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Nonfiction in Brief

ALL CONSUMING IMAGES The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture by Stuart Ewen (Basic Books: $19.95)

September 25, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

One is tempted to tell Stuart Ewen to "get hip!" after reading his introduction, which depicts fashion and style as a kind of "tyranny of the familiar." After all, in a culture that sanctions only a limited range of social behavior, style seems to be a harmless way of self-expression: One outfit can spell rebellion, for instance, while another can welcome its wearer into high society, a considerable improvement over the days when family heritage limited one's possibilities at birth.

Ewen cuts through these presumptions, however, with consistently sharp arguments. Wearing rebellious clothes is a bogus solution for people who are truly unhappy, alienated or disenfranchised from society, he contends, and haute couture clothes are beyond the budget of all but the most affluent, symbolizing a magical, bountiful aristocratic world that puts most Americans--with "cheaper clothes; no castles; bills piling up"--in their place.

In a common weakness among academics who think too much about evanescent trends, Ewen, a sociology and communications professor at Hunter College, overinterprets, implying, for instance, that flak jackets and paramilitary fashions depict war as beautiful (one doubts that wearing such a jacket is seen as a political act). In many other sections, though, Ewen succeeds in showing style to be a ubiquitous form of social control, illustrating the many ways in which we are what we wear.

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