Fashion and Fiction

For an hour I can live without time and space, deeply satisfied, carried off into a legend, where the aroma of the soap, the prickle of a facial tonic, the rustle of lingerie, the dipping of brushes into pots of powder, the thoughtful stroke of an eye-liner are the only reality. The result is 
a composition, a woman is to be created for a dress. In complete secrecy designs for a female are redrawn, it is like a genesis, with 
an aura for no one in particular. 

Ingeborg Bachmann, Malina

At first glance, fashion and literature seem to have little in common. Fashion designers create garments that can be touched and worn, garments that have folds, pleats, threads, hemlines, fasteners and linings whose different textures form the tangible experience of dress. Fashion is also a visual experience supported by the imagination and creativity of fashion photographers, stylists and fashion editors. They elevate garments into aesthetic universes in which fashion models animate candy-coloured fairy tales, futuristic dystopias or stylish idylls in far-flung corners of the world. Fashion is lived and imagined at the same time. Contrary to fashion designers, writers do not produce any visible or tangible objects. Novels, short stories and poems may remind us of the personality of real people, the smells and sounds of known places and the emotions evoked by familiar events, but they are only descriptions that coalesce into a fictional entity. The work of writers unfolds on a purely textual level and comes to life in the mind of their readers. 

However, fashion and literature do have something in common: they both produce fictions. Despite the importance of tactile perception and visual communication, fashion also needs the distinct power of words in order to be complete. Fashion is an industry, but it is also an aesthetic culture that contributes to forming our ideas of femininity, masculinity, class, race, taste, romance, friendship and the self. It is only through texts that the imagery of fashion turns into a poetic structure, an escapist fantasy, into a commercial reality and, most importantly, into a complex cultural phenomenon related to identity and selfhood. When we flip through the pages of fashion magazines or scroll through fashion blogs or Instagram accounts, we are seduced to think about ourselves as potential inhabitants of these different worlds. While literature is generated entirely by texts, fashion writing complements the production of garments and fashion imagery. 

As the literary theorist Roland Barthes noted in ‘The Fashion System’, ‘the image provokes a fascination, speech an appropriation.’1Fashion media turn out a profusion of symbolic meanings by pairing fashion photography with descriptions, stories and metaphors. Without these texts, fashion remains silent. The narratives produced by fashion media frame the sensory and imaginary experience of fashion. 

Writers have always been attracted by the literary and narrative potential of fashion. Authors like Marcel Proust, Henry James, Leo Tolstoy, Max Frisch, Ingeborg Bachmann and Elfriede Jelinek have weaved detailed accounts of the sensory properties, the psychological impact and the sexual dimensions of fashion and dress into their texts. They explored these various dimensions of fashion and established new spaces to think about the ways in which fashion partakes in the quest for self-knowledge (or self-disguise). The sociologist Georg Simmel described this subtle play with fashion as a masquerade when he wrote: ‘It is therefore a feeling of modesty and reserve which causes many a delicate nature to seek refuge in the levelling cloak of fashion; such individuals do not care to resort to a peculiarity in externals for fear of perhaps betraying a peculiarity of their innermost soul.’2 

In her 1971 novelMalina, the Austrian poet and writer Ingeborg Bachmann captured such a moment of sartorial self-examination. In one of the rare moments spent alone in the apartment that she shares with her companion, the narrator looks at herself in the mirror while she puts on her make-up and gets dressed. Her dress becomes an instrument in a little ritual of self-affirmation. At the same time, she feels that wearing the dress makes her more visible to the male gaze upon her body and she becomes aware of the fact that she is performing a part. Bachmann chose to bring up the experience of ambiguous femininity by writing about the narrator’s relationship with fashion. She puts her finger on the ways in which fashion can be simultaneously an extension of the self and a façade, a source of pleasure and of desire. She shows that the appeal of fashion lies in its unique capacity to converge the narrative performance of identities with symbolic, sensory and aesthetic perception.

Monica Titton
Sociologist, Culture Critic

1 Barthes, Roland. 1990. The Fashion System, Berkeley / Los Angeles / London, University of California Press, p.17
2 Simmel, Georg. 1957.Fashion, American Journal of Sociology, Vol.62, No.6, p.552