Fashion, glamorous and society

Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), Holocaust, Oil on panel, 25 x 30 inches (63,5 x 76,2 cm), 1953.


Comment on the book “Fashion, luxury and economy”, by José Carlos Durand.

In one of his articles, Pierre Bourdieu says that one of the functions of ethnological discourse is to say things that are bearable when applied to different populations, but which are much less bearable when related to our societies. And he adds that at the end of his essay on magic Marcel Mauss asks himself: “Where is the equivalent in our society?”. Or, in other words, how can anthropological and sociological theories, for example, help in the examination and understanding of our daily experiences in a society in constant change?

Seeking to answer such questions, in a specific field of investigation, José Carlos Durand wrote Fashion, Luxury and Economy in intelligible language and devoid of the heavy jargon present in many works in the fields of sociology. Perhaps Durand's book does not please people prone “to only see beauty and enchantment in the feminine world and its aesthetics” (p. 9).

The author's central idea is that “in order to understand the role of fashion in the hierarchization of society, it is advisable first to understand a little about the society of fashion and its hierarchies”. Through the use of a given outfit, individuals show that they belong to a specific social class, age group and gender. Thus, “clothing is an instant classifier of individuals in social hierarchies” (p. 11).

Organized into four chapters ("Haute Couture", "Industrial Couture", "Fashion in Brazil" and "Fashion, Culture and Modern Life"), the book provides a historical overview of the way people dressed, from the most remote to the present day. As the world of fashion is constituted, today, in a social space with its own logic, tradition and hierarchy, let us start the discussion through the moment in which this space began to be formed, that is, from haute couture – defined as “the luxury handicraft that dresses elite women” and produces “unique models under order”, with their clients being the wives, daughters or relatives of great businessmen, politicians or members of the highest levels of the State. “They generally belong to the most socially active families in the circles of power, that is, those who keep calendars full of parties, trips, receptions and ceremonies” (p. 19). Durand shows how in the regime of Emperor Napoleon III (1854-1870) haute couture was consolidated, as this government was characterized by being one of national reunification and conciliation of interests between old and new aristocrats and wealthy bourgeois. In this economically prosperous phase, one observes the remodeling of Paris, the emergence of places for new leisure activities for the elite, such as horse racing and the opera, and the proliferation of fashion magazines. From about 1890 onwards, Paris' luxury goods and services sector had an international clientele. The so-called first phase of haute couture covers the period between the end of the 1850s and the beginning of the First World War, in 1914.

French haute couture suffered a blow with the two World Wars and also with the spread of the “American way of life”, propagated by Hollywood mainly from the beginning of the 20s. France promoted a triumphant return of luxury and femininity in 1947, through the collection New Look, by Christian Dior, the ace of scissors at the time. Dior dies prematurely in 1957, leaving two apprentices who became well known: Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Cardin. And it is these apprentices who are going to revolutionize the fashion market, through prêt-à-porter, i.e. “ready to wear” clothing. In 1963, Cardin opens the first department of prêt-à-porter woman in a haute couture house and, three years later, Saint-Laurent opens his boutique ready-to-wear. From then on, “their haute couture peers will almost all be attacking this new front of profits and the 'democratization of fashion'” (p. 37).

Durand dedicates a long chapter to fashion in Brazil, stating that practically nothing relevant happened in Brazilian cultural life in the colonial period with regard to the theme. It was only around 1830 that the French began to open fashion stores in Rio de Janeiro, also focusing on other types of luxury goods. The business of these importers increased after 1860, when steam replaced sailing, reducing the time needed to cross the Atlantic. After that, several stores in Rio, Salvador, Recife and other important cities of the time offered fabrics and costumes from Paris to “society” ladies, as well as complete toilets. In the transition from the 1940s to the 50s, Brazil was in a favorable economic situation: the national textile industry exported its products and struggled to conquer the range of fine fabrics that were consumed here. Gradually, the production of synthetic fibers began in the country (Ban-lon, Albène, Rhodianyl, Helanca, Tergal). However, as such fibers were intended for mass consumption, it was indispensable that they enter the market “from the top”, that is, counting on the approval of couturiers, gossip columnists and women of high society, since they were the ones who “dictated ” the taste in Brazil. Such people were “traditionally indifferent to the article of the national industry, considered ordinary and inferior to the imported one. Its adherence was, therefore, indispensable” (p. 68). Fashion advice is sought abroad (read, in France) and, also, it takes advantage of the transformation that was taking place in newspapers and magazines, with the increase in their print runs and the diversification of the agenda of subjects, creating permanent sections of cultural criticism and gossip columnism. Ibrahim Sued, Jacinto de Thormes and Tavares de Miranda, just to name a few columnists, debuted at this time. In Rio, Casa Canada led the local reproduction of luxury dresses and carried out a more elaborate and pioneering work of importing fashion, involving the organization of fashion shows, a sewing workshop in charge of collections from the shows, exclusive orders and a small stock for the orders of ready-to-wear. In São Paulo, there was Vogue and Dona Rosita. “If Marcelino de Carvalho, Tavares de Miranda or Alik Kostakis recorded the toilet in their columns, the return of prestige and clientele would be sure for these houses and their couturiers” (p. 73-74).

With the aim of promoting cotton and synthetic threads, Tecelagem Bangu made contact with Jacques Fath and Givenchy. Matarazzo, who had an agreement with Boussac, appealed to Christian Dior. In some “Fashion Festivals” organized in São Paulo, “the Matarazzo – Boussac consortium jointly mobilized several maisons French (Dior, Heim, Lanvin, Patou) and Brazilian couturiers recognized or in the process of being recognized in the 'creation' or 'interpretations' market, such as Boriska, Rosita, Dener, among others” (p. 74). From 1958, Fenit (National Textile Industry Fair) was organized annually in São Paulo, financed by exhibitors. It was at the Fenits that the maisons French and Italian companies sounded out the first licensing contracts in Brazil, and in 1966 Dior already had licensees in socks, perfumes, shoes and lingerie. Féraud and Cardin then arrived, authorizing some garment makers. From then on, the number of licensees and licensees grows, as well as the range of products with foreign labels.

In 1982 the Fashion News “it reported that there were 18 'famous' foreign labels active in Brazil, with a hundred licensed together. There were twelve French houses, four Italian and two North American (...) At the end of the list came the only two Brazilian couturiers with licenses in the market, Clodovil Hernandez and Guilherme Guimarães, both together, with half a dozen associates” (p. 77) .

In the chapter on fashion in Brazil, the trajectories of Dener and Clodovil, the vertiginous expansion of the clothing and knitting industry (practically liquidating the field of tailors and seamstresses in bespoke work), the consequent constitution of a sophisticated space in the main capitals of the country, the logic of mass production and the new techniques of fashion marketing used, advertising placement on television and the use of merchandising in Globo telenovelas. The last chapter explores recent trends in the clothing market, the Parisian fashion avant-garde of the 80s (one of the richest topics of the work, containing a list of the main maisons haute couture, prêt-à-porter and industrial styling) and makes some considerations about fashion as an art modality, with its own hierarchies, norms and legitimacy.

Finally, the careful editorial work must be highlighted, with an impeccable cover by Vera Rodrigues and Guen Yokoyama, with opening drawings of the chapters by Kika, as well as the friendly marker that accompanies the book. It is also worth highlighting the bibliographic orientation, selecting the main titles available in a foreign language and in Portuguese. Due to its depth and its innovative character, Fashion, Luxury and Economy it constitutes mandatory reading for anyone interested in a topic as engaging and relevant as this one.

* Afrânio Catani, retired professor at USP and visiting professor at UFF, is one of the organizers of the Bourdieu vocabulary (Authentic, 2017).


Jose Carlos Durand. Fashion, Luxury and Economy. São Paulo: Babel Cultural, 1988.

This article is a slightly shortened version of the review published in the extinct “Caderno de Sabado” of the Jornal da Tarde in 13.02.1988.


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