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Fashion: A Glossary of Terms

The fashionable woman is a consumer, but she is also to be consumed. Recording the development of the woman as focal point in commercial appeals, Walter Benjamin notes that modern advertising demonstrates how much the enticements of women and commodities have merged. In capitalism, an economic system of universalised exchange is socially broadcast using women as objects and enticing them as complicit subjects. Economic fantasies are transmuted to the erotic sphere, reforged as the love of another who has been touched by the magic wand of monetary value. The erotic ideal is not the grisette – who is most probably employed in the garment and millinery trades as seamstress or shop assistant and who gives herself to men. It is rather the lorette, a kept woman who sells herself to her lovers


Fashion courts death. Georg Simmel noted that: ‘As fashion spreads, it gradually goes to its doom. The distinctiveness which in the early stages of a set fashion assures for it a certain distribution is destroyed as the fashion spreads, and as this element wanes, the fashion also is bound to die’. But fashion is entwined with the fatal in another way. Fashion is, even when new, deadly. Walter Benjamin writes of fashion as a draping of bodies in an erotology of the damned. Fashion ‘prostitutes the living body to the inorganic world’, making women pioneer-explorers in a new continent of artifice. Organic and inorganic compounds, deadened nature and artificial semblances of life forms - fur, sequins, shells, bone, cosmetics – all these are accoutrements to embellish, disguise and distort. The fashionable woman is masked by cosmetics and clothes, emanations of non-natural ‘feminine fauna’.


Between September and December 1874 Stéphane Mallarmé edited a fashion magazine, La Dernière mode, The Latest Fashion, aimed at a female readership. The contributors, Miss Satin, Marguerite de Ponty, Ix, Marasquin and others, are all female disguises adopted by Mallarmé himself, in order to comment on the dynamics of fashion. Mallarmé was keenly aware of the hierarchies in the fashion market, haute couture or off-the-peg, and the consumers’ seduction into compulsive acts of purchase without discernment. Occasionally in his disguise as one or other contributor, Mallarmé would address questions of literature, for it was seen to share with fashion the ability to seduce women: crucial issues included where to place a book in a lady’s boudoir, a book received from a secret admirer, of course. The vocabulary of the fashion magazine traversed the same ground as Mallarmé’s poetry, with an emphasis on the transitory, immaterial and the recurrence of such insubstantial things as ‘vapour’, ‘silvered clouds’, ‘perfume’, ‘dreams’, ‘sky blue’ and ‘opal reflections’. Mallarmé’s poetic work, definitively modernist, has barely a subject, or barely a presence: like the most fantastic puff of a dress worn for just one season or a night, it is all texture, weave, spaces, slightness, gaps and shifts. Like a certain type of fashion sensibility, his poetry relishes the slightest thing, the mere nothing that is beautiful. And fashion – at least the highest of the haute, as conceived by Charles Worth – is a mode of thinking: ‘Mr. Worth alone knew how to create an outfit as fugitive as our thoughts.’


The nineteenth century mass sees itself walking and buying. Mirrored in the endless reflections of shop windows, the crowd transforms into a spectacle. Efforts are made to tame and train this mob, to turn it into a consumer crowd that forgets its role in production. Acts of production are obscured, concealed, buried under the commodity’s cocky sovereignty.


Fashion is metaphorical – it quotes, dissimulates, disguises, reveals and connects. Mode (the German and French word for fashion) is thinkable through modernity, a word in which it nestles. Both mode and modernity are defined by their transience, their effervescent evanescence, their always absolutely nowness – and yet neither can scramble free of what has preceded, as is made manifest in fashion’s habit of sartorial citation. Fashion is always peeking backwards, while zipping forwards. Its present is unstable. Indeed, as well as characterising the predilections of the present, it is reputed by some to be endowed with the ability, in its ruffles and cuts, to scry the future, to anticipate great coming events or the smallest shifts in habit. The connections between historical change and fashion are at times so perfect they are almost incredible: there was a Thermidor dress that imposed a morally upright posture on its wearer, a scarlet gown called ‘à la Guillotine’, a Robespierre gown, a Michelet frock. These indicate for sure that modernity is characterised by self-irony. But costume may be suspect too, rather than revealing, donned to dissimulate and deceive. Marx described the fancy dress of the French revolutionary politicians who were unchaining and establishing modern bourgeois society from 1789 until 1814. They adopted ‘Roman costume’ and ‘Roman phrases. The next generation of power-mongers did likewise, copying the copiers, finding in ‘the austere classical traditions of the Roman Republic’ the ‘ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions’ necessary ‘to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles and to keep their passion on the high plane of great historic tragedy’. Fashion is metaphorical, but it also offers itself up as metaphor. Discussing the second French republic of 1848, Marx notes how its governors regarded it cynically ‘only as a new ball dress for the old bourgeois society’.


In the nineteenth century the metropolis becomes a stage set for women. Walter Benjamin registers that the large shop fronts of the department stores in Second Empire Paris are eyes constantly directed at females as they pass by. And the eyes of other passers-by are hanging mirrors. Women see themselves more than elsewhere in Paris, the city with an excess of mirrors. Before any man catches a glimpse of them, they have already seen themselves reflected ten times. The peculiar beauty of Parisian women originates with this plethora of reflecting surfaces, which also stimulate a modern pleasure in watching. Even their own eyes peruse and judge their own appearance. They are objects for themselves. When they catch a glimpse of themselves in mirrors, sometimes they might confuse their own contours with the rigid bodies of shop-window mannequins.


Marx mentions the way in which ‘the season’ affected the tempo and scale of clothes production. Its ‘sudden placing of large orders that have to be executed in the shortest possible time’ intensified with the development of railways and telegraphs and the communications speed-up that these new technologies brought. Marx quotes a manufacturer on purchasers who travel every two weeks from Glasgow, Manchester, and Edinburgh to the wholesale warehouses supplied by his factory. Instead of buying from stock as before, they give small orders requiring immediate execution: ‘Years ago we were always able to work in the slack times, so as to meet demand of the next season, but now no-one can say beforehand what will be in demand then’. Employment and dismissal of workers at whim are effects of the general ‘anarchy’ of capitalist production. Livelihood is dependent on fashion’s vagaries. Impermanence, the speed of change is crucial, as is graphically illustrated in the procedures of the artist Gustave Caillebotte who, in a portrait of a couple, leaves the woman’s dress unsketched until the last moment, in order to make the fashions as up to the minute as possible. Fashion’s rhythms equate with the breakneck pace and whimsicality of industrial capitalist production, against which Capital inveighs. All that precariousness serves ‘the murderous, meaningless caprices of fashion’. Fashion is key in Marx’s political economy. He identified ‘modes of production.’ These are successive epochs of technical and social arrangement that alter the organisation of production and consumption. These modes have something of fashion’s logic about them, if fashion is taken to be the latest trend, against which all else is considered outmoded.


The textile industry inaugurated the factory system of exploitation (curlicues of etymology mean that the German word for factory – Fabrik – is the English word for woven or otherwise processed cloth - fabric.) In the cotton mills of the mid-nineteenth century in Great Britain, men, women, and children laboured cheaply, six days a week, spinning materials harvested by slaves in the United States. In the silk mills child labour was especially grinding: ten-hour shifts and an exemption from otherwise compulsory education. The need for a light touch when working with delicately textured silk was apparently only acquired by early introduction to this work. In 1850 the Factory Acts attempted to restrict some of the worst practices, but certain trades were excluded from the legislation. Dye and bleach works came under the provision of the act only in 1860, lace and stocking manufactures in 1861. The 1860 act decreed that, for dye and bleach works, the working-day should be twelve hours long from August 1861, and from August 1862, ten hours, which worked out at ten and a half hours on weekdays, and seven and a half on Saturdays. Manufacturers campaigned to get calenderers and finishers excused from this shortening of the working day. During that day, whatever its length, working conditions were harsh. Girls in the bleaching drying-rooms were subjected to scorching temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. They were jammed together, fifteen or so bodies, in a tiny room by a hot stove, drying linen and cambric and working late into the night, day after day. Phthisis, bronchitis, irregularity of uterine functions, hysteria in its most aggravated forms and rheumatism were common complaints, according to a report in 1862, though ‘capital, in its representations to parliament, had painted them as rubicund and healthy, in the manner of Rubens’.


Capital murderously consumes life through the actions of reification and commodity fetishism. Specifically capital’s rule fractures and fragments the female body, which is remade as a prostituted, dehumanized, alienated commodity. He showcases the whore, who sells her body to men, the worker, who sells her body and mind to labour, and the mannequin, a super-consumer who models on her body the constricting grip of the commodity. Walter Benjamin endows these ravaged and deadened bodies with a critical charge in theory. His aim in presenting the sociological fact of objectification of women is to validate, out of the wreckage, the explicit shift of women into the realm of history and culture, recognizing the enormity of its social and political implications. It is the revolutionary chance for salvation. Benjamin’s whore is an emblem of the dismal spectacle of unlove at the chilled heart of modernity. His fashion mannequin is a rigid token from the realm of the dead. His woman worker has relinquished her sex in becoming machinic appendage. His methodology, which aims to encapsulate the destructive activity of capitalism, mimics its actions, repeating its violence in the fragmented and excised paragraphs of the Arcades Project, by turning the whore into allegory, the mannequin into effigy, the worker into material. The question is whether the turning of the whore into allegory or the mannequin into effigy or the worker into material reduces each to the position of a sign, or whether, as Benjamin seems to claim, such a move honestly appraises the brutality to which she is subjected and which objectifies her, whilst equipping her, allegorically, to be a super-critic of the system that lays waste to her.


Walter Benjamin claimed that it was possible in Second Empire France to measure imperial ambition and scope by the circumference of the skirt or dress. Could equally, in later epochs, such analogies be made between neo-imperialisms and flares, drainpipes, boot-cuts and so on?


Charles Baudelaire’s aim was ‘to extract from fashion whatever element it might contain of poetry within history, to distil the eternal from the transitory’. And with that begins a Baudelairean programme of attempting to understand modernity and what is lasting within so fugitive a mode. Is the modern a chronological category denoting simply that whatever is the newest is by default modern, or is the modern a qualitative category, as suggested by Adolf Loos’s stylistic veto on ornament or the bauhaus equation: functionality plus slickness equals the Modern? How might this be correlated with the black suit, adopted by artists in the mid-nineteenth century as a style that was neutral, objective and so timeless or, put another way, always and never not contemporary? A related rumination might evoke the Little Black Dress of following centuries.


True to national-cultural stereotype, French discussions of fashion – Charles Baudelaire’s and Stéphane Mallarmé’s contributions to the linkage of fashion with modernity - seem light and fluffy, like a pink tulle dress with snow-white fur edgings, while the Germanic discussions – Georg Simmel’s and Walter Benjamin’s efforts to characterise fashion’s tempo and its significance for the modern – come across as heavy, bulky, in their unwieldy descriptions of densely woven theory and commentary, sartorially more reminiscent of the thickly creased black suit of the philosopher Schelling, as caught in a photograph from the mid-nineteenth century.


Marx and Engels called the poorest class the lumpenproletariat; lumpen means cloth rags. For the poor even the shirts off their backs had to be exchanged for a few pennies at the pawn shop, however essential for living they were or however sentimental their value. Marx pawned his coat too, frequently, but needed it back each time he went to study at the British Library. Entry to its great domed hall was given only to the respectably dressed. Is it a wonder that Capital, which he wrote there, exemplifies the commodity form and its use-exchange value couplet in relation to linen and an overcoat? Marx’s attack on a system that made this sort of exchange necessary, his historical materialism, can be quite concretely linked to questions of cloth material and its processing within a particular mode of production.


In Walker Evans’ photographs of sharecroppers the wrinkles on the worker’s face, occasioned by grafting with its inevitable facial straining and exposure to sunlight and encounters with dirt, match the creases and indentations on the denim overalls, likewise occasioned by grafting with its rubbing, straining and exposure to sunlight and encounters with dirt. Time and labour mark themselves on denim and skin. And matter asserts its own part in the process, its particular propensity to bend or resist, to be rubbed or rub in turn, dependent on the quirks introduced by the labour process. The specific mode of production of jeans involves an unavoidable pushing by hand through sewing machines, in order to clump together strong thick seams - in Marx’s terms ‘living labour’ asserts itself against and in conjunction with ‘dead labour’. These clothes, perhaps more than any others, do not mask their manufacture. Work inhabits these traditional working clothes. Their particular unevenness, operating in conjunction with the body that is dressed in them, makes ‘to wear’ an active verb again: the wear and tear of movement, of usage, of a use value that can be consumed and exhausted eventually by someone, who marks his or her own specific selfhood on the item. Labour and matter conspire to speak back against the social-economic fetishising push to make them invisible. Commodification is that which should look as if it were never made. It has to repress the traces of labour from within it. In the jeans the flaws reveal: the layers of dyes that rub off under friction, fading dyes, the anomalies of stitching, the scuffing of pavement and ankle at the heel, the force of the leg asserting its shape and the history of its repeated movements.


Georg Simmel approached fashion as a sociologist. He related it to modernity’s objectifying and abstracting tendencies, variously labelled ‘Entfremdung’, alienation (Marx), ‘Rationalizierung’, rationalisation (Weber) and ‘Verdinglichung’, reification (Simmel). In a world of industrial mass production and population masses, off-the-peg clothes carry through the destruction of subjectivity (which is to say that power moves all in the direction of the object – fetishised, it comes to rule over us and we fit into its templated patterns). Mass-produced, standardised clothes are a powerful indicator of alienation, in the Marxist sense, but for Simmel they signify the alienation of the consumer rather than the worker. For Simmel, clothes assert themselves against the body – quite literally as well as figuratively. The process of civilisation has eliminated our unease about wearing clothes, indeed created shame if we omit them, and yet, at the same time, new clothes inflict a posture and attitude on us – we have not yet lived ourselves into them. Out experience buckles against their lack of same. The epochal change in which the object comes to rule over us can be married to a more general observation about our relationship to personal effects. Old clothes comfort us, for they have become responsive to us, that is, to our individual gestures, giving way to them, revealing our idiosyncrasies and our habits. New clothes abstract our bodies and fight against them with stiffness or tensions, threatened blemishes or ill-fits not noticed in the haste of the fitting or changing room. But then again, perhaps the observation is epochal, referring to a certain type of fashion and clothing, corsetry and starched collars. What new clothes ever resist us these days, in an age of floppy casual wear, sports gear worn by the unsporty, clothes wearable only once or twice before discarding? Only shoes and maybe non-stretch, newly bought jeans constrict and fight back against the lived gestures of the individual.


Does the wind of history flutter through the leaves of fashion journals of past centuries? Can the details or even the outlines of those explosions of class struggle – such as the bourgeois revolutions of 1848 or the libertarian social experiment of the Paris Commune of 1871 – be read in the details and the outlines of past fashion? Such details and outlines have been snapped up and out of history for these reworked fashion plates. These reworkings came into being through an arduous manual labour of reproduction that is itself outmoded. These ephemera are not simply recovered, but remade. Fashion and its accoutrements are recovered as repetitive labour, reinforcing the repetitions and the labours that structure fashion itself, an eternal return of the ever same in the guise of the new. Perhaps we can discover in these re-fabrications, if not also in the originals, a small feature that betrays, in the vocabulary of fashion, the ructions of history: maybe a red ribbon necklace remembers the slice of the Guillotine. Then again, en revers, like shot silk, the cut out, blacking all details, might be an abstraction that reveals all the more blindingly the hidden lining of fashion’s frivolity, a transference of its deadly drive: in the outlines of headgear, perhaps, the contours of liberty caps. Here are women, at least in ideal form, their heads gently turned to reveal the faux-vitality of the fakest of pinkest cheeks. The fashion plates insert them graphically into commodity relations. Their negation as silhouette in the copied version apes the invisibility of the female hands and bodies whose labour made their beautiful trappings. Their heightened colouration draws attention to the ways in which fashion disguises and embellishes and leads women into the realm of artifice. Her nature is no longer nature, but historical because commodified. History does shudder through the folds in more or less invisible ways and pastiche teases it out, or at least beckons it to sashay a while. Violence now disguises and now parades itself when the cut is the deepest of things and the hang is to die for. 


Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life (1863)

--- The Salon of 1845 (1845)

--- Fashion and the Modern (1846)

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (1927-1940)

--- Little History of Photography (1931)

--- The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (1935-1939)

--- The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire (1938)

---  Central Park (1938)

--- On Some Motifs in Baudelaire (1939)

--- On the Concept of History (1939-40)

Ulrich Lehmann, Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity (2002)

Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime (1908)

Georg Lukács , History and Class Consciousness (1923)

Stéphane Mallarmé, La Dernière Mode (1874)

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Notebooks (1844)

--- The Class Struggles in France 1848-1850

--- The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Boneparte (1852)

--- Capital (1867)

Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848)

Georg Simmel, Fashion (1904)



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