The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

“Fashion and Cynicism” (1879)

FRIEDRICH VISCHER

Friedrich Theodor Vischer (1807-1887) was a literary critic known for developing an idealist aesthetic theory in keeping with the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. A liberal by political conviction, Vischer participated in the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848. After the failure of the 1848 Revolution, he continued his career as one of the first professors of modern literature in Europe. His aesthetic theory emphasized the need for art to manifest the ideal in its depiction of reality. Social phenomena were understood in terms of their ability to embody abstract philosophical principles. Vischer brings this idealist method to his discussion of bourgeois fashion.

His essay relates fashion to some of the most famous questions of the Western philosophical tradition. For example, he considers the problem of whether fashion allows individuals free expression or whether it is a slavish tendency that proves that free will is a myth. Vischer resolves the question of whether fashion proves or denies the existence of a free human by invoking Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher of the Enlightenment.

Vischer does not merely apply philosophy to fashion, though. His style makes clear that the connection between clothes and abstract ideals is ironic, and one is never sure just how seriously he takes himself. His irony is instructive for contemporary cultural studies, for he leaves open the question of how real the link between philosophy and fashion is. Quite adept at abstract thought, Vischer nevertheless lets himself be caught up by its jargon. He always circles back into a playful mode of appreciating fashion, one that inevitably reveals his own patriarchal fascinations. His essay reveals the gender biases of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, even as it expresses them in abstract language. However, he cannot be dismissed as an old professor seduced against his will by the Lolita of fashion, for he plays this role quite deliberately. For in his attempt to blend aesthetic theory and consumer culture, Vischer is a clear forerunner of twentieth-century critics such as Walter Benjamin. As Benjamin's notes

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