By JALEH BRAZELL
Thread is a fitting metaphor for the structure of ‘Frock Consciousness’, The London Review of Books’ collection of pieces on clothes and fashion history. As an image, it can signify continuity (threads of thought), connectedness (a linking line, as if stitched), and even reconciliation (the mending of wear and tear) – all appropriate associations for this range of written pieces, dating from the 1980s to 2016. Rosemary Hill opens the collection by alluding to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway repairing her favourite dress. Her sewing provides a steady rhythm which soothes the mind and the silk; the billows of material become the billows of the ocean. The thread is figured as the pull of a distant tide, and from this image on it is impossible not to view the subsequent range of articles – from reviews of fashion exhibitions to a condensed history of the hat – in the same way, as a sewn line meandering from one subject to another, drawing ideas together, unravelling them, and (in some cases) fraying a little with time.
‘Frock Consciousness’ is a slim volume filled with big – often too broad – ideas. It contains a review of Women in Clothes, which is the exact opposite; a tome-like anthology based on a detailed survey of women’s personal style, filled with snippets of personal insight into the female relationship with clothes. This is where the two diverge, and where ‘Frock Consciousness’ stands in the (literal and symbolic) shadow of Women in Clothes: while the former goes for brisk, elegant overview, the latter revels in an acute, painstaking specificity. The difference between them is that of swish but flimsy ready-to-wear versus a chunky, lovingly knitted jumper.
As a wide-ranging sartorial survey, Women in Clothes is founded on a thought that recurs throughout the LRB collection: something about the nature of clothes demands an almost obsessive cataloguing and categorization. Many of the articles reflect this desire to exert a level of organization over our appearance and possessions that we cannot match in the messiness of real life. Elaine Showalter, in an article from 2001, phrases it well: ‘The new term for an overflowing wardrobe is “archive”, and rummaging through your cast-offs has become a form of research’. Later, in a ‘Short Cuts’ from 2014, Joanna Biggs covers similar ground when confronted with the enervating repetitiveness of her own wardrobe, expressed in a dismissive list: ‘two yellow skirts, four black skirts, three stripy tops, three pairs of scuffed ballet flats’. These replicated items are all the more contemptuous because the clothes are tied to the mundane, their shades too close to bodily reality: ‘the colours of a bruise as it appears and disappears: black to purple to clotted burgundy to brown to mustard yellow’. But, as Biggs recognises, the act of cataloguing does not always have to be one of rejection – in Women in Clothes, the lists of repeated items in various women’s wardrobes offer a kind of solace. Presented in gridded boxes, the series of objects – hair grips, fur coats, white shirts – appear on the page like an 18th century cabinet of curiosities, stripped down and streamlined for the modern day. There is a rhythm both in their use and their portrayal: like the repetitive motion of Mrs Dalloway’s sewing, these items are something to reach for, to fall back on in the steady onslaught of the everyday.
This idea that there is meaning in the mundane and the recognition that clothes can be a window to the individual is slightly overlooked in ‘Frock Consciousness’ as a whole. Undoubtedly this is partly to do with the nature of an intellectualised fashion piece, aimed at providing a wheeling overview rather than a diligent case study – but with clothes as with anything, the charm is always in the details. There are some tantalising glimpses of a more personal significance, such as the anecdote that concludes Showlater’s essay. She recalls the sudden panic at the end of her mother’s funeral in Miami when it emerged that they may have buried the wrong person. When she and her sister asked who had been in the coffin, the reply came that it had been a white-haired old lady wearing a ‘pant suit’. In Florida of course, this description gives no distinguishing detail. They tried to narrow it down: what kind of pant suit? Purple lurex – their mother’s signature look, a clear confirmation that it had indeed been the right woman. The brashness, the incongruence, the element of farce – these vivid specifics make Showalter’s throwaway story a stand-out moment of the collection, because she does not shy away from tying grander social themes to events from individual lives, uniting them with the same connecting thread. Angela Carter also recognises the importance of personality – and, more fundamentally, the significance of clothes on big occasions – in her 1985 article, ‘The Latest Thing’. She records how Elizabeth Warren (the fashion writer, not the politician) always describes her outfits at important moments in her autobiographical writing, as if her relation to her clothes ‘is somehow more reassuring and constant than her relation to her remembered self’. This is exactly the same comforting consistency as we find in the lists of Women in Clothes: the reassurance of materiality, which is reliable where the human mind is not. Showalter articulates this too – after the purple lurex incident, she ends her piece with a beautifully balanced final line: ‘I don’t know when I’ll be going, but at least I know what I’ll be wearing’.
But these are exceptions – on the whole, the broad statements of ‘Frock Consciousness’ become unmoored without personal anecdotes to anchor them. A worthwhile counter-example once more comes from Women in Clothes, in a section of photocopies showing the hands (and, more importantly, the rings) of 15 women in a newspaper office. One of them, Maura Egan, describes her three pieces of jewellery for the survey: the first, a large stone set on a simple band, was acquired when she was by herself on her birthday in Saigon. Alone on a work trip, bothered by the heat and the chaotic streets, she bought herself the ring as a present. As the interview progresses, her words become more introspective and revealing: she is also wearing one which she bought from an artist who ‘casts the objects you get out of a bubble-gum machine’. This prompts the realisation: ‘I guess I buy a lot of my own jewellery.’ Then there is a set of three stacking rings, plastic cameos set in gold, from a shop in Soho. The discussion of their provenance leads to a final moment of self-analysis: ‘All my jewellery is a present to myself. No man’s ever bought me jewellery, because you know what? Every time they do I never like it. So I buy my own stuff, which is probably a control issue’. Self-recognition, self-validation, an independent if belligerent attitude – Maura’s personality is laid bare, all from an initial, banal question about jewellery. The zoomed-out perspective of the ‘Frock Consciousness’ collection misses these moments of insight into the individual, as stories are often side-lined in favour of overviews and statistics. A reasonable approach, given the limited space and the nature of the publication – but an interesting reminder that writing about clothes is much like the making of them: the details are what make the dress.
In ‘Frock Consciousness’, the homogenous presentation of each essay can be misleading. The articles are arranged in chronological order, but the dates only appear at the end of each piece – you are sometimes left guessing whether the more outmoded arguments are down to the inclination of the writer, or simply reflect the time in which they were writing. In the early articles especially, issues of female agency and self-expression are played out in terms which border on the sadomasochistic. These pieces are a written time-capsule for the attitudes and anxieties of the 1980s, at a time when the ‘seriousness’ of fashion was still a battle-ground in itself. The author Anita Brookner, in an article published in 1982, enters a dialogue with Baudelaire, who saw fashion as ‘the obligation laid upon a woman to transform herself, outwardly and visibly, into a work of art’ (or at the very least ‘a work of artifice’). Women, he argues, are expected to conceal, restrain, and mislead as a punishment for original sin. The extremity of this perspective is moderated but wholly rejected by Brookner, who concedes: ‘That fashion is somehow obscurely connected with shame is proved by the fact that it is extremely punishing’. So Diane Keaton’s oversized outfits in Annie Hall are an attempt to disguise her sexuality, and blue jeans are a way of declaring ‘sexual equality below the waist’. These observations are a fair starting-point, but 50 years on they appear as a vast oversimplification – to see clothes as a solely sexual statement is to reduce their currency by a perilous degree. The progression from one article to the next can sometimes feel like an ideological tug-of-war, especially on this question of voyeurism in fashion. So, Brookner’s privileging of the sexual element gives way to Carter’s view two years later, when she quotes Elizabeth Warren: ‘Women do not always dress for men’, as if the notion was revolutionary (which, at that time, it perhaps was). It is an interesting insight into how much the conversation about clothes has changed over the past few decades – and, more pointedly, how quickly fashion writing can become unfashionable.
Later writers in ‘Frock Consciousness’ reflect a broadening of perspective, and occasionally even offer a prophetic reading of the future to come – foresight that only becomes fully apparent through the retrospective of the collection. Showalter quotes the fashion historian Anne Hollander, who pointed out that ‘Ever since the Middle Ages powerful men have covered their throats’ as sartorial defensive reflex. This seems even more resonant now than it must have done in 2001, when the article first appeared; in a time when mass data is more powerful and more threatening than a sword to the neck, the most powerful men in our society expose their necks with reckless abandon, wearing T-shirts and hoodies in Silicon Valley. As the rules of the game change, so do the team colours.
The cut-off point for this set of articles – the end of the spool of thread – comes in 2016, with Alice Spawl’s review of the ‘Vogue 100’ exhibition at Somerset House. She finds it misdirected and slightly overblown; too much focus on supersized images which were only ever intended for the page, and not enough on the fascinating, chequered history of the magazine itself (its pattern books saved Conde Nast from bankruptcy after the Wall Street Crash; the editor-in-chief during World War II was a card-carrying socialist). The end of the exhibition, displaying pictures from the end of the last century, is especially disappointing. Spawls laments the repetitiveness of the facial expressions, which make the pictures seem empty and adrift, ‘like finales without their preceding movements, revealing nothing, going nowhere’. The problem seems to be a lack of earthiness, or tangible substance – the materiality which seems so integral to clothing, and fashion in general, is absent.
And yet this very complaint could be levelled at ‘Frock Consciousness’ as a whole. The very format of the LRB collection – its chronological arrangement, finishing at an arbitrary end-point – belies the fluidity and innovation of fashion itself. The articles are a useful record for how views change over time, but their broad scope skims over (or stops short of) the ties between clothes and individual experience. The 2016 exhibition marked the end of an era in more ways than one – a year after Spawls’ article, Edward Enninful was announced as the new editor of British Vogue, heralding a serious overhaul of the magazine’s image. His September 2019 issue, guest-edited by the Duchess of Sussex, was a huge success, with a range of women (activists, spokeswomen, politicians) tiled in black and white on the cover. Cynically, this could be viewed as a well-tuned publicity reaction to changing times – but this should not detract from its overall significance. Spawls notes that throughout the ‘Vogue 100’ exhibition, the bland faces of the supermodels fall flat: ‘The over-contrivance means a lack of drama’, they are voiceless. This is not true of the stars of the September 2019 issue, who grin, look determinedly into the camera, or gaze away as if at the far-off future they are helping to mould – women with voices and the passion to make themselves heard. Once again, it is the combined thread – the tapestry of stories viewed through the framework of fashion – which tugs most persistently at the mind and the heart.
JALEH BRAZELL reads Classics at St Hilda’s College. She aspires towards a life with more sparkle and less debacle.
Artwork by Abigail Hodges