The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

“An Answer to the Question: Would It Be Harmful or
Beneficial to Establish a National Uniform?” (1791)

SAMUEL SIMON WITTE

Samuel Witte's essay is the prize-winning response to the Danish Academy's query on the value of establishing a national dress code. What to contemporary ears seems an outlandish suggestion was for the Enlightenment a plausible solution to the perceived harms of luxury consumption. The proposal of a national uniform appealed to Physiocrats concerned that their nation was losing millions in gold bullion to countries such as France because of an unfavorable balance of trade in fashionable goods. Added to this economic motive was the persuasiveness of Rousseau's call for a return to Spartan simplicity. Rather than overthrowing the state, the national uniform had the apparent benefit of reinforcing state authority while restoring the lost virtues of simplicity and industry. Justus Möser's essay in this volume advocates just such a reform.

Witte argues decisively against a national uniform law by demonstrating that allowing citizens to express themselves through clothing is a fundamental necessity of public discourse in a free society. Implicit within his arguments for freedom in attire is another prizewinning essay, “What Is Enlightenment?”—Immanuel Kant's famous account of how public debate advances society. Witte extends the idea of public speech to include clothing, recognizing that clothes have a semiotic function. They express the personality of individuals and are to that extent fundamental in any public encounter. To standardize dress would amount to stifling individual opinions.

Witte distinguishes between the general concept of clothing and the culturally and personally more specific concept of dress. He further divides clothing into garments that fit the body closely and those that are loosely draped. This distinction operates along two axes: temporal and geographical. Witte argues that fitted garments are unique to modern Europe, whereas the Orient prefers flowing gowns for both men and women. Tight clothes, most specifically leggings or pants, are a distinctively European invention. Historically, the difference

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