Here is an article I wrote that was published not long ago in Seizure magazine. Hope y'all like it.
The Lovely Ugliness of Fashion By Anusha Rutnam
A woman pays a visit to the shop of a famous milliner and asks him to create for her a one-of-a-kind hat, something unlike anything her contemporaries would have seen before. The hat- maker pulls from a drawer a length of red ribbon. Before the woman's eyes he begins to weave, knot and tease this single piece of red ribbon into a most splendid creation, a hat of perfect loveliness.
The woman exclaims at the beauty and ingenuity of the hat, gleeful that it will soon be hers.
'How much do I owe you?' she asks.
'$10,000' the master milliner replies evenly.
The lady gasps, 'What? But it's just a piece of ribbon!'
The milliner gently unweaves, unknots and pulls at the hat in his hands until only the piece of ribbon remains.
'The ribbon,' he tells her, 'you can have for nothing.'
There is a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca in which the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, tortures her new mistress, the second Mrs de Winter, with a guided tour of the wardrobe belonging to her late predecessor.
Softly handling a lace negligée Mrs Danvers asks, ‘Did you ever see anything so delicate?… Look, you can see my hand through it.’
Still from Rebecca (1940), Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
And we die a little for the tweedy second wife of the household because it is a most exquisite thing, made, Mrs Danvers helpfully points out, ‘…especially for her by the nuns in the Convent of St Clare.’
What piece of clothing could be more loaded with meaning than that negligée? Made by women who will never touch a man, once worn by a beautiful woman, now deceased, and virtually embalmed by her most faithful servant.
I think of Rebecca’s negligée as I stand, utterly over- whelmed, in Jakarta’s grossly oversized Tanah Abang Blok A Market. There are more bras in this market than there are breasts in the world. They are stuffed in clear, thick plastic sacks, the sacks stacked high. One gets the impression of standing in front of end- less walls of bulging cartoon eyes. And they are cheap, bought by the kilo and in slabs by Indonesians who will later sell them one by one to other Indonesians. I hadn’t seen another tourist for miles.
Bandeaus and balconettes, semis and demis, long- line and soft-cup, padded and pushy, all the usual suspects are here. In fact, except for the occasional Calvin Klong, it’s the same stuff sold in the department stores at home. And yet I am revolted. It is difficult to pinpoint why these individually inoffensive bras inspire such distaste. One almost feels sorry for them. I have long suspected that few objects have so tumultuous a lot in life as the fashionable garment.
Even without confronting the unpleasant realities of mass production in the clothing industry one can see that clothes have an uncanny ability to traverse the space between the lovely and the hideous. Most commonly it is a slow journey, the trudge of a style of garment that is designed, bought and worn by the Right People, subsequently favoured by a lot of people and ultimately adopted by the Wrong People.
In 1937 the historian James Laver attempted to track this process, breaking down the life cycle of a fashionable style of clothing into a neat timeline. The current fashion, he suggested, is perceived as smart but ten years ago it would have been called indecent. In one year it will be dowdy, in ten, hideous and in fifty years it will be considered quaint. New methods of production ensure that this cycle always spins faster and faster. The curved needle of the Blind-Hemming machine apes with incredible ease an arduous couture technique, wherein each stitch of the handheld needle picks up only a single warp thread of the fabric.
In a more glib fashion than Laver but in similar vein, Oscar Wilde’s oft-quoted observation, ‘fashion... is usually a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months’, still stands, give or take a few months. (As a proponent of the ghastly styles of the Aesthetic Dress movement, Wilde could certainly speak with authority on ugliness.)
How much is Jane Doe cognisant of the process? Consider a woman who buys an accordion pleated skirt.
BCBG Estel Skirt, 2012
The garment exists in the lineage of Mariano Fortuny, an early 20th century Spanish designer whose superb technique of hand pleating was shrouded in secrecy and died with him.
The Delphos Dress, by Mariano Fortuny, circa 1920, picture from The Cutting Class
Whether the buyer of the skirt has heard of Fortuny is neither here nor there. The pleats in her skirt were set by huge hot machines, and the machines worked fast. Surely she must know that though she desires the skirt now, adores it perhaps, there will come a time in the not too distant future in which she will not. The skirt won’t be torn, the pleats will still be sharp but at some point she will find that the skirt no longer seems beautiful.
Sometimes the shift is more dramatic. The Reign of Terror during the French Revolution saw previously fashionable garments become a liability, marking their wearers as possible enemies of the state. The hat in particular was viewed as symbolic of aristocratic frivolity and perhaps with good reason given the tastes of the Second Estate. During happier days in the court of King Louis XVI one princess was seen to have fashioned her wig around a birdcage in which live butterflies fluttered. The threat of losing one’s head no doubt acted as a compelling inducement to cease adorning it so fabulously.
There are some clothes that succeed in transcending Laver’s cycle. One person’s emotional or affective attachment can mean that a garment is drawn out of that trudging journey from shocking to drab to classic, rearranging its value as an artifact.
The op-shop wedding dress is one such garment and a particularly pathos-laden one at that. For a single day this dress is a singularly important piece of clothing. It has been cut, pulled and stitched especially to fit the bride’s body. It is photographed, discussed and fussed over, bridesmaids stooping to flatten its hem. And then the day is over. Perhaps the bride (now ‘wife’) feels a glimmer of distaste, the dress having been so uncomfortable or expensive, perhaps a little stained and really so unwieldy and big – where will I keep it? It is dry cleaned (the op-shop wedding dress is always clean) and donated. It has become a ridiculous object, discarded but still steeped with some unknown woman’s personal but easily imagined fantasies and fears and hopes of a grand wedding day. It is a discarded relic – no bride will ever wear it again. It will probably become a Halloween costume, a sartorial one-liner.
The lingering presence of the other is felt in the op- shop wedding dress as it is in Rebecca’s clothes. The object’s meaning is no longer derived from exquisite fabrication or form. The many hands that have touched Rebecca’s negligée have left a garment deeply imbued with confused memories, which threaten to consume the people the dead woman has left in her wake.
And just as the orphaned wedding dress and negligée are saturated with sensory and nostalgic significance, the bras in the Indonesian market seem completely devoid of it. They too have made a departure from the fashion cycle, entirely unlovely though not because of any detail of style or cut. Rather they have come to inhabit a world in which clothing is robbed of fantasy and personal attachment. In this place, the hideous excesses of fashion are thrown into sharp relief (nylon, after all, takes 40 years to decompose). The bras are not being sold to be worn, but sold to be sold. Trapped in their PVC cocoons they have no tactile appeal and one can scarcely imagine a time when they will be touched, worn or loved.
It is a cruel one, the life of a garment; nasty, brutish, and short. Buffeted by the seemingly arbitrary laws of fashionable taste, which care little for an object’s beauty and nothing for its state of repair – only its place in the cycle of a trend. A projection of memories and emotional meaning can seemingly drag the occasional piece of clothing from the fashion cycle to a place where its craft is forgotten. By virtue of its intimate character, as an object with a uniquely physical connection to the wearer, the garment is well suited to become such a talisman. The milliner’s ribbon flits in an instant between beauty and worthlessness. It is a more meandering process by which the fashionable garment achieves such a fate, but the result is the same.