January 10, 2020
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
“I hate our people who find it harder to tolerate a gown awry than a soul awry, and judge a man by his bow, his bearing, and his boots.” – Michel de Montaigne, “Of Pedantry”
The season of awards shows has arrived, which begins with the Golden Globe Awards and ends with the Oscars in early February. I typically do not watch the shows, but I do like to see the list of nominations and winners. And I have to admit, I also love to see the fashions. While I do have opinions about red-carpet fashions, so do many of the authors in the Great Books. This blog will note comments from three authors: Swift, Montaigne, and Huizinga, all of which, for better or worse, discuss clothing trends.
The most obvious spot to begin is with Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Fashion is of such importance that it is one of the first thing that Gulliver notes at each stop. In Laputa, for example, people are more concerned with science and technology, so they use the wrong instruments in making clothes. With Swiftian wit, he describes the ridiculous behavior of the Laputians.
“Those to whom the king had entrusted me, observing how ill I was clad, ordered a taylor to come next morning, and take my measure for a suit of cloaths. This operator did his office after a different manner from those of his trade in Europe. He first took my altitude by a quadrant, and then with rule and compasses, described the dimensions and out-lines of my whole body; all which he entered upon paper, and in six days brought my cloths very ill made, and quite out of shape, by happening to mistake a figure in the calculation. But my comfort was, that I observed such accidents very frequent, and little regarded.”
So while no one in Laputa paid much heed to clothing, they miss the mark once again by paying no heed whatsoever to their clothes. This tongue-in-cheek treatment of fashion reinforces some consistencies among authors in the Great Books: that fashion should not be taken to excess. However, it should fit appropriately.
Furthermore, Gulliver notes how clothing makes an important distinction when he arrives in the land of Houyhnhnms. After Gulliver just arrives, the Houyhnhnms compare him with their servants, the local Yahoos. Gulliver narrates, “The great difficulty that seemed to stick with the two horses, was, to see the rest of my body so very different from that of a Yahoo, for which I was obliged to my cloaths, whereof they had no conception.” Throughout Gulliver’s Travels, clothes offer all manner of distinctions, from class to race to animal, etc.
Throughout his essays, Montaigne shows much disdain for clothes as indicators of class or wealth.* In the chapter “Of Sumptuary Laws” he explains that material items appear very lowly to him and he calls for humans to abandon the greed attached to such wealth. He writes,
“It is amazing how easily and quickly custom, in these indifferent things, establishes the footing of its authority. It is a fact that when we had hardly been a year wearing broadcloth at court in mourning for King Henry II, silks had already sunk so low in everyone’s opinion that if you saw anyone dressed in them you immediately set him down as a bourgeois. They had been left to the physicians and surgeons; and although everyone was dressed about alike, still in other ways there were plenty of obvious distinctions between men’s ranks.”
Montaigne finds changing fashion to be an absurdity, something of a distraction from thoughts of virtue and morality. A desire for up-to-date fashions existed even in Montaigne’s time, and clearly it drove him mad. He satirizes the way that people participate in clothing fads and trends in “Of Ancient Customs.”
“When they wore the busk of their doublet between their breasts, they maintained with heated arguments that it was in its proper place; some years after, it has slipped down between the thighs, and they laugh at their former custom and find it absurd and intolerable. The present fashion in dress makes them promptly condemn the old, with such great positiveness and such universal agreement that you would think it was a kind of mania that thus turns their understanding upside down. Because we change so suddenly and promptly that the inventiveness of all the tailors in the world could never furnish us enough novelties, it is inevitable that the despised fashions very often return into favor, and these very ones soon after fall back again into contempt…”
Montaigne struggles with many societal hypocrisies, not just fashion, yet it is a good example of how important fashion is to many cultures. This is demonstrated succinctly by Huizinga in The Waning of the Middle Ages. Perhaps a perfect place to end this post is with poulaines, pointy-toed shoes from the Middle Ages which made walking impossible. Huizinga notes that fashion incorporates artistic elements, but says that once taken to excess, garments cease to be clothing, but rather costume and excess. He offers this example of fashion to the excess:
“In the art of costume, the essential qualities of pure art, that is to say, measure and harmony, vanish altogether, because splendour and adornment are the sole objects aimed at. Pride and vanity introduce a sensual element incompatible with pure art. No epoch ever witnessed such extravagance of fashion as that extending from 1350 to 1480.… The male dress had features still more bizarre – the immoderate length of the points of shoes, called ‘poulaines,’ which the knights at Nicopolis had to cut off, to enable them to flee.”
Here Huizinga introduces a distinction between clothing and costume. Like it or hate it, however, fashion offers many surprising and interesting cultural artifacts. What will the authors say of red-carpet fashions….and which of these costumes will last the test of time?
*Montaigne mentions fashion in a number of chapters, not all are noted here. Find additional citations in the chapters titled: “Of custom, and not easily changing an accepted law,” “Of pedantry,” “Of sumptuary laws,” “Of sleep,” and “Of ancient customs.”
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