Editor's Choice March 2005


What to read this month

In their dogged efforts to appear edgy and with-it, academics and scholarly publishers have over the past fifteen or so years ventured into increasingly glamorous and seemingly incongruous areas of investigation. The results carry more than a whiff of the pretentious (one recent NYU Press book "places rap music, the Alien trilogy, and Sandra Cisneros in the context of postcolonialism, identity politics, and technoculture"), but academe's newfound interest in fashion is a more or less delightful development. To be sure, a lot of the studies are just godawful, and the titles even worse (Don We Now Our Gay Apparel: Gay Men's Dress in the Twentieth Century; Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset), but a few are quite smart, and most important, they have terrific photographs. Britain's Berg Publishers, an academic house that puts out the journal Fashion Theory (which runs such articles as "A Note: Gianni Versace's Anti-Bourgeois Little Black Dress"), and Yale University Press are the leading publishers in the field. Yale's are by far the most sumptuous books; its lavish and discerning The Corset: A Cultural History (2001), by Fashion Theory's editor, Valerie Steele, sold like soft porn for the high-minded. (Sartorial scholars are fixated on that article of clothing as much, one suspects, for prurient reasons as for the predictable ideological debate it engenders: symbol of fun if fettered sexuality, or of patriarchal Procrusteanism?) This latest addition to the publisher's list, a beautifully illustrated and surprisingly ambitious book, examines the design, production, and retailing of fashionable dress in London from 1800 to the present. It's part of a crop of titles that put fashion in the context of urban history, economics, and geography—a project not as ludicrous as it might first appear (the rag trade, after all, is New York's third largest employer, and any social and cultural map of London would include the mods of Carnaby Street and the King's Road, the East End's "sweated industries," Bond Street's boutiques, Savile Row's bespoke tailors, Jermyn Street's shirt makers, and St. James's Street's boot makers and hatters). But London has long occupied a peculiar and economically minuscule place among the fashion capitals, which makes the authors' task a good deal more complicated than that which confronted Steele in her Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, or Caroline Rennolds Milbank in her New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style, or Nicola White in her study of Milan, Reconstructing Italian Fashion. Moreover, unlike previous books that comprehensively examined London's fashion scene (yes, there are at least two others: Andrew Tucker's lively and useful The London Fashion Book and Christopher Breward's more academic Fashioning London), this one, as its title suggests, explicitly makes the difficult argument that there's a distinctive London style, with continuities extending back two centuries. Obviously, the place to begin making this case is the traditional—archaic, really—family firms of the bespoke trade, which have long given well-heeled London men clothes characterized by "functional solidity" combined with "understated but exquisite detail," which "discouraged crude imitation," as Breward nicely puts it here. (Although fashion history almost invariably means the history of haute couture, this book refreshingly and appropriately heeds men's fashions; after all, as Rudolph Valentino's wife explained in 1923 after rushing in tow as her husband manically shopped the West End, "London is to men what Paris is to women—the paradise of fashion shops.") Fashion writers often make too much of the influence of the time-honored in London style, but nonetheless, an Anderson and Sheppard suit, a Hawes and Curtis shirt, and John Lobb brogues exemplify a kind of urban sophistication—though they're rooted in an aristocratic heritage, and therefore in rural pursuits. Paradoxically, the metropolitan style was long determined and is still partially defined by a group—the upper-middle and upper class—peculiarly obsessed with an active country life. That group has long contributed a restrained practicality and (at best) a liveliness that militates against the decorative preciousness always threatening to infect high fashion. To me, the apogee of London style isn't its most publicized era, the swinging sixties (although Mary Quant's cool but iconoclastic, playfully elegant early designs epitomize the best of the London look), but, rather, the mid-1920s through the mid-1950s, wisely detailed in two gorgeous chapters here, when Digby Morton, Hardy Amies, Norman Hartnell, Peter Russell, and Victor Steibel created a strongly identifiable London style based on impeccable tailoring united with a sophisticated bounciness. Even photographed on tailors' forms (alas, nearly all the stunning garments in the book are pictured in this static way), the clothes are striking for their jaunty refinement. The designers were traditionalists (Amies, who, incongruously, later designed the costumes for 2001: A Space Odyssey, said of the emerging Italian designers that they had "somewhat dubious taste—dubious because there was no real sense of tradition behind them"), but they were cosmopolitan and so at ease with tradition that they could have fun with it.

However, as the authors rightly emphasize, from the fops of the Regency period through the gents and swells of the 1850s and 1860s, the aesthetes of the 1890s, the New Edwardians and their working-class counterparts—South and East London's Teddy boys—of the 1950s, the mods and Chelsea dandies of the 1960s, and the punks and glam-rock-inspired Blitz kids of the 1970s, a swaggering theatricality has been at least as distinctive an element of the London style as traditionalism. Not surprisingly, with the exception of the mods—who had distinct female and male looks (and whose female numbers famously catwalked up and down the King's Road near Quant's boutique)—and the more or less unisex punks, the peacocking has been a male activity, and since the early nineteenth century men's fashion in this class-bound society has been marked by extraordinary social fluidity (although, consistent with their strong sense of class identity, the lower classes appropriated the styles of the upper classes on their own terms, rather than merely imitating them).

Today the city's influential and strikingly uncompromising fashion scene lurches between liveliness and an unlovely swagger, a fact for better and worse largely attributable to what Breward calls "London's unique provision for fashion education." The city's remarkable number of important art and design colleges is probably the most significant factor in defining today's London look—and it's a feature of the city's fashion scene that represents an enormous break with the past. Probably no city in the world turns out more talented designers every year, and the fashion houses in Paris and New York hire bushels of them annually. But in those firms what Evans calls "a more conservative in-house ethos" strongly tempers the young designers' edge. In London those designers' ubiquity engenders a consistently experimental and provocative attitude—the city is unquestionably the most creatively open fashion center, which means it's sometimes playful (as with Stella McCartney's winsome, floaty, yet refined slip dresses, not pictured here) but is too often self-consciously daring. So while the rest of the world looks to London for fashion inspiration, many of the creations are uncommercial. London fashion is famously "pure," which makes it admirable or obnoxious, depending on how one looks at it. Probably the most renowned young London designer, Alexander McQueen, may be original, but he's far better known for his over-the-top, high-concept (and message-y) showmanship than for the beauty of his designs. (The older John Galliano, the other most famously innovative London designer of the past decade and now, of course, chief designer at Christian Dior, was also notorious for his absurdly extravagant shows, in the 1990s, but when it came to the clothes themselves, he often coupled whimsy, a quintessential if increasingly rare mark of London style, with precision tailoring.) In this environment, and lacking the Continent's system of long apprenticeships, more and more of London's young designers adopt ever more outrageous postures to get attention. For all the book's understandable emphasis on traditionalism, that quality is today, ironically, a far more creative force in Paris's large houses—whose stylishness was customarily contrasted with the conservatism of English fashion.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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