An Interview with Barbara Vinken “Fashion as a seismograph of society”

Literary critic, Barbara Vinken, talks to Goethe.de about cross-dressing, the loss of dress style and bizarre, disrespectful fashion.

Portrait of Barbara Vinken Portrait of Barbara Vinken | © Barbara Vinken As a literary critic what interests you most about fashion and what do literature and fashion have in common?

You can read a particularly well-designed dress like a poem; both are able to stimulate our interpretation curiosity.

You address the volatile and fleeting phenomenon of fashion with gender studies and terms such as cross-dressing, travesty and show. What do these tell us?

If you take a closer look you will see that fashion is neither volatile nor arbitrary. Fashion is a system. It systematically criss-crosses its own codes. This clever game with codes is called fashion. Broadly speaking, up until the French revolution fashion strictly divided societal standing, afterwards it strictly divided the sexes. Garments were never more distinct in displaying the male and female gender than they were during the bourgeois era.

Exhibition “Reflecting Fashion – Art and Fashion since Modernity”, mumok , Vienna 15.6.–23.9.2012 Exhibition “Reflecting Fashion – Art and Fashion since Modernity”, mumok , Vienna 15.6.–23.9.2012 | Photo: Lisa Rastl, © mumok/VBK Vienna, 2012 The governing fashion trend of the modern age is mostly concerned with transferring men’s fashion into women’s fashion. Its driving force is cross-dressing. This development concluded with the “Le Smoking” tuxedo jacket by Yves Saint Laurent in the nineteen seventies.

Is it more difficult for men to appropriate women’s style of dress and codes than the other way round? Why is it so?

Archduke Maximilian Franz of Austria, son of Empress Maria Theresia of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor Franz I. Stephan of Lorraine, is visiting his sister Queen Marie Antoinette of France and her husband King Louis, Artist is Josef Hauzinger (1728-1786), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Archduke Maximilian Franz of Austria, son of Empress Maria Theresia of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor Franz I. Stephan of Lorraine, is visiting his sister Queen Marie Antoinette of France and her husband King Louis, Artist is Josef Hauzinger (1728-1786), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. | © Yes it is. Women wear men’s clothes, but men seldom dress in women’s clothes. The Scottish kilt is not a feminine skirt, it’s a military garment. Trousers, the men’s garment par excellence, that women were forbidden to wear under Napoleon, are, on the other hand, an essential article in every woman’s wardrobe. However, a man wearing a shift dress or a flowing skirt is something I have only seen in cross-dressing. Women’s fashion becomes more stylish and modern as it gradually assumes masculine details. But this does not apply vice versa. Dandys and followers of dandyism did not actually dress as women, but like women, they attached utmost importance to their clothes.

So fashion is not just a superficial phenomenon?

Those who know how to read fashion, Walter Benjamin once said, can read what lies ahead. Good interpreters will perhaps see fashion as a seismograph of society.
Nevertheless, this should be a little more subtle than the simple saying: when stocks and shares fall, skirts will get shorter and lips redder.

A Display of “Le smoking” – Female Tuxedos are displayed at a preview of Yves Saint Laurent – The Retrospective at the Denver Art Museum, March 25–July 8, 2012. A Display of “Le smoking” – Female Tuxedos are displayed at a preview of Yves Saint Laurent – The Retrospective at the Denver Art Museum, March 25–July 8, 2012. | © Has fashion driven democracy or is it the other way round?

Poster for the exhibition “Reflecting Fashion – Art and Fashion since Modernity”, mumok , Vienna, 15.6.–23.9.2012 Poster for the exhibition “Reflecting Fashion – Art and Fashion since Modernity”, mumok , Vienna, 15.6.–23.9.2012 | © mumok/VBK Vienna, 2012 It would appear that the more democratic a society becomes, the less it ritualises clothing. Whereas, in a sense, the only duty of kings was to permanently change their clothes for all to see, today, no one takes time to dress up any more. At court, the morning dressing ceremony was a pivotal public moment. It was the custom to change one’s clothes in a refined and elaborate manner, at least three times a day. In contrast to this, people today want to show that they do not waste time worrying about clothes. Unfortunately this is not only demonstrated in an understating way and the almost aggressive clothing makes it all too plain to seen that they couldn’t care less about what they are wearing. This is a pretty frustrating experience for anyone watching life on the street today.

A Display of “Le smoking” – Female Tuxedos are displayed at a preview of Yves Saint Laurent – The Retrospective at the Denver Art Museum, March 25–July 8, 2012. A Display of “Le smoking” – Female Tuxedos are displayed at a preview of Yves Saint Laurent – The Retrospective at the Denver Art Museum, March 25–July 8, 2012. | © Tolstoi or Proust are excellent reading for those who do not remember how people of high social status always changed their clothes at least once a day – not just to go out but also for dinner. Now there are only a few who know the difference between a cocktail dress and an evening gown. You can wear the same clothes from early morning until well into the night; there are also advertisements for clothes that you can switch from office wear to evening wear, simply by adding a few accessories.

Georg Simmel described fashion as a social phenomenon that reveals the power of appearance and superficiality. He claims that women generally follow fashion more than men and ascribes this to their weak status in society. This is because weakness steers away from individuality and distinction. Does this still apply today?

The fashion statement, or emphasising the importance of fashion appears to have almost become a phenomenon of fringe groups – in compliance with Simmel’s compensation interpretation. In Chicago for instance, only black people bother about how they dress and put on elaborately designed, dramatic garments and jewellery. All the others seem to think they need waste no time or thoughts on something as superficial as clothes: it is our inner values that count. How disrespectful, bizarre and narcissistic.

How do you rate gender presentation in German fashion trends today?

Portrait Barbara Vinken Portrait Barbara Vinken | © Barbara Vinken Very dreary. Just take a look at Madame Figaro, where leading women from business, politics, science and culture openly abandon trouser suits and allow themselves to be photographed in dresses. First of all, there are not that many women in Germany occupying such leading positions and we would not simply take such action for granted. And secondly, showing such fashionable femininity in public would most likely be linked with incompetence. You are either competent and efficient or fashionably female.

And what do you like to wear best?

Black cashmere at work, otherwise Alaïa.
 

Barbara Vinken is professor of romance languages and literature in Munich. Besides working as literary critic, with books on Kleist or Flaubert, Barbara Vinken has repeatedly addressed the phenomenon of fashion as a sign and semiotic system. Her new book Angezogen. Das Geheimnis der Mode (“Properly dressed. The secret of fashion”) will be published in 2013 by Klett-Cotta Verlag.