The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

“Jewels” and “Wedding Presents”
from La Dernière Mode (1874)

STÉPHANE MALLARMÉ

From 1874 to 1875, the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé found work as the editor of a French fashion magazine, La Dernière Mode. That the author of some of the most intricate poetry written in French should also have composed pieces for the pretty women of the bourgeoisie has always been considered a curious fact of literary history. Yet if we read his columns, it quickly becomes clear that he engaged the luxurious world of French fashion as an arena for discovering crystallized forms of beauty. Mallarmé does not hold with the modernist tradition, which seeks to always avoid the ornamental. In these two pieces he not only celebrates two types of decoration, jewels and wedding baskets, he layers associations onto each other with such density that the reader is hard-pressed to find the kind of “practical” advice common to most fashion magazines. Mallarmé arranges his sentences as if they were transforming a painting into words, though without giving a literal account of its appearance. Rather than tell his readers what something looks like, he quickly moves beyond descriptive language by unfurling a string of associations that suggest the feelings connected with objects. As his comments about fans show, he held a particular fascination for objects whose surfaces were also covered by paintings. Mallarmé seems intrigued not only by the paintings on fashionable fans, but also by the fans' existence as historical artifacts. He invokes the courtly paintings of Boucher and Watteau, not just because their paintings are reproduced on fans but also because they recall earlier times when women would carry fans. A nineteenth-century fan, for instance, might be decorated with an eighteenth-century painting showing ladies holding fans. As the viewer and reader tumble into the spiraling associations of Mallarmé's perceptions, fashion turns on itself, invoking images of itself as it displays itself. Yet he does not spell out the theoretical nuances of fashionable images; instead he raises open-ended questions for the reader to solve. Far from becoming more accessible, fashion items become mysterious under Mallarmé's pen. This might have been

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