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Book review: “Fashion” by Christopher Breward

Well, what is fashion?

In Fashion, a carefully calibrated look at Western couture over the past 200 years, Christopher Breward notes that fashion can be viewed “as art, social process, or commercial product,” and continues:

Is fashion the sketch of a designer, informed by reference to historical precedent or contemporary cultural influences and translated into surfaces and seams of a refined sculptural beauty?

Is it the ritualistic adorning of the body by a subject whose sartorial actions relate to predominant aesthetic and sociological contexts?

 Or is it the limp textile construction, replicated according to body size and spending power, which hangs on the rail of a boutique, given meaning and relevance for the potential consumer by its reproduction of the promotional images of a magazine?

For his book, he writes, the most productive approach is to consider all three and their inter-relationships, a complicated undertaking.

The three aspects of fashion

To this end, Fashion is in three parts. The first examines the production of fashion, including the rise of the designer as a “name” and celebrity, the production of apparel and the processes through which styles evolve.

The second has to do with the promotion of fashion through advertising, film, the fashion press and celebrities as well as the places and ways apparel is sold.

In the third section, Breward examines how and why people choose to dress the way they do and where they look for inspiration — to the fashion capitals of Paris, London, New York and Milan, and to dandies and bohemians, people whose clothing is meant by them to send a statement of some sort.


“A medium in constant and chaotic flux”

Breward writes:

The primary challenge of this book, then, will be to present modern fashion as the outcome of a precarious marriage between the processes of creative authorship, technological production, and cultural dissemination, and to reconcile the notions of fashion as idea, object, and image.

That’s an odd three-way “marriage,” if you will. Still, you get it.

A couple pages later, he adds:

Fashion is presented here as a process which moves through several modes of action and experience, passing from the designer, through the manufacturer, the advertiser, and the retailer, and on to the consumer, and sometimes linking back from consumer to designer, or even turning in reverse….a medium which is in constant and seemingly chaotic flux.


“A form of engineering”

Along the way, Breward notes that fashion as a major cultural element began its development beyond the financial and social elite in the 19th century with the “emergence of shopping as a social pursuit.”

Although the fashion industry promotes its products as a means to a dream of some sort — individuality or sexual allure, for instance — the creation of fashion in its use of materials is not unlike sculpture and architecture. Indeed, Breward writes that the sketchbooks of Charles Frederick Worth, called the “father of couture,”

draw attention to the refining of the body’s proportions and a process of skillful pattern-cutting, repositioning dress design as a form of engineering, rather than a mere synthesis of existing elements.


“A form of modernist body sculpture”

And not just engineering the material around flash, but sculpting it as well. In his look at Cristobal Balenciaga, Breward writes that, during the designer’s career,

his clothing became synonymous with a detached and analytical intellectualism, a sharp appreciaion of the functional and abstract potential of clothing as a form of modernist body sculpture, and a deep appreciation of the cultural and historical affinities between dress and other modes of high and decorative art.

Of course, just as cooking is more than chemistry, fashion is more than the techniques of connecting pieces of fabric and other elements into a wearable item.

All fashion is art in the sense that it is an image being offered and being worn as a personal expression of taste and style. The grunge musicians of the 1990s with their flannels were making a statement, just as is the man who wears a tuxedo.

“Influences of commerce and popular culture”

And fashion often turns to art for inspiration as Breward points out in his discussion of New York as a fashion capital:

Whilst the revival of Parisian couture under Dior had aimed to elevate fashion to the status of an elite art form, New York courtiers of the 1950s and 1960s seemed much more open to those influences of commerce and popular culture that were themselves reconfiguring the fields of painting, printmaking, and sculpture through the work of Pollack, Rothko, Warhol, Oldenburg, and others.

Similarly, in a discussion of the career of Elsa Schiaparelli, he writes:

From the late 1930s until the outbreak of war Schiaparelli collaborated with Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau, Christian Benard, and Van Dongen to produce a succession of unsettling thematic collections which traded on the shock of unlikely connections and a fetishistic attention to the de-contextualized details.

Zips, lips, newsprint, hair, hands, mirrors, and astrological symbols stretched across vividly colored torsos, whilst costume jewelry and millinery in the guise of shoes, sweets, toys, and bric-a-brac framed the face.

Shock is part of the language and attraction of fashion — the shock of change, of course, but also the shock of transgressively breaking bounds. Scandal also helps, especially as boundaries shift:

Social and sexual scandal frequently went hand-in-hand with the promotion of fashion, usefully bracketing a desire for luxury and novelty with a new moral code in which self-love and rapid gratification were no longer identified as being especially sinful, but instead rather modish.

The dandy and the bohemian

In fashion, dandies have been influential by pushing the limits from within the power elite, refusing the blend with the crowd, but retaining affiliation with and membership in the elite. Breward writes:

The idea of dandyism reveals the ways in which human bodies are never natural, but instead constitute a system of meaning through which modern culture, indeed “fashion,” is constructed and widely understood.

Working in the same way from outside the elite have been the bohemians who do not seek affiliation with the elite, but offer a direct challenge to the status quo.

Standing in opposition to the controlled and artificial posturing of the aristocratic dandy, the shambolic but fiercely honest gestures of the bohemian have revealed the manner in which fashion can communicate individual passions and authentic cultural meanings as effectively as it contrives to disguise or mold them. ….

Both evolved in the early nineteenth century as a means of negotiating the bewildering nature of city life with its undifferentiated crowds of strangers and unsettling capacity for reversing traditional social hierarchies.


“An epiphanic moment”

Well, what is fashion?

It is wearable art, as this Harper’s Bazaar review of Balenciaga’s version of the little black dress indicates:

…fitting the figure like a glove, unrelieved by any soothing touches, immaculately plain from neck to hem…the black is so black that it hits you lie a blow. Thick Spanish black almost velvety, a night without stars, which makes the ordinary black seem almost grey.

And, as Breward writes, it is a human process that has at its heart a human epiphany — an aha of “yes, this is what I want to wear”:

For the efforts of style-leaders, advertisers, editors, and directors over the past 200 years have all in some way been oriented towards an epiphanic moment of engagement between customer and fashionable product which inevitably happens for the first time within the confines of the retail store, or in related scenarios of spending and consuming (such as the second-hand trade, or via the mail-order catalogue).

Fashion is about clothing. But, even more, it’s about feeling — feeling good looking at a beautiful dress and feeling good wearing that dress.


Patrick T. Reardon



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