The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

“Adornment” from Sociology (1908)

GEORG SIMMEL

Georg Simmel's short discourse on adornment contains the richest account of how clothes and jewels enhance the individual while giving pleasure to others. Several traditions of fashion commentary stand behind Simmel's analysis. In addition to his concern for the relationship between clothes and the body, his explanation of symbolic meaning implied by a garment's fit reminds one of the Enlightenment concern for how well a garment suits the body wearing it. Christian Garve and Simon Witte hover in the background of Simmel's arguments about the stiffness of elegant clothes. Like these eighteenth-century thinkers, Simmel understands how clothes that integrate with the body have a symbolic as well as a practical significance. Comfortable clothes fit the body well and therefore reveal too much about the person wearing them. Goethe's distinctions between art and craftwork resurface in Simmel's explanation of why practical utensils can never be considered artistic. Like almost every other German thinker of the nineteenth century, Simmel reveres the autonomy of art from all social necessity. If an object can be incorporated into some practical social function, then it fails to rise to the standard of art. He understands that adornments combine the aesthetic qualities of art with the socially useful character of ordinary household instruments. Clothes cannot divorce themselves from their utility, yet they clearly give a pleasurable sensation that is not explained as mere utility. Simmel's subtlety is shown in the fact that he never reduces adornment to a single principle. Fashion gives pleasure to others while boosting the ego of the person wearing it. He waltzes around this apparent contradiction so that in the end one is left to marvel at his own elegance as a writer.

Georg Simmel was born in downtown Berlin in 1858. He earned his doctorate from the university in Berlin in 1885 and began his academic career there as an unpaid lecturer in philosophy, although an inheritance allowed him to lead a comfortable bourgeois life. The consummate cosmopolitan, he lectured at the university while participating in the literary

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