Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cannonball Read #34: The Culture of Fashion, by Christopher Breward

I have mentioned Harvey Mansfield a couple times in this space, particularly his essays on formalism, which as we know, Americans tend to hate with a burning passion. He explains that rather than being a cover up of some kind as we often think, our fashion highlights what we feel is important. Think about when you dress up...several events will be immediately clear - weddings, graduations, birthdays, Big Life Events. But even when you're getting dressed for a Friday night out, you pay attention to what you're wearing. You know that you're headed out into the world, where most of the people there are not likely to know you, so you dress in a way that projects what you'd like people to know about you. This same idea carries over into your facial expressions, gait, posture,'s all in the service of showing people how you feel about yourself.

Christopher Breward is an English fashion historian, and in this fairly slim book, he rips through about 600 years of fashion. He follows changing silhouettes, fabrics, aesthetics and trends, winding a thread through it all and landing us in modern times (in context, the 1990s). Of particular interest is his focus on men's clothing and on the recycling of forms and trends. As with so many other areas of our lives - art, music, literature - there is little that is truly new. The arts come from and connect with a certain basic humanity and from there it's mostly a matter of interpretation. Though the big design houses and labels would have you believe otherwise, fashion is one of the few arts left mostly to the layperson; though the runways of Milan and New York may purport to lead the way, it's the kids in the streets and the women sick of the same shapes and the men tired of the same damn tie that revolutionize fashion and keep it in perpetual motion.

Breward's book is truly a history and he doesn't address a lot of this more philosophical discussion, but if one is invested with a decent grasp of world history, it's easy to line up sea changes in fashion with major historical events and political shifts. I find it interesting to see how dramatically fashion has shifted while still remaining somewhat the same, but for me this book is more of a platform from which to consider some of these larger issues. If you need evidence that we use fashion to project political and social images, one need look no further than the American 60s, but you can also turn on the TV and watch the way Iranians have chosen to express their dawning political dissent - by protesting yes, but also by tying green bands around their arms and heads. This is fashion in its roughest form, but it is essential to our understanding of how image, clothing and presentation affect the way we approach the world.

Not a bad book, not a complete book, but worth your time and a fun way to kill a few hours.

244 pages

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