The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

“Fashion and the Modern” (1846)

KARL GUTZKOW

Karl Gutzkow was one of the earliest writers to directly associate the French and German word for fashion, mode, with the state of mind known as modernity. By joining the two ideas, Gutzkow created a new understanding of what made his own era, and our own, different from previous historical epochs. Fashion was already a familiar phenomenon, but that there even was such a thing as modernity was itself a striking innovation.

In this impulsive essay, Gutzkow taps directly into the emerging currents of modern style. The piece is divided into two halves: the first provides a dialectically balanced sociology of fashion; the second creates an imaginary dialogue between the author and a dandy so mysterious he almost seems a vampire. Indeed, Gutzkow alludes to, and then denies, rumors that his friend engages in satanism. This play on the beauty of unholy evil anticipates Baudelaire's own Fleurs de Mal. Much else in Gutzkow's writing leads one to think of Baudelaire's famous account of the modern Dandy in The Painter of Modern Life, particularly Gutzkow's claim that the modern is a negative process, perpetually defining itself as different. This insistence that one always assert a distinct, thorough style did not mean that one always had to create new forms, shapes, and colors. Old styles could always be recycled, Gutzkow insisted. Modern taste merely requires that one use the old in a strikingly new manner. History is a storeroom for the aesthetic individual, for as Gutzkow notes, the essence of fashion is to always want to escape what is fashionable in others, to always be ahead of the others. The designs of past civilizations provided the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie the richest means of acquiring the legitimacy embodied by historical artifacts. Yet as Gutzkow knew, the up-to-date person would arrange these old styles in a manner that still suggested progress, dynamism, and productivity, all the values associated with advancing capitalism and liberal democracy. Modernity was all a matter of the attitude with which one used the old. As much as Gutzkow appreciated the modernity of reactionary styles, he noted that in

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