Early in 2009, Martin and I saw saw the remarkable cave paintings at Font-de-Gaume in the Dordogne region of Southern France. There were only three of us in the cave: Martin, me and a knowledgeable French guide who periodically interrupted near total darkness to illuminate a painting and explain its features. It was thrilling.
The experience was especially compelling for me personally. Several months earlier I had read the New Yorker article Letter from Southern France — First Impressions — What does the world’s oldest art say about us? by Judith Thurman and found it heart breaking. I hadn’t known that Neanderthals coexisted with their successor species, Homo sapiens, for eight thousand years and were aware of their inferiority to these newcomers. I imagined them looking at the cave paintings in utter bewilderment. These guys are better than us. It is how I sometimes felt, growing up, not knowing if I would ever be, as my friends were, part of a warm family life and promising future, and it made me sad.
The cave painters and the Neanderthals came to mind again recently in thinking about the post I meant to write, the next post in this series (now postponed till the next post). Re-reading Thurman’s article I was struck by this reference to fashion:
“They coexisted for some eight thousand years, until the Neanderthals withdrew or were forced, in dwindling numbers, toward the arid mountains of southern Spain, making Gibraltar a final redoubt. It isn’t known from whom or from what they were retreating (if “retreat” describes their migration), though along the way the arts of the newcomers must have impressed them. Later Neanderthal campsites have yielded some rings and awls carved from ivory, and painted or grooved bones and teeth (nothing of the like predates the arrival of Homo sapiens). The pathos of their workmanship—the attempt to copy something novel and marvellous by the dimming light of their existence—nearly makes you weep. And here, perhaps, the cruel notion that we call fashion, a coded expression of rivalry and desire, was born.”
Is fashion really a coded expression of rivalry and desire?
Consider the following diagram, a societal org chart based loosely on the hierarchical structure of the pre-modern West, with some inconsistencies, like the United States forefathers standing in for the royal court and ministries, because I couldn’t find appropriate clip art. Note that the institutions of the academy and judiciary have dotted report lines to king and church as they are derived from both.
I see essentially three distinct styles of dress in the institutions of state and church pictured above:
- Embellished robes,
- Plain robes, and
Having just attended the ordination of a new Episcopal priest yesterday morning, I am able to report that the ceremony of ordination and of the coronation of a king share one interesting ritual, that of vesting the candidate, at conclusion, in beautiful, regal robes. The king’s robes represent sovereignty over his worldly kingdom, the priest’s robes represent the sovereignty of Christ in the kingdom of God. In the case of King and Pope, the robes are highly bejeweled.
Plain robes are worn by persons in positions of public trust and religious service such as monks, nuns, judges, professors and choral singers.
What’s left are military uniforms and the dress of aristocratic statesmen derived from a combination of military and civilian uniforms (e.g., footman).
Embellished robes and uniforms convey rank and/or social position whereas plain robes convey the opposite. This passage in George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: three royal cousins and the road to World War I By Miranda Carter describes how these three royal cousins felt about fashion and status:
“Nicholas also had a passion for uniforms and correct dress. He possessed the kit of every regiment in the empire down to the last inch of gold braid, and was starting to collect honorary ranks from the foreign regiments. He also had several Russian “peasant” outfits, which like his father he liked to wear from time to time–trousers and a bright red blouse made out of silk no Russian peasant could have afforded. He thought of himself as frugal–just like his father, he had holes darned, collars and cuffs replaced–but the uniforms and outfits had cost millions of roubles. The appetite for uniforms and their tiniest details had become a mania ubiquitous at all the European courts. Wilhelm’s passion was was worse than Nicholas’s. Even his entourage, the sine qua non of court conservatism, regarded him as “‘obsessed by this question of clothes and externals,” and he was constantly redesigning regimental court uniforms, the helmets becoming increasingly Wagnerian, the plumes taller, the sashes thicker and shinier. Uniform was a reminder of royalty and the aristocracy’s control of the military, but it was also a marker of their superiority to the lower classes–black tail coats, one Russian grande dame observed, failed to “differentiate a gentleman from his lackey.” In Berlin, one writer noted, “Uniforms, no longer the livery of duty, were worn like feathers, to strut the owner and attract the eligible.”
Though England’s upper classes didn’t share the continental obsession with uniform, Edward and George were quite as obsessed with clothes as their European relations. Edward had led gentlemen’s fashion since the 1860s, despite his increasing girth, and though he looked dreadful in a uniform, he was the epitome of the English gentleman style and even had a tweed check named after him. He harboured what even those who liked him described as a childlike obsession with decorations and “buttons.” An incorrectly worn medal, an ill-matching pair of trousers and waistcoat, would send him into paroxysms of irritation, moments when trivia won out over significance. “It is very interesting Sir Henry,” he once interrupted a minister reporting on the latest exploits of the Amir of Afghanistan, “but you should never wear a coloured tie with a frock coat.” Lord Salisbury, who was famous for his extreme shabbiness, induced hysterics. Salisbury, who wielded real power and had no interest in clothes, regarded Edward as a fool.”
In our post-modern secular democracy, social position is not the only element of personal style. In my totally made up theory of fashion, personal style is a combination of both social position and individual artistic expression, as depicted below.
Steve Jobs is positioned near the ascetic origin because his uniform of black turtle neck, jeans and sneakers deliberately conveys a kind of monk-like devotion to the mission of bringing technology to the masses. He wants to convey accessibility.
I do too. Not out of humble devotion to craft or creed, but out of a desire to live simply and without pretense. I also want to have some creative fun.
Elegance has elements of social status and creativity. I’m not sure how much of each but I do think there is upward pressure on individuals for status if not celebrity. I’m not talking about people in the business of fashion — they have specific business goals requiring them to be at the forefront of fashion. I’m talking about ordinary people. It takes serious money and time to dress well – how do you stick to the objective of finding a suitable personal style without exceeding your means?
Perhaps by sewing and thrift shopping, though selection at thrift stores is limited in my size. I do really like the thrifted jacket and Coach bag pictured below. The not-your-daughters jeans (NYDJ) are very comfortable, but expensive. Meanwhile, sewing for me is temporarily on hold as I sew several patterns my daughter wants me to make.
As there will be multiple choir calls next week and the week following, Holy Week, and I have an out-of-town visitor coming, I will not post again until after Easter. Happy Easter and Happy Pesach and happy whatever other holiday you might be celebrating!