Brain Pickings

Conspicuous Outrage: Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf’s Nephew, on Sartorial Morality, the Art of Fashion, and the Futility of War

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“In sociological studies fashion plays the role which has been allotted to Drosophila, the fruit fly, in the science of genetics.”

In 1923, Virginia Woolf collaborated with her young nephew, Quentin Bell, on their charming illustrated family newspaper, which also precipitated Woolf’s little-known children’s book. But little Quentin, the son of Woolf’s talented sister, the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell, grew up to be a man of letters and a formidable mind in his own right — an author, historian, and his aunt’s official biographer.

In 1947, when he was thirty-seven, Bell published On Human Finery (public library) — a brilliant meditation on the psychology, sociology, and history of fashion, exploring how the art of dress both bespeaks our greatest human aspiration and betrays our deepest contradictions.

In the opening chapter, titled “Sartorial Morality,” Bell writes:

The study of fashion does not quite lie within [the economists'] province. It is a borderline science, important to the historian in that it exhibits in a pure form the changing impulse of social behavior; to the artist in that here, if anywhere, we can trace a direct relationship between economics and aesthetics.

The charm of the study lies precisely in the ephemeral nature of the subject; in sociological studies fashion plays the role which has been allotted to Drosophila, the fruit fly, in the science of genetics. Here at a glance we can perceive phenomena so mobile in their response to varying effects, so rapid in their mutation that the deceptive force of inertia which overlays and obscures most other manifestations of human activity is reduced to a minimum.

The evidence is moreover abundant, not only without but within, for we have all experienced in our own persons the pains and pleasures of attire. … In obeying fashion we undergo discomforts and distress which are, from a strictly economic point of view, needless and futile. We do so for the sake of something which transcends our own immediate interests.

There exists, Bell argues, a relationship between social morality and sartorial morality, one reflected in the very language with which we describe attributes of clothes and attributes of character — something cognitive scientists have since shed light on in explaining the evolution of metaphors. Bell observes:

Our clothes are too much a part of ourselves for us ever to be entirely indifferent to their condition; the feeling of being perfectly dressed imparts a buoyant confidence to the wearer, and it impresses the beholder as though the fabric were indeed a natural extension of the man. … So strong is the impulse of sartorial morality that it is difficult in praising clothes not to use such adjectives as “right,” “good,” “correct,” “unimpeachable,” or “faultless,” which belong properly to the discussion of conduct, while in discussing moral shortcomings we tend very naturally to fall into the language of dress and speak of a person’s behavior as being shabby, shoddy, threadbare, down at heel, botched, or slipshod.

In many ways, he contends, fashion is a mechanism for exorcising our inner contradictions, that eternal tension between rational needs and irrational wants:

A conflict must always exist between the utilitarian needs of the individual and what we can only call the futile demands of sartorial morality.

In that regard, the history of fashion shares a great deal with the history of sexuality, both riddled with legislative attempts to control human desire and mould it to socially constructed standards of acceptability:

Attempts were made, first to restrain the consumer, and later, when that proved ineffectual, to regulate production. … Nothing was spared in the effort to curb the fashion. But the history of sumptuary laws is the history of dead letters.

The spectacle presented by the history of dress in Europe is therefore one of conflict between two inimical forces existing not only within the same societies but within the same persons (the legislators were frequently among the worst offenders). In that conflict the written sumptuary law and the unwritten laws of public opinion have usually been based upon all that we usually hold most precious in our civilization: our religious and moral standards, our sense of decency and dignity, our concern for public health, our desire to see the lower orders keep in their proper place, our common sense, and our humanity. Nevertheless both public opinion and formal regulations are invariably set at naught; while Fashion, whose laws are imposed without formal sanctions, is obeyed with wonderful docility, and this despite the fact that her demands are unreasonable, arbitrary, and not infrequently cruel.

In the following chapter, Bell goes on to examine precisely what sumptuosity is, proposing that the history of fashion is defined by two forms of context: those aforementioned questions of morality, and matters of specialization, where period and occasion dictate the style of dress. He frames this with a central definition:

Sumptuous Dress [is] that which, whether fashionable, unfashionable, or out of fashion, has in one way or another provoked the respect and admiration of mankind.

He then expands on legendary economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s famous theory of fashion, which divided the modes of pecuniary taste into Conspicuous Consumption, Conspicuous Leisure, and Conspicuous Waste, by adding a fourth category: Conspicuous Outrage. He then outlines the defining features of each mode:

Conspicuous Consumption — The simplest and most obvious manner of displaying wealth is to take the greatest possible number of valuable objects and attach them to the wearer’s person… [T]his method of displaying wealth is comparable to the large-scale advertisements that are set upon hoardings; the intention is to astonish and to impress the world at large. … Conspicuous Consumption persists in the ceremonies of the older Churches, on the music-hall stage, the cinema, and in military evolutions of a very public character.

[…]

Conspicuous Leisure — The mere demonstration of purchasing power is the simplest device of sumptuosity; much more important is … the demonstration of an honorably futile existence, one that is so far removed from menial necessities that clothes can be worn which impede physical labor. Dress of this kind marks the wearer at once as member of the Leisure Class, one who can exist without working and who is, therefore, demonstrably in receipt of a certain income. We admire such clothes almost instinctively, feeling them to be elegant and dignified, belonging, as it were, to a world in which the wolf has been kept far from the door.

Bell offers some particularly stark examples of attire representing the category:

Collars … have frequently been devised so as to give the wearer an elegant appearance of being strangled. The ruff of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is one example, the epicene choker collar of the early twentieth century another.

[…]

The constriction of the waist, which has at various periods included a substantial deformation of the thorax and the hips, is clearly not only a substantial impediment to useful work but to the health upon which such work depends. Corsets, at their most violent, crush in the ribs, constrict the vitals, deform the spine, and by interfering with the digestive processes, induce that eminently genteel disorder, the vapors.

[…]

In themselves, when extended to the ground, skirts provide an excellent guarantee of immobility; but their effect is increased by the train, a peculiar symbol of dignity, by lateral extension as a further impediment to free movement, and by constriction as in the hobble, which binds the legs together.

Perhaps the most effectual guarantee of social standing is obtained by means of unpractical footwear.

And yet, Bell argues, fashion necessitates a baseline amount of discomfort in order to establish its hold — but its true grace is in the elegant mastery with which one bears this discomfort and restrains it from excess:

Clothes must always be a graceful encumbrance; to exhibit awkwardness argues an inability to deal with the paraphernalia of polite existence suggestive of a plebeian lack of experience. … A train two yards long is impressive, a train forty yards long is grotesque.

He then moves on to Veblen’s third category:

Conspicuous Waste — A further mitigation of the law of conspicuous leisure is obtained by the existence of certain diversions and occupations which are socially acceptable, which brings us to the consideration of Conspicuous Waste. [It] is in truth a refinement of Conspicuous Leisure. … as it were, the overflow of energy from the simpler forms of sumptuous display; it is not a characteristic of dress, but an important determinant in their fashioning.

Bell gives the example of elaborate funerals, a notable item of expenditure even among the very poor, observing:

The charm of expensive mourning is that it is money thrown away, no return can be expected, it is one of the most conspicuous forms of waste.

But while the rituals of mourning are only a morbid special occasion, similar forms of Conspicuous Waste permeate the everyday fabric of society. Here, Bell makes a remarkable observation about the futility of war beyond its moral and political perils:

For those whose lives are entirely or largely divorced from productive labor much more is required. They must contrive to kill time in occupations which, however active, are patently futile. Economically their lives must be a perpetual burial thereof and their clothes a decent mourning. Thus we have the noble occupations, those which are completely non-profit-making and, from the point of view of the well-being of the community, wholly futile. Of these the chief, and to the historian of fashion the most important, are war and sport.

[…]

The importance of war and sport to the student of dress lies in the fact that these occupations have at various times been the chief and almost the only active employment for an entire caste or class, and that they have the double advantage of being not only largely unprofitable but also very expensive. No pains have been spared to make them more so, and although some of the items of expense are of course utilitarian, in the sense of being intended to promote the more efficient prosecution of the campaign or chase, others are purely futile and exist only “that the thing may be done in style.” … It can hardly be denied that in many armies sartorial and ceremonial observances, the practical utility of which have long been forgotten, have been accounted of greater moment than the quality of food or weapons, so that one is at times led to doubt whether the primary object of armies be not to provide a magnificent setting for conspicuous waste rather than to implement the policies of nations.

Bell summarizes Veblen’s trifecta:

Conspicuous consumption is but the putting of wealth upon the person, conspicuous leisure the demonstration of a wealthy ease, and conspicuous waste of wealthy activity.

He then turns to Conspicuous Outrage, his own addition to Veblen’s categories:

Conspicuous Outrage — … It is the aim of fashionable people in certain social conditions to show their indifference, not only to vulgar needs, but also to vulgar ideas. It is a thing that we recognize more easily in manners, language, and morals of the fashionable world than in its dress. We may discern two elements therein: (1) the esoteric, (2) the defiant. The esoteric element is commonly expressed in the form of a special jargon, slang, or pronunciation, as for instance in the use of “pink,” “scarlet,” “brush,” “hounds,” etc., in the hunting field, in the use of French or the dead languages in conversation, of Christian names or diminutives for socially reputable people,and of certain methods of pronunciation in such proper names as Derby, Bertram, Leveson-Gower, etc. The defiant note is struck by the use of obscene language, by the abandonment of refinements of speech which have been vulgarized, by the affected cynicism or piety, and by the rejection of vulgar standards of morality, particularly in matters of sexual behavior.

In clothes conspicuous outrage usually takes the form of an affront to prudery. … Clothes, in so far as they are an instrument of modesty and not of climatic protection, would seem to have originated as a banner or advertisement of the pudenda. … Clothes generalize the shape of the body, reduce it to a more geometrical form and suggest a classical perfection of outline which is rare in nature, and thus is eminently a property of many forms of sumptuous dress.

The relationship between vulgarity and elegance, much like in design, is what defines this aspect of fashion:

Fashionable exposure begins by shocking the vulgar, but it ends by establishing itself as a custom and thus ceasing to shock; its failure is implicit in its success. But so long as there is a development of the mode the quality of outrage is maintained.

Though, sadly, long out-of-print, On Human Finery is very much worth the used-book scavenger hunt or trip to the library.

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