The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

“Pride” from The Fable of the Bees (1724)

BERNARD MANDEVILLE

Mandeville's Fable of the Bees scandalized the eighteenth century. Its stinging immoralism made it a perpetual target for rebuttals. Rousseau was one of the many later thinkers obliged to refute the Fable's notorious claim that private vices amounted to public virtues. Without naming his opponent, he tried to rebut Mandeville's provocative celebration of luxury by writing “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences” (1750). The Fable excerpt printed here focuses specifically on how pride motivates fashion. Far from denouncing luxurious clothes as exceeding the needs of any individual, Mandeville argues that lavish spending on dress “trickles down” to employ a host of tailors and other skilled craftsmen. The more money the wealthy elite spend on their own attire, the more hands are kept busy providing them the luxury goods they desire.

In a mercantile city such as London, the visual representations of class distinctions are easily blurred. Lower-class people can easily use the anonymity of a large city to their advantage. By dressing above their social station, they can easily fool others (and, as a consequence, even themselves) into thinking that they fare better than their actual condition mandates. Mandeville maps out in delicious detail how each strata seeks to emulate the one above while simultaneously trying to preserve its own distinctiveness from the group directly below. The desire to raise oneself in society, combined with the fear that one is losing ground to others, is the primary cause for fashion's many cyclical changes. The highest classes, Mandeville argues, continuously invent new designs to visually display their superiority and separation from their lower-class imitators. New modes of appearance are nothing more than new symbols of distinction that begin at the top of society and slowly make their way down the chain of class emulation. At each level, ordinary citizens are motivated to work twice as hard so that they can afford the luxuries of those directly above them. Hence, Mandeville asserts, pride generates industry. Were it not for the common human desire to seem grander

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