"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Dictates Of Fashion–The Way We Look Is So Much More Important Than Who We Are

Much is made of ‘identity’ today, specifically our race, gender, or ethnicity.  Such categories can determine where we go to school, where we work, what government support we receive, and which political party is the most congenial to our interests. Yet such categorical identity goes much deeper.  Being gay or black does not simply place one firmly in the Democratic camp, or assure quick recourse to the judicial system in case of grievance, but is the most defining aspect of character, outlook, and personality.  More than an artist, a geologist, a social worker, or a teacher, a black man is first black; a gay man first gay.

From a narrow political perspective, this makes sense.  Changes in laws, public perception, and civic attitude require solidarity.  There can be no so-so gays in the fight against homophobia; no diffident blacks in Black Lives Matter; and certainly no complaisant, Lawrentian women in the MeToo movement.   In other words, to the modern political activist, Sartre was wrong.  Existence does not precede essence but the other way around.  One must start with a predetermined model of being and then let individual purpose, activity, and intent shape it.   One is first and foremost black, gay, female, disabled, or Latino.  Anything else by way of individual preference, ability, purpose, or desire is secondary, irrelevant or at best is to be sorted out later.

This collectivism – the desire to fit everyone into a few, secular, predetermined categories for political reasons – runs counter to American history.  Eighteenth Century Enlightenment spread quickly from Europe to the America with its new premium placed on reason and individual intellectual enterprise, all in service to God.  The Enlightenment in turn had been influenced by Martin Luther and his insistence that a man’s relationship with God was his own personal matter, mediated by no one, and influenced by no institution.   The American Republic, then, began with a firm belief in individualism expressed both in secular terms – hard work, discipline, enterprise, and ingenuity – and spiritual ones, an intimate and fulfilling personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther

It is not surprising that with the growing complexity of American society that this hard, Puritan individualism has lost much of its rigor.  It is not enough in an unremittingly competitive world to simply ‘be me’.  One needs accoutrements, add-ons,  to make a distinction.  Fashion was the easiest way to help one to express personality and character.  Top hats, high heels, jewels, and brocades not only set the standard for high society, but created a multi-layered system according to which people were identified by sub-class. Top hats in style but made by a lesser craftsman were of lesser social value.  High heels which imitated the lift, grace, and fit of the very best, but never quite completely were ignored.  Anyone with the real thing would know immediately that these imitations belong to the ever-aspiring, never attaining  hopefuls beneath them.

Christine Mannon

As one descended the scale, differences became more and more obvious, until people gave up imitation entirely; wore what they could afford, what was practical and could last, and Park Avenue be damned.  The workers of the world were united less by their social solidarity than by their clothes.  While in America there were never any such obvious distinctions such as classic French blue laborers’ overalls, work boots, dungarees, work gloves, and flannel shirts were just as distinguishing.  Fashion in America just as in Europe,  Ancient Egypt, or Mauryan India has always been the signifier of class, caste, and status.  Indian peasants wore dhotis, lungis, and nothing else; and the Rajah of Bikaner was caparisoned with gold, jewels, and finery.  

Except for peasants, no one had to wear the trappings of class; but in addition to practicality (clothes that did not wear out easily), people wanted some distinguishing, easily-identifiable mark of status, regardless of how high or low it might be.  Whether workday overalls and smocks; or Sunday-go-to-meeting finery, clothes made life easier.  If everyone lived in a society where clothes were not worn, the effort it would take to distinguish one person from another would force a greater degree of forthrightness if not honesty than in any clothed one.

Not only would there be no personal showpieces in a naked society, but no tools of expression – no pussy hats, balaclavas, S&M leather and chains; nothing at all to show collective identity.

Worst of all would be the realization that despite claims to the contrary – erudition, talent, ingenuity, humor – people are all basically and fundamentally alike.  The same human nature  exists – make, model, and serial number - in everyone.  A persuasive speaker without his Armani suit, Jean-Luc haircut, Italian moccasins, and Dior tie would have trouble rising above his words.  Only clothes and the impression of authority the confer give meaning.  Circus outfits, theatre costumes, riding finery, baseball uniforms all give legitimacy and identity.  Even Ingres’s naked odalisque wore something.

Ingres odalisque

Mao Zedong understood this well.  A truly and purely Communist state could have no class distinctions.  Every Chinese must not only think, speak, and act in socialist terms, but dress with no personalized, individual, characteristics.  Mao knew that adherence to his radical policies and acceptance of their consequences without question meant complete solidarity.

Of course once Mao had been laid to rest and the new China born again, clothes returned to their more normal, more human, and more socially identifiable role.  While never as exaggerated as Korea, Japan, or the United States, Chinese fashion underwent a resurgence.

The Sixties, a radical progressive era, eschewed fashion not only as disguise – the essential ‘me’ could never be discovered if greasepaint and makeup were laid on too thick – but as an expression of conservative capitalist culture.  Hippies denounced traditional fashion.  Anything second hand, borrowed, used, natural or put together was acceptable; anything mass produced or inspired by the runways of Milan or Paris was disparaged.  Of course hippies ironically were endorsing the legitimacy of fashion.  It was just that their fashion was ‘anti-fashion’ and acceptable.

Feminists of the same era disavowed women’s fashion for the same reason – it detracted from a woman’s essential nature and being.  Fashion was a perverse disguise designed and promoted by male oligarchies and to be avoided at all costs.

Of course neither movement’s fashion radicalism lasted for very long.  Women are back to sexy, alluring, come-hither fashion, and men are even more interested in looking good and making a unique personal statement of attractiveness and desirability.

A historical look at women’s fashion shows remarkable consistency.  Women from the age of the Pharaohs to the present day have dressed elegantly, with sophistication, and with all the same techniques – jewelry, eye-liner, make up, lipstick, and and array of finely- tailored clothes.

There is little difference from his elegantly dressed New York woman and Nefertiti.

Beautiful Black & White Photos of Women in Old-Fashioned, ca. 1940's (7)

This Venetian mask of classic female beauty and fashion reflects a surprisingly familiar standard of female beauty and an appreciation for a particularly fanciful but tasteful style and fashion. 

Venice Mask II

Fashion, like any other style, fad, or movement quickly evolves; and despite some fundamental, historical principles of beauty, is always changing.  What women wear today is very different from what they wore two hundred years ago, but the principle is still there – to look good, to enhance and individualize one’s common human nature, and to be distinguished.  Belonging to groups, movements, or causes is social fashion.  When one puts on the finery of environmentalism, women’s rights, racial equality, or peace, the effect is the same.  Wearing the same basic mantel, personalized with simple touches, feels good.  Stepping out with friends looking good, dancing to the same orchestra, dressed in the same social style.

Few of us want to face who we are; and it is far easier to look good or to dress in the collective finery of a movement than to look inward, to assess moral conviction, spiritual evolution, or  personal failings.  In a way it is a good thing that we take pride in our personal appearance, want to look good, to see and be seen.  Fashion is art; and who would deny a little more beauty in the world?

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