STYLE AND THE CITY: Urban Theorist Elizabeth Wilson on Fashion, Women, and Modernity BY RYAN MOORE


{Ryan Moore is an associate professor of sociology at Florida Atlantic University and the author of Sells Like Teen Spirit: Music, Youth Culture, and Social Crisis. You can find more of his work at maxthemarxist.blogspot.com.}

For women all over the world, urban life presents a dialectic of possibilities that includes both exploitation and liberation. Cities engulf everyone in their impersonal and unforgiving structure, yet women are not only exploited as wage laborers but also find their entire person reduced to the objectified form of a commodity. As everything in the city is assumed to be available for a price, public women who merely inhabit the city streets have commonly been depicted as interchangeable with prostitutes in countless examples of art, literature, and cinema. Nevertheless, cities and the urban lifestyle have also offered an unprecedented series of opportunities for women to break from the bonds of patriarchy, achieve an independent means of existence, and discover a world of pleasures heretofore exclusive to men. For centuries, authorities concerned with social control have disparaged the disorder and deviance of urban life in feminine terms, and women’s access to public space has generally been restricted not only by the authoritarian institutions of family, state, and church but also by well-intentioned movements for urban reform.

These issues pertaining to women and urban space have been most insightfully explored in the scholarship of Elizabeth Wilson. Among the 12 books she has published, Wilson’s The Sphinx and the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women is the most instructive for those seeking to understand women’s lives in cities, from the classic modern metropolis of the nineteenth century to the global city of our times, as they been depicted in an array of novels, artworks, and films that Wilson analyzes. Above all, however, Wilson considers the role of fashion and style as means of self-expression and social status, which are especially important for women living in an urban environment. The connections between fashion, gender, and sexuality are most fully explored in Wilson’s path-breaking Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, which illuminates the dialectical relationship between fashion and modernity initially identified by the German sociologist Georg Simmel and in Walter Benjamin’s work on the Paris Arcades.

Wilson builds on the urban sociology developed in Berlin circa 1900 by Simmel, who saw fashion and adornment as methods for individuals to balance their relationships with the urban environment. Simmel maintained that in the modern metropolis, individuals are bombarded by sensations and stimuli and forced into an anonymous existence populated by strangers and fueled by the exchange of money.  These social conditions create an increased sense of individuality within the overwhelming environment of a metropolis, and fashion and adornment become the media through which urban dwellers negotiate the competing demands to express their individuality and blend into the crowd. Fashion, in short, becomes a barometer of the relationship between society and the individual, a means of maintaining the precarious balance between standing out and fitting in. As Wilson puts it,

In the city the individual constantly interacts with others who are strangers, and survives by the manipulation of self. Fashion is one adjunct to this self-presentation and manipulation. It is the imposition of this newly found self on a brutally indifferent and constantly fluctuating environment.

Wilson’s entry point for the urban experience is the flâneur, a character depicted by Walter Benjamin in his studies of Charles Baudelaire’s lyric poetry and the social milieu of Paris in the 19th Century. The flâneur is a particular kind of city dweller who walks the streets, observes the crowds, and gazes into the shop windows while maintaining an emotional distance, thus taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells of city life from a position of cool detachment. Flâneurs submerge themselves in the fast pace and fragmented landscape of city life, maintaining an affective aloofness as a condition of their immersion in an environment of constant impermanence. As she says,

The fragmentary and incomplete nature of the urban experience generates its melancholy; a sense of nostalgia, or loss for lives never known, of experiences that can only be guessed at.

The flâneur wanders the city’s labyrinth of streets, shops, subways, parks, and monuments as if in a dreamworld, becoming one with the crowd, absorbing observations and random encounters with strangers, and identifying with the marginal and downtrodden figures that inhabit urban spaces. As the city presents new sources of both pleasure and oppression, the flâneur does not shy away but instead maintains a deep ambivalence:

At the heart of Benjamin’s meditation on the flâneur is the ambivalence towards urban life . . . a sorrowful engagement with the melancholy of cities. This melancholy seems to arise partly from the enormous, unfulfilled promise of the urban spectacle, the consumption, the lure of pleasure and joy, always destined to be somehow disappointed, or else undermined by the obvious poverty and exploitation of so many who toil to bring pleasure to the few.

As Wilson and other feminists have noted, the flâneur is a male figure in its origins, one that is made possible by men’s privileged access to urban space and that utilizes a form of the male gaze in developing detached observations of city life. Some feminist writers, including Janet Wolff and Griselda Pollock, have argued that the flâneur is unredeemable for women because of its masculine roots, but Wilson has consistently maintained that the flâneur represents a potentially liberating form of subjectivity that is increasingly accessible to women in the city, despite its indisputably male origins.  Wilson presents the fascinating case of the female novelist George Sand, who disguised herself as a man in order to freely roam the streets of Paris during the mid-nineteenth century. Sand’s experience is a testament to the exclusion of women from urban space, but also an indicator of the liberating possibilities to be found in living like a flâneur—Sand marveled that “no one knew me, no one looked at me…I was an atom lost in that immense crowd” (quoted in Sphinx, p. 52).  As she infiltrated the bohemian literary circles of Paris, Sand would blaze new trails for women in the city with her scandalous behavior in maintaining multiple love affairs and indulging with alcohol and tobacco in public.

In the cities of the nineteenth century, the hierarchies of social status that had been solidly in place for centuries were suddenly disrupted by the twin processes of urbanization and industrialization. Within this social context, fashion emerged as the preeminent means of distinction in public space, whose anonymity made it imperative for individuals of various classes to use visual markers that communicated their higher standing relative to whatever class was immediately below them. However, just as urbanization fosters the ideal of a unique self, fashion also enabled the expression of a distinct individuality, beyond the groupings of status and social class to an individualized form of personality and identity.  As Wilson put it,

In the nineteenth century fashion—not uniforms alone—became one of the many, and one of the most elaborate, forms of classification that bourgeoned with the triumph of industrial culture. No longer was it enough to be recognized as a member of a class, caste or calling. Individuals participated in a process of self-dockering, and self announcement, as dress became the vehicle for the display of the unique individual personality.

For women who gained entry to urban space, dress and display served as crucial media of both status distinction and self-expression. Dress and display have been a crucial means for negotiating the frequently forbidding terrain of the city and maintaining a sense of self within its impersonal environs, as Wilson describes in one of her most eloquent passages:

In displaying herself so openly she dares the metropolis to take her on…Yet this new woman of the sidewalks achieves her total meaning only in the context of the danger all around her. This flaunting of self knowingly peacocks in the face of misery, pauperism, despair. Not cruelly or consciously exactly; yet the full zest of the performance emerges only in the context of imminent threat, the lightning flicker of aggression and the pall of despair.

In turn, cities began adapting to meet the demands of the new urban women, particularly with the emergence of enormous department stores of the nineteenth century, which further diversified the variety of goods for sale while encouraging consumption by the extension of credit. The importance of the department store as a public space for women exceeded its economic function for consumption:

In a very real way the department store assisted the freeing of middle-class women from the shackles of the home. It became a place where women could meet their women friends in safety and comfort, unchaperoned, and to which they could repair for refreshment and rest.

While fashion enabled individuals to align themselves with higher social classes and status groups, it also created new possibilities for using dress and display as signs of social opposition. Wilson documents the history of these forms of what she calls “oppositional dress,” demonstrating how a collective sense of style has developed in various historical moments among groups of people, especially the young, in an expression of their shared alienation and anomie. Here again Baudelaire stands as a key historical figure who saw great significance in the style of the dandy, the style of dress and posturing among young men linked with the Romantic movement that espoused “art for art’s sake” in defiance of the commodification of culture. In Wilson’s analysis,

The role of the dandy implied an intense preoccupation with self and self presentation; image was everything, and the dandy a man who often had no family, no calling, apparently no sexual life, no visible means of financial support. He was the very archetype of the new urban man who came from nowhere and for whom appearance was reality.

Dandyism established a new approach to using dress and style in an oppositional manner within subcultures of bohemian artists and intellectuals who converged in neighborhoods like the Left Bank of Paris or New York’s Greenwich Village. Wilson illuminates the opportunities and restrictions that confronted women who tried to participate in these oppositional cultures in her historical work Bohemia: The Glamorous Outcasts, where she concludes:

[A]lthough Bohemia made possible a freer life for at least some women, their place in it, especially as creative individuals, was contradictory and insecure.

Bohemia did present a promise of greater freedom for women insofar as it attacked conventional bourgeois morality, the patriarchal family, and the sexual repressiveness of Victorian culture.  Some women were able to establish a significant presence in bohemian circles, like in Greenwich Village during the first two decades of the twentieth century, when the anarchist Emma Goldman was regularly rabble-rousing in the streets, Mabel Dodge hosted gatherings of artists and radicals in her salon, and Margaret Sanger continually defied the law in her advocacy for birth control, abortion, and sex education (historian Christine Stansell discusses Greenwich Village’s bohemia with a particular focus on the role of women in American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century). Nonetheless, women were typically relegated to supportive or simply marginal roles within bohemia, few women were taken seriously as writers or artists, and the notions of sexual liberation in bohemia represented women from a male perspective as an eroticized, mysterious Other. Wilson reminds us,

Many bohemians took for granted the inferiority of women, and even those who paid lip-service to feminist ideals often failed to live up to them in practice.

The forms of oppositional dress multiplied over the course of the twentieth century in connection with bohemian circles of writers, artists, and musicians. One common element of many of these oppositional styles, however, is their use of the color of black, whose signifying power is traced by Wilson from its role in public mourning to its popularity with existentialist youth in the years following World War II. In turn, black’s signification of opposition developed into an aesthetic utilized by young people in cities all over the world. Wilson explains its appeal:

Black is dramatic and plays to the gallery, as the costuming of revolt must always do. It is flattering. Associated with age, on the young it takes a haunting and poignant aspect. It is a colour for the urban environment, ‘goes with’ the red-brick, granite and glass facades of the city better than the too-bright colors of mass-produced clothes… Black is the colour of bourgeois sobriety, but subverted, perverted, gone kinky.

Black provided the stylistic foundation for many of the youthful subcultures that began emerging after World War II: it was indeed the color of dramatic negation and bourgeois kink for would-be European existentialists and American beatniks who filled cafes with philosophy, poetry, jazz, and cigarette smoke.  More generally, the period during and immediately after World War II witnessed a proliferation of youthful subcultures in the US and the UK that used various combinations of fashion, music, and stylistic accessories as symbolic statements of opposition and challenge to power, which in turn provoked repressive action by authorities and moral panics about youthful deviance: most dramatically in the zoot suit riots of 1943, followed by the hysteria concerning juvenile delinquency and rock & roll during the 1950s in the US and the subcultures of teds, mods, and rockers in the UK.

During the 1960s, the significance of oppositional dress increased further as it became a crucial element of dissent in the full-blown generational revolt sparked by the counterculture and the New Left. Among the young people who had begun to oppose the American technocracy and its war machine, countercultural style rejected the conformity and repression embodied in crew cuts, bouffants, and grey flannel suits in favor of a more curvy, colorful, and unconfined look. As Wilson characterized it,

The first American hippies adopted a naturalistic, flowing style, apparently in total opposition to the mainstream styles; yet, like the pre-Raphaelite style, it turned out to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, a prefiguration of the way all dress was evolving. Hippie fashion in the late 1960s swung the pendulum against the rectilinear and the straight, for it was a walking adaptation of the fashionable art-noveau spirals.

During the 1970s, the hippie sensibility entered the mainstream in the form of going with the flow, letting one’s hair down, and being free to be you and me, but as Wilson notes above this style would prove to be “evolutionary” rather than “revolutionary” in the decade when the right-wing counterrevolution went into full effect at the same time that youthful rebellion became more personal than political in nature. Punk emerged within this social context as the antithesis and archenemy of the hippie sensibility, utilizing the techniques of montage and shock effects inherited from Dada to denaturalize the taken-for-granted symbols of the dominant culture while dramatizing the decline of western civilization. In Wilson’s words,

What was important is that nothing should look natural. In this sense punk was the opposite of mainstream fashion which attempts to naturalize the strange rather than the other way about. This is the sophistication of punk, its surrealism and its modernism in the true sense: it radically questions its own terms of reference, questions what fashion is, what style is, making mincemeat of perceived notions of beauty and trashing the very idea of ‘charm’ or ‘taste’.

Wilson’s history of oppositional dress revealed an increasing range of possibilities for using fashion and style as symbolic forms of differentiation and resistance, although in recent decades oppositional dress has also been incorporated into the commercial mainstream of department store fashion.  For women living in the city, personal style continues to be a crucial means for negotiating one’s place in an inhospitable and frequently hostile environment. The streets of the city are certainly paved with risks and hazards, but they are the only path leading to freedom and liberation.

  

Photo 3 courtesy of Ahistoryofnewyork.com

Photo 4 courtesy of lequaintrelle.blogspot.com

Photo 5 courtesy of HBO.com

Photo 6 courtesy of RollingStone.com

Photo 9 courtesy vam.ac.uk

One thought on “STYLE AND THE CITY: Urban Theorist Elizabeth Wilson on Fashion, Women, and Modernity BY RYAN MOORE

  1. Pingback: The Hippie Movement | thedelicatestitcher

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