When Friedrich Vischer wrote that speed was the defining feature of modern life, he proved his point by referring to the rapidity with which styles were replaced within good society. No one, he wrote in 1879, had time for long speeches or tailored clothes; ready-made was the order of the day. Eduard Fuchs reiterated the point in 1912: “Never before has there occurred such a degree of rapid and sudden change of fashion…. An inventive genius is at work….which impresses and bewilders, if not through the beauty of the styles, then certainly through the enormous wealth of its ever new combinations.” Explaining this “inventive genius” was a fundamental question that unified generations of fashion commentators. If one could understand why styles changed so rapidly, then one might grasp modernity itself, for the genius of fashion was associated by a long line of writers with the upheavals of modern existence. Somewhere in the rush of change, they all reasoned, there must lie some essence, something stable, that could account for the onslaught of images and attitudes fashion struck.
Mode and modernity were connected by more than semantics. Fashion's obsession with change, its constant search for the newest design, gave it a formal similarity with other systems that demanded continuous innovation. The parallel between such weighty endeavors as technological innovation, avant-garde art, or political revolution and the apparently frivolous desire to update one's personal appearance meant that moralists, political economists, literary critics, and sociologists could use their interpretations of fashion culture as springboards for broader debates about modernity.