Eternity in a Ruffle: Part 1

Lecture Hall Henry Art Gallery UW

Jessica Burstein is Associate Professor in the Department of English and the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington. She is a tiny, striking and brilliant force of nature. At the first session of Seattle Arts & Lectures series, Eternity in a Ruffle: Fashion in Art, Art in Fashion, she blew my mind.

The week of snow in mid January turned out to be powerful enough to postpone the first session of the lecture series by one week. I almost couldn’t stand it. When the day finally arrived, running late as always, I parked on the street and click-clacked down the block toward The Henry. Luckily, Suzy was already there, saving me a seat.

Finally settled in to the back row in the dim theater-style lecture hall, it was time to listen and absorb. What I don’t know about the history of fashion is a lot. The vocabulary alone! I recorded the entire lecture so that I can transcribe and re-read it several times in order to really understand it. I’m still in the process of transcribing so I’ll just hit the highlights.

Fashion is art… I want to make clear why this topic is important.

I was definitely in the right room. Fashion and modernism were the topics of the day and we were about to delve very deeply into the theoretical foundations of something most of us generally take for granted. Not Ms. Burstein, however, as she began:

Let’s start with the basics because I have found that when you’re talking about very sophisticated topics, it is especially important to take nothing for granted.

We quickly defined the term fashion, which exists as both a noun and a verb. She explained that the material on our backs is material history because it marks the clothing as made in a certain place by a certain process involving people who live in a certain time, and therefore fabric may be the most material form of history that we can lay hands on, literally.

And although she pointed out that there is fashion in everything, her talk was to focus on the sartorial. [Sahr-tawr-ee-uhl: Adjective; 1) of or pertaining to tailors or their trade: sartorial workmanship. 2) of or pertaining to clothing or style or manner of dress: sartorial splendor.]

The reason I’m familiar with the term sartorial is because of a certain street-level style blogger. Style blogging is the most prolific form of fashion blogging, and if you’re curious enough to do some exploring I would suggest starting there. The Sartorialist has received a lot of attention for being one of the ground breakers of street style blogging.

Immediately following discussion of the sartorial, we learned that fashion is a word that can be used synecdochically. Whoa. After consulting, synecdochically comes from the root, synecdoche. [Si-nek-duh-kee: Noun rhetoric; 1) a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, the special for the general or the general for the special.]

Her example made it crystal clear – using the term ‘plastic’ in place of ‘credit card.’

Asking if the shop accepts plastic is synecdochical because plastic is a constitutive aspect of the invisible credit card.

By this reasoning then the word fashion can stand for the thing it represents, which is why we call clothing fashion. This is apparently very important philosophically, because no matter how tangible and tactile clothing is, there is also something ethereal about fashion, which is why a woman with great style is generally said to possess that certain Je Ne Sais Quoi. This idea brings us to the first suggested reading, which was written by a colleague of Ms. Burstein’s, Herbert Blau’s Nothing in Itself.

As we wound our way to the second definition of the word fashion, Ms. Burstein suggested

It’s important to realize that fashion encompasses making… fashioning is the act of making something by humans.

Here the word fashion is opened up to a much broader use: fashioning something – anything – doesn’t always have to do with clothing.

Tracing the history of fashion follows two currents: the consumption of fashion and its production. This brings us to our second reading list item, Nancy Green’s Ready to Wear Ready to Work. This book sounds like America’s greatest historical account of the production of fashion in the 1800’s. Green’s account tracked the flow of immigrant labor, notes the invention of the Singer sewing machine in 1854 which brought efficiency to production with the use of the treadle and the invention of the continuous threading device. That’s huge! I’ve already added the book to my Amazon wish list.

Only about 15 minutes into the lecture, we arrived at the root message of the class. She had promised to tell us why fashion is important.

It’s easy. Three words: fashion is art.

On one level, the study of fashion was born as a breed of art history and that makes it important. Studying dress of different ages lends itself to dating paintings, because trends are historical. I’m sure they were very specific in the 1800’s and even half of the 1900’s, but I wonder if trends are still distinct enough in this eclectic age of futurism and flashback to be able to date a painting, for instance. Today it seems that the 80’s are back in full force, but clothing from the 70’s is considered vintage. Does that mean the 60’s will soon become ancient history? But on the second level, fashion is art, in and of itself.

Humans are not the only things that adorn themselves and their surroundings, but we are the ones that do it in such a way as to take it beyond the merely biological. Now this is a point of some dispute. I believe that we are not always dressing ourselves simply in order to attract a mate.

Humans care about aesthetics, and aesthetics is a branch of philosophy, and although this is very high brow, academic stuff, she was gentle with us. In fact, that bit about not dressing to attract a mate is one of my favorite Burstein-ism from the evening.

Then we turned to the subject of pure beauty.

Pretty is as pretty does but something pretty can be pretty boring. Now beauty should here be understood in a very capacious way. [Kuh-pey-shuhs: Adjective; 1) capable of holding much; spacious or roomy: a capacious storage bin.]

Ms. Burstein at this point told a humorous anecdote of a peach colored dress she wore when she was ten at her dad’s wedding to her step mother, with absolutely no affection for that pretty dress.

Fashion is art, art is fashion because it possesses aesthetics and exists as part of our art history. This lecture has more ammunition to prove that theory than I’ve ever heard in one sitting, from ancient cave paintings to sumptuary laws to the birth of modernity; clearly someone throughout history has been writing this stuff down, and Ms. Burstein has read it all.

It is generally accepted that western modernity began in the late 1600’s with Rene Descartes, but artistic modernism, it is believed, started in the 1800’s with the industrial revolution. The lecture was just getting cooking when this period rolled around and I think my high school education began to kick in, but I’m going to end my first installment here. Stay tuned!

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