By Elleree Erdos
In his text, “Benjamin and the Revolution of Fashion in Modernity,” Ulrich Lehmann takes a theoretical and literary approach to the deconstruction (and, one might say, reconstruction) of Walter Benjamin’s “Arcades Project” and the significance of fashion in Benjamin’s thesis. Benjamin was a 20th-century German philosopher and literary critic whose Marxist writings focused in a general sense on the nature of history in relation to modern society and culture. His “Arcades Project” was a literary exploration of Parisian city life in the 19th century and of arcades. He considered these covered passageways of vendors’ stalls constructed primarily of iron and glass to be a primary site for the flâneur (a term coined by Baudelaire to describe a “stroller,” an individual who wanders through a city and observes its goings-on).
This print, though it depicts an arcade in London (not Paris),
illustrates the 19th-century arcade concept
Lehmann notes numerous references to fashion in Benjamin’s text and seeks to further define the philosopher’s “tiger’s leap,” of fashion: the idea that fashion, when taken from its original context and placed into present-day society, is a material manifestation of history. Drawing upon Benjamin’s citations of material metaphors, such as those used by Proust, Lehmann argues that Benjamin was concerned with both the material and the figurative aspects of fashion. He goes on to contend that fashion held for Benjamin a connotation of "remembrance" (426). By bringing the past into the context of the present—by remembering—says Lehmann, we politicize history as well as the means by which it has been transported. In this case, the means is fashion.
Lehmann argues that Benjamin was right, and that he exposed fashion as a political motivator—an objective, material representation of social structure. Acknowledging the counterargument that perhaps Benjamin was overly concerned with the marginal topic of fashion, Lehmann seeks to prove the fashion was in fact central, not marginal, to Benjamin’s “Arcades Project.” He delves deeper into the metaphors and semiotics of Benjamin’s work, arguing that fashion itself avoids the association with certain symbols because of its ever-changing nature. Using Benjamin’s writings as a scaffolding, Lehmann develops his own thesis about the power of fashion in defining history.