What a bizarre, paradoxical, self-contradictory and ephemeral thing is fashion! On the one hand, it challenges haute couture to come up with ever more unique, far out, incomparable women’s clothes, if something that frequently exposes enough flesh to scandalize the conservatives can still be considered clothing. On the other hand, it prods the less affluent to emulate what lesser novelties they can afford. In other, words, it simultaneously stimulates the more daring and moneyed to be wholeheartedly, if often half-nakedly, unique, while encouraging the less fortunate and flamboyant to ignore the runway models while still following trends as much as their means and modesty allow.
I am concerned here with modern times. I have no idea to what extent, say, the togas of antiquity resembled or differed from one another: what was worn by Demosthenes and Cicero, by Caesar and his assassins, seems all equally like bed-sheets to my unsophisticated eye. My interest in fashion begins with George Bryan Brummell, known as Beau Brummell (1778-1840), a dandy who, contrary to what you might assume, actually launched more simply cut men’s clothes, favoring trousers rather than britches, although still fancying luxuriant neckwear.
Of course, there have been fops (bad) and dandies (okay) from way back, but also aficionados for whom fashion was a more levelheaded affair. Consider Shakespeare’s description of Hamlet as “the glass of fashion and the mould of form,/ The observed of all observers,” clearly intended as a model. Note the implication that he is the mirror in which all observant, discriminating persons would want to see themselves reflected. A fashion plate if you will, but surely no fop.
Yet there are no terms for female dandies, and indeed the chronicles of male and female fashions tell very different stories. The female fops, perhaps, may be called coquettes; the dandies, perhaps, chic or elegant--mere modest adjectives rather than brash nouns. Basically, the difference lies in that standard male attire resists major change, except on hipsters and showoffs. These may wear odd outfits, as to a degree do fanatical male fashionistas, who however are outside my purview. Women of fashion, conversely, go in for seemingly endless variety, ranging from the merely individual and stylish to the grossly outrageous, say from the Duchess of Cambridge to Lady Gaga.
Why the basic conservatism of male fashion and the dizzying diversity of the female? First consider what any clothing is about. It is to hide the so-called private parts of the body, not suited to public display, but also to protect from the weather. Yet why bypass the chance to make this appealing? To whom? To the dignified wearer himself: solid, but with a certain swing to it, say cinched waist and built-up shoulders. This allows for some flexibility, such as the color or length of the jacket and the choice of two or three front buttons. Also the width of the lapel, with higher or lower notch, and number and style of the pockets. Further, the length and finish of the trousers, cuffs or not, tight jeans or even bell bottoms. All relatively minor divergences, though, as between noodles and dumplings.
Accordingly, in its basic traditionalism or steadfastness, male apparel appeals to women looking for solid relationships, even marriage, from the dependable men who wear it, its near-conformity being a kind of sartorial oasis. The only area where men can safely be fanciful is—Brummell again—the necktie, of which I have a profligately profuse collection.
Thus I own scores of expensive ties, with perhaps twenty or thirty different labels, my probable favorites being, in alphabetical order, Abboud, Armani, Brioni, Chanel, Charvet, Fendi, Ferre, Hermes, Lanvin, Loewe, Mila Schön, Nina Ricci, Saint Laurent, Valentino, Versace, and Zegna, and several others (e.g., Celine and Guy Laroche) close at heel. Yet some fastidious Frenchwomen have mocked my zeal for what the French call griffé i.e., featuring prestigious labels, which they take as a sign of snobbery. But, snobbish or not, I got a nice range from them, a variety over the years, enhanced by changes of width, going from splashily wide to chastely narrow, though not quite the present pencil thin, an exiguity that strikes me as almost as bad as narrowness of mind.
But what now of women’s fashions? Here freedom and diversity reign, from more sources than I can begin to enumerate, so I will limit myself to two great designers, both as it happens Spaniards by birth, but active in France or Italy. They are Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo and the Catalan Cristobal Balenciaga Eisaguirre, the latter referred to as the king of fashion by, among others, Women’s Wear Daily, and by Christian Dior as “the master of us all.” Fortuny because he was a pioneer; Balenciaga because—but here let me quote what Wikipedia has to say of him “the most brain-catching designer of his period because of his structural designs, that were never seen before—a master of tailoring. . . always able to translate his illustrations from paper to real life. . . . Due to his advanced tailoring skills . . . he reshaped women’s silhouette in the 50s” and beyond.
One of the reasons for the variety and exuberance of women’s fashions is that historical tradition has unjustly limited women to such minor pursuits. But it is also true that women strive for threefold appeal: to men, whom they wish to attract; to other women, whom they want to impress; and to themselves, whom they desire to gratify when they look in the mirror. Which is where colorfulness and gaiety come in, as well as originality and variety.
All this, however, under some control, elegance or chic dictating certain judicious limitations. Many of today’s fashion designers, European or American, adhere to such restraint, but many, alas, do not. Let me cite two egregious examples. In a photograph in the Times, which I regrettably did not keep, one of the Trump scions was seen escorting (and probably involved with) a fashion model who wore a truly curious dress--or undress. Its upper part consisted of a maze of ribbons, carefully calculated to the centimeter to reveal as much nudity as permissible while avoiding what might be outright nakedness and considered sartorial porn. There once was a couturier called Rudy Gernreich who actually designed a topless dress, which, however, did not catch on.
My other example—this time excess rather than subtraction—is a picture in the January 29 Times Sunday Styles section, with the following caption: “Chanel’s belted crystalline slip finished in feathers [creating] an impression of modernity.” Down to well below the knee this is a straightforward dress—except for an overbroad, ostentatious, seemingly metallic belt—with two unassuming shoulder straps. It is made of an acceptable black and white, closely patterned fabric, and all is well until the extensive bottom part. From about mid-calf, we get a surrounding, dustbuster-like excrescence, apparently designed not only to ensnare the eye, but also to sweep the floor nearly as well as a broom. All feathery white, but heaven knows what color after the floors finish with it.
So then, if you are very wealthy or very famous, or better yet both, you can get away with gowns that no prudent woman would wear, such as this one with its alleged “impression of modernity.” Or the one cited above, with its approximation of nudity. Fashion, I repeat, is a strange thing: embraced with taste and moderation—think, for example, Oscar de la Renta or Carolina Herrera—it can be very impressive, yet also, in excess, depressing or even ludicrous.
But beware! Colley Cibber, the second-rate dramatist ridiculed by Alexander Pope, wrote in his 1696 play “Love’s Last Shift”: “As good be out of the world as out of the fashion.” Even inferior playwrights can occasionally speak the truth.