Very early. Plato was one of the first. He started talking about beauty in his work Hippias Major (aka What is Beauty), which was written around 390 BCE. So what did Plato figure out about beauty? Well Hippias Major is a conversation between Socrates and Hippias. They start debating on the definition of beauty. The whole dialogue doesn’t really go anywhere, since neither candidate can formulate an answer that encompasses the entire concept.
So the question becomes, did Plato determine anything relevant about fashion?
Here is an interesting quote from Hippias Major:
Socrates: See here, then. What do we say about the appropriate: Is it what makes by coming to be present each thing to which it is present be seen to be beautiful or to be beautiful, or neither? (294a)
(Huh? I think Socrates meant to ask: Is it more important to be perceived as beautiful or to actually be beautiful?)
Hippias: I think it’s what makes things be seen to be beautiful. For example, when someone puts on clothes and shoes that suit him, even if he’s ridiculous, he is seen to be more beautiful. (294a)
(It’s better to be perceived as beautiful. The clothes make the man, Socrates! Any idiot can look good with the right props.)
Socrates: The if the appropriate makes things be seen to be more beautiful than they are, it would be a kind of deceit about the beautiful, and it wouldn’t be what we are looking for, would it, Hippias? (294b)
(So, in other words. Clothing and fashion make liars out of us. By relying on clothes, we are projecting a fraudulent idea of beauty.)
Let’s skip through history and talk about Baudelaire next.
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was a poet and art critic that recognized the importance of appearances. France was changing at his time. The Industrial revolution was bringing technological advances and more leisure time. Art trends were changing. Painters had traditionally only worked on religious or genre scenes. For the first time, artists were beginning to examine normal, everyday subjects. They were acting as social anthropologists, recording the fashion and behavior of the people of their time. Painting begins to record the gestures, fashion, and postures of the ages.
Portrait of Baudelaire by Gustave Courbet
In 1863, Baudelaire wrote The Painter of Modern Life. In this work, he discussed the new paintings and what they were documenting about French culture. What set him apart from other art critics is that he also analyzed fashion and fashion plates. Baudelaire realized that fashion is a critical part of history. Fashion and its documentation offered records of the latest styles, how to wear them and how to move in them. These records are an intimate view into the past.
Moreover, Baudelaire believed it was artist’s duty to capture the mysterious beauty of daily life.
The painter genius is not merely a flanure [wonderer] but searching for modernity, the quality that is new.. .He makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distill the eternal from the transitory. p. 12
Marilyn Monroe does her duty
Why I personally love Baudelaire? He encouraged the use of cosmetics. In 19th Century Paris, cosmetics were becoming increasingly accepted. Prior to this point, the only women that wore make-up in public were prostitutes and actresses and these two careers were often blurred. Baudelaire declares that all women should wear cosmetics. He even devoted an entire section of his book to the subject, entitled In Praise of Cosmetics. Here is his verdict:
Woman is quite within her rights, indeed she is even accomplishing a kind of duty, when she devotes herself to appearing magical and supernatural; she has to astonish and charm us; as an idol, she is obligated to adorn herself in order to be adored. Thus she has to lay all the arts under contribution for the means of lifting herself above Nature, the better to conquer hearts and rivet attention. It matters but little that the artifice and trickery are know to all, so long as their success is assured and their effect always irresistible. P. 33
Why this radical stance? Baudelaire’s logic was simple. Nature is nothing other than the voice of our own self-interest, thus nothing other than evil tyrant. Virtue, then is always artificial, a construct of man. Women’s duty is to elevate themselves above Nature by using the artificial to enhance their appearance. Cosmetics should be visible to challenge the vice of nature.
Baudelaire summary: Fashion is ultimately an outward manifestation of men and women’s attempt to show virtue. Its function is to remedy evil with idealism. By controlling our appearance, we are harnessing the powers of nature into a force of good.
The last smart person for the day: Stephane Mallareme
Mallareme is a later fashion theorist and poet who took a completely opposite attitude to Baudelaire. Mallarme believed there is no difference between Nature and art. Mallarme goes as far to say that Nature is a false concept, and that man-made and natural have no real distinctions.
While Mallareme was highly regarded as a poet and literary figure, he did something very unique that positioned him as a fashion authority: he started his own fashion magazine, La Derniere Mode, or The Latest Fashion. Even more astonishingly, Mallarme is the editor, designer and author of the entire magazine. He assumed pseudonyms for the different columns.
Each edition of the magazine consisted of advice, black&white engravings of costumes Mallareme designed, editorial content describing the drawings and latest fashions, advice and correspondence columns, detailed information on dress shops, and reviews on the theater, books, and other activities.
So, how was this important?
Mallareme became a fashion insider, which gave him a much different experience than other theorists and critics, who participate from the sidelines. Mallareme was able to examine and create fashion rules, philosophy, and language of persuasion from the inside.
How can we see this as relevant today?
Take the decline of fashion editors and the rise of bloggers. Marc Jacobs, Rodarte, Dolce e Gabbana and more have chosen to set lead bloggers at the front row of fashion shows a mere seats from Anna Wintour and other top editors of esteemed magazines. Other once overlooked fashion participants, like stylists, now have feature TV shoes.
America’s favorite stylist, Rachel Zoe
Mallareme’s magazine project was eventually handed over to another editor. It lasted for eight issues, and had approximately 900 subscribers. The failure was attributed to a lack of funding from obtaining advertisements. La Derniere Mode promoted local dress shops and commercial establishments, but never solicited advertisement funding from them.