I have long been interested in the historical question of fashion, particularly its role in the motivation of European imperialism, beginning with world trade in fashionable goods and on to mercantile capitalism. Scholars such as Braudel & Flandrin remark on this role almost casually, and then quickly move on to other discussions. There is a basic refutation around the topic of food, for instance, regarding "common sense" theories of why Europeans went in search of spices. As has been well documented, it was not the norm to eat spoiled meat in those days, and in fact European diets in the era driving exploration were generally healthier & more varied than in the immediately following centuries. The quest for spices was a matter of fashion. Braudel remarks on the idea of fashion, and fashion trends, forming in late medieval Europe, but offers no account of why. This is a singular event, however, not reflected elsewhere. Other cultures thought it was peculiar that European traders would change their clothing from one trip to the next; fashion became something of a calling card for the culture. If we follow this chain of thought, regarding both the singularity of the European "discovery" of fashion, and its role in driving exploration & trade routes, we can naturally conclude that it had a critical part to play in the formation of the modern world — that it is not merely a consequence of modernity, as it's commonly framed, but part of the core constellation of modernity.
So what is fashion? I will follow Lars Svendsen on that. I don't mean to offer a full critique of his Fashion: A Philosophy, but do want to mention it. Svendsen offers a reasonably up-to-date survey of philosophical ideas around the subject of fashion, one clearly geared toward the general reader, and without taking a very strong stance. This is especially true regarding the earliest formation, which in my opinion, is largely glossed over, much as it had been by Braudel or Flandrin. Svendsen does, however, note how little consideration fashion has received in the realm of social theory (and most fashion histories merely document the "what" of fashion), and takes up the topic particularly in the realm of contemporary reality. In keeping with the medieval orientation of this website, I want to give some thoughts on the history, which as far as I know are my own. Moreover, the topic can easily be related to the present space, as fashion of its nature is an aspect of contemporary artistic production. Although one can define fashion as the "inessential" aspect of any design, and look to art (including music) to probe deeper meanings, these two poles cannot be completely separated. I'm sure anyone reading this realizes that there are fashions in contemporary music, and just about anything else, fashions that the practitioners might be a little too close to perceive. To the extent that we live in a totally aestheticized world, we live in a totally fashion-ized world too, and that goes double anywhere we touch on consumerism (and the music business definitely touches on consumerism). So fashion is, by its nature, totally changeable, and in fact a drive for change for change sake. That has been its history, although Svendsen disputes the continuity of that nature into the postmodern era, a discussion to which I will return. Clothing has been the quintessential domain of fashion (to the point that, for some, that's what the word means).
Fashion, then, is "superfluous" to anyone writing on matters of substance, so to speak. Hence it is glossed over in the histories cited — paradoxically, mentioned as a cause but never elaborated or given its due. By the nineteenth century, "fashion" became caught up with ideas about women, and women's clothing, and that association has stuck, making it fertile ground for feminist theory. (And one could surely theorize its neglect emerging from this association.) However, in its early days, there was no such gender association, and in keeping with a rather straightforward patriarchy, men generally wore the more expensive clothes and were more attuned to fashion. After all, they spent more time in public. In his brief history, Svendsen attributes the spread of fashion to the Crusades, and desire for goods from the Levant. Moreover, he mentions that the sumptuary laws — laws the Church put in place to discourage the sin of vanity — might have served to add to its allure via prohibition. This is the history that we have, but for me it only raises questions: What was it about Europe? Why would demand for goods from some particular place generate a demand for newness per se? (Is prohibition inherently enabling?) Traditional cultures have changed their styles of dress or cooking or etc. very rarely, so this was a new way of thinking, at least as a widespread social phenomenon.
I want to suggest the Crusades as an event that took Europe outside of itself. I don't mean simply in seeing or experiencing the broader world, but in locating itself there. China was aware of the outside world, but famously believed that it had nothing worthwhile to offer. That's the more common point of view; even in the constant churn of postmodern consumer society, think of current USA attitudes about the worth of ideas from USA versus elsewhere. The notion that some other culture ought to be emulated has not been a historical norm, although perhaps ironically, after its emergence in Europe, has subsequently been projected out to the rest of the world via notions of Western superiority (universality). One could also mention the various "barbarian" invasions of wealthier world centers throughout history, and the barbarians' eagerness to appropriate much of that culture, or at least wealth. But that also involved the barbarians reorienting themselves to a historic center. Europe remained outside of itself in this sense; it was not recentered (unless we count North America, which did not involve a yearning for the native culture, but rather an eradication of it). What was it about the Crusades then? Quite simply, it was an attribution of spiritual priority to that part of the world, and a resulting desire to appropriate it. Europe itself was not "the Holy Land" — just the opposite. Under those circumstances, conflict with Islam or no, how were Europeans supposed to view the goods found in the Levant other than with admiration?
Hence the attribution of high value to things found outside Europe. By this I do not mean gold or silver or items already valued in Europe, but rather new items such as pepper or silk. I want to emphasize that there's no inherent reason Europeans should have valued these things; they could have easily held them in contempt, as symbols of their enemies, metaphorically "salting the fields" as Rome had done to Carthage in another millennium. That this did not happen set up a "voltage" around the world, a spark of difference & desire that had the power to draw attention & action. (I believe that a discrete voltage difference is a truer illustration of this phenomenon than e.g. "gradient" — and that a similar distinction is at stake in queer theory in its explanation of sexual difference, incidentally, not an elimination of difference but a proliferation of differences.) To reengage with Svendsen's commentary, I will suggest that fashion is driven by this difference, this voltage between groups or individuals, and continues to be driven that way including in the postmodern era. That Europe was not unified politically also served to drive this propagation of differences, a process we can observe in e.g. the exchange of musical styles in the early modern period. Note however that cultural & fashion superiority did not coincide directly with political or economic superiority through most of the modern period; this convergence came in the 20th century with the rise of USA, and even then, some would hotly dispute its cultural hegemony.
Such a convergence is crucial for postmodernism. Globalism, and with it postmodernism, has seen the eradication of many differences, the voltages on which fashion trends have been propagated since the Crusades. The resulting thrashing & recycling is to find new differences, or newly contextualized differences, anything but a flat sameness. In my view, fashion cannot propagate within sameness. Svendsen rejects the traditional model of fashion propagation, one that operated for a couple of well-studied centuries, that the main difference is class, and that classes mimic those above them. (Adam Smith was one who contributed to this idea, with the same heavy-handed dogma that plagues his major ill-fated fantasy, economics.) Although this difference is no longer such a fashion driver that other mechanisms can be ignored, I believe Svendsen is far too quick to dismiss it. Whereas he does invoke Baudrillard at various points, he does not engage in what Baudrillard terms the shift "from domination to hegemony" — indeed likewise in a discussion of Foucault's later conception of power, that structures of power can be more ramified (or one might say nonlinear), not entirely in one direction, yet still very real (and Gramsci is never mentioned). There is no question in my mind that class difference continues to function as a voltage for propagating fashion waves, but in a flatter world, other differences are sought, desperately even. Subcultures are sought, not so much for emulation, but to control, processes that aren't really separable in the domain of hegemony. (Canonically so, Orientalism was hardly an affirmation or a yielding of power.) As fast as fashion seeks to short out that voltage of difference, with as big a spark as possible, it in turn seeks that new difference: a world wide web of spark, a world from which nothing escapes. The bigger the difference, the more powerful the force (or higher the voltage) for incorporation. This dynamic has implications for identity politics as well.
If the Crusades initiated a demand for items that weren't available in Europe, created the concept of desire on a wide scale for things outside one's own culture, they initiated in turn a process of imposing European culture on the rest of the world. This was a huge voltage difference, to be shorted out in earnest over a couple of hundred years (roughly the sixteenth & seventeenth centuries), fractured into various ever-smaller voltage differences, but never entirely extinguished. (To turn to pop culture, one can imagine Mickey Mouse as sorcerer's apprentice, attempting to smash up the enchanted broom, only to yield more brooms. The big difference is that Mickey's ever-smaller pieces continue in unison, militaristically.) One can argue against privileging the philosophy behind the Crusades by invoking physical geography and trade patterns that had maintained for millennia; in that sense, the Levant was always a special geographic place, intertwined with the very conception of the Holy Land for Roman Catholic Europe. Maybe Western Europe had to value it, and the precise rationalization is immaterial, but that assignment of value remains. Moreover, what did these other civilizations want from Western Europe? The urge to violence was both a cause of the Crusades and a result of the desires they produced. Sailing around the world eventually flipped the direction of trade hegemony, like a big lever, although it took a couple of centuries. Europe went farther outside of itself, further decentered itself, to take control of its own already uncentered desires. We created a culture of going to extremes (and it would probably be worthwhile to discuss Japan in this context).
One problem with discussing a multithreaded constellation of forces, particularly over an extended history, is that the discussion can constantly proceed in a variety of ways. I've tried to keep an eye on fashion as a driver of capitalism and world hegemony, from the start, even as it in turn was driven by these very things. Although it's been noted many times as a historical driver, fashion has generally been seen as too insignificant to privilege in this way, which I believe is a serious blow to understanding. Fashion may be the definition of insignificant, but it's that very polarity that gives it its power, particularly multiplied a billion times over. The blur of superficial difference is a psychic fracture in an increasingly homogenized world — dialectical reasoning tells us that a flat world cannot be imposed without consequences, that its opposite will peek out somewhere. (And dialectics are themselves a reflection of Western culture's uncentered extremes, necessary in fact because of this modernity.) Of course, if fashion was a cause of world capitalism, world capitalism quickly found a way to exploit fashion. In today's world of planned obsolescence and invented consumer needs, regardless of our individual opinions of fashion, we have little choice but to follow its dictates. Rebellion against sumptuary laws is turned on its head by postmodern consumer junk.
How to sum up? For one, taking this concept of being uncentered or beside oneself — one we could take from individual psychoanalysis — to the level of an entire culture and then an entire world was largely unprecedented, and I claim it was a defining feature of modernity. (One could look for precedents in mind-body dualism, a philosophical notion with a long history, but only consummated in Enlightenment thought.) If fashion is by definition the useless aspect of a thing, it eventually became highly useful as a tool in the broad sense. Has fashion usurped the uselessness of art? Definitions of art in centuries past involved uselessness (not pejoratively, mostly), but in a totally aestheticized postmodern simulation, we look to art to provide meaning, perhaps to take uselessness beyond itself into use — this is the contradiction I discussed back in May. Is it a contradiction if fashion has a monopoly on uselessness? (And fashion's long association with clothing probably holds it back from fulfilling itself, since clothes have a clear use. Food trends might be more purely superfluous, even if constrained to be edible.) In any case, I'm mostly dealing with new music in this space. Jazz has been criticized in the past for its emphasis on novelty, in fact, for its fashionableness. Jazz is not fashionable today, so I guess we needn't fear that criticism now. Nonetheless there remains a real question about novelty in this music, the history of novelty, and how it contextualizes culture.Todd M. McComb 5 December 2012