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Book Review

Cracking the Code of Fashion

THE LANGUAGE OF CLOTHES by Alison Lurie; An Owl Book / Henry Holt $22.50, 274 pages

March 20, 2000|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Operating on the assumption that there is something remiss about a book on fashion, style and clothing that is no longer up to date, the ever-lively and amusing novelist Alison Lurie has written a new introduction to her 1981 nonfiction book, "The Language of Clothes." In the final two decades of this last century, Lurie suspects, we have seen not only the usual sort of changes in the language of clothes, but a larger and more remarkable change: the demise of fashion.

Most people, notes Lurie, no longer dress in accordance with "rigid but constantly changing rules about what is 'in style.' " This "fashion freeze," she believes, began about 200 years ago for men, as the extravagant costumes of the 18th century gave way to the serviceable trousers, shirts, jackets and ties that became standard urban wear in the 19th and 20th centuries. For women, she argues, the freeze began sometime in the 1970s with the evolution of standard female business attire: durable pantsuits, classic shirts and blouses, scarves and comfortable footwear. Of course, men and women still enjoy dressing up--or dressing down--for various occasions and reasons, but thanks to the fashion freeze, it is "no longer necessary to buy a new outfit every season; a 5-year-old pantsuit or silk shirt or blouse still look[s] fine."

One of the central premises of Lurie's book is her belief that even in the bad old days before the fashion freeze, the tastes, manners, values and needs of ordinary people have always played a far bigger role in determining fashions than the conspiracies or whims of designers, pundits and manufacturers. "As [fashion historian] James Laver has remarked," notes Lurie (who owes--and gracefully acknowledges--debts to other writers), "modes are but the reflections of the manners of the time; they are the mirror, not the original. Within the limits imposed by economics, clothes are acquired, used and discarded just as words are, because they meet our needs and express our ideas and emotions."

If jewelry, makeup, hairstyles and particular items of clothing are a "vocabulary," the ways in which they are put together must constitute a kind of "grammar." Whether or not this intriguing theory holds up under serious scrutiny may be a moot question, but it provides a good starting point for Lurie's witty and intelligent survey of her subject.

The language of clothing has been used to express nationality, ethnicity, social class, gender, age, temperament, political stance or sexual availability. Examining all this and more, Lurie focuses primarily on clothing in the West, particularly in the United States and Britain, but she also takes some account of Asia and Africa. The continuing penchant of supposedly liberated Western women for narrow-toed, high-heeled, foot-deforming shoes reminds her of the ancient Chinese custom of foot binding.

Another disquieting recent trend Lurie notes is toward "defensive costumes," including "impenetrable black leather jackets glittering with industrial-weight zippers," "imitation military tunics" and evening gowns "paved so thickly with sequins and plastic scales that they look like medieval battle jerkins. . . . These styles," she remarks, "also seem to suggest that at the beginning of the 21st century, Westerners, like their governments, are both dangerous and frightened--perhaps more dangerous and more frightened than ever before."

The chief problem with this book--and almost every other book on the significance of clothes--is the problem of camp: A writer immerses himself in a trivial subject, overstates its importance and proceeds to make sweeping statements that are seldom challenged, because arguing about matters so trivial seems, well, trivial. One might nit-pick that Lurie's remarks about the femininity of the color pink, for instance, do not take account of the fact that early in the last century, it was sometimes recommended as a "strong" color, suitable for boys! But, although some of her assertions may be open to dispute, Lurie's observations and insights are, on the whole, so perceptive, shrewd and amusing that it is hard to think of anyone interested in clothes who would not be interested in her book.

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