Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion

Article excerpt

NANCY J. TROY Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003. 438 pp.; 150 b/w ills. $39.95

In 1863, Charles Baudelaire located a set of markers for modernity in the fugitive aspects of fashion and urged the modern artist "to extract from fashion the poetry that resides in its historical envelope, to distill the eternal from the transitory."1 Since that date, Baudelaire's modernity has been subjected to relentless critical rethinking as discussion about modernity, modernism, and their relationship to a recognizably "modern" art in the 19th and 20th centuries has been profoundly reshaped by ideological struggles within, and without, academic institutions, particularly after World War II.2 Although the concept of modernism, at least since the 1960s, has provided a (sometimes controlling) framework through which to evaluate and assess certain aspects of 20th-century cultural production, its exclusions, as Peter Wollen and others have remarked, have become legendary.3 Notable among those exclusions is fashion, displaced from the central position Baudelaire assigned it and typically dismissed in dominant accounts of early-20th-century art as, in Nancy Troy's words, "superficial, fleeting and feminized" (p. 2). Marginalized in histories of modern art, when not ignored altogether, the study of fashion has largely been left to costume historians (except where artists took up its design and/or production), costume institutes, and museum exhibitions that often reinforce a narrow linking of art and fashion around "garments designed by artists or clothing that qualifies as art" (p. 3).4

Since the 1970s, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, and gender studies have contributed important models for exploring fashion as a cultural and performative expression of the female subject, as well as a site for renegotiations of gender and sexual identity. The publication in 1993 of historian Mary Louise Roberts's groundbreaking essay "Samson and Delilah Revisited: The Politics of Fashion in 1920s France" exposed the profound ideological and political effects of social debates that implicated modern fashion in representations of gender, sexuality, and nationalism. Roberts's essay, part of a larger study of gender in post-World War I France, has informed a number of art historical investigations into relationships between fashion, gender, sexuality, and modernity in Europe and in Russia during the interwar period, including recent work by Tag Gronberg, Maria Makela, Christina Kiaer, myself, and others.'' Much of that work on the post-World War I period has focused on the 1920s, when modern art and modern design shared a distinct and discernible stylistic vocabulary and the so-called new woman emerged to stake out a territory that included the representation of the modern lesbian. This emphasis has tended to deflect attention away from the historical significance of the French clothing industry and its commercial interests in shaping discourses of modernity in the period before and during World War I, the subject of Nancy Troy's new book.

Troy's book is not about gender per se, though gender is everywhere inscribed in the objects of her investigation. Instead, Troy maps a set of previously unexplored parallel structures that existed between modern fashion and modern art in the years before and during World War I. The result is a welcome addition to a growing body of literature that addresses the discursive role of modern fashion in shaping the cultural landscape of modernity in early-20th-century Europe and North America.6 More than that, in shifting the emphasis away from the more easily recognizable tropes of modernity embedded in a wide range of artistic and design practices in the 1920s, it represents a pioneering attempt to expose a deeper structural relationship between modern art and modern fashion during a formative period in the consolidation of vanguard culture.

The title of Troy's book, Couture Culture: A Study in Modern Art and Fashion, situates her investigation of an alternative conceptual model linking the domains of art and fashion (one not necessarily accessible through even a rigorous formal analysis). …