Monday, 4 February 2008

Konvolut B: Fashion

Taken from Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

For the philosopher, the most interesting thing about fashion is its extraordinary anticipations. It is well known that art will often – for example, in pictures – precede the perceptible reality by years. It was possible to see streets or rooms that shone in all sorts of fiery colours, long before technology, by means of illuminated signs and other arrangements, actually set them under such a light. Moreover, the sensitivity of the individual artist to what is coming certainly far exceeds that of the grande dame. Yet fashion is in much steadier, much more precise contact with the coming thing, thanks to the incomparable nose which the female collective has for what lies waiting in the future. Each season brings, in the newest creations, various secret signals of things to come. Whoever understands how to read these semaphores would know in advance not only about new currents in the arts but also about new legal codes, wars, and revolutions. Here, surely, lies the greatest charm of fashion, but also the difficulty of making the charming fruitful.

Here fashion has opened the business of dialectical exchange between woman and ware – between carnal pleasure and the corpse. The clerk, death, tall and loutish, measures the century by the yard, serves as mannequin himself to save costs, and manages single-handedly the liquidation that in French is called Revolution. For fashion was never anything other than the parody of the motley cadaver, provocation of death through the woman, and bitter colloquy with decay whispered through shrill bursts of mechanical laughter. That is fashion. And that is why she changes so quickly; she titillates death and is already something different, something new, as he casts about to crush her. For a hundred years she holds her own against him. Now, finally, he is on the point of quitting the field. But he erects on the banks of a new Lethe, which rolls its asphalt stream through arcades, the armature of the whores as a battle memorial.

With Alphonse Karr, there appears a rationalist theory of fashion that is closely related to the rationalist theory of the origin of religions. The motive for instituting long skirts, for example, he conceives to be the interest certain women would have had in concealing an unlovely foot. Or he denounces, as the origin of certain hats and certain hairstyles, the wish to compensate for thin hair.

Who still knows, nowadays, where it was that in the last decade of the previous century women would offer to men their most seductive aspect, the most intimate promise of their figure? In the asphalted indoor arenas where people learned to ride bicycles. The woman as cyclist competes with the cabaret singer for the place of honour on posters, and gives to fashion its most daring line.

Hallmark of the period’s fashions: to imitate a body that has never known nakedness.

The impression of the old-fashioned can arise only where, in a certain way, reference is made to the most topical. If the beginnings of modern architecture to some extent lie in the arcades, their antiquated effect on the present generation has exactly the same significance as the antiquated effect of the father on his son.

In my formulation: ‘the eternal is in any case far more the ruffle on a dress than some idea’.

In fetishism, sex does away with the boundaries separating the organic world from the inorganic. Clothing and jewellery are its allies. It is as much at home with what is dead as it is with living flesh. The latter, moreover, shows it the way to establish itself in the former. Hair is a frontier region lying between the two kingdoms of sexus. Something different is disclosed in the drunkenness of passion: the landscapes of the body. These are already no longer animated, yet are still accessible to the eye, which, of course, depends increasingly on touch and smell to be its guides through the realms of death. Not seldom in the dream, however, there are swelling breasts that, like the earth, are all apparelled in woods and rocks, and gazes have sent their life to the bottom of glassy lakes that slumber in the valleys. These landscapes are traversed by paths which lead sexuality into the world of the inorganic. Fashion itself is only another medium enticing it more deeply into the universe of matter.

Does fashion die (in Russia, for example) because it can no longer keep up the tempo – at least in certain fields?

A contemporary fashion and its significance. In the spring of 1935, something new appeared in women’s fashions: medium-sized embossed metal plaquettes which were worn on jumpers or overcoats and which displayed the initial of the bearer’s first name. Fashion thus profited from the vogue for badges which had arisen among men in the wake of the patriotic leagues. On the other hand, the progressive restrictions in the private sphere are here given expression. The name – and to be sure, the first name – of persons unknown is published on a lapel. That it becomes easier thereby to make the acquaintance of a stranger is of secondary importance.

Each generation experiences the fashions of the one immediately preceding it as the most radical antiaphrodisiac imaginable. In this judgement it is not so far off the mark as might be supposed. Every fashion is to some extent a bitter satire on love: in every fashion, perversities are suggested by the most ruthless means. Every fashion couples the living body to the inorganic world. To the living, fashion defends the rights of the corpse. The fetishism that succumbs to the sex appeal of the inorganic is its vital nerve.

Where they impinge upon the present moment, birth and death – the former through natural consequences, the latter through social ones – considerably restrict the field of play for fashion. This state of affairs is properly elucidated through two parallel circumstances. The first concerns birth, and shows the natural engendering of life overcome by novelty in the realm of fashion. The second circumstance concerns death: it appears in fashion as no less overcome, and precisely through the sex appeal of the inorganic, which is something generated by fashion.

The detailing of feminine beauties so dear to the baroque, a process in which each single part is exalted through a trope, secretly links up with the image of the corpse. This parcelling out of feminine beauty into its noteworthy constituents resembles a dissection, and the popular comparisons of body parts to alabaster, snow, precious stones, or other (mostly inorganic) formations makes the same point.

Fashions are a collective medicament for the ravages of oblivion. The more short-lived a period, the more susceptible it is to fashion.

There is hardly another article of dress that can give expression to such divergent erotic tendencies, and that has so much latitude to describe them, as a woman’s hat. Whereas the meaning of male headgear in its sphere (the political) is strictly tied to a few rigid patterns, the shades of meaning in a woman’s hat are virtually incalculable. It is not so much the various possibilities of symbolic reference to the sexual organs that is chiefly of interest here. More surprising is what a hat can say about the rest of the outfit. Helen Grund has made the ingenious suggestion that the bonnet, which is contemporaneous with the crinoline, actually provides men with directions for managing the latter. The wide brim of the bonnet is turned up – thereby demonstrating how the crinoline must be turned up in order to make sexual access easier for the man.

Extracted from Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (trans Eiland & McLaughlin, Harvard, 1999)