Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sex and suits

Not my title but that of a book I'm reading - Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress by art historian Anne Hollander. It's no light-weight read, but the prose is lively for a quasi-academic work, and bursting with fascinating ideas.
I'm only 27 pages in, and already Hollander is well on the way to convincing me that, contrary to popular opinion, men haven't spent the last 200 years donning some version of the suit because they've opted out of fashion - far from it:

"... I have come to believe that male dress was always essentially more advanced than female throughout fashion history [which, according to Hollander began in the 1400s], and tended to lead the way, to set the standard, to make the esthetic propositions to which female fashion responded. ... The history of dress ... so far has to be perceived as a duet for men and women performing on the same stage."

She claims that the first quality of clothing is sexuality, and identifies fashion as modern, in that it's a process of constant, deliberate, self-referential change. She opposes it to non-fashion - all the other dressing and personal adornment human beings have gone in for, which traditional societies regard as time-honoured and are therefore concerned with preservation rather than change: the chador or the sari, for instance. Whereas, "In fashion, all social facts about the wearer can theoretically be masked except for personal taste ...".
She argues that to link, with the benefit of hindsight, specific modes - such as huge 80s shoulder pads - to social facts is simplistic and almost certainly misleading.
It's refreshing to see such serious attention given to a human behaviour that is so abiding and so routine it's as good as invisible to many.

1 comment:

  1. I found that book completely fascinating. I'm not sure I have any idea what would count as a refutation, but I find the idea of treating dress as a sort of personal art and approaching it as an art historian very appealing.