GEORG W. F. HEGEL
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was the last of the philosophical titans that defined the age of German idealism. His lectures on art built on the already well-established tradition of aesthetic commentary in Germany and the rest of Western Europe. The specific topic addressed in the selection here discusses the difference between modern and ancient styles of sculpture, particularly in regard to clothing. The question of how clothes reflect the character of the individual who wears them had always fascinated fashion commentators and popular philosophers. Hegel approaches the topic by asking which style of covering the body is more beautiful. By preferring the drapery of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, he says explicitly that modern dress is not beautiful, thereby raising the larger question of why fashions exist at all. His analysis shows that modern fashion does not strive simply to be beautiful. Indeed, modern elegance may be understood as an attitude defined by a particular historical period, as opposed to the eternally beautiful art of ancient masters.
Although he clearly shares Rousseau's sympathy for Greek nudity and simple dress, Hegel has a clearer understanding that modern people cannot unequivocally replicate the Greek ideal. To be modern, then, is to be permanently cut off from the idyllic past. Clothes and art can never recapture the beautiful unity of body and environment that ancient sculpture suggested. Instead, modern dressers understand themselves as representatives of a particular historical moment. The clothes on a historical figure mark that person temporally. The clothes on a sculpture provide viewers with numerous associations. For an American audience, a sculpture presenting a man wearing a powdered wig and breeches conjures up the country's founders and the American Revolution. We don't have to look at the face to know that the sculpture depicts George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or some other Revolutionary figure. This implicit connection between clothes and a historical epoch, Hegel argues, separates modern style from antiquity. Put briefly, togas are timeless, but fashion is short-lived.