Subject : CONSIGNED TO THE ASH CAN OF HISTORY.
5 January 2017
Dear Colleagues and Friends of CEIMSA,
In discussing the significance of fashion in the period of 1400 to 1800, Fernand Braudel, one of the founders of les annales school of historical study, writes of the historical dialectic of fashion in the fourth chapter of volume I of his trilogy on “Civilizaton & Capitalism, 15th to 18th Century”. Here he emphasizes that very little can be truly understood when social elements under examination are removed from their historical context. It is this very urge to control without understanding that has characterized the political debacle of late capitalism and explains the material ruin it has inflicted on vulnerable people. This urge operates at the level of instinct, rather than conscious choice, and like fashion it captivates and governs the behavior of nearly everyone involved. Practically no one is free from these dialectics, no matter what level of society they think they may occupy.
[There] is telling evidence showing how fashion eliminates one style and imposes another –a double role representing a double difficulty. The innovation in question was the arrival of printed calicos, relatively inexpensive cotton fabrics. But even they did not reach Europe overnight. And the history of textiles shows that in the field of fashion everything depends on everything else; participants have less freedom than they imagine. . . .
Is fashion in fact such a trifling thing? Or is it, as I prefer to think, rather an indication of deeper phenomena –of the energies, possibilities, demands and joie de vivre of a given society, economy and civilization? . . .
Can it have been merely by coincidence that the future was to belong to the societies fickle enough to care about changing the colors, materials and shapes of costume, as well as the social order and the map of the world –societies, that is, which were ready to break with their traditions? There is a connection. Did not [Jean] Chardin [1643-1713] also say of the Persians [in 1686], who ‘are not anxious for new discoveries and inventions,’ that ‘they believe they posses all that is required in the way of necessities and conveniences for living, and are content to remain so’. Tradition was both a strength and a straitjacket. Perhaps if the door is to be opened to innovation, the source of all progress, there must be first some restlessness which may express itself in such trifles as dress, the shape of shoes and hairstyle? Perhaps too, a degree of prosperity is needed to foster any innovating movement. . . .
But fashion can have another meaning too. I have always thought that fashion resulted to a large extent from the desire of the privileged to distinguish themselves, whatever the cost, from the masses who followed them; to set up a barrier. ‘Nothing makes noble persons despise the gilded consume so much [according to a Sicilian who passed through Paris in 1914] as to see it on the bodies of the lowest men in the world.’ So the upper classes had to invent new ‘gilded costumes’, or new distinctive signs, whatever they might be, every time complaining that ‘things have changed indeed, and the new clothes being worn by the bourgeois, both men and women, cannot be distinguished from those of persons of quality’ (1779). Pressure from followers and imitators obviously made the pace quicken. And if this was the case, it was because prosperity granted privileges to a certain number of nouveaux riches and pushed them to the fore. Social mobility as occurring –and this was an affirmation of a certain level of material well-being. Material progress was occurring : without it nothing would have changed so quickly.
And indeed fashion was consciously used by the world of trade. Nicholas Barbon [1640-1698] sang its praises in 1690: ‘Fashion or the alteration of Dress . . . is the spirit and life of Trade’; thanks to fashion, ‘the great body of trade remains in movement’ and man lives a perpetual springtime, ‘without ever seeing the autumn of this clothes’. . . .
Fashion is also a search for a new language to discredit the old, a way in which each generation can repudiate its immediate predecessor and distinguish itself from it (at least in the case of a society where there is a conflict between generations). . . . [T]he problem in Europe was precisely that of inventing, of pushing out obsolete languages. The stable values –Church, Monarchy—made all the greater effort to preserve the same appearance; nuns wore the costume of women in the middle ages; Benedictines, Dominicans and Franciscans remained faithful to their ancient style of dress. The ceremonial costume of the English monarchy went at least as far back as the War of the Roses. It was a deliberate reaction against the general current. (pp.323-325)
Fashion does not only govern clothing. The Dictionnaire sentencieux defines the word thus: ‘Ways of dressing, writing and behaving, which the French twist round and round in a thousand different ways to make themselves more gracious, more charming and often more ridiculous.’ Fashion in this sense affects everything and is the way in which each civilization is oriented. It governs ideas as much as costume, the current phrase as much as a coquettish gesture, the manner of receiving at table;, the care taken in sealing a letter. . . .
Fashion may also concern the way of walking and of greeting one’s acquaintances. Must the hat be raised or not? The custom of baring the head before kings in France is said to have come from the Neapolitan nobles, whose respect astonished Charles VIII and served as a lesson.
And the care of body, face and hair is also a question of fashion. If we pause a moment at these three items, it is because they are simpler to follow than others. And in observing them, we shall find that fashion could be capable of very slow oscillations, like the trends economists discern beneath the sharp and slightly incoherent movements of day-to-day prices. These rather slow backward and forward movements were also one of the facets, one of the realities of luxury and European fashion between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. (p.328)
All these realities of material life –food, drink, housing, clothes and fashion— cannot be so closely correlated that the relationship can be taken for granted. The distinction between luxury and poverty is only a crude classification, one that recurs all the time, but does not in itself provide the necessary precision. One cannot indeed say that all these realities are the product of constraining necessity: man certainly finds food, shelter and clothing because he cannot do otherwise —but he could choose to feed, live and dress differently. Sudden changes in fashion demonstrate this in a ‘diachronic’ manner, and contrasts between different parts of the world , past and present, do so in a ‘synchronic’ manner. In fact, our investigation takes us at this point not simply into the realm of material ‘thing’, but into a world of ‘things and words’ –interpreting the last term in a wider sense than usual, to mean languages with everything that man contributes or insinuates into them, as in the course of his everyday life he makes himself their unconscious prisoner, in front of his bowl of rice or slice of bread.
The important thing, if one is to follow such pioneering works as that of Mario Praz, is to see both the material goods and the languages in an overall context: an economic context, of that there is no doubt; and a social context too, in all probability. If luxury is not a good way of supporting and promoting an economy, it is a means of holding, of fascinating a society. And those strange collections of commodities, symbols, illusions, phantasms and intellectual schemas that we call civilizations must also be invoked at this point. In short, at the very deepest levels of material life, there is at work a complex order, to which the assumptions, tendencies and unconscious pressures of economics, societies and civilizations all contribute. (p.333)
The 13 items below might reveal to most CEIMSA readers how out of the past emerges a vision of our foreseeable future in post-imperialist North America, when the tyranny of capitalist fashion is subdued and creative productivity is liberated in every neighborhood across the continent.
Professor emeritus of American Studies
Director of Research
University of Paris-Nanterre
Center for the Advanced Study of American Institutions and Social Movements
The University of California-San Diego
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From: "Friends of the Earth" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Sent: Wednesday, 4 January, 2017
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The simplest resistance tactic is right at your fingertips and it only takes a minute
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Take a few moments right now while you are reading this to find your Congressional representative in the list below (segmented by state) and add them as a new contact in your phone. U.S. Senate contacts are listed below Congress.
Barbara Lee" <Rep.Barbara.Lee@mail.house.gov>
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Sent: Wednesday, 4 January, 2017 5:45:34 PM
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