEUVE by Kevin Kopelson
(1) EUPHORIA – Fashion today? Well, it almost always used to mean euphoria. It almost always, that is, meant lightness. How so? By using silk or chiffon, of course, or synthetics that imitate them, and also through what I’ll once again call “multiplication” – things like petticoats or lace. So you see, such euphoria was only ever feminine. But this, I notice, is no longer true. Fashion no longer means euphoria – or lightness – alone. And when it does, such lightness might well be masculine: from Anna Pavlova on point to Vaslav Nijinsky in flight, from her “Dying Swan” to his “Spectre of the Rose.” On the other hand, such lightness can transcend gender – much as, say, a Brancusi statue does.
Nor was it the clothing alone that seemed light. Fashion spreads – in magazines like Vogue – would of course present it this way. They’d write things like: “Gauze, organza, voile, and cotton muslin, summer is here” or “She adores those rustling petticoats.” Now, though, spreads are far more visual – as is the culture in general. They rely – rather heavily – on images. They rely, moreover, on the interplay of image and text, much as one presents oneself as a tricky combination of clothing and comportment.
Why, though? Why should so many people in the industry – from designers to photographers – work so hard to make us feel clothes lack heft? Because they know we’d rather not have bodies. And not just fat bodies. And not just sick ones. And not just old ones. They know, that is, that every one of us, if possible, would transcend corporeality. This, of course, is to say that we’d all love to be without having to die, or that we’d love to become pure spirit: not so much Nijinsky, then, as butterflies in flight. And so we’re offered such immortality – or the illusion thereof – in the form of what can both replace the body and represent its absence, but that, paradoxically enough, should never be worn – if we’re to be au courant – for more than a year.
(2) NOSTALGIA – Life, I’ve found, reduces us – always in the eyes of other people, sometimes even in our own – to caricature. You see me, or I see myself, as – for example – merely sentimental (as loving something more than God does, or as enjoying the luxury of an emotion without having paid for it). Women in particular are stereotyped, by men, as either fast, carefree, naughty, sharp, discriminating, balanced, easygoing, sassy, sophisticated, coquettish, or serious. For fashion, however, individualization depends on the number of elements in play – so here again we have “multiplication” – and if possible on their apparent contradiction: demure yet determined, tender yet tough, casual yet cunning. This, of course, is novelistic of it: Emma Bovary, for example, is both tender and tough, both casual and cunning. And such contradictions are nostalgic, for they suggest a dream of wholeness in which we’re everything at once, without having to choose, without, that is, having to emphasize any one attribute in particular.
Is this, then, euphoric? Isn’t the main emotion – the mood, rather – of nostalgia melancholy? Only when, having “awoken” in some sense, you know that your dream of wholeness was but a dream. And within fashion – for both men and women looking at spreads, or even perhaps for men and women wearing clothes presented there – you’re never that awake. You’re never that aware. Instead, you’re fully enclosed within a certain ideology, an ideology, moreover, which like all ideologies both thinks and feels for you. Such a (metaphorical) dream, of course – unlike a literal one – comes at a cost. Or two costs: the price of the clothing, if purchased; but also the price of having disavowed that you’re no longer whole.
Plus there’s a third cost: the price of having disavowed that true individuality, or personality, or character (unlike that of some model in a magazine, or some figure in fiction) isn’t compound: at once fast, carefree, naughty, sharp, and discriminating. Nor is it contradictory. True character, I’ve found, is complicated. Am I, for example, being sentimental here, or am I just pretending to? And just what kind of sentimentality? The “loving” kind? The “luxury” kind?
(3) NARRATIVE (PART ONE) – Of course no fashion spread could ever be fully novelistic. As static images – no matter the text, or “editorial” – such advertisements don’t extend in time as fiction does. They extend in space – much like oil paintings – and so only ever represent beautiful moments (or maybe not so beautiful anymore), never the truth of change. True, it’s possible to conceive and even to enumerate novels – like Remembrance of Things Pastby Marcel Proust – in which nothing seems to happen. There is, however, no consistently euphoric novel. Perhaps fashion is such a thing, at least insofar as its (metaphorical) narrative is basically fragmentary, or limited to mere citations of décor, situation, and character. (In other words, there’s never any plot here – just anecdote.) Fashion, that is, has always derived – and still derives – its euphoria (or nowadays, its lack thereof) from the fact that it produces a kind of rudimentary novel.
Nevertheless, all spreads – euphoric ones, at any rate – tell the same story. Or the same lie, as Marxism would have it. They say: wear this and you’ll be happy. Wear this and you’ll find utopia. Or, as psychoanalysis would have it: wear this and you’ll once again be whole – or at least feel that way. (The true paradises, claimed Proust, are the ones that we’ve lost.) And maybe it’s not a lie, exactly. We in fact are happy to feel weightless (disembodied) – should the clothes fit – or to feel back where we belong. Who cares if, in reality, we’re not.
(4) DYSPHORIA – Some spreads, of course, don’t say – or seem to say – “Wear this and be happy.” And to the extent they represent moments in time, those moments aren’t, by most standards, very beautiful. (Think, for example, of “heroin chic.” Or think of it satirized, in the film Zoolander, as the Derelicte campaign.) What could account for such a thing? Has the fashion industry – for the sake of argument, or that of seeming at least intellectually fashionable – embraced what philosophers call “transvaluation”: now valuing not happiness but discontent, not beauty but ugliness? Or has it come to see itself as fully “carnivalesque,” as in Rabelais, thereby enabling not only relatively poor people to pretend they’re rich (by wearing fancy clothes) but rich ones to pretend they’re poor: a kind of safety valve with which everyone otherwise trapped within social contradiction can let off steam.
Probably not. What the industry’s doing here, no doubt, is “slumming” – which of course, outside of fashion, is nothing new; and which not everyone can afford; and which promotes not discontent but both temporary relief from bourgeois boredom (or ennui) and a superficial sense that one’s culture (or couture) isn’t entirely bogus. Not that any of us in our right mind would ever want to really be some drug addict or bag lady – if, that is, we could help it, or really knew what it involved. Nor, I imagine, would we want to if we couldn’t help it – if, that is, we in fact were one.
But aren’t most of us somewhat out of our minds when within fashion, much like the character “Dawn Davenport” – as played by the actor “Divine” – in the film Female Trouble? Or if not somewhat crazy, then at least somewhat drunk? I am, to be honest. For I can’t yet bring myself to buy anything by a “name” designer unless I’ve had martinis first. And even then, it’s friends who, having taken me – tipsy – to some boutique, do the choosing for me.
(5) PERVERSION – Fashion, however, has embraced what’s called “queer” transvaluation. Normality, now, is abnormal, and abnormality normal – at least insofar as the terms apply to both gender and sexuality and also insofar as such application is imaginary, thereby tapping into a time – infancy – when we didn’t yet know the difference between masculine and feminine, or between heterosexual and homosexual.
(6) PORNOGRAPHY – And that’s why fashion today – no matter how erotic – is never obscene. Textual innuendo, here, is simply playful. Imagistic suggestion is infantile. True, these models – in reality – are old enough to have sex. Within this alternative reality, though, they’re not. And of course the older we are, the younger they seem – just as students do if, like me, you have taught college long enough. First you find youngsters in your classroom, then children, then babies.
(7) DIVINITY – Many models, within that alternative reality, look at one another. (Of course if all you see are legs, as disconnected from the rest of a body as the item displayed is from the ensemble – shoes, say – this presents either a fetish or an enigma: Whose legs are these? you wonder. What’s this about?) Other models, though, look at you – or, rather, look back at you. It’s a familiar dichotomy – “absorption” versus “theatricality” – that must derive from oil painting: either these objects of the gaze seem oblivious of it, or – turning us into objects as well – they seem to show they’re not. But in that case we’re not really “objects.” We’re “subjects” – one of us human, the other superhuman. And I love that. I love it when these beautiful creatures, simply by seeing me, both acknowledge my existence and determine my value – much as a celebrity not wearing sunglasses might, or rather as a god answering some prayer.
(8) SHANGRI-LA – Fashion has always prompted dreams of travel. Years ago, in my youth, the geography of spreads only ever seemed to mark two wonderful “elsewheres”: either a real “elsewhere” borrowed from vacation spots like the Riviera and – for Americans – Miami; or a utopian “elsewhere.” Now, though, where are we? As often as not, we’re also somewhere even dreamier – not to mention impossible – than that utopia. We’re somewhere surreal. Perhaps it’s because so many of us, nowadays, are utterly hopeless – too betrayed by history even to fantasize perfecting the world we have. Too traumatized. And so we fantasize worlds we don’t have. But can that really be true for today’s youth, who I’m told know nothing of history?
(9) VIRAGO – In another sense, fashion photography has always been surreal. This, no doubt, is due to the tendency of both visual artists and designers – and not just male ones – to fetishize. (Coco Chanel, in fact, collaborated with Salvador Dalí – although she’s not that much of a fetishist – as did Elsa Schiaparelli with both Dalí and Jean Cocteau.) But does that tendency, as psychoanalysis would have it, turn the female body (or parts thereof) into a penis? Does it, that is, provide women (in fantasy) with a phallic power they otherwise lack – if only, on some level, to indicate the lack? Well, yes. But the inflection of such an endowment (as it were) depends on when we’re talking about. Back in the 1930s, at the height of modernism, psychoanalysis was seen as rather truthful and so the inflection, along with the fetishizing, was done in all sincerity. Ever since the 1980s, with postmodernism, the inflection has been ironic – which is to say that it’s been a mere citation of both psychoanalysis and surrealism. Perhaps real women are no longer that weak.
Or they’re no longer perceived as weak. “Except for the thrilling virtuosity with which it is made,” writes one female critic – Judith Thurman – in her book Cleopatra’s Nose, “there is very little sex appeal to a mid-century Chanel suit. It is a conventional and even dowdy uniform if one wears it without some wink of impiety. But it keeps faith with an enlightened notion that refuses to die, no matter how hard its adversaries – the [Gianni] Versaces of the world – try to kill it, and one which we owe almost entirely to Chanel: that a woman is entitled to dress with the same dignity, comfort, and self-possession as a man.”
(10) FLESH – All the same, of course, spreads show more and more of the female body – not to mention more of the male. But are they naked? Or are they nude? It’s a crucial distinction – like “absorption” versus “theatricality” – with the nude body a mere object of desire and the naked body fully human. These figures seem nude insofar as they don’t look back at you, or insofar as they’re novelistic (tender yet tough), or insofar as they’re passive. Plus insofar as they’re beautiful. As nudes, in other words, they invite penetration – both literal and figurative. The figures seem naked – inviting not penetration but protection – insofar as they do look back, or insofar as they’re infantile, or insofar as they’re active: either moving from point A to point B or else doing something far more specific, even if it’s sexual. Plus – quite frankly – insofar as they’re ugly.
And so when an infantile figure does not look back at you, or a novelistic figure does, or an active figure is novelistic, or a passive figure is infantile, how do you decide? Are they nude? Are they naked? You can’t decide. And sometimes – I’m not sure why – otherwise clearly naked figures are made to seem, well, fleshless, or to have lifeless flesh. (Lifeless, hence deathless.) So, too, in fact, are nude ones. They’re both made to seem not so much like oil paintings but like statuary – either marble or bronze. This, of course, could be yet another instance of postmodern citation: to visual art in general – plastic art, at any rate – as opposed to surrealism in particular. It could also – along with lightness – be another way to suggest immortality. Here, though, we’re have not so much a textile-based impression of disembodied spirit (gauze, organza) as a corporeal one of inorganic (and rather heavy) matter. Or to cite John Keats: we have things – just things – of beauty, hence joys forever.
(11) SOPHISTICATION – Notions of identity – human identity – have changed a lot. In my own lifetime, for example, we’ve moved from seeing ourselves – at bottom – as rather profound to seeing ourselves as profoundly superficial. We’ve also moved from a focus on the unconscious to a focus on consciousness. We’ve moved, that is, from explaining all the things that happen to one’s “id” (identification with parents, subjection to ideology) to either worrying about or celebrating everything one’s “ego” does (existential choice, theatrical masquerade). Fashion, over the years, has reflected – perhaps shaped – such theorizing. (Have you noticed that it’s always Marxists – American ones, at any rate – who have the most expensive clothes? Where, I wonder, do they get the money?) And since the now dominant theory, as far as I can tell, remains “masquerade” – perhaps, in part, because it’s so amenable to such endorsement – what we find in both clothing design and magazine advertisement is the celebratory suggestion (at once sincere and ironic, both self-assured and self-effacing) that one can pretend to be (and hence actually become) a different person simply by wearing something else.
The problem, though, remains: who exactly is supposed to be doing this pretending? Who’s supposed to be enacting this performance, especially where the performance per se, as is so often the case, seems meant by almost everyone involved (from the designer to the photographer to the consumer herself) to be at least somewhat ironic – or, in other words, to be rather sophisticated. Presumably, it’s the self-identical person able to buy all these outfits – and also to know so much. In other words, it’s the naked consumer – both literally and figuratively. But who – other than people (like me) with little else to do – needs to worry about that? And so the industry, at the moment, is spending a considerable amount of time and effort (not to mention money) to conceal from us the fact (if fact it be) that clothes, to cite an English expression, really don’t make the man – or, more to the point, the woman. (L'habit ne fait pas le moine, in French.) Even, ironically, when showing almost completely naked models.
(12) AURA – I used to think that fashion must negotiate yet another contradiction. I thought it had to offer seemingly unique self-expression (like that of artwork) with clothing quite a number of people will wear – you know: mass-produced read-to-wear masquerading as haute couture. Doesn’t Western culture, after all, value originality? And so, when I’d scrutinize fashion spreads, I’d try to find – and hence would find – indications of that basic disavowal. Where? Primarily in an “auratic” quality that no photograph (as pseudo-artwork mechanically reproduced) should display.
But despite that culture (or ideology), we humans are basically social. We’re basically gregarious. We want, that is, to belong to some group – if only an imaginary one. And so the anthropologist in me – not that I’m much of one – now finds, in spreads, indications that, by buying such and such a garment, we can announce our membership in, say, clanChanel or (more generally) the Trend tribe. Where? Primarily – and rather ironically – in the very same auratic quality, because what any aura implies, far more than originality (or individuality), is election. “This figure, wearing these particular clothes,” spreads seem to say, “is very special – like you, potentially. She’s one of us, not one of any number of degraded others – the tasteless, the unsophisticated, the unhappy, the heavy, the mortal, the normal, the weak.”
(13) LINE – Fashion today (even after both modernism and post-modernism, both feminism and post-feminism), is basically classical. It still aspires, that is, to beautiful form (or to a certain kind of painting) – even at the expense of covert deformation. I realized this not from looking at spreads per se, because photographs (being “real”) can fool you, but from Ingres, that neoclassicist for whom visual harmony always took precedence over anatomical possibility and individual anomaly always contributed to linear resolution of the whole. Consider, for example, that strangely boneless hand of the female in his Jupiter and Thetis – “half flower, half octopus,” as one critic called it – or the hand in hisMadame Moitessier (half flower, half squid). Better yet, consider that gorgeous backbone in Grande Odalisque – so serpentine, but only because of extra vertebrae. It simply cannot be that designers and photographers don’t have something like this in mind. And why shouldn’t they? But, too, why shouldn’t consumers – expressing their individuality (among other things) – deform such deformations, or disturb such linearity? To quote Proust on Madame Swann (that former courtesan, now middle-aged matron): “[Her] body seemed now to be cut out in a single silhouette wholly confined within a ‘line’ which, following the contours of the woman, had abandoned the ups and downs, the ins and outs, the reticulations, the elaborate dispersions of the fashions of former days, but also, where it was her anatomy that went wrong by making unnecessary digressions within or without the ideal form traced for it, was able to rectify, by a bold stroke, the errors of nature, to make good, along a whole section of its course, the lapses of the flesh as well as of the material.”
(14) CLASS – Her attire, moreover, “kept alive beneath the concrete form the unfinished likeness of other, older forms which one would not have been able to find effectively reproduced by the milliner or the dressmaker, but about which one’s thoughts incessantly hovered, and enveloped Mme Swann in a sort of nobility.” This description is no accident. Fashion, at its inception, was a luxury that aristocrats alone could afford. Then, too, could bourgeois aspirants to such status afford it. But no one these days has – or would ever confess – such aspiration. Nor do they confess such status. So, whereas most early twentieth-century designers – like both Elsa Schiaparelli and Cristóbal Balenciaga – still catered, primarily, to the wellborn (a class to which Schiaparelli herself belonged, though Balenciaga, like Chanel, came from peasantry), as did many photographers at the time (Baron de Meyer, Cecil Beaton), as did many models, fashion today is basically democratic – or at least pretends to be. And of course the basic uniform of our supposedly classless culture (if not one size, then one style fits all) is the T-shirt – in every color but white. Think back to those beautiful Gap ads. Think, moreover, of the name “gap.” Like fetishization (meant to conceal – or perhaps reveal – how disempowered women were), here you have something that can’t but indicate what it would otherwise disavow: both economic and social division beyond the frame.
(15) HISTORY – If you’ll forgive another quote, from Judith Thurman: “Fashion is no longer, or only rarely, photographed in the Latin Quarter. The currency of the picturesque has shifted to the anomic modern, and editors prefer locations like Fresno [California] or Levittown [New York]. But for a decade after the Second World War, [Richard] Avedon was doing something daring by wetting the ancient cobblestones, strafing them with klieg lights, staging tableaux vivants at a pool hall, a circus, a casino, or in a kitschy boite, like Scheherazade. ‘Most of the pictures had a historical subtext,’ he says, ‘and I spent weeks before a sitting documenting it with research and snapshots. Maybe the Maquis had used the basement of a bar, or the Jacobins had raised a guillotine in a courtyard where I assembled a troupe of acrobats, scattered a bale of hay, and posed a model in a New Look suit.’ In 1948, he contrived to photograph Chanel against a crudely plastered wall under a painted slogan that asked POURQUOI HITLER? But even if the photographs weren’t explicitly political – and they weren’t (Bazaar refused to run the Chanel picture) – there was a subversive shimmer to them. It comes, in part, from the birdlike poignance of the models, captives of their finery, their stoicism masquerading as insouciance. And it comes, too, from the high contrast between somber rigor and hectic frivolity; the earthy and the ethereal; the aristocratic and the plebian. It’s hard to remember, in an age of blatant and ceaseless dissonance, that such incongruities in a fashion magazine were once – joltingly – new.”
(16) CRUISING – I’ve just now read somewhere that Avedon, having been asked to consider the sexual intimacy of a portrait and its beholder, once said: “The moment you stop to look [is the moment] you’ve been picked up.” This rang a bell. But what I’d remembered him having said was: “The moment you stop looking [is the moment] you’ve been picked up.” Maybe they’re both true – of response to beautiful spreads as well as to strangers in the street.
(17) EVANESCENCE – “There’s probably no chagrin,” writes Judith Thurman, “for which the grace of perfection can’t console us.” That’s why we love, for example, the work of Fred Astaire. That’s why we love great designers. They make the difficult seem doable, the artificial seem natural, the obsessively rehearsed seem spontaneous. And one job of fashion photography, like that of cinematography, is of course to emphasize such perfection – even today, when other forms of both art and industry might emphasize either imperfection or outright failure. It’s sad, though, if not sentimental, to think that the basic emotion we bring to fashion is “chagrin.” But I think it’s true – if, that is, you’re old enough to have known loss, and in particular the loss of youth. This is why what’s truly moving about fashion, as Cocteau may have been the first to recognize, is that it dies young. Or, rather, that it too dies young – much as, no matter what our age, we all feel we have on at least some level.
(18) “NO!” – Young designers – along with some photographers – have always tried to startle. (So too have some not-so-young ones, like Rei Kawakubo with that “Destroy” collection of hers.) Or perhaps a better way to put it is, they’ve always tested us – like infants seeing just how far they can go before a parent disapproves, or like teenagers doing pretty much the same thing. Take “shocking pink” – a magenta that Schiaparelli, who devised it, called “life-giving, like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world put together” but that Yves Saint Laurent, more aptly, described as pink with “the nerve of red … an aggressive, brawling, warrior pink.” That kind of thing, I imagine, can be loads of fun – so long as you’re young enough, if only in spirit, to appreciate such shenanigans. Saint Laurent clearly was. But I’m not – never have been, in fact, which may be why I’m no artist.
What’s interesting, though – to me, at least – is when a spread doesn’t really endorse that kind of thing. (Maybe the photographer’s too old, at heart.) In that case, you’ll find indications of what in the domestic sphere would be indulgence. Or – more difficult to detect – you’ll find indications of censure. Or – even more difficult, but most interesting of all – you’ll find indications of both, more or less the way the film Funny Face (with Fred Astaire as a not-so-young photographer, or Avedon, and Kay Thompson as a not-so-young editor) treats Schiaparelli. In its “Think Pink” production number, the music we hear is rather peppy and hence appreciative. But the color we see – a pastel – is neither aggressive nor brawling and hence any designer’s or in this case editor’s impulse to startle, which Thompson clearly articulates, is being satirized.
(19) HUMOR – Modernism, never having gotten over the death of God, was a bit lugubrious. Postmodernism, by contrast, was rather giddy, and so the spreads we saw at the time made a kind of fun that was really at the expense of modernism. Now, though – with what, as of yet, can only be called post-postmodernism (or perhaps pre-futurism) – the humor one finds there may have any number of other targets, but for the most part such spreads make fun of themselves (or at least seem to). And that’s the opposite of satire. (Satire, in effect, says “shame on you.”) If anything, it’s confessional (“shame on me”) – or at least pseudo-confessional: self-aggrandizement posing as self-deprecation. The same, it seems to me, can be said of the clothes themselves.
(20) GLAMOUR – On the other hand, fashion photography still conveys a prestige you can’t help but understand as (for want of a better word) glamour. But what is glamour, exactly? Is it “the happiness of being envied,” as one Marxist (John Berger) once called it? Is it “the happiness of being seen,” to quote Judith Thurman? Or is it, rather, the happiness of being seen to have a tremendous gift, some “sport of nature” – extreme beauty, exceptional genius – that would otherwise prove alienating. But only to “have” it – to appear to understand it as a gift (from God, perhaps), or as nothing you’d ever take credit for – and so never to flaunt such a thing. (Marcel Proust had glamour; Ezra Pound, that braggart, did not. Catherine Deneuve had it; Madonna did not.)
(21) DIGNITY – One other quote from Thurman, on some opinion piece in a Bazaar from 1956: “The writer (who seems to have a bone to pick with Avedon) complains about what she calls ‘the fashion for Bottled Lightning.’ This expression was coined by William [brother of the novelist Henry] James to describe the undignified tendency of Americans to grimace with a ‘too desperate eagerness and anxiety,’ or a ‘too intense responsiveness and good will.’ It is not by chance that fashion photographers usually snap their shutters when the models’ faces are intensely animated. Amazement, ecstasy, joy, wonder, glee – and a $29.50 dress. But after the teens, don’t men get a little weary of high-key women?’ And she [the anonymous writer] exhorts her readers to follow the [supposedly] ‘serene’ example of their [so-called] ‘Oriental’ sisters. They should ‘learn to sit, so that even waiting at an airfield can be restful.’ One begins [concludes Judith] to appreciate the proto-feminism mixed with old-fashioned gallantry and barely contained panic in Avedon’s message: run for the plane.”
Well, the writer got her wish. You don’t see much “Bottled Lightning” anymore, in fashion spreads – no matter what kinds of women men beyond the frame are running after. Perhaps it’s due to a kind of orientalism (the return of a politically incorrect repressed): geisha chic, inscrutable style – though you don’t get that from Kawakubo. Perhaps it’s the women (both behind the camera and in front of it) who’ve grown “weary” – weary, that is, of either being so animated or of simply faking it.
(22) CRYPTOGRAPHY – Some styles, it seems to me, have always been dismissed as “anarchic.” More recently, so too has fashion advertising. And of course it’s easy to see why. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life – and perhaps there’s only one thing – it’s that such “anarchy,” such alleged disorder, doesn’t really exist. There’s only ever order we don’t yet understand. There's only ever a message we can’t quite fathom. (Similarly, nothing in itself – a book, a person – can ever be “boring.” It – or he – can only be something we’re either too dumb or even too smart to appreciate, too naïve or too sophisticated.) In that sense, it may be that the best fashion is the most seemingly chaotic. For isn’t it the case that the more stylish something is, the more cryptic it is – the more difficult, that is, to decode? The advertising forgets this truth at its peril – but I see no evidence that it has forgotten it. Spreads today – the best of them, at any rate – remain just as enigmatic as the clothes they peddle.
(23) TREACHERY – Indeed, the only fashion I find truly chaotic is fashion that seems to forget that, as clothing, it should be used. Or rather, fashion that thinks it’s art and art alone – sometimes representational, sometimes not. (Wasn’t it Oscar Wilde – in the 1880s – who once said, “One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art”? And wasn’t it Rei Kawakubo, in the 1980s, who introduced the notion of clothing as wearable abstraction? Or was it Luisa Casati, with the help of Leon Bakst and others, who did so about fifty years earlier.) But I shouldn’t say “chaotic,” because it’s clear (to me, at least) what such stuff is trying if not to say, then to do: not just transcend but renounce functionality. I should, then, call it “confused,” because it doesn’t seem to know (or rather, doesn’t care to know) what it basically is – much as a book might think it’s really a piece of music, or a person think he’s just an idea. The spreads – and it’s hard to find them for such so-called clothing (for who would ever buy it?) – either aggravate this situation by not seeing the confusion for what it is, or they cleverly indicate it in the manner of The Treachery of Images, that painting of a pipe (as it might look in a tobacco store advertisement) under which René Magritte has written, in cursive: “This is not a pipe.”
The irony, of course, is that by renouncing such functionality, all such self-consciously avant-garde fashion is – without knowing it – returning to a centuries-old point of origin. Comfort, after all, which most of us pretty much equate with functionality, is a relatively new, liberal concept dating only from the nineteenth century. The very highest style, however, is fundamentally aristocratic and so has always derived, in fact still derives from far more antiquated ideals – both military and masculine – of, as Judith Thurman puts it, “pride, stoicism, hardness, swagger, and snobbery – of trial by ordeal and tournament chic.” Note to designers, then, both male and female: This is not a contest.
(24) RENUNCIATION – In the early nineteenth century, ultra-chic “dandies” spared no expense attending to their wardrobe. They also, not coincidentally, shared a style silhouette with women. By the 1840s, however, a shift occurred. Erstwhile dandies in France, England, and also the United States put away such otherwise feminine finery, donning instead (as a kind of uniform) what Americans call “the suit” – a word just as simple, just as streamlined as what it signifies. Historians call this revolution – and there’s no return to anything aristocratic here – “the great masculine renunciation.” Basic black, which began as something for clergy alone, now extended first to business men and other professionals and eventually spread throughout society to become the favored hue of all urban gentlemen, shop clerks, and even artists. Such men, moreover, wore black (or other dark colors) both night and day. And it was all very, well, it was all very boring.
Why did this happen? Why, as Judith Thurman writes, did men’s fashion – the suit worn with shirt and tie – become so “militantly prosaic”? Why did “the rise of the merchant prince coincide with the decline of fashion as a theater in which men wore romantic costumes”? Because, as she tells us, “it coincided with the decline of culturally sanctioned male vanity, flamboyance, and insouciance.” And because “the courtier or the tribesman is [in fact] freer than the self-made man in one respect: a modern identity is [much] less stable, and [so] demands more psychic effort to maintain, than a traditional role. The ceaseless effort to prove one’s worth diverts ambition from more luxuriant forms of self-expression.”
This is still the case, despite the costly efforts of designers, along with everyone working in their wake, to turn men back into dandies (at times, in fact, by suggesting that they, too, dress like women). Male identities are still basically modern, still unstable. And so – unbeknownst to most of us – male self-expression in clothing remains a return to the 1840s.
(25) CREPUSCULE – And what time is it, really? Fashion in general having long since abolished any distinction between night and day wear, fashion spreads have followed suit – unless of course the setting’s outside. So we can almost never tell if the narrative here, the fantasy we’re to enter, the lightness towards which we’re to (as it were) gravitate is either sun-dappled or moon-struck. Am I the only one who finds this disorienting, and even a bit scary? It’s like not knowing where you are (or who you are) upon awakening – as the narrator so famously doesn’t know inRemembrance of Things Past. But he, at least, gets his bearings: He’s this person, in this bedroom, and at such and such a moment in time. Perhaps fashion will come around – soon, I hope – to reaffirming that distinction. And then so will the spreads, unless of course those who make them still enjoy such disorientation, or rather, enjoy the thought of our own disorientation. Yet perhaps they’ve only ever been – and will continue to be – more or less like Edith Piaf (also glamorous, unlike Madonna), who when late in life was asked her favorite time of day, answered: “Nighttime – but with lots of light.”
(26) NARRATIVE (PART TWO) – Clearly, I quote a lot – and even that (“I quote a lot”) is a line I myself have used before. So too do both fashion and fashion photography quote a lot. Designers reference other designers as well as earlier styles (from ancient Greek or Roman, through medieval and renaissance, up to modern and postmodern). The photography references non-fashion photography, and also oil painting, film, television, and music video. At times, we’re meant to recognize the source, in ironic, postmodern fashion; at other times, it seems, we’re not. But whereas my own motivation is almost always the same – I simply want to be the various writers I quote (Marcel Proust, Judith Thurman) – fashion citation stems from a kind of disidentification. The designers, that is, are both acknowledging and topping the other designers or the earlier styles being invoked. The photographers (with the rest of their team) are both acknowledging and topping those other photographers or the painters and filmmakers. For consistency’s sake, I should probably tell them to stop. I should, once again, say: This is not a contest. But I don’t want them to stop. And at any rate, how could they? It would be like a writer resolving never to use his native tongue – or for that matter any human language. Who on earth would know what he’s trying to communicate?
(27) SKANDHA – Buddhism rejects the Western notion of individuality. Instead, it posits the “non-self” (anatta) as an aggregation of constantly changing elements (skandhas): the body, sensation, perception, thought, and consciousness. It attributes suffering to one’s identification with – or clinging to – any of these elements. So if you believe you own your body in a particular state, or that you exist within it, then as that body ages, gets sick, or dies, you’ll probably long for youth, or health, or life, dread aging, illness, and death, and spend a lot of time in fear, frustration, fantasy, and ultimately futile activity (like diet and exercise). But if you don’t believe that about your body, you’ll be free of such fear and frustration.
Does fashion know about the “non-self”? On the one hand, every outfit offered can be seen by us as an embodiment (as it were) of corporeal mutability. Changing clothes, that is, can remind us thatwe’re always changing – or that we’re never self-identical. On the other hand, every outfit can be seen to symbolize one’s body at the peak of so-called perfection. But I guess the real question isn’t “does fashion know about the ‘non-self.’” The question is, do weknow about it. And of course we should know about it – even if that means cleaning out the wardrobe and buying many fewer things.
(28) ODALISQUE – My own fashion philosophy is, people shouldn’t know where I stop and the sky begins. Not that I’m fat. I just like both the look and the feel of loose, billowy clothes – preferably in silk. Harem pants – which I also happen to sleep in – are a particular favorite. And if I don’t leave the house to work, I’ll just stay in my pajamas (harem pants plus kurta). In fact, I’m wearing them now. Would that everyone did: a nearly one-size-fits-all ensemble perfect for both individuals and “non-selves” everywhere. So if you did happen to have the perfect body, no one seeing you clothed would be at all irritated – or intimidated – and anyone seeing you naked would be more than pleasantly surprised. Note to designers, then: More harem pants. Note to photographers, should designers provide them: I’m available for outside work.
(29) OPTIMISM – It almost goes without saying that fashion spreads have always had us fall in love. You’re to be thunderstruck by the supposedly singular appearance of this particular model (heretofore unknown) in these particular clothes – not that you separate the two. It’s like something that happens at least once to anyone who’s ever passed some gorgeous creature on the street – a creature, moreover, who’ll have returned your gaze for just a bit longer than they had to. “The moment you stop to look,” as Avedon did say, is the moment “you’ve been picked up.” And of course as we never get to see such people again, let alone to know them, we’re never either disillusioned or heart-broken. We never, that is, need suffer on their account. As Proust has his narrator say, about some peasant girl glimpsed from a train: “I felt on seeing her that desire to live which is reborn in us whenever we become conscious anew of beauty and of happiness.”
(30) CYNICISM – But who among us is still the narrator’s age there – about sixteen, at most? Who, then, hasn’t yet experienced enough disillusionment and heartbreak to not find these spreads so ravishing, reacting instead with full awareness that they so clearly want us to be ravished? Who, that is, can always manage, throughout life, to avoid cynicism in the face of such solicitation? It’s a word I’ve chosen with care, both because, in modern usage, cynics discredit the sincerity, goodness, and altruism of any human motive or action, and because ancient cynics (like Antisthenes), in advocating the pursuit of virtue in a simple, unmaterialistic lifestyle, rejected all social conventions, whether of religion, manners, housing, decency, or even dress.
(31) DIALECTIC – Yes, I know – almost everything so far seems to suggest that my discourse proceeds only according to a two-term dialectic: euphoria versus dysphoria, stereotype versus innovation, Piaf versus Madonna: I likeversus I don’t like. This binary dialectic is the dialectic of meaning itself (marked versus unmarked) – the dialectic of value itself.
And yet is this quite true? Hasn’t another dialectic appeared, or at least tried to find expression? Hasn’t the contradiction of terms here often yielded to the attempted discovery of a third term which is not a synthesis but a kind of translation? Hence: not optimism versus pessimism, which is what you should have expected, but rather optimism and then cynicism.
(32) FANTASY – I’m never cynical, though, when I fantasize – which is one reason why I prefer fantasy to dream. (In dream, I am often cynical. I am often nostalgic there as well.) Another reason is that I’m entirely absorbed by dreams, whereas fantasies remain shall we say – in fact I have already said this in my autobiography, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes – concomitant to the consciousness of reality. My mood when fantasizing, to invoke the section here I’ve called “Nostalgia,” is only ever utopian.
What, then, are these fantasies of mine, or at least these fashion-related ones? I sometimes find myself, when looking at fashion advertisements, imagining that I am the clothing shown. (“Gauze, organza, voile, and cotton muslin … C’est moi!”) It’s a bit like – come to think of it this habit of mine must derive from my knowing – the way the historian Jules Michelet used to fantasize. (As I once put it, although not in my structuralist book on fashion, The Fashion System, nor even in the poststructuralist one on love, A Lover’s Discourse, but rather in the one on Michelet: “The ideal moment of love is not, for Michelet, penetration but juxtaposition, for it is not sex but seeing which gives its measure. Just as, when regarding the fish as gelatinized water, Michelet constituted the universe as a deliciously smooth object, so to protect Woman, to cover her, to envelop her, to ‘follow’ her entire surface, is to do away with any discontinuity of substance. The ideal figure of the lover is ultimately the garment: no more difference between algae and fish than between skin and the silk which covers it. When Michelet amorously describes the tunic coiled around woman, there is no doubt that he longs to be that garment and sees himself as such, a secret pursued, clung to, absorbed in extent and not in depth.”) I sometimes find myself imagining, to invoke the section “Narrative (Part One),” a kind of rudimentary novel: all of it anecdote – or mere citation of décor, situation, character – and no plot whatsoever. A kind of rudimentary novel, moreover, that must be structured more or less like the advertisement to have prompted it.
No fantasy of mine, however, ever involves, to invoke the section called “Dysphoria,” a kind of slumming. I had quite enough of that, in reality, when I was young. Nor are my fantasies, to invoke the section “Shangri-La,” at all surreal, even though, being so old now, I do feel too betrayed by history to imagine perfecting reality. Or at least to imagine perfecting all of reality. I can and do imagine perfecting little bits of it. Take, for instance, this fantasy of mine –
I am young again. I’m also dressed as Nijinsky in “Scheherazade” – harem pants plus brassiere. I’m doing barre exercises in some second-floor studio above the rue La Pérouse while looking out a floor-length window. I see now, down below, that a fashion parade has begun: models, while kind of cat-walking, blow kisses to pedestrians; photographers take photographs of these models; designers take notes for next collections. Now a convertible appears. The thing is shocking pink. And the only passenger in it, wearing Yves Saint Laurent, is Catherine Deneuve. She too is young – as in that old film "Belle de jour." She waves at those pedestrians and also smiles at them. And now, suddenly looking up, she sees me at the window up here and laughs.
– which I must confess is one I have almost every time I see ads for those beautiful “Belle de jour” shoes (or “pilgrim pumps,” because of those buckles) designed by the man who also designed the first “stiletto” heel, Roger Vivier, and then at Deneuve’s request re-designed, using a much higher heel, by Bruno Frisoni.
So I guess I have never really managed – not that I’ve tried very hard – to see myself, to invoke the section “Skandha,” as an ever-changing aggregation of body parts (like feet), of sensations (like the feel on feet of comfortable shoes), of perceptions (like the realization that these shoes feel comfortable), of thoughts (like, in English, “these shoes fit me so why shouldn’t I wear them" or to cite Molière in The Miser: “Qui se sent morveux, qu’il se mouche”), and of consciousness. I have only ever managed not to know about the "non-self." Except, perhaps, in dreams. In dreams, I’d imagine, I do “know” about it.
Kevin Kopelson is a professor of English at the University of Iowa specializing in critical theory, cultural studies, queer theory, and twentieth-century literature. He is the author of six books and contributes to the London Review of Books.