Karl Kraus was born in 1874 into the family of an affluent paper manufacturer in Vienna. His acerbic essays and lectures have become synonymous with the literary culture of coffeehouses, despite that he was an indefatigable critic of writerly pretension and journalistic rhetoric. He is most famous for his journal, Die Fackel (The Torch), which he published single-handedly from 1899 until shortly before his death in 1936. A sharp critic of political language, he waged an unrelenting war against corruption and hypocrisy. This brief essay taken from Die Fackel (March 12, 1906; number 198) reveals the growing influence of another Viennese essayist, Sigmund Freud. Kraus takes up many questions from psychoanalysis in his discussion of eroticism in clothing, but he clearly rejects the more dogmatic aspects of Freud's theory of fetishism. Kraus is moved more by the inquisitiveness and sexual frankness of Freud's writing than by his efforts to provide a schematic account of child development.
In addition to Freud, one recognizes a number of other kindred spirits in this essay. Like his friend Adolf Loos, Kraus argues that clothes reveal the zeitgeist of a particular age. Fashion is a historical phenomenon, always changing, and thus its specific purpose and meaning are not easily explained by a single theory. Clothes are not merely functional instruments that protect the body, just as sex is not an activity intended solely for biological reproduction. Both clothes and sex often become ends in their own right. They do not always serve some “higher,” more functional purpose. Indeed, they often become intertwined with one another, so that clothes acquire an eroticism that has nothing to do with keeping warm or having children.
Kraus uses the Freudian term fetish without any of the reductiveness of psychoanalytic dogma. The fetish object cannot be explained by invoking some external standard of truth— such as sexual difference—to explain its symbolic importance. A clothing fetish exists like a work of art: for its own useless satisfaction, as an object of fascination.