Originally published on May 28, 2012, in Artwis.com:
Among the myriad tragedies that plagued the twentieth century–none of which I will address here–it would not be a fallacy to state that the decline of fashion is among them. In fact, despite us being a mere dozen years into the twenty-first century, one could even remark with a degree of accuracy that, with the turnover of the millennium, fashion has plummeted even more deeply into the abyss of hopelessness and apathy, along with our collective sense of human decency, spirituality, and compassion.
Perhaps I am being unfair, or overly-judgmental, in opening this piece with such a negative, sweeping declaration. However, if there’s anything indisputable that I have learned in my limited time on this hearty planet, it is that, well, life is unfair; hence, this being a wonderful forum in which I can express myself in whichever manner (fashion?) I deem suitable, I choose to commence this piece by saying–in rather prosaic terms–that almost everyone looks like hell nowadays, and the fault lies in the hands of both the clothes-creators, and ourselves, for cheerfully tolerating current notions of what constitutes attractive, or even suitable, apparel.
To protest that dressing well, or stylishly, or whimsically, is solely the domain of those with excessive amounts of cash to spare, is simply wrong. Yes, it is true, the wealthy–the dear 1% whom we all despise, partly because we will never belong to it, or ever comprehend what it must be like to wipe one’s affluent rear end with tissues made of the fur of endangered Siberian tigers, only to be flushed down a platinum commode festooned with blood diamonds procured by enslaved Africans–can afford well-made clothes (or, rather, well-made clothes with an outrageously exorbitant market value, thanks to the brand name or label stitched inside its flawless seamwork). The rich can buy, do, and have anything that their black hearts desire, because they are guided by one “ethic” only: that of money, and how to get more money.
I can assure you, as a struggling, destitute Canadian writer living in Berlin, that money definitely makes life easier, but the pursuit of it is absolutely the root of all evil. The amount of joy I have experienced since relocating here to this comparatively affordable capital city has surpassed any that I experienced working as a 9 -5 fembot in my native land, wasting money on expensive items just because I had the means. At least, I think so; I have, at the very least, convinced myself of this. When you’re broke, you make do, you get creative, and the smallest tokens of generosity or kindness can illuminate your entire day, if not week.
You can also dress and look and smell very nice with just an applied measure of effort.
So with that extended preamble, I would like to state again that the 1% aren’t the only ones who can dress well; we may not be able to afford the sort of togs you see when you stare at photos of them in pulpy magazines or on internet sites, squiring an equally-well-dressed companion; moreover, with our limited resources, we can even look better than the elite’s rapacious, cold-blooded, human-appearing shells.
It requires imagination, and attention to detail. I once thought these were inherent human traits, but it turns out they are actually skills. Skills to be learned or developed. And it seems many, many people don’t want to bother learning the skills of imagination and detail, content to throw one of many baseball caps over messy hair, pull on a dirty pair of jeans, a T-shirt that hasn’t been laundered in nearly a month, a grubby pair of sneakers, and call this an outfit (I’m referring to the men, although I’m sure many women outfit themselves with this exact ensemble on a daily basis, adding another tragedy to my list of grievances).
My indignation towards this sort of careless wardrobing escalated when I had the opportunity to attend a terrific exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum entitled “Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700 – 1915.” Having been the world’s number-one fan of the movie “Amadeus” since I was 13 years old, I leapt at the chance to see those 18-century clothes, paraded around so lusciously in that film, right before my eyes.
After elbowing my way through numerous strudel-munching tourists in downtown Berlin, I at last arrived at my destination, yet another majestic structure that deserves mention for not just its pleasing architecture, but for the mood, layout, and extremely well-organized arrangement of exhibitions on display. Now, when I review an exhibition, I also take into account the atmosphere, and the forum in which it is housed. The Deutsches Historisches Museum is by all means an easy-to-navigate, beautiful, dignified establishment here in Germany’s capital, and after browsing through a few of its other presentations, concluded that the curators and designers are true professionals, demonstrating innovation and a gift for instilling excitement in the viewer no matter what the topic being treated may be.
I had to walk across a courtyard–the Zeughaus Courtyard–to get to the other part of the museum, where “Fashioning Fashion” was located, and it must be noted here: as I crossed, I was literally stupefied by its atmosphere of absolute stillness and peace. It was the strangest, most unexpected experience. How to describe it? The courtyard, with its enclosed glass ceiling, is somewhat like a greenhouse or solarium, although much grander in scale. The walls are solid, lightly-painted pink concrete. There are stern, weary-looking, open-mouthed visages of Roman gods adorning the walls, looking down at passers-by (a brief perusal of the plaque at the entrance described them as “keystones above the arches in the form of giants’ heads–a Tuscan order of architecture above rusticated socle storey.” What those last two words mean, I haven’t a clue, nor enough motivation to type them into Google). There were no outside noises from Unter den Linden, located directly in front of the museum, which is an unstoppably noisy street crammed with cars and pedestrians alike.
Here, in the courtyard, was pure, uninterrupted peace. Maybe the most peaceful place I have ever been, frankly. Solemn. Still. It was more relaxing than a cathedral. It was more pleasant than a cemetery. Anyone who dared to cross it from one side to the other found themselves almost unknowingly speaking in whispers and walking on tiptoe so as to not violate the atmosphere. This courtyard was a truly unexpected discovery, and I had to sit on one of its stone benches for five or six minutes to really absorb this glorious shot of tranquility.
With a sense of extreme (and uncharacteristic) inner calm, it was then onto the exhibition.
The presentation began with a large display board explaining what I was about to see. “Fashioning Fashion” was on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and would be addressing four key components in their exhibition of fashion dating from the Age of Enlightenment to World War I: textiles, tailoring, technique, and trimmings–lyrically alliterated topics, and probably not even intentionally so. It stated that each era treated men’s and women’s fashions in different ways: with women, each era emphasized a different portion of their anatomy (and what anatomy it is!). With men, particularly in the 19th century, fashion was distinguished by streamlined contours of their suits. Being a great admirer of the male form, I thought it somewhat unfortunate that their own anatomy wasn’t highlighted in any way through their clothing options, but I suppose that’s a personal gripe.
The majority of this fashion exhibition consisted of lifelike, white mannequins wearing examples of clothing from each era. I was immediately captivated by the men’s side of the exhibition, in which I could see, from only a roped-off foot away, the style that had impressed me greatly from Mozart’s time. I was entranced by the vividness of colour that swathed these dummies, not to mention the ensembles themselves: the outfit from 1755 -95 period boasted long, thigh-length brocade coats with fancy buttons on the cuffs and down the front; white blouses with ruffled protruding from the sleeve of the coat; a three-pointed hat; and splendid shoes with black buckles. Needless to say, this outfit would turn any man–and I do mean any man, even the one reading this article, or the one you’re stuck in a relationship with–into a heartthrob. Even the mannequins themselves were resplendent in these items with their angular faces, puffed-out chests, and confident stance.
Later, during the 19th century, the look for men veered most significantly into shorter coats and simpler shoes, and less ruffles; and of course, the headgear morphed from the three-pointed Amadeus chapeau into extraordinary tall top hats into, by the 1880s, the timeless bowler- hat-and-watch-fob look. Elegant, masculine, and again, attention paid to small details (such as a walking cane, for instance, or a smart vest) made all the difference in their overall appearance.
These were not men who, even if they were able, would have spent any sort of time seated in front of their computers in boxer shorts, surfing mightily for pornography and playing shoot-’em-dead games whilst cramming fistfuls of deep-fried delicacies into their mouths. These men, in these gaily-coloured, immaculately-tailored outfits, had places to go and women to woo.
The women’s side was, strangely, less appealing, mostly because every single frock was either white or beige. The quality of the textiles was surely airtight, but the aesthetic, overall, wasn’t particularly impressive, although indeed, the style of the dresses emphasized the holy trifecta of female anatomy: hips, waist, bust. The example gown circa 1765 was almost appalling in its exaggerated emphasis on hips, with a span (enhanced, of course, by a special skirt) that was nearly as wide as the entire dress was long. The question of How on earth did these women walk through a doorway / through the streets came to mind, naturally, but any woman from that era who could look ahead to the future at the sort of footwear that (sigh) Lady Gaga prides herself on being able to wobble around in–with the grace and stability of a Slinky toy on a treadmill–would ask herself, How do these women simply WALK? At least I can turn sideways and fit through virtually any entrance. This dodgy lass can’t even put one foot in front of the other for fear of tumbling down several feet and smashing her teeth into useless shards.
A salient point, really, if we are to scoff at exaggerated accessories and /or antiquated gown construction and / or notions of acceptable fashion for women.
(It perhaps bears mentioning that the fashion and clothing from this presentation could only be afforded by the aristocracy, as we all know they have existed since we have been able to discern right from wrong. This is perhaps the only way in which we have evolved regarding the matter of dressing ourselves. Fashion is less important, and far more ephemeral, than personal style, for heaven’s sakes. As I mentioned before, being poor does not limit your options for looking good or dressing well…a bit of innovation and effort can render you a sartorial standout, whether it be browsing through racks at the second-hand shop, flipping through magazines for inspiration, having clothing-trade parties with friends or colleagues, observing the way other people accessorize, learning how to sew, or even just trying things on until you achieve a unique look. However, I am not writing an article offering in-depth guidance for how to dress yourself properly.)
The gowns ranged from larger-than-life hips and rear end bustles to the more delicate, angelic, empire-waisted dresses of the 1800s where a scoop neck could best enhance a woman’s bustline and clavicle. I found these dresses to be the most attractive, and perhaps most in need of a comeback. The women’s fashions were very sexy, somehow, without resorting to a great deal of flesh-flashing.
Moving along to the textiles portion of the exhibit, we could see myriad examples of patterns, textures, and fabrics used in the construction of clothing, all of which were costly in the 18th century before mechanization and department stores came into existence. People would wear and use and reuse their outfits until, literally, they fell apart…and this was unsurprising given the astonishing beauty and quality of their ensembles.
A stunning example of this was an authentic man’s costume: a plum-coloured, knee-length coat with matching knee-length trousers; a light taupe vest; another ruffled blouse; large, ornate buttons on the cuffs and coat; extraordinary detail hand-stitched (around each individual button) which appeared to be sparkling triangles and dainty stems and leaves–almost like ferns. The entire outfit was a glorious piece of artwork, and nothing less. One could imagine the wearer strutting confidently throughout the crowded streets of Vienna with his pelvis unconsciously tilted outwards, leading the rest of his body through the throngs. Why wouldn’t you wear this every single day of your life?
A woman’s costume was equally as mesmerizing: a low scooped collar, once again emphasizing the neck and bustline; short, slightly puffed sleeves with tiny, soft droplets of material stitched all around; cinched waist; a billowing skirt with slightly exaggerated hips, all of which was constructed from a material that was a soft pink-mauve colour, the full skirt strewn with dark, ethereal butterflies that almost seemed alive.
The stunning precision of the craftsmanship left me breathless. The sheer beauty and attractiveness of these items left me envious, not to mention angry that I was born into an era where I find it acceptable to schlep to my local grocery store in lycra pants and a dirty hooded sweatshirt, surrounded by individuals with the same rationale applied to their own sartorial decision-making. What happened? Where have we gone wrong?
Swatches and bolts of fabric were hung up on display to show the types of patterns and material that had been used for vests and coats, and I was somehow surprised to see plaid, checkerboard, and even good old paisley among the patterns; nobody in 18th-century Europe could have foreseen their beloved paisley being adopted by LSD-gobbling, shower-eschewing college students not two centuries later.
Various undergarments were also displayed to reveal how the women’s fashion achieved its exaggerated heights, such as cage-like skirts, contraptions tied around the waist with a lifted wire mound at back to create a bustle, and of course, the infamous whalebone corsets, which–upon close inspection–didn’t look so bad, but then, I am a female growing up in an era where the body types of malnourished, tortured prisoners in military dictatorships are considered the feminine ideal. I regarded all of these devices as mild bondage, predating the beloved Spanx garments of our time, and inwardly wept for how women’s bodies appear to have been commodified and publicly scrutinized for a very, very long time.
It goes without saying that there was a noticeable absence of undergarment shape-shifters for males, where–for example–a sculpted mound to be worn beneath the pants could offer men the illusion of an indescribable night of bliss to interested parties.
Eventually, towards the end of the exhibition, we were treated to international influences on European fashion; for example, the introduction of kimono-styled robes for women with evident Japanese decoration (black silks with red maple prints) or a decidedly Middle Eastern bent (turban headdresses with plumage, ballooned pants that were cinched at the ankle). Glass cases showed us various accessories that were in vogue, primarily for the fairer sex, including lace parasols, inconvenient-looking gloves, and fans with beads and feathers.
Mercifully, within this exhibit, there was no juxtaposition of old European fashion with current concepts of fashion. Living in Berlin, where glamour appears to be as verboten as crossing the street despite absolutely no cars going past, I can’t even say that there has been any sort of lingering effect or crossover. God help us all as we pick our clothes up off the floor, put them back on, call it an outfit, and convince ourselves we won’t die alone.