Dress Reform, Architecture, and Modernism

In my last post, I wrote about Daniel Miller's paper on the anthropology of drabness in clothing: "The little black dress is the solution. But what’s the problem?". He examined four possible reasons for the current epidemic of dreary dress: the fashion industry; historical precedent; modernism; and shopping habits. (To the philosopher in the front row who has just shouted out that historical precedent is not the kind of thing that can be termed a cause, I should explain that there, Miller was looking at previous turnings toward drabness, and whether their explanations threw any light on what's happening today.) I summarised what Miller wrote about three of these, but left out modernism. I felt his analysis thereof merited a post of its own, rather than getting buried amongst lots of other discussion.

Also, I wanted to experiment with animation. Miller discusses the book White Walls and Designer Dresses by Mark Wigley (1995), who traces the links between dress reform and architecture. By drawing a diagram of how ideas spread and mutated as they diffused outwards from dress reform, and successively unhiding it from its centre, I thought I could make this easy to understand.

Unfortunately, this was not straightforward. I couldn't find any software that lets me arrange text and images nicely, while at the same time displaying links between them, and defining an order in which to reveal elements. I looked at lots of things, including mind-map creators (Mindmap Maker is one that's free and easy to use), Microsoft PowerPoint, network-visualisation packages such as vis.js, and animated GIFs of hand-drawn cartoons. None did what I wanted. Since I know how to write web pages using CSS stylesheets and the JavaScript language, these seemed the easiest solution: at least the web browser would give me typography and text layout free. So that's what I did. I had to write some code to progressively reveal blocks of text and images, and more to draw arrows between blocks. Anyone interested can find them at the end of this post.

Having made my animation, and tested it on a stand-alone web page, I then found that it didn't display as I wanted when I copied the HTML into this blog. Probably WordPress styles were interfering. Also, it needs a nice wide window area to spread out the diagram in, and my current WordPress theme usurps a lot of the space for past blog posts and other things. So I've kept it as a stand-alone web page, also called "Dress Reform, Architecture, and Modernism".

Beware. Anyone writing a serious analysis of this stuff should not depend on my animation: it's a summary of a summary, it mixes causation with passage of time, it's grossly oversimplified, and I'm not an expert. Read Daniel Miller's text, and then Mark Wigley's book.

The two paragraphs of Daniel Miller's that I was animating, I've included below. These are only part of his discussion of modernism, which can be found under the section heading "Interrogating the Third Suspect — Modernism" in the web page I already linked to, "The little black dress is the solution. But what’s the problem?".

Fortunately, in contrast to Chromophobia, there is a book with a less succinct title, but quite excellent in its substantive content called, White Walls and Designer Dresses by Mark Wigley (1995). This makes precisely this argument for the centrality of leaching to the modern movement, but does so with considerable and impressive scholarship and through making an unexpected, but convincing, link between the histories of clothing and of architecture. Wigley starts from the pervasive presence of white walls in modern architecture. His argument is that these are supposed to be neutral and silent but actually speak volumes about the attempt to assert certain hegemonic values through modernism. He shows how white, and I think we can add black, is not a neutral absence but often an assertive presence. Tracing back its source, he sees a powerful influence upon architects such as Le Corbusier to be found in earlier dress reform movements. It was in dress reform that there developed a clear ideal of rationalism applied to aesthetic form. Rationality seen as both the ends and means of civilisation itself proclaims white as a form of purity, the hygenic, the pristine. This allows for a pure utility, that which is assertively functional to emerge from mere decoration. But behind this in turn lies another set of oppositions. The dress reform movement proclaimed an opposition that was repeated in the architectural literature between decoration and function.

While this is common to both genres, there are also specific associations within the field of clothing. Decoration in dress is associated by the reformers with the phenomenon of fashion, and this in turn with superficiality and with women. These associations formed part of a larger logic by which rationalism as the civilising tendency is seen as a robust male endeavour that needs to overcome a whole series of what in contrast are seen as primitive and superficial tendencies. Indeed in its more extreme forms, colour and print become associated not only with a kind of non-civilised and irrational world, as illustrated in naïve or primitivist art assumed to be analogous with the pre-modern, but also with the dangerous, the uncontrolled, the images of the drugged and the bestial (also in Batchelor 1999). Women are seen as the conservative force retaining a less civilised and superficial fascination with colour and the decorative.

Links to code

Here are links to the code I wrote:

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