Thursday, February 11, 2010

Modern French Power

by Tribbie Nassikas


While there are many explanations for the concept of modern, it can be regarded as the historic era from the birth of the industrial revolution to the pinnacle of mass production uniformity, from the 1860's-1960's, making our current era post-modern or contemporary

While clothing increased with mass production, fashion remained an elite endeavor through the 1920's. Urbanization also gave people more visibility of one another and more civilized society. After WWII however fashion became more commonly understood do in part to Vogue and other magazines, see below in a photo by Henry Clarke on the right for Vogue UK.


Walter Benjamin, Paris, Capital of the 19th Century

Writing in the 1920's, Benjamin (1892 – 1940) begins by examining the phenomenon of the arcade, glass-covered passages through blocks of houses devoted to the sale of luxury goods. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the boom in the textile industry and the emergence of iron construction as the new, artificial architectural material gave rise to the existence of arcades. Benjamin notices how French utopian philosopher Charles Fourier then took this idea of the arcade (which originally served social ends), modifying it to serve as a dwelling place, calling it a phalanstery. Fourier’s phalansteries became his idea of a utopian society, where inside these buildings lives a self-contained community working together for mutual benefit. To Benjamin, Fourier’s utopia highly resembles the workings of a machine coming from the new technological advancements made possible by iron.


The passages were once major commercial spaces as seen on the left, mainly because they offered covered areas from the weather and tile flooring, not available on the streets of Paris until later. Then as shopping conditions improved throughout Paris the arcades fell out of use as seen on the right. However the arcades still attract tourists and window shoppers which exemplify the commodity worship Benjamin described.

Paris renovated and protected many arcades in response to Benjamin's research.

With the boom in iron construction, nineteenth century Paris saw an alienation of man from his home, as described in the poetry of Baudelaire. With the passageways of the arcades, poets’ metaphorical diction like “passage” and “threshold” became one-dimensional, essentially losing their meaning and power to connote a variety of possibilities. With the modernization of the city, during which World Expositions became magical places where commodities were designated with a mystical value and the private citizen’s home was shattered by the art nouveau movement that brought interior decoration to the exterior, Benjamin realized a common trend.


The expositions of Paris took place between 1855-1900 and included classical arts, machines and photography. Photographer Nadar below was addressed by Benjamin as a player in modern life.


The entire city was transformed for the expositions, similar to efforts seen by the Olympic host cities today. The expositions required people walk through the city. This is also a basic aspect of modern life that put fashion on display. Baudelaire wrote about the flaneur, the man about town, a dandy and voyeur who took pleasure in his own dress and that of others. The first ever fashion shows were called parades and to this day we view fashion by watching walkers down a sidewalk like runway while viewers sit back as if at a cafe.



Ulrich Lehmann, “Benjamin and the Revolution of Fashion in Modernity

Lehman focuses on the satorial aspect of fashion or distinguished style which rises with modernity and urban life.

In Ulrich Lehamn’s essay “Benjamin and the Revolution of Fashion in Modernity,” Lehamn analyzes and clarifies Walter Benjamin’s essay “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” in which Benjamin attempts to discover modernity’s political, poetical, and philosophical potential from the visual and literary fragments of Paris in the 1800s, the century that gives birth to modernity as well as fashion.

Benjamin uses the metaphor of the fold of a mother’s skirt, which was found in Benjamin’s earliest notes and discussed in Lehamn’s essay. Through the metaphor of the fold, Benjamin states that the fabric is made up of woven memories, which might be hard to see at first due to the folds in the skirt. But since the skirt is contemporary and the memories within it are history, there is a constant realization of the past within the present. Fashion is the explosive that obliterates historicism (the theory that natural laws govern history), giving way to a new political concept of history – one that is materialist.

Memory is part of the understanding of clothing and fashion, not only personal value but cultural reminiscence though revivals. The Gatsby inspired look above by Proenza Schouler.

With this historic materialist mindset to look back at the nineteenth century in Paris, Benjamin is able to conclude that fashion, with its ever-changing, ephemeral character, embodies modern culture, which is all about the nouveau. Like the birth of arcades, the utopian ideas of Fourier, the novelties presented at World Expositions, and the architectural advancements made possible by iron, what is new is constantly being replaced by something newer, which becomes the very essence of fashion. For Benjamin, therefore, fashion is “a symbol of modernity’s potential for not merely stylistic but fundamental change” (Barnard, 430). But, as Haussmann’s efforts to create an urbanistic ideal essentially became a work of destruction and brought forth the burning of Paris at the close of the nineteenth century, Benjamin warns that there is always an end foreshadowed when utopian ideas are dreamed up. While dreaming, they are realized, and while realized, their eventual demise is previewed since utopias aim to replace what presently exists to attain a higher ideal.

Gilles Lipovetsky, “A Century of Fashion”

In Gilles Lipovetsky’s essay, “A Century of Fashion,” Lipovetsky declares that modern fashion lasted one century, from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1960s (when gaps, challenges, and anti-fashions began). Although fashion constitutes on the principle of individuality, Lipovetsky’s hundred years of fashion unified and standardized due to the establishment of the bipolar system of modern fashion in France, with haute couture at one end, and industrial clothing manufacturing at the other.

Worth created the label.

To prove his theory, Lipovetsky describes the beginning of the fashion system in the early nineteenth century. Industrial clothing manufacturing came first, in the 1820s, then, from 1857 to 1858, Charles-Frederic Worth set up the first haute couture fashion house, a highly innovative concept due to his making of samples to present to clients and his use of fashion models to display the clothes. Quite soon after, many more fashion houses sprang up following Worth’s example. Soon, the luxury industry represented by these fashion houses played a major role in French economy, occupying one-third of France’s export sales.

Christian Dior haute couture in 1954 left and YSL for Dior haute couture in 1959 right. Below Dior haute couture in the 1960's. Importantly haute couture pieces were often purchased by major stores like Bergdorff who then dismantled them and re-created copies. This practice stopped by the late sixties as top designers slowly introduced more and more ready to wear at affordable price points and licensing laws increased.

The mid 20th century introduction of the mass produced pattern gave everyone a feeling of access to top fashion.


From 1908 to 1910, organized fashion shows were formed, with two seasonal collections, fall/winter and spring/summer. By making it a biennial affair, haute couture regularized rapidity and randomness of change of fashion. Fashion not only became centralized, but democratized as well. Chanel, for example, made clothing of simplified elegance, making it easier to imitate, which causing the gap between dress styles to inevitably narrow. The rise in sportswear for women also added to the narrowing. Instead of gathers and frills, restrained, clean lines were favored in response to the lightness and energy associated with sports. With the differences between classes blurring, Lipovetsky sees a society of democratic equality, establishing universal centralized standards and the beginning of the first phase of modern societies.

Chanel connected to the increase of leisure for women by simplifying modern female forms and using jersey.

The democratization of fashion has meant a generalization of the desire for fashion, as demonstrated by the audience in Bryant Park below.



France and specifically Paris is still considered to be the capital of the fashion world. French couture is regulated by an industry governing body, the Fédération française de la couture, du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode created in 1973, which itself consists of the Chambre Syndicale de la mode masculine (men's fashion), the Chambre syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode (ready-to-wear) and the Chambre syndicale de la haute couture (high fashion), the latter having been created in 1868. The Federation also has a fashion school, the Ecole de la chambre syndicale de la couture parisienne (created in 1928).


The fashion and cosmetics industries consistently use Paris as a backdrop, perhaps seen best in the famous Miss Dior commercial by Sophia Coppola.


Watch the making of the commercial here


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