Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Tyranny of Elegance: Consumer Cosmopolitanism in the Era of Goethe

Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Tyranny of Elegance: Consumer Cosmopolitanism in the Era of Goethe

Article excerpt

Purdy, Daniel. The Tyranny of Elegance: Consumer Cosmopolitanism in the Era of Goethe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998. 301 pp. $48.00 hardcover.

Daniel Purdy's admirable study of the "tyranny of elegance" at the turn of the nineteenth century examines the ways in which what was familiar in London and Paris as material reality entered the sphere of elite culture in Germany through the mediation of literature. In texts ranging from the Journal des Luxus and der Moden to Christian Garve's essay Ober die Moden and from sumptuary laws to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, he analyzes the semiotic and disciplinary operations of clothes. Inspired by Roland Barthes' reading of fashion and by Michel Foucault's discourse theory, he first examines the imaginary relationship between reader and text and then investigates how the desires created in these discourses affected the organization of public life. This approach offers refreshing perspectives on how discussions of European fashion and luxury redefined the bourgeois understanding of the body, its relation to personal identity and to public occupation.

The first three chapters concentrate on Germany's most successful fashion periodical, the Journal des Luxus and der Moden, which we see to be more than simply a source for fashion history. Purdy shows precisely how the medium instilled in both male and female consumers new, rapidly changing desires for luxury goods. The journal provided a means for the German bourgeoisie to view itself as rational and pragmatic consumers for whom fashionable products would enhance physical and mental productivity. This utilitarianism mixed with sentimentalism to create the hybrid figure of the German consumer who also sought products that would respond to a need for selfgenerated illusions. Through the mediation of the journal, a reader could enter an amorphous, international institution called fashionable society. The journal's reiteration of foreign trends thus both fostered the expansion of fashion culture and transformed an economic critique of luxury into a regime of productive consumption by regulating the flow of information.

In chapters four to six, Purdy examines the organization of behavior. To explain how fashionable society produced conformity in a self-defined bourgeois community he suggestively invokes the rhetorical figure of the queen of fashion-a despot whom the wise ridicule and obey. As the trope lost its rhetorical uniqueness, it became naturalized as a female characteristic per se, inalienably located within the female body, even constituting a psychological profile of a fashionable woman. By contrast the disciplinary regimes of state institutions, the sumptuary laws, had employed coercive force to curb actual consumption and to stabilize visual distinctions in dress and ceremony as signs of rank within a hierarchically defined community. …

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