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.
As much a cultural as an aesthetic history, this book is fascinating and great fun. But I have a quibble: How can Evans possibly characterize Vivienne Westwood's 1990s designs (which creatively drew on historical forms, but in a manner that was often parodic and frequently campy) as "straightforwardly romantic"? And one major objection: The book includes historical footwear, but makes no mention and contains not a single photograph of the work of the great contemporary London shoe designers Georgina Goodman, Jimmy Choo, and Manolo Blahnik, the last of whom is indisputably the most renowned shoe designer of the past twenty years. He'll be forever remembered, if not for the legendary workmanship, fit, and charm of his creations, then for his comment on Madonna: "You have to admire her—she hides her lack of talent so well."
Harvard Rules, by Richard Bradley (HarperCollins). This detailed if not necessarily reliable picture of the intrigue and controversies that surround Larry Summers's presidency of Harvard is gossipy and kind of trashy but wholly compelling—a Sex and the City for the Northeast-corridor elite (now, there's an unappealing concept). While engrossed in it despite my scruples, I found two dicta coming to mind: (1) Just because someone's a charmless bully doesn't mean he's not often right, and (2) "University politics," to quote Henry Kissinger, "are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." (I guarantee, that quotation will appear in every review of this book.)
The Glorious Cause, by Robert Middlekauff (Oxford). First released twenty-three years ago, this book, just published in an expanded and thoroughly revised edition, remains the best one-volume history of the American Revolution, and among the best narrative American histories of the past half century. Those who are drawn to the current bunch of flaccid and overrated lives of the Founders should turn instead to this masterpiece. It's more briskly and smartly written (Middlekauff's sentences advance swiftly and surely from point to point; his pithiness invigorates every paragraph), and readers will learn from it that large and complex political, ideological, and military issues can be compellingly elucidated in narrative form without being reduced to biography. This 735-page book, which covers the period from the Stamp Act crisis to the ratification of the Constitution, is a feat of concision. In addition to writing an authoritative account of the battles and campaigns, and of the political maneuvering and debates in the colonies and London that precipitated and defined the conflict and determined its aftermath, Middlekauff adeptly dissects subjects ranging from British political culture to eighteenth-century infantry tactics to public finance to the relationship between the revolutionaries' Protestant heritage and their conceptions of rights and politics. Although most of the material Middlekauff has added relates to social history, this remains an unabashedly old-fashioned work, with the focus squarely on politics, constitutionalism, and war (in fact, Middlekauff's most important addition is his synthesis of the current research on the British "fiscal-military state"). This work in its revised form embodies the scholarship of two generations and demonstrates a mastery of the historian's craft that is from all evidence extremely rare. This was the first book to appear in a projected eleven-volume series, The Oxford History of the United States, begun more than forty years ago. When the series was already far behind schedule its editor forecast that it would be finished by 2000, but only three other volumes have been published since Middlekauff's. Not one of the titles will have been written by the historian to whom it was originally assigned. (By the way, in this revision Middlekauff draws heavily on an even better narrative historical synthesis—Paul Langford's breathtaking and brilliant A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783, a volume in The New Oxford History of England.)
Rather than imposing shape and focus, the current, faddish doorstop biographies of the Founders pile on needless detail. In contrast, Edmund Morgan's slim (ninety-page) and polished The Meaning of Independence (Virginia), which is composed of pen portraits of John Adams, Washington, and Jefferson, in two cases fully takes the measure of its subjects. There's simply no better way of comprehending Washington and Adams than reading this book, which has been reissued in an updated edition. Morgan subtly captures Washington's greatest and most mysterious strength, his aloof charisma, which is probably why when the Organization of American Historians asked 1,500 scholars to name the ten best books on Washington, this thirty-two-page chapter was among the works selected. Morgan completely grasps Adams—he's deeply fond of him while not exactly admiring him, which is pretty much always the case with those we know intimately. Morgan ingeniously uses the inner struggle Adams waged throughout his political life, between his lofty ambition and his petty vanity, to reveal the man; his explication of how in deliberately ending his political career Adams "crushed his vanity but satisfied his ambition" is a most moving and humane appraisal of the interplay of personality and politics. In his final portrait, of Jefferson, Morgan stumbles. The third president clearly leaves him cold, and although his study is intelligent and perceptive, Morgan can't fathom Jefferson, who is an exquisitely complicated figure and a famously elusive quarry. Still, Morgan is a supremely artful historian. Masking his commanding authority (in this and in his other books) is a puckish ease and an utterly smooth prose style that manages to be at once conversational and incisive.
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