Time, the body and fashion

Image: Bryan López Ornelas


Fashion’s exceptional ability to weave the Hegelian “spirit of the time” into its fabric

From an early age I was confronted with textiles. Like others of their generation, the women in my family dedicated themselves to sewing and embroidery due to their dowries and budget. At that time, the winds of modernity were still blowing, making the textile industry a paradigm. I grew up under the rule of the military dictatorship and, in that sense, we were all immersed in an abyss of unsaid, illicit things.

Childhood certainly did not understand the tragedy that the country was going through and, as far as possible, remained oblivious to the weight of the unprecedented, lingering on playing with patchwork, on the trapezoidal designs sewn in a spiral, coloring a rustic textile base made of ordinary fabric that, in Soon, it would become a carpet of pouts or gossip.

In eccentric puerile exercises, we slipped while sitting on leftovers of soft wool and flannel fabrics, sliding over the vermilion of the waxed burnt cement floor, an ordinary covering in workers' houses. The children left everything very clean and shiny, and mothers were more relieved from excessive domestic work. My grandmother worked tirelessly, only putting down the needle if a storm threatened, and then, while she ran to the kitchen to fry Rain Cakes sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, the little pests took over her black iron Vigorelli machine to play Formula 1 by pedaling madly.

The aunts, also devoted to needles, embroidered flowers in linen and cambric. The drawings were eye-catching! The girls created colorful, fun models for their Suzi dolls – Barbie's grandmother. These exercises rehearsed them for adult life in a sexist society, but not only... Despite the probable fate of a descendant of immigrant workers, seamstresses and embroiderers, this work resulted in research projects, articles and books on artistic mythopoetics with textile materials . In any case, these lines subtly outline the identity of the feminine in modern society in the second half of the last century and, in this case, resonate with three family generations.

The textile universe sews memories into a resistant fabric. The plots of this mental landscape became tangled throughout history, without eradicating certain habits. Textiles are embedded in the pragmatism of the consumer market and in the imagination, in our way of being and of particularizing beauty, as we take risks in designing a personal artistic or, at the limit, aesthetic image.

There was a decisive change in the genesis of clothing, impacted by the increase in economic access in post-industrial society, when consumption began to be expanded on a large scale, which blurred and confused the level boundaries between individuals. Textiles invaded our most trivial vocabulary, incorporated into everyday practices in a natural way: putting together rags, passing cloth to so-and-so, putting hot cloths on, not making a knotless stitch, giving cloth for sleeves, having a rag tongue, being a rag, making the other a floor rag, washing dirty clothes in public, fits like a glove, and so on...

In a lapidary observation, Jean Baudrillard explains how fashion imposes its excesses, dividing the wealthy and the precarious in capricious temporal games: “[…] employees today wear haute couture footwear from last season”.[I] The influence of fashion on attitudes and sociability has an unshakable and paradoxical power: fashion mediates individual and social expectations – desires for personal expression and impulses to belong to the group –, but it accentuates class divisions and delimits areas of the life it makes. match your visual narratives;[ii] we relate so much less to each other and so much more to the objects we carry.

Appearance assails us with signs of identity, occupation, regionality, gender, religion, social class, among other ways in which the external configuration establishes the social place of individuals, however, it is also a mode of commerce or subversion of symbolic borders. The ability to harmonize the contradictory, appeasing the expectation of distinguishing oneself, the need to imitate oneself in the group, is also a perverse and coercive temporal game, increasing personal expression to the level of frenetic replacement.

Caught with my pants down

With two other children, the sweet boy Mauro, from the film The year my parents went on vacation, by Cao Hamburger (2006),[iii] He looks at women's bodies through a hole in the wall of the changing room of his little friend's parents' clothing store. The scene combines nostalgia, delicacy and sad memories of a time of political repression that notably extended to bodies; Glossing Nelson Rodrigues, at that time, certainly, all nudity would be punished.

In general, we articulate the colors, textures and shapes that involve bodies in the expectation of feeling beauty. Combine elements into a whole gestalt it is an instrument of seduction, but in the episode with the boy Mauro, the issue is different: the act of unveiling seems more attractive because, under the condition of anonymity, it takes place without the revealer's knowledge. In the interim that elapses between astonished observation and revelation, fantasies feed children's imagination.

Mauro lives in the world of the forbidden, which, in fact, his parents tarnished, possibly caught in some episode of transgression. Thus, the importance of clothing is resized. Imagine, at that point, a boy being caught peeping. In addition to being a clear violation of social norms, it is also boldness and disrespect — a true family tragedy! Poor Mauro, he wouldn't even have the chance to take refuge under his mother's skirt, his family was taken away from him.

It was not only in the political sphere that obedience and modesty were desired values, in general, children owed respect to adults – parents, teachers or anyone with authority granted by extensive experience, compared to the short life span of a boy. . It's not like that anymore. Street games and pranks were obsessed with electronic games and the computer, which consume a large part of the leisure time in the middle-class children's schedules, taken up by language courses, swimming, judo, ballet, music, among others.

Between the demands of intermittent work and uncertain remuneration, parents no longer have the time or patience to share with their children, some of whom have been chemically docile with a black mark. Postmodern children, especially urban and middle-class children, have become accustomed to giving orders to adults who provide services to parents who are absent from their children's education: “wake me up at six”; “I want tea and cake for breakfast”; “Iron my blue pants for tomorrow”… They do not owe obedience to anyone, on the contrary, they are obeyed.

Perhaps it is an indication of the problems faced by pedagogy professionals, who have witnessed the transition from modernity to post-modernity – or from the condition of student to that of client –, and continue to be unsuccessful in balancing a libertarian education with the awareness that at all freedom corresponds to responsibilities, and without “losing the line!”

Nowadays, children wander through augmented reality applications and perhaps women are less concerned about holding their skirts in the wind, to defend their shame and preserve their parts from the elements and gazes. Indiscreet changing rooms are disappearing and, to a large extent, there is no longer much nudity to be revealed, in fact, it is only punished, if on the occasion of a performance, artistic intervention or political demand.

Today dresses are available on apps that don't require undressing bodies. In addition to nudes, intimacy is abundantly and freely exposed on adult content sites “with the same tired obscenity”, says Baudrillard.[iv] No interim, no fantasy.

Buttoning the jacket

The ability to shape forms and habits makes fashion sensitive to social volatility. Its permeability over reality makes it capable of framing the most delicate sign of novelty in colors and textures. It is not just for technological reasons that, in the mid-1940s and 1950s, the most common fabrics were thick, suitable for keeping up with the status to which we were all exposed, especially women. To preserve decorum, women's costumes were covered with rustling petticoats beneath opulent, expensive dresses made of many yards of thick fabric such as grosgrain and damask.

It is appropriate to include in this analogy a consumer success at that time: the Boloque Dress celebrated the brief and illusory freedom that preceded the period suitable for marriage. It was assumed that the most daring ones risked making long trousers common, normally used in bathhouses, picnics and festivals, such as the Woodstock which, however, was just leisure wear typical of middle-class young people. The use of the piece is relativized in the feminist universe of the late 1960s,[v] the militancy rejected the adornments and objectification of female bodies with more conviction.

In general, the family structure included stable and long-lasting marital relationships, at least in appearance. Transgressions were contained by controlled and austere marriage and work contracts: men concentrated on production; women, in reproduction and education of offspring.[vi] Social order was duly assured.

But this density lost its place and frayed, light-fitting fabrics, such as destroyed and delavé, chemically washed, took the lead to guarantee the flexibility and softness required by the dynamics that were gradually and silently installed until the Twin Towers collapsed. And so, we gradually move from verticality, to the viscosity of contemporary relationships, guided by emotional convenience and tacit commitment, at the price of instability and brevity: once affection is exhausted, agreements are terminated. In short, father, mother and children, yesterday; stepfathers, stepmothers and stepchildren today.

Personal presentation is considered a value: it must be careful and demonstrate hygiene and care for appearance. On the other hand, for domestic work, there was a certain leniency: shabby clothes or clothes made of inferior, ordinary material. In the later modern period, certain resilient practices and customs persist, such as the fixity of identity aligned with the more traditional environment, but modulated by new contextual stimuli. The notion of men's clothing was preserved until signs of postmodernity, there is strong resistance to flexibility and a considerable percentage of the population remains closely affiliated with cisgender.

Forms of relating to oneself and expressing oneself in the world guided by multiculturalism, fragmented, open, unfinished and situational identity suffer intense social pressure, but the growing awareness of individual rights imposes itself on the agenda of contemporary political demands. In that sense, the genderless clothing trend raises the tone of the discussion a good few notches above the bland unisex.

However, multiculturalism and respect for difference were not largely a fact of reality, in the form of work clothing, to a large extent, still guided by gender division: jackets, ties, on the one hand, and skirts and heels. high, on the other. Many corporate environments continue to perpetuate this relationship, such as areas of the banking and legal systems. It seems symptomatic that work has moved from serial production and accumulation, framed by the opulence of clothing, to a condition of computerized, antiseptic volubility, in which “everything that is solid melts into air”.[vii]

When it comes to uniforms, visual forms of distinction in levels act as tacit but consistent barriers. They are transmitted both in terms of gender and by ensuring a stratification that responds to the status quo and inhibits opportunities for alternation on the economic and social levels. In a country with a large population of school age, there is a great demand for uniforms. In recent years, authoritarian governments have reinvigorated military schools and, thus, the educational scene and its clientele have paraded khaki uniforms through the streets of a country recently freed from the excesses of the barracks – we hope!

But standardization punishes the ego and, then, there is always someone willing to roll up the waistband of the skirt to the point of turning modesty into a miniskirt. Hard, full-bodied fabrics once again escape the closets, conveniently spit out of the textile production line. The number of traditional professional clothing companies in full operation is also considerable, especially in large urban centers.

These data are easily deductible, through simple lay observation, and update us on the degree of conservatism and bourgeoisie in our society. Interestingly, the high frequency of use of work uniforms goes against the grain of recent forms of work, with the increase in remote work, during and after the pandemic – shorts touch combined with a jacket and tie, it is a portrait of our time. The genealogy and vocation of work clothes, especially uniforms, deserve reflection, as they map values ​​cultivated in society.

Clothing functions as a thermometer in social control, providing support and a sense of economic or occupational identities. It is a non-verbal language that systemically integrates collectively constituted structures: complex, rich in meanings, cultural tastes and lifestyles. Men's clothing tends to respond to the needs of economic activities, it is more fixed than women's clothing, except for leisure clothing, which is generally more flexible. This set of hegemonic norms governs masculinity: physical power and control, expressed heterosexuality; professional achievements (the so-called man's work) and patriarchal family role, roles that are questioned in the contemporary world.

Uniforms homogenize, but undergo interventions to ensure hierarchical distinction. Yellowish metal buttons and extra ornaments such as epaulettes and embroidered insignia are common on military attire. Each added item corresponds to higher levels in the institutional structure and, let's admit it, in the degree of vanity. Even small changes in positioning or subtle ornaments can significantly impact status, without impersonal participation in the organization as a whole being compromised.

Standardization is uncomfortable for the ego, especially in the lower layers, but stratified corporations, such as the military, for example, are unimaginable without the prerogative of these accessories loaded with symbolism. The intensity with which these clothes are used is linked to the dimension of their significance, the emphasis of the group or organization and, of course, to some extent, the individuality of the wearer.

Time to roll up your sleeves and flatten the seams

In terms of aesthesia, it is difficult to assess whether the degree of ideation or daydreaming has disappeared from our horizon. Whether due to laziness or leniency, we have pushed this task towards technicality, considering the protagonism of electronic media, homogenizing perception, mediating our relationship with others in almost all instances of life. But imaginal means are not extrinsic to images.[viii]

In contemporary discourse we tend to conceive images in an abstract sense, as if they were devoid of medium and body and, thus, they are confused with the imaginal techniques articulated for their creation. It is limiting to understand them only from one pole, in terms of dualism; namely: interior or endogenous images and, therefore, typical of a body; and exogenous images, which always require an imaginal body. Therefore, it is not viable to deal with the theme as if the images were internal or coming from the outside world, as if we were opposing matter and spirit.

In other words, balance is needed, so that we do not tend to reduce images to either a concept or an imaginal technique. These notions, in the field of fashion, would correspond to confronting the fashion of dresses; the idea of ​​the dress and the image of the dress.

After about three centuries, it is fair to admit that there was a greater protagonism of social codes of dress from the First Industrial Revolution onwards, if not due to the volume of items dumped on the consumer market, certainly due to their persuasive and fetishistic power. Consolidating a mental repertoire, the textile universe followed style schools, took on new models and remained reinvigorated and with a good fit, demarcating cultural and political contours. It is worth including in these reflections what is beneath the surface: corporeality and, from there, the complexity of derivations.

The alternation of paradigms between the modern twilight and the postmodern dawn exposes behaviors interpreted expressively in the face of innovations, in terms of aesthetics or aesthesia. They are ways of expressing an imaginary subsidized by the set of sociocultural traits, by the situation. In other words, the aesthetics or esthesia typical of a time are the amalgam of the surroundings, expressions of self transposed into non-verbal language, in this case, clothing, gestures and fashions.

It is important to remember that our body is not located in space, it simply is, insofar as the spatiality of the body is an unfolding of its being and the way it realizes itself as a body,[ix] and expand Benjamin's alert to the impact of speed on perception, in the transition from modernity to post-modernity. The preceding productive structure imposed the industrial and automobile mechanical rhythm on social and cultural life, especially on the sensory-motor body.

In fact, a timid acceleration, compared to the intensification imposed by the digital world and its supersonic pace. The tonics, vitamins and supplements linked to gymnastics training and the expectation of Olympic overcoming in modernity were not enough to respond to a corporeal reality that is increasingly obsolete. Prosthetics, body enhancements and surgical interventions come into play, to help a body incapable of achieving the rhythmic demands of the contemporary – the post-human is already a reality beyond the artistic field and against the current conservative wave.

New conditions shape self-expression in the world, wrapped in technologically sophisticated fabrics or styles aligned with the political demands of the diverse. Textiles that prevent the passage of air to guarantee outdoor training in harsh climates, such as synthetic fleece, maintain body temperature, while unstructured, asymmetrical, genderless models and seductive prosthetics studded with crystals Swarovski by bionic artist Victoria Modesta[X] they package the claims of otherness. Although certain initiatives are justifiable and, to a large extent, appreciable, essences cannot be replaced by appearances.

In other words, formality, as an external trait or capacity to absorb a set of values, has a previously given scope and depth. If the objective is to change the order of things, this is certainly a starting point, but it is necessary to overcome immanence, in the sense of greater engagement.

Perhaps we have lost the thread, without knowing exactly where this tangle leads us. But one thing is a fact: the constant presence, the thread that, in this essay, abandons us to the ineluctable observation of the exceptional ability that fashion has to weave the Hegelian “spirit of the time” into its fabric.

*Solange de Oliveira She is a professor of visual arts and philosophy at the Federal University of Southern Bahia. She is the author of the collection Art by a Thread (Freedom Station). [https://amzn.to/4cxBrmI]


[i] BAUDRILLARD, J. The system of objects. São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva, 1973, p.160. [https://amzn.to/4cfLLA8]

[ii] souza, gm The Spirit of clothes: nineteenth century fashion. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1987, p. 26. [https://amzn.to/4eBLnNY]

[iii] THE YEAR my parents went on vacation. Directed by Cao Hamburger. Brazil, 2006, Drama, 104 minutes. Cast: Michel Joelsas, Germano Haiut, Daniela Piepszyk.

[iv] BAUDRILLARD, J. Simulacra, simulation. Lisbon: Relógio d'Água, 1991, p. 119. [https://amzn.to/3L0yJdM]

[v], CRANE, D. Fashion and its social role. Translation by Cristiana Coimbra. São Paulo: Editora Senac, 2006, p. 259-260. [https://amzn.to/4cfRXbd]

[vi] The insightful portrait of the American way of life in the 1950s is the series mad man: TAYLOR, A (direction). Mad man. Jon Hamm, Christopher Stanley, Elisabeth Moss (cast), United States, 2007.

[vii] MARX, K.; ENGELS, F. Manifesto of the Communist Party 1848. Translation Sueli Tomasini Barros Casal. Porto Alegre: LP&M Pocket, 2001, p. 6.

[viii] BELTING, Hans. Image anthropology. Translation Artur Morão. Lisbon: KKYM + EAUM, 2014.

[ix] MERLEAU-PONTY, M. Phenomenology of perception. Translated by Carlos Alberto Ribeiro de Moura. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2006, p. 205

[x] Available at:https://viktoriamodesta.com/>

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