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Wearing And Appearing:
An anthropological analysis through the shop windows

By Barbara Faedda
Photos by Valentina Stangherlin

Copyright © Barbara Faedda 2006

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Photographs at end cklick here

Usually, when people speak about fashion they think to deal with superficiality and transience, but a careful look remarks, quite easily, that behind a world considered fatuous and evanescent it takes action, on the other hand, dynamics and symbolisms deeply rooted in history, in culture and in commonness of social groups. Western fashion, in detail, with its aspects that connect it strongly to art and to economics, observed in regard of a globalized context, gives rise to anthropological considerations.

This article arises from several points of observation: from anthropological, sociological and historical studies, from the observation of the windows of famous boutiques in Rome and of some museums in the world, and also from the personal professional experience, because the author of this article worked for almost three years to a famous international ‘griffe’. Some photographs help to better understand some dynamics, strategic choices and options of the ‘fashion world’.

Many a times classical anthropological studies on dress observed that some evident contrast exist in fashion. Among the many is that of Alfred Kroeber who, during the first years of 20th century, noted not only there were elements that changed very slowly in time, but also that fashion followed a strict and constant number of ‘fundamental patterns’. He recognized, in a series of prints describing evolution of feminine dress, three base figures: bell-shaped, tube-shaped and double curve-shaped (i). To comply with these three figures, dress in the course of the centuries, was modified consequently with corsets, whalebones, crinolines, paddings, etc.

Although a century has gone by, still today manipulation and transformation of the body by the dress are a very important culture fact: recently Metropolitan Museum of New York (from 6 December to 17 march 2002) has prepared the exposition “Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed”. Thanks to a meaningful way through time and cultures, this exhibition leads the spectator to the knowledge of the <<extraordinary manipulations of the body>> that, even after Kroeber, came along with constant evolution of beauty concept. Fashion is seen like a practice to conform to variable concepts of corporeal idealised image, in a continuous alteration and mutation of forms, of figures and of relations that often lead to physical deformation.

Many museums in the world dedicate one or more sections to dress, costume, textures, retaining that these are relevant cultural, artistic, historical and creative ‘products’ of human beings. New York, Paris, London or Philadelphia museums represent pregnant models: in detail, I have to stress a recent exposition in Paris (summer 2001) for which it has been designed an expositive space such that location and accommodated ‘cultural product’ were totally interacting and substantially connected each other. Everything was of undeniable impact on museum visitors. In a darkness studied and obtained mainly through exiguous and ‘strategic’ lights and a ‘noir’ color choice of moquette and walls, it has been organized an expositive structure that, for the most part, only through some ‘portholes’ permits visitors to see and focus dresses.

Coming nearer, bending, stretching to distinguish a dress, an embroidery, a shoe or an accessory arranged for visitors to be not passive but, on the contrary, voluntarily stimulated to adapt the one’s faculty of sight to the specific disposition of each garment, in a stimulant atmosphere of tension and curious research.

In such a way dresses in the museums are recognized as real masterpieces, result of expert and brilliant creativities. A particular debate about management cultures and politics of expositive spaces is inevitable: for it a future article.

Anyway, one concept joins all the scholars of fashion and of dress in the various historical periods: dress is not, absolutely, only an invention to protect from coldness and from inclemency of the weather. About styles’ and ‘taste’ scholars and journalists wrote torrents of words. The anthropologist Mary Douglas asserts that everyone needs a coat, but the color is optional and the same color will change in relation with the season fashion. She writes that some choices are stable, and other are variable, some concern necessary objects and other superfluous things (ii).

Dress represents an ‘apparatus’ to fortify and intensify the identity peculiarities, as well as the belongings to the gender, even though natural sex is not the same of social sex. Françoise Héritier emphasizes that among Inuit infant has an apparent gender and a real gender: this second gender is the gender of ancestor. Children are educated in relation of the real gender (iii).

Ostentation of luxury and opulence is also highly inherent to the fashion. This is an omnipresent characteristic of costume and clothing, especially in their frequent connections to power, prestige and status. Marvin Harris says that the excessive exhibition, the profuse interchange and the lavish destruction of luxury objects are cultural resources constructed to conserve power and wealth. The opulence is the symbolic demonstration that kings and chiefs are supreme beings, rightly richer and more powerful than simple mortal beings. Superior classes have created a special style of life planned to subjugate the subjects and the potential rivals (iv)(Photo 2).

In discussing about power it is interesting to tackle with the discourse on uniform. Someone eulogizes uniform as distinctive clothing, relative to an alternative membership. Uniform reminds symbolically to order, rigor and fortitude; nonetheless this kind of clothing, historically more masculine than feminine, can represent clearly an alternative and provocative suit/dress. From a supposed technical and formal perfection is possible to pass to ostentation – voluntarily casual and untidy – of mimetic uniforms and amphibian boots that do not intend to represent rigor or martial spirit at all.

Uniform, consequently, becomes a decisively transgressive symbol: numerous, in that case, the connections with the so-called ‘subcultures’ or ‘antifashions’, political and social movements, music, mass protests and juvenile cultural phenomena generally.

Very interesting, moreover, it is the versatility of jeans: born for hard and manual work, adopted fundamentally for its resistance and comfort – without any fashionable charm – in the long run they became a highly malleable fabric with a strong visual communicative power.

For young people jeans have become a tool of social and political protest, of adherence and membership, symbol and emblem; for stylists jeans have become a trendy casual product, a refined prêt a porter article or quite a high fashion creation (Photo 3).

Although for many scholars contemporary clothing has lost direct reference and adherence to reality, the observing the way of dressing of a person or a social group still consents to understand many expects and dynamics of a culture.

Probably Earnest Crawley (1869-1924) did first anthropological studies on dress; Radcliffe-Brown in 1922 published a research on the Andaman body decorations (v) and in 1931 Ruth Benedict, Ruth Bunzel and Edward Sapir wrote for the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences on ‘dress’, ‘ornament’ and ‘fashion’.

Since then on many ethnographers and anthropologists took an interest in describing and analyzing dress (vi). That was inevitable: social sciences scholars – and anthropologists in particular – could not do anything but be interested in rich and complex cultural expressions like those of fashion world. Ugo Volli, in his introduction to Italian edition of a Fred Davis book, says (vii):

“La moda comunica. Quando ci mettiamo un abito diciamo quel che siamo, e gli altri lo capiscono. Vestirsi è scrivere la propria identità sul corpo, comporre frasi rivelative secondo una grammatica pubblica e facilmente decifrabile (anche se mobile), tradursi e tradirsi in forma di tessuto”.

“Fashion communicates. When we wear a dress we narrate what we are, and the others understand that. Dressing is writing one’s identity on the body, building revealing sentences in accordance with a public and easily decipherable (even if mobile) grammar, putting into words and giving away into a textile form.” (viii)

Nevertheless, in every direction, scholars miss detailed and deep studies and researches, especially of anthropological and ethnographic kind, in particular on fashion houses, magazines and newsletters, shops, big stores. In the same time is very relevant the connection between fashion and art: it seems an ineluctable relation, often osmotic. Recent Italian fashion shows (January 2002) – and in particular fashion shows happened in Rome – have confirmed once again the deep desire of both ‘worlds’ to collaborate and do something more than simply fortuitous mutual ‘incursions’ for the sake of advertising. Some young stylists have chosen to propose their creations in ancient libraries as well as in historical Roman squares particularly ‘charming’ from an artistic point of view like Piazza di Spagna (already famous stage for high fashion) and Piazza Barberini.

Sometimes the union between fashion and art is so close that it is easy to evaluate it from an identity point of view: it seems exactly as the museum ratify this deep relation. Inside museum dress becomes ‘publicly’ and ‘officially’ a work of art and the stylist becomes, in every respect, an artist already in the history of art.

Dress covers, frames, hides and masks the body. In this sense it works to distinguish and, in the same time, to link oneself to the others: dress is our ‘filter’ with the world. If we wear it with pride and vanity we retain it emphasizes us, physically and psychologically: probably this second aspect pushes many people to wear ‘griffe clothing’ even if they do not fit really well or even they emphasize the imperfections of body. G. Dorfles says (ix):

“Il fenomeno dell’abbigliamento e del suo essere legato a dimensioni molto profonde del nostro carattere, del nostro umore, del nostro essere-nel-mondo, mi è sempre sembrato un dato non eliminabile e di notevole importanza, non solo per me stesso ma per ogni mio prossimo.”

“The phenomenon of clothing, its being combined with very deep dimensions of our personality, our mood, our being-in-the-world, it always appeared to me a not eliminable and very relevant fact, not only for me but for everyone.”

Dress could be seen as a restriction or as liberation of individual and/or collective identity and, in proposing that, it represents a manifestation of unconscious that reveals itself through phenomena only apparently superficial. Clothing, moreover, sends various messages with reference to numerous factors but among these most interesting is the context, as affirms Fred Davis. In fact he writes that the fashion-code really comes from the context, much more than interpersonal interactions. The meanings of particular clothes or the emphasis on a particular style vary in relation to the personal identity, the occasion, the place and the mood.

Anyway, it seems clear that there exist precise tendencies – some stable and durable some passing and weak – on which are organized the dynamics of creation, production, distribution and diffusion of fashion. But how to discover which and how many are tendencies that born and grow in the social groups? A quite recent professional figure connected to fashion world is that of ‘cool hunters’, researchers specialized in so called ‘subcultures’ that have their field of work mainly on the street. Finding and showing a new trend are their aims: after the ‘discovery’, the advertising world participates actively contributing – by increasing through mass and to spread the ‘winning’ trend (Photo 4).

Fashion system, in addition to be an evident and dynamic productive apparatus, is clearly a place/situation of generation of sense, a field in which is possible to notice and to survey media – to fix narratives and versatile identities and often veiled. Therefore it is not simple to understand which is the 21st century man and woman image. The connections between fashion and politics, chronicle, medicine, technology and art become, in such a way, basis of a research turned to understand the links, the interdependences, the dynamics that lead the stylists and the creatives,every season, to propose a certain trend of fashion and not another one.

Frequently researchers and scholars of this topic affirm that the so- called ‘ornaments of fashion’ could not be seen as useless and superficial fripperies: few people do not know how much fashion is connected to the power. Elegance, aristocracy, wealth, control and style: all elements and instruments of incredible and undeniable power. Fashion has a strong coercive power, and not only on single individual: it expresses the mark, the membership and the status and for this it is an evident social phenomenon. Fashion innovates, changes and distinguishes but, in the whirling of transformation, it never gives up the symbolic signs of a society characterized by a strong hierarchical structure and by more or less explicit memberships.

Contemporary fashion is, for sure, a relevant market and, it is obvious, we cannot leave out of consideration the connection between production and distribution. It is necessary to be constantly competitive, to maintain the prestige of the fashion houses, as well as prestige of a ‘culture of the manufacture’ that – especially in Italy - is at the base of a wider production that often goes beyond famous names.

Many people support the idea that ‘mass clothing’ refers mainly to the everyday life, whereas costume refers to the stage. All the same, it is undeniable that the everyday life often represents a real stage. We get dressed in accordance with the circumstances and occasions: we can be extremely flashy and showy, as well as anonymous and ‘invisible’, appealing and asexual, freakish or introvert, and so on. We can look highest or slimmest, more serious or more joyful, ironical or austere, of the right or of the left, neonazi or pacifist. At a quick look, in short, ‘the cowl does make the monk’.

Thanks to sophisticated dress we can show exteriorly an image as much as possible close to the physical perfection, to the elegance and delicacy: stylists have to exalt body qualities and proportions and to hide defects and imperfections. A dress does a double seductiveness: toward consumer – that is fascinated by it (and is gratified only by the purchase) - and toward the ‘victim’ of the charming power as soon as dress will be put on.

The seductiveness and attractiveness of a dress is often connected to the style of the designer. Not always the stylists of fashion world can build up a successful and enduring ‘style system’: only a limited number of stylists managed to get credibility and competency such that now there exists a real balance between continuity and evolution and expressive research (xii). (Photos 5 and 6).

They who managed in this difficult plan, devolve many investments and expectations in communicative role of the shop. The elegance of furniture, the taste of choosing colors, of placing goods, the spatial settlement, the selection of staff and also the proposal of works of art are indispensable elements in shops (xiii).

The shop and the windows become, ergo, a real fundamental stage, a center of ‘fascination’ that desires to equal only the quality of the goods offered inside (Photos 7 and 8).

Nevertheless fashion and art live a real and deep fatal attraction. In such a way again Fred Davis writes that the stylists are very sensitive and aware of emerging new trends in arts and especially in visual arts like painting, sculpture, architecture and dance. And many artists often have made ‘raids’ into fashion world: Sonia Delaunay, Nathalie Gontcharova, Lyubow Popova and Bauhaus Oskar Schlemmer (xiv).

At the end of this brief essay, the author desires to emphasize once again – with the project to develop further deepening – the particular relation that joins fashion to art, as well as the shop window to the museum casket. It seems a ‘virtuoso circle’, oppositely to the neurotic and pathological connection between fashion and economics. Finally I would like to underline the action of the power of mass media that manipulate, court and blandish the colored and dynamic fashion world.

Barbara Faedda

(i) Bailleux N. – Remaury B., orig. ed. Modes & vetements, Gallimard, Paris, 1995, Ital. ed., Moda. Usi e costumi del vestire, Universale Electa/Gallimard, 1996, pag. 24.

(ii) Douglas M., orig. ed. Thought Styles, Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi, Sage Publications, Inc., 1996, Ital. ed. Questioni di gusto, Il Mulino, 1999, pag. 34.

(iii) Heritier F., orig. ed. Masculin/Féminin. La pensée de la différence, Editions Odile Jacob, 1996, Ital. ed. Maschile e femminile. Il pensiero della differenza, Laterza, 1997, pagg. 147-8.

(iv) Harris M., orig. ed. Our Kind, Harper & Row, Publishers Inc., New York, 1989, Ital. ed. La nostra specie, Rizzoli, 1991, pagg. 271-2.

(v) Radcliffe-Brown A. R.,The Andaman Islanders, Cambridge, The University Press,1922-33.

(vi) For a complete list of important researches, books and articles see: J.B. Eicher, The anthropology of dress, http://www.itaa.lsu.edu/ITAAnew/Proceedings/002.html.

(vii) Davis F., orig. ed. Fashion, culture and identity, University of Chicago, 1992, Ital. ed. Moda. Cultura, identità, linguaggio , Baskerville, Bologna, 1993.

(viii) Personal translation.

(ix) Dorfles G., La moda della moda, Costa&Nolan, 1984, p. 6.

(x) Personal translation.

(xi) Davis F., cited, p. 8.

(xii) This happens also when the ‘founder’ of a maison is deceased: Chanel, Versace, Coveri, etc.

(xiii) See also the article “Metti l’arte in vetrina” of A. Capasso, Review Arte In, XIV, no. 72, April/May 2001, pp. 86-7-8, in which M.T. Venturini Fendi describes the strong interest of Fendi maison in art.

(xiv) Davis F., cited, p. 124.

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