Bard Graduate Center Response Series: ‘The Mixture is the Secret’ in Researching Fashion and Style

by Connie Burks, Royal College of Art

This article is in response to ‘Why is Fashion Spinach?‘ by Rebecca Sadtler, Bard Graduate Center.

Mixture is the Secret lady in black coat

Lady wearing wool coat. © Connie Burks

Reading Elizabeth Hawes’ humorous but nevertheless withering account of that ‘horrid little man’[1] fashion brought to mind the autobiography of Edna Woolman Chase, editor in chief of US Vogue from 1914 to 1952 and contemporary of Hawes. Always in Vogue is a lively and discerning account of Woolman Chase’s career, giving an insight into what is often thought of as one of the most influential positions in the fashion industry [2].

Without steering into the realm of a comparative literature study, reading these two texts prompted me to think about how the ideas that each author expresses may affect our approach to the study of material culture and design history.

Three gentlemen in trench double-breasted coats. © Connie BurksThree gentlemen in trench double-breasted coats. © Connie Burks

An often-repeated theme that exists in both these writers’ narratives is a distinction between what they understand as ‘fashion’ and the considerably more coveted idea of ‘style’. Hawes brands fashion ‘a parasite on style’ who ‘swipes ideas from style’ but is ultimately ‘developed with no relation to the public taste or need’ [3]. She advocates instead the elusive charm of style, which in contrast to a lot of fashion is ‘practical’ and ‘doesn’t change every month or every year’ [4]. Style, Hawes says, will provide ‘the right clothes for your life in your epoch, uncompromisingly’ [5]. Edna Woolman Chase, although not as explicit in her distinction between the two terms, repeatedly underlines that ‘even when every article is chosen with foresight and taste, there is still one great fashion law to bear in mind…the mixture is the secret’ [6].

Lady with blouse and skirt and her mother. © Connie BurksLady wearing a blouse and skirt and her mother. © Connie Burks

So how do we translate this supposed distinction between fashion (dictated by an outside actor) and style (cultivated autonomously) in our study of Design History? When researching a subject that is unequivocally ‘fashion’–for instance, a particular designer or fashion house–the obvious initial primary materials may include surviving garments, design sketches, patterns or toiles, catwalk presentations, press articles and promotional images and publications. However, when exploring these primary sources we are perhaps looking more at the garments as originally designed rather than looking at how they were actually worn; how they were translated, transposed and possibly even transgressed on the body of the wearer. If we’re lucky, we may find photographs or film of people (other than models) wearing the designer’s clothes. It is at this point that the designer’s intended vision is divided and diversified into numerous expressions of ‘style’. This, the putting together of dress by an autonomous individual rather than an authoritative fashion organisation, is perhaps closer to a study of style.

Two ladies wearing minidresses. © Connie Burks

Two ladies wearing minidresses. © Connie Burks

The nature of style suggests an ephemeral, abstract idea. If we argue that style is how things are worn rather than what exactly is worn then unfortunately researching and examining it is altogether more challenging. We must rely heavily on photographs and film to better understand how these garments were worn and what that may say both about the wearer and the garments themselves.

The cultural and social significance of dress and the semiotics of fashion have been greatly discussed and debated by fashion and cultural historians and it is a well-worn idea that we express ourselves and our identities through our clothing. However, as discussed by Sophie Woodward in her article titled ‘Looking Good: Feeling Right – Aesthetics of the Self’, there is sometimes a tendency to analyse fashion and its suggestion of identity without a close engagement with the individual garments and the way in which they are worn together. Woodward argues that by doing this, researchers are missing a key component of dress. She asserts that ‘clothing is based upon assemblage’ and it is necessary to explore ‘relations between the items’ [7] to better understand what is being communicated by dress. Woodward suggests that the putting together of different items of clothing into an outfit is the construction of a ‘personal aesthetic’ [8] – perhaps what Elizabeth Hawes and Edna Woolman Chase would refer to as a personal style.

Studies of style or dress – of what people actually wore and how they wore it – will inevitably give a much richer, more varied and altogether more interesting insight into the history of clothing rather than a straightforward analysis of catwalk looks from a particular era. After all, as fashion scholar Aubrey Cannon states, ‘fashion is an inherent part of human social interaction and not the creation of an elite group of designers, producers or marketers’ [9]. By prioritising a study of the choices made by a group of individuals rather than the idealistic visions of one notable figure, we are likely to uncover an infinitely more nuanced understanding of the history of dress.

Endnotes:

[1] Elizabeth Hawes, Fashion is Spinach, (New York: Random House, 1938), p. 5.
[2] Edna Woolman Chase and Ilka Chase, Always in Vogue, (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1954)
[3] Hawes, Fashion is Spinach, p. 5; p. 9; p. 211.
[4] Hawes, Fashion is Spinach, p. 4.
[5] Hawes, Fashion is Spinach, p. 4.
[6] Edna Woolman Chase and Ilka Chase, Always in Vogue, (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1954), p. 192.
[7] Sophie Woodward, ‘Looking Good: Feeling Right – Aesthetics of the Self’, Clothing as Material Culture, Susanne Kuchler and Daniel Miller (eds), (Oxford, New York: Berg, 2005), p. 21.
[8] Woodward, ‘Looking Good: Feeling Right – Aesthetics of the Self’, p. 21.
[9] Aubrey Cannon, ‘The Cultural and Historical Contexts of Fashion’, Consuming Fashion: Adorning the Transnational Body, Anne Brydon and Sandra Niessen (eds), (London, New York: Berg, 1998), p. 35.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *