Fashion Supplement: Introduction

In between the naïve freak (the man who only wears purple, the man buying lumber in women's clothing) and the sophisticated street success sits the childhood prototype of all great fashion: the girl who dares to come to school bizarre, wearing yellow plaid and leather and braids, eyes made up darker than an Ancient Egyptian's, and a cut-and-resewn home modified t-shirt.

Phenomenological Prologomena

Why is it offensive to see people in the street dressed up in fashion? Because they act like an obstacle course is the grand hall of a mansion.

The subway and the sidewalk don’t really accommodate silk and tulle; under real-world conditions, the delicate blouse should plaster to its wearer’s back; the coiffured hair should wilt; the moiré tunic should wrinkle; if their wearers lived anything like us, the filth of the street would darken those low white elegant cuffs, and the grating would wait to devour the high heel.

For fashion-wearers, it is different. They move in bubbles, in inviolate air; many-colored, elegant and cool, they are habitués of another world. The rare woman who can wear this skirt of iridescent green, fitted below the knee, and deep-colored top of creamy silk, and corseted bolero jacket, and Land of Oz heels, all on the street, without anxiety of scuffs, or stains, or consciousness of wearing something delicate and unfamiliar, like the rare man who sports his lightweight charcoal suit, threaded with cinnamon and pink, and crisp collar opening at his throat, and shoes of thinnest leather, each of them traveling without protection from the elements, and yet unwrinkled and unruffled, cool as cucumbers and fresh as daisies—this man and this woman are not you.

Neither of them lives in your world of dirt and wear-and-tear. Each suggests the existence of an alternative world, to which you are not invited.

You aren’t barred from it for lack of money, exactly, even if the fabrics seem made of money, made of greenbacks laundered to a cottony softness, linked by the circumferences of silver coins. You could own these clothes, if you stopped paying the rent. You aren’t kept out either by what you don’t know about fashion, which these people do know: you read the magazines, for goodness’ sake, and even the poorest little girl is careful to look at what rich starlets wear.

No: in fact the sight of fashion on the everyday street speaks to a world of physical conditions, revealed in garments, in which there is neither heat, nor wet, nor dirt, nor wear, nor risk, nor embarrassment, nor poverty. Even if you “love fashion,” and I do, you don’t know what to make of this.

The problems of fashion usually emerge at a different level. The magazine and the “industry,” the runway show and the retail line, the cycle of fashion and the “fashion system,” produce abundant mysteries.

The temptation would be to launch into the debate as it stands. Argue with the fashion editors, argue with the anti-fashion Purtians, argue with Roland Barthes, argue with everybody.

But really, you’re an idiot to start there. There’s too much else unacknowledged in fashion, there are moods, there are frustrations, there is the street.

Neglect the experience of dressing badly in a world of others who dress better, and being footsore, and staring, and sneering, and admiring, and knowing discomfort both bodily and social, and getting things wrong, and then getting them right, and you’ll have let the daily life of fashion slip through your fingers.

Fashion, as it is lived, but not as it appears in the fashion magazines, obsesses over what has been earned, by sacrifice. Fashion, as it is lived, but not as it appears in the fashion magazines, obsesses over what has been earned, by sacrifice, and about what freedom from all sacrifice would be like. We take particular offense at the fully-suited fashion-wearer, when her look seems unearned; when, that is, it could have been bought mindlessly as a piece (as with the hateful rich person) or assembled straight out of a magazine (as with the hateful poseur.) But what on earth can it mean for clothing, which after all everyone buys and wears, to have to be earned?

Fashion is in many ways the most painful of the secondary arts. It is built on so many contradictions that it could not be otherwise than painful, and most painful where it is most powerful.

What you wish you could wear is never what you do wear. You can’t afford it, can’t fit in it, can’t find it. (First contradiction.) You make your look, but never, or rarely, the clothes that make your look. You personalize a style, hemmed in by the impersonality of whatever is “in” this season, and you never know where to locate the real artist of your look—is it yourself, your clothing’s designer, or the demands of the season? (Second contradiction.)

And your face hangs always above the outfit, no matter what you wear. However gorgeous the clothing, it is your face up above, and your frame underneath, and in an enterprise of constant alterations this basis can’t be changed. Fashion will decorate, distract, improve, augment, but it can never elude its individual wearer’s individuality, registered in the face, and this makes clothing never really about the clothing, when it is worn. (Third contradiction.)

Don’t call these contradictions logical. Call them phenomenological. The ability to describe these feelings in words can be blocked by the narrow fascinations and terminology of the fashion magazines: hemlines going up or down, toes of shoes going round or pointy, how femininity is “in” or “out,” or androgyny, or grey, or the 1930s, or luxe. But the felt aspects persist, underneath the gabble. They will return each time you pull a dress on its hanger along a rack, flashing in an instant from the unfilled a-line of its shape, to the fashion magazine, to your own plain body in the mirror, and back to the thing itself.

The pains of fashion find analogies in the fabrics. It seems like the finest materials either are the easiest to destroy, or require the most suffering to create. Fur and leather very obviously have torture built in, when you recall that the finished pelt had recently to be scraped of gore.

More significant is the effect on your experience of the destructibility and fragility of ordinary garments. Tulle will tear, lace will yellow, chiffon catches in doors, silk stains, cashmere pills, nylon runs, weaving will unravel, velvet loses its nap, angora balds, viscose is ruined in the wash, denim fades, cottons shrink, jersey stretches, suede darkens, and leather cracks.

Fashion is the only art form that we rub, and wear, and use up, without wanting to use it up; whereas we fully intend to consume an incorporable art like cooking. This, too, points to that “other world” of fashion, but here it isn’t primarily the world in which rich and careless fashion-wearers are free from worldly care, but the world in which fabrics are exempt from care. It is an aspect of the utopia of fashion.

Fabrics aspire to a place where it is cool, and soft, and unwearing, upholstered, draped, quiet, sheer, and smooth, like half the backdrops that appear in fashion photography: villas (marbled), penthouses (glass and metal), fields (flowers and soft grass), cliffs (overlooking cerulean bays), and so forth. A place of rest, for sore physical things, and of interest and delight, for the roving eye.

And yet forms of wear are humanizing. If any piece of clothing comes into contact with a person properly, it takes on her shape and wears her smudge, it “becomes her” in a sense that goes beyond looking good on her.

The clothes take on a human character. A slight yellowing around the collar or fading in the underarms, an ineradicable bagginess in the knees or sleeves lengthened by tugging, all these details make clothing personal. The garment changes, as a perfume worn properly will enter the musk of the skin and waft a fragrance not known in the department store.

Clothes would not mean what they do if they didn’t come into relationships with persons. Only from the drycleaners does anybody’s sweater come back freed of its human life, but you never suppose you are seeing the original again; rather, something like a body embalmed. A “vintage” item or a shirt from Goodwill doesn’t really lose the traces of its previous owner when you wash it, but when you wear it, repeatedly, over time.

(From this half-humanization comes, too, the uncanniness of picking up the clothes of anybody you love, whether you’re straightening a room or doing the laundry. Is it possible this unimportant bit of cloth matches the actual person? You can identify his or her shape, somehow, within the worn jeans, which still convey a bend of the leg, and the accumulated fading from sitting; or find the person inside a shirt, by the pattern of wrinkles where it was tucked in, the puckers from where it draped, the marks of wear and perspiration. Women’s clothes always seem too small for the woman you love, like a doll’s clothes, just impossible for such a lively spirit to fit in; and men’s clothes are too big and too small both at once—how could he need such an enormous waist, has he been eating that much, and where did all his strength and giantness go? You feel a certain tenderness for the garment and still find it troublingly alien. So you press your face to it, the only sure thing, for the perfume, and discover that scent has the immateriality that conforms to your memories.)

Because of its compromises and pains, because of the risk of embarrassment ever-present for those who “earn” their looks, the instant when fashion crystallizes, on the person, the person who earns it, is a great success, and resentment recedes, and wonder flows in, and you feel the love you instantly feel for all geniuses.

Her outfit points towards that other world, which this cosmonaut had to reach and return from, just to fan her feathers, peacock-like, on the sidewalk in front of you. The difference between the earned and the unearned is something you know when you see it, and true earned fashion comes in to interrupt the parade of detestable conformity like a breeze off the water: how else to explain the speed with which your emotions reverse, on any walk from Broome Street to West 14th, from derision, hatred, resentment, to fellow-feeling and fashion delight?

You think: what embarrassment, what false starts, what effort had to go into this expertise, to learn how to dress and decorate yourself like this, so originally yet so correctly? On the glorious street, now, you stand back and admire; you are a wanderer yourself; you look at the dressed-up strutters as if you were at an art gallery. In this gallery, you may be another of the beautiful portraits on the wall, well-appointed yourself. But it is not required for admission.

And the temporariness of it all. How amazing to know that this skirt will cease to fit, will go out of style, will be stained, and yet here it is. The heroes of fashion are the people who have had to make many compromises, and learned to win through, by their wits—and also by keeping faith with their predecessors, the true freaks, those who make no compromises, and suffer all the sanctions and embarrassments, because it’s worth it, it has to be undergone, so passionately do they adhere to idiosyncratic standards of glamour.

In between the naïve freak (the man who only wears purple, the man buying lumber in women’s clothing) and the sophisticated street success sits the childhood prototype of all great fashion: the girl who dares to come to school bizarre, wearing yellow plaid and leather and braids, eyes made up darker than an Ancient Egyptian’s, and a cut-and-resewn home modified t-shirt underneath her Goth trench coat. She is mocked, pushed into lockers, and plots her fashion revenge. She knows they would understand her in New York.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

More by this Author