William Morris on the problem of luxury

No one will deny the problem our world is faced with: utter ubiquity of anything labeled "beautiful," "original," "exclusive," "excellent." It's as if we each crave to be the first to know, and the only holder of the exclusive rights to something new and great and wonderful. We share our knowledge carefully or ask for the knowledge of others with the same discretion. But somehow, along the way, the thing that was original or beautiful becomes twisted and ends up a commercialized and Wal-Mart-ified shadow of itself.

It happens all the times to the best items, they're appropriated by the maw of consumerism and spit back out, a little soggy and hard-to-recognize for their time in the spin cycle.

As much as I tend to think that this is an unavoidable consequence of the speed of communication that our world operates by, I do think there is some very important commentary in the following excerpted passage from Willam Morris' essay on The Beauty of Life.

He speaks of architecture and residential design, but much if not all of this can be extended to apply to the way we choose to dress ourselves.

For whereas all works of craftsmanship were once beautiful, unwittingly or not, they are now divided into two kinds, works of art and non-works of art: now nothing made by man’s hand can be indifferent: it must be either beautiful and elevating, or ugly and degrading; and those things that are without art are so aggressively; they wound it by their existence, and they are now so much in the majority that it is the works of art we are obliged to set ourselves to seek for, whereas the other things are the ordinary companions of our everyday life...

I have spoken of the popular arts, but they might all be summed up in that one word Architecture; they are all parts of that great whole, and the art of house-building begins it all: if we did not know how to dye or to weave; if we had neither gold, nor silver, nor silk; and no pigments to paint with, but half-a-dozen ochres and numbers, we might yet frame a worthy art that would lead to everything, if we had but timber, stone, and lime, and a few cutting tools to make these common things not only shelter us from wind and weather, but also express the thoughts and aspirations that stir in us. Architecture would lead us to all the arts, as it did with earlier men: but if we despise it and take no note of how we are housed, the other arts will have a hard time of it indeed. Now I do not think the greatest of optimists would deny that, taking us one and all, we are at present housed in a perfectly shameful way, and since the greatest part of us have to live in houses already built for us, it must be admitted that it is rather hard to know what to do, beyond waiting till they tumble about our ears. Only we must not lay the fault upon the builders, as some people seem inclined to do: they are our very humble servants, and will build what we ask for; remember, that rich men are not obliged to live in ugly houses, and yet you see they do; which the builders may be well excused for taking as a sign of what is wanted...

Hitherto, judging us by that standard, the builders may well say, that we want the pretence of a thing rather than the thing itself; that we want a show of petty luxury if we are unrich, a show of insulting stupidity if we are rich: and they are quite clear that as a rule we want to get something that shall look as if it cost twice as much as it really did.

However, I must try to answer the question I have supposed put, how are we to pay for decent houses? It seems to me that, by a great piece of good luck, the way to pay for them is by doing that which alone can produce popular art among us: living a simple life, I mean. Once more I say that the greatest foe to art is luxury, art cannot live in its atmosphere.


The bolded sections are mine, and they are bolded because I think they serve to point to an obvious plague in our world. We have embraced bad taste! I hope that it is sometimes ironic, but I know that it is most of the time the result of an uninformed willingness to be spoonfed trends and fads and the awful greediness of wealth.

There are many problems tied up in an acceptance of organic style ("organic" meant more broadly than a simple reference to the sort of material the clothing is made from).

There is true merit in allowing you style to grow out from within you, just as there is more excellence in living in a home that has been designed by you, or at least with your complete input. No pre-fab houses, no cookie-cutter ensembles. We can use the materials provided us by the convenience of a modern culture, but we need not allow that same convenience to dictate how we use those materials.

William Morris on the problem of luxury

No one will deny the problem our world is faced with: utter ubiquity of anything labeled "beautiful," "original," "exclusive," "excellent." It's as if we each crave to be the first to know, and the only holder of the exclusive rights to something new and great and wonderful. We share our knowledge carefully or ask for the knowledge of others with the same discretion. But somehow, along the way, the thing that was original or beautiful becomes twisted and ends up a commercialized and Wal-Mart-ified shadow of itself.

It happens all the times to the best items, they're appropriated by the maw of consumerism and spit back out, a little soggy and hard-to-recognize for their time in the spin cycle.

As much as I tend to think that this is an unavoidable consequence of the speed of communication that our world operates by, I do think there is some very important commentary in the following excerpted passage from Willam Morris' essay on The Beauty of Life.

He speaks of architecture and residential design, but much if not all of this can be extended to apply to the way we choose to dress ourselves.

For whereas all works of craftsmanship were once beautiful, unwittingly or not, they are now divided into two kinds, works of art and non-works of art: now nothing made by man’s hand can be indifferent: it must be either beautiful and elevating, or ugly and degrading; and those things that are without art are so aggressively; they wound it by their existence, and they are now so much in the majority that it is the works of art we are obliged to set ourselves to seek for, whereas the other things are the ordinary companions of our everyday life...

I have spoken of the popular arts, but they might all be summed up in that one word Architecture; they are all parts of that great whole, and the art of house-building begins it all: if we did not know how to dye or to weave; if we had neither gold, nor silver, nor silk; and no pigments to paint with, but half-a-dozen ochres and numbers, we might yet frame a worthy art that would lead to everything, if we had but timber, stone, and lime, and a few cutting tools to make these common things not only shelter us from wind and weather, but also express the thoughts and aspirations that stir in us. Architecture would lead us to all the arts, as it did with earlier men: but if we despise it and take no note of how we are housed, the other arts will have a hard time of it indeed. Now I do not think the greatest of optimists would deny that, taking us one and all, we are at present housed in a perfectly shameful way, and since the greatest part of us have to live in houses already built for us, it must be admitted that it is rather hard to know what to do, beyond waiting till they tumble about our ears. Only we must not lay the fault upon the builders, as some people seem inclined to do: they are our very humble servants, and will build what we ask for; remember, that rich men are not obliged to live in ugly houses, and yet you see they do; which the builders may be well excused for taking as a sign of what is wanted...

Hitherto, judging us by that standard, the builders may well say, that we want the pretence of a thing rather than the thing itself; that we want a show of petty luxury if we are unrich, a show of insulting stupidity if we are rich: and they are quite clear that as a rule we want to get something that shall look as if it cost twice as much as it really did.

However, I must try to answer the question I have supposed put, how are we to pay for decent houses? It seems to me that, by a great piece of good luck, the way to pay for them is by doing that which alone can produce popular art among us: living a simple life, I mean. Once more I say that the greatest foe to art is luxury, art cannot live in its atmosphere.


The bolded sections are mine, and they are bolded because I think they serve to point to an obvious plague in our world. We have embraced bad taste! I hope that it is sometimes ironic, but I know that it is most of the time the result of an uninformed willingness to be spoonfed trends and fads and the awful greediness of wealth.

There are many problems tied up in an acceptance of organic style ("organic" meant more broadly than a simple reference to the sort of material the clothing is made from).

There is true merit in allowing you style to grow out from within you, just as there is more excellence in living in a home that has been designed by you, or at least with your complete input. No pre-fab houses, no cookie-cutter ensembles. We can use the materials provided us by the convenience of a modern culture, but we need not allow that same convenience to dictate how we use those materials.

Proust as connoisseur of clothing

I've written once already on Proust, but he has much to say on the subject of presenting oneself through one's clothing. In this passage, also from Volume 4 of La Recherche..., the narrator's lover/companion Albertine is introduced to M. de Charlus--an important figure in courtly, literary, and royal circles--and the slightly controversially portrayed gay man. M. de Charlus is a complicated character, but his comments on women and the importance of fashion are simple, direct, and clear.

The description of Albertine's suit and dress is just magical, the way she unveils the shards of color from their enclosure of grey--the dazzle of the action is lovely.

"Why, what have you been talking about?” said Albertine, astonished at the solemn, paternal one which M. de Charlus had suddenly adopted. “About Balzac,” the Baron hastily replied, "and you are wearing this evening the very same clothes as the Princesse de Cadignan, not her first gown, which she wears at the dinnerparty, but the second.”

This coincidence was due to the fact that, in choosing Albertine’s clothes, I sought inspiration in the taste that she had acquired thanks to Elstir, who greatly appreciated a sobriety which might have been called British, had it not been tempered with a gentler, more flowing grace that was purely French. As a rule the garments that he chose offered to the eye a harmonious combination of grey tones like the dress of Diane de Cadignan. M. de Charlus was almost the only person capable of appreciating Albertine’s clothes at their true value; at a glance, his eye detected what constituted their rarity, justified their price; he would never have said the name of one stuff instead of another, and could always tell who had made them. Only he preferred—in women—a little more brightness and colour than Elstir would allow.

And so this evening she cast a glance at me half smiling, half troubled, wrinkling her little pink cat’s nose. Indeed, meeting over her skirt of grey crêpe de chine, her jacket of grey cheviot gave the impression that Albertine was dressed entirely in grey. But, making a sign to me to help her, because her puffed sleeves needed to be smoothed down or pulled up, for her to get into or out of her jacket, she took it off, and as her sleeves were of a Scottish plaid in soft colours, pink, pale blue, dull green, pigeon’s breast, the effect was as though in a grey sky there had suddenly appeared a rainbow.

And she asked herself whether this would find favour with M. de Charlus. “Ah!” he exclaimed in delight, “now we have a ray, a prism of colour. I offer you my sincerest compliments.” “But it is this gentleman who has earned them,” Albertine replied politely, pointing to myself, for she liked to shew what she had received from me.

“It is only women who do not know how to dress that are afraid of colours,” went on M. de Charlus. “A dress may be brilliant without vulgarity and quiet without being dull. Besides, you have not the same reasons as Mme. de Cadignan for wishing to appear detached from life, for that was the idea which she wished to instil into d’Arthez by her grey gown.” Albertine, who was interested in this mute language of clothes, questioned M. de Charlus about the Princesse de Cadignan..."

A soft, dove grey shell with a kaleidoscope of multi-colored interior chambers. I'm just waiting to see something like this from Olivier Theyskens, Alber Elbaz, or Roland Mouret.

Proust as connoisseur of clothing

I've written once already on Proust, but he has much to say on the subject of presenting oneself through one's clothing. In this passage, also from Volume 4 of La Recherche..., the narrator's lover/companion Albertine is introduced to M. de Charlus--an important figure in courtly, literary, and royal circles--and the slightly controversially portrayed gay man. M. de Charlus is a complicated character, but his comments on women and the importance of fashion are simple, direct, and clear.

The description of Albertine's suit and dress is just magical, the way she unveils the shards of color from their enclosure of grey--the dazzle of the action is lovely.

"Why, what have you been talking about?” said Albertine, astonished at the solemn, paternal one which M. de Charlus had suddenly adopted. “About Balzac,” the Baron hastily replied, "and you are wearing this evening the very same clothes as the Princesse de Cadignan, not her first gown, which she wears at the dinnerparty, but the second.”

This coincidence was due to the fact that, in choosing Albertine’s clothes, I sought inspiration in the taste that she had acquired thanks to Elstir, who greatly appreciated a sobriety which might have been called British, had it not been tempered with a gentler, more flowing grace that was purely French. As a rule the garments that he chose offered to the eye a harmonious combination of grey tones like the dress of Diane de Cadignan. M. de Charlus was almost the only person capable of appreciating Albertine’s clothes at their true value; at a glance, his eye detected what constituted their rarity, justified their price; he would never have said the name of one stuff instead of another, and could always tell who had made them. Only he preferred—in women—a little more brightness and colour than Elstir would allow.

And so this evening she cast a glance at me half smiling, half troubled, wrinkling her little pink cat’s nose. Indeed, meeting over her skirt of grey crêpe de chine, her jacket of grey cheviot gave the impression that Albertine was dressed entirely in grey. But, making a sign to me to help her, because her puffed sleeves needed to be smoothed down or pulled up, for her to get into or out of her jacket, she took it off, and as her sleeves were of a Scottish plaid in soft colours, pink, pale blue, dull green, pigeon’s breast, the effect was as though in a grey sky there had suddenly appeared a rainbow.

And she asked herself whether this would find favour with M. de Charlus. “Ah!” he exclaimed in delight, “now we have a ray, a prism of colour. I offer you my sincerest compliments.” “But it is this gentleman who has earned them,” Albertine replied politely, pointing to myself, for she liked to shew what she had received from me.

“It is only women who do not know how to dress that are afraid of colours,” went on M. de Charlus. “A dress may be brilliant without vulgarity and quiet without being dull. Besides, you have not the same reasons as Mme. de Cadignan for wishing to appear detached from life, for that was the idea which she wished to instil into d’Arthez by her grey gown.” Albertine, who was interested in this mute language of clothes, questioned M. de Charlus about the Princesse de Cadignan..."

A soft, dove grey shell with a kaleidoscope of multi-colored interior chambers. I'm just waiting to see something like this from Olivier Theyskens, Alber Elbaz, or Roland Mouret.

Origins of a Name: Part Deux

Hans Castorp on women, clothes, beauty:

Hans Castorp began to daydream, his eyes directed at Frau Chauchat's arm. The way women dressed! They displayed this or that portion of their necks and breasts, lent their arms a radiant illusion with transparent gossamer. They did it all over the world, just to arouse our ardent desires. My God, but life was beautiful! And one of the things that made it so beautiful was that women dressed so enticingly, simply as a matter of course. It was second nature to them, and such a universally accepted practice that you hardly ever thought about it, just accepted it unconsciously, without further ado.

As much as I admire his rapturous statements, I don't think I can quite agree with what he says about the intentions of a woman. I agree that there is a certain naturalness in the putting on of clothing, and an aesthetic innateness to the putting on of clothing in a pleasing way. But a question lurks in the above text: How much of what we wear is dictated by who we want to see us. Many people fool themselves into believing that they wear something only for their own pleasure, divorced from any care for the opinions that their clothing may inspire in others.

A teenager chooses to rip, shred, and paint because that's what expresses "her style."
A woman chooses soft fabrics and form-enhancing shapes because she "feels comfortable like that."
A man refuses to wear a tie or jacket because "it's just not him."

These are all true...but none of them are the whole truth. The whole truth is that we cannot get away from the fact that there are other people in the world who observe us, form opinions of us, like us, or dislike us. The one thing we can control in the face of this fact is our acceptance of it.

Wear what you like, but don't deny that you know you're pitching a certain image.

The supreme Clavdia Chauchat outfit...the evening she and Hans share a conversation, the evening that takes place in the chapter named Walpurgis Night. It's an evening of seduction and the dress fits the mood:

There was reason enough for him to turn pale. Frau Chauchat had likewise dressed for the occasion and was wearing a new gown, or at least a gown that Hans Castorp had never seen on her--of thin, dark, almost black silk that sometimes took on a tawny shimmer; the rounded cut of the neck was small, almost girlish, barely enough to expose the throat or even a hint of collarbone--or her protruding neck bones visible beneath a few stray hairs when she thrust her head forward in that special way. But it left Clavdia's arms bare all the way to the shoulder--her arms, so tender and full at the same time, and cool, one could only presume--so that they stood out extraordinarily white against the dark shadows of the silk. The effect was so overwhelming that Hans Castorp closed his eyes and whispered to himself, "My God!"


These passages fail to do justice to the extraordinary story...please read this book, it tends to have a magical effect on the reader, transforming him into an invalid who cannot escape his own slightly drowsy addiction to abandonment...though in the reader it's abandonment to a story.

Origins of a Name: Part Deux

Hans Castorp on women, clothes, beauty:

Hans Castorp began to daydream, his eyes directed at Frau Chauchat's arm. The way women dressed! They displayed this or that portion of their necks and breasts, lent their arms a radiant illusion with transparent gossamer. They did it all over the world, just to arouse our ardent desires. My God, but life was beautiful! And one of the things that made it so beautiful was that women dressed so enticingly, simply as a matter of course. It was second nature to them, and such a universally accepted practice that you hardly ever thought about it, just accepted it unconsciously, without further ado.

As much as I admire his rapturous statements, I don't think I can quite agree with what he says about the intentions of a woman. I agree that there is a certain naturalness in the putting on of clothing, and an aesthetic innateness to the putting on of clothing in a pleasing way. But a question lurks in the above text: How much of what we wear is dictated by who we want to see us. Many people fool themselves into believing that they wear something only for their own pleasure, divorced from any care for the opinions that their clothing may inspire in others.

A teenager chooses to rip, shred, and paint because that's what expresses "her style."
A woman chooses soft fabrics and form-enhancing shapes because she "feels comfortable like that."
A man refuses to wear a tie or jacket because "it's just not him."

These are all true...but none of them are the whole truth. The whole truth is that we cannot get away from the fact that there are other people in the world who observe us, form opinions of us, like us, or dislike us. The one thing we can control in the face of this fact is our acceptance of it.

Wear what you like, but don't deny that you know you're pitching a certain image.

The supreme Clavdia Chauchat outfit...the evening she and Hans share a conversation, the evening that takes place in the chapter named Walpurgis Night. It's an evening of seduction and the dress fits the mood:

There was reason enough for him to turn pale. Frau Chauchat had likewise dressed for the occasion and was wearing a new gown, or at least a gown that Hans Castorp had never seen on her--of thin, dark, almost black silk that sometimes took on a tawny shimmer; the rounded cut of the neck was small, almost girlish, barely enough to expose the throat or even a hint of collarbone--or her protruding neck bones visible beneath a few stray hairs when she thrust her head forward in that special way. But it left Clavdia's arms bare all the way to the shoulder--her arms, so tender and full at the same time, and cool, one could only presume--so that they stood out extraordinarily white against the dark shadows of the silk. The effect was so overwhelming that Hans Castorp closed his eyes and whispered to himself, "My God!"


These passages fail to do justice to the extraordinary story...please read this book, it tends to have a magical effect on the reader, transforming him into an invalid who cannot escape his own slightly drowsy addiction to abandonment...though in the reader it's abandonment to a story.

Origins of a Name: the Chauchat files

I embraced "Clavdia Chauchat" (the name, not necessarily the character) after reading Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain for a graduate class.
She is a sort of anti-Vergil, leading the hero Hans Castorp through the intricacies of "dissolute sweetness" in a sanatorium for the vaguely ill. Immediately compelling, she irritates Hans, and then infatuates him. He obsesses over her form, her dress, her languid and disinterested manner. She represents for him everything the the life of the invalid has to offer: complete freedom.

Her own words:

I love freedom above all else...it is my illness that gives me liberty...it seems that one ought not to search for morality in virtue, which is to say in reason, in discipline, in good behavior, in respectability--but in just the opposite, I would say, in sin, in abandoning oneself to danger, to
whatever is harmful, consumes us. It seems to us that it is more moral to lose oneself and let oneself be ruined than to preserve oneself.

A complicated woman, she remains in silence for much of the book, observed by the hero and observing the world through half-closed eyes. She glides when she moves, she sits slump-shouldered, she has relations with other invalids; she is abandoned, intellectual, "unnatural," and completely mesmerizing to Hans.

The first time he sees her:

It was a lady who crossed the hall now, a young girl really, of only average height, in a white sweater and brightly colored skirt, with reddish-blond hair, which she wore in a simple braid wound up on her head. Hans Castorp saw only a little of her profile--almost nothing, in fact. In quite marvelous contrast to her noisy entrance, she walked soundlessly, with a peculiar slinking gait, her head thrust slightly forward...As she walked she kept one hand in the pocket of her close-fitting wool jacket, while the other was at the back of her head, tucking and arranging her hair.

Not an extraordinary outfit by any stretch of the imagination, but it is the way she wears these items that become so compelling. Later, she enters into the breakfast hall, appearing in:

a flowing open-sleeved lace peignoir, and stood there at attention--having first slammed the glass door--and charmingly presented herself, as it were, to the dining hall, before proceeding in her slinking gait to her table; and her attire suited her so splendidly that Hans Castorp's neighbor, the teacher from Kronsberg, expressed her unequivocal enthusiasm.
As Hans falls under her spell, he becomes a bit philosophic about women and their dress.

Origins of a Name: the Chauchat files

I embraced "Clavdia Chauchat" (the name, not necessarily the character) after reading Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain for a graduate class.
She is a sort of anti-Vergil, leading the hero Hans Castorp through the intricacies of "dissolute sweetness" in a sanatorium for the vaguely ill. Immediately compelling, she irritates Hans, and then infatuates him. He obsesses over her form, her dress, her languid and disinterested manner. She represents for him everything the the life of the invalid has to offer: complete freedom.

Her own words:

I love freedom above all else...it is my illness that gives me liberty...it seems that one ought not to search for morality in virtue, which is to say in reason, in discipline, in good behavior, in respectability--but in just the opposite, I would say, in sin, in abandoning oneself to danger, to
whatever is harmful, consumes us. It seems to us that it is more moral to lose oneself and let oneself be ruined than to preserve oneself.

A complicated woman, she remains in silence for much of the book, observed by the hero and observing the world through half-closed eyes. She glides when she moves, she sits slump-shouldered, she has relations with other invalids; she is abandoned, intellectual, "unnatural," and completely mesmerizing to Hans.

The first time he sees her:

It was a lady who crossed the hall now, a young girl really, of only average height, in a white sweater and brightly colored skirt, with reddish-blond hair, which she wore in a simple braid wound up on her head. Hans Castorp saw only a little of her profile--almost nothing, in fact. In quite marvelous contrast to her noisy entrance, she walked soundlessly, with a peculiar slinking gait, her head thrust slightly forward...As she walked she kept one hand in the pocket of her close-fitting wool jacket, while the other was at the back of her head, tucking and arranging her hair.

Not an extraordinary outfit by any stretch of the imagination, but it is the way she wears these items that become so compelling. Later, she enters into the breakfast hall, appearing in:

a flowing open-sleeved lace peignoir, and stood there at attention--having first slammed the glass door--and charmingly presented herself, as it were, to the dining hall, before proceeding in her slinking gait to her table; and her attire suited her so splendidly that Hans Castorp's neighbor, the teacher from Kronsberg, expressed her unequivocal enthusiasm.
As Hans falls under her spell, he becomes a bit philosophic about women and their dress.

Odette: Marcel Proust's La Recherche du Temps Perdu

I’ve been slowly but surely working my way through Marcel Proust’s La Recherche du Temps Perdu, or, in the Montcrieff translation, In Search of Lost Time. I’ve only read four of the seven volumes that this masterpiece encompasses, but I am amazed at how fluidly each volume fits with the others. Each one elaborates upon a thread of the narrator’s story, which is a recollection of past events as they are suddenly remembered through various sensory re-experiences. The first volume famously unfolds from the remembered taste/scent combination of the petite madeleine cookie as it is dipped in aromatic herbal tea. Our narrator seizes this memory and uses it to revisit past experiences, conversations, and characters while also inserting incredibly interesting passages that explore the concepts of time, of sleep and wakefulness, jealousy and romantic relationships, and even of the relationship between the author of a book and the reader who is reading it. The most interesting thing to me is how the process of creating or developing an identity is so perceptible in every one of his explorations.

Of course, I also adore his interest in the role of fashion. I was re-reading some passages from the second volume, Within a Budding Grove, while I was struck by his description of Mme Swann, or Odette, as she strolled through the park on her morning walk.

Smiling, rejoicing in the fine weather, in the sunshine which had not yet become trying, with the air of a calm assurance of a creator who has accomplished his task and takes no thought for anything besides, certain that her clothes—even though the vulgar herd should fail to appreciate them—were the most elegant of all, wearing them for herself and for her friends, naturally, without exaggerated attention to them but also without absolute detachment, not preventing the little bows of ribbon on her bodice and skirt from floating buoyantly upon the air before her like creatures of whose presence she was not unaware and whom she indulgently permitted to disport themselves in accordance with their own rhythm, provided that they followed where she led, and even upon her mauve parasol, which, as often as not, she still held closed when she appeared on the scene, letting fall now and then, as though upon a bunch of Parma violets, her happy gaze, so kindly that, when it was fastened no longer upon her friends but on some inanimate object, it still seemed to smile.

Odette isn’t just wearing a dress in the latest fashion; somehow, her dress has become a living thing, an entity which cavorts about her and introduces her to the people she encounters. It’s as if she has provided herself with an entourage of admirers all bundled up into one little dress and a few obligatory accessories. She knows her elegance, she knows that she can convey this elegance naturally and with ease, and she knows that her clothing will express this confidence and contentment. Her dress is her messenger. It carries her individual and enviable character outside of her and into the society she loves. She translates all of these internal attributes through the universal language of clothing.

The most interesting thing about this passage is that it shows us the thoughts of someone on the receiving end of a style-happy woman. We do not see Odette’s mental discourse as she selects a dress and then ruminates over what sort of person she’ll be today. Instead, we see the narrator’s response to her persona, his immediate recognition of her careful, yet natural crafting of an outfit and of how it accomplishes her desire to interact with a world. She appears to him to be happy in her creative power and confident in her accomplished elegance. Proust shows how fashion can influence the way one is seen. Odette, as she is viewed by our narrator, becomes a style icon. She projects such an air of fashion and self-contentment that she seems to carry with her an entire suitcase full of identifiable traits.

The narrator is probably of a slightly more sensitive nature than your average passerby, and he may have even let his imagination run away with him a bit, but what he is tuning into when he reacts so rapturously to the way Odette looks is her innate style, which is much closer to the surface because she has expressed it through her clothing. Odette may not realize that she has such an effect on anyone, and, in fact, we are never entirely in control of the way in which we are seen, but fashion provides us with an excellent method of expressing ourselves without words or emotions. We select our clothes so that they can step in front of us and shake hands with the people we meet.

I could list other places in this multi-volume work where Proust sends me into raptures through his description of a well-tailored coat, a correctly handled hat, or even the incredible effect of an all gray skirt suit that transforms, like a rainbow does to the gray sky, when the jacket is removed to reveal sleeves of delicately hued plaid. But beyond his poetic recollection of well-clad women is his incredible description of the construction of identity. Memory, emotion, imagination, fantasy, all of these can be found in our own lives, and explored through Proust’s La Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Odette: Marcel Proust's La Recherche du Temps Perdu

I’ve been slowly but surely working my way through Marcel Proust’s La Recherche du Temps Perdu, or, in the Montcrieff translation, In Search of Lost Time. I’ve only read four of the seven volumes that this masterpiece encompasses, but I am amazed at how fluidly each volume fits with the others. Each one elaborates upon a thread of the narrator’s story, which is a recollection of past events as they are suddenly remembered through various sensory re-experiences. The first volume famously unfolds from the remembered taste/scent combination of the petite madeleine cookie as it is dipped in aromatic herbal tea. Our narrator seizes this memory and uses it to revisit past experiences, conversations, and characters while also inserting incredibly interesting passages that explore the concepts of time, of sleep and wakefulness, jealousy and romantic relationships, and even of the relationship between the author of a book and the reader who is reading it. The most interesting thing to me is how the process of creating or developing an identity is so perceptible in every one of his explorations.

Of course, I also adore his interest in the role of fashion. I was re-reading some passages from the second volume, Within a Budding Grove, while I was struck by his description of Mme Swann, or Odette, as she strolled through the park on her morning walk.

Smiling, rejoicing in the fine weather, in the sunshine which had not yet become trying, with the air of a calm assurance of a creator who has accomplished his task and takes no thought for anything besides, certain that her clothes—even though the vulgar herd should fail to appreciate them—were the most elegant of all, wearing them for herself and for her friends, naturally, without exaggerated attention to them but also without absolute detachment, not preventing the little bows of ribbon on her bodice and skirt from floating buoyantly upon the air before her like creatures of whose presence she was not unaware and whom she indulgently permitted to disport themselves in accordance with their own rhythm, provided that they followed where she led, and even upon her mauve parasol, which, as often as not, she still held closed when she appeared on the scene, letting fall now and then, as though upon a bunch of Parma violets, her happy gaze, so kindly that, when it was fastened no longer upon her friends but on some inanimate object, it still seemed to smile.

Odette isn’t just wearing a dress in the latest fashion; somehow, her dress has become a living thing, an entity which cavorts about her and introduces her to the people she encounters. It’s as if she has provided herself with an entourage of admirers all bundled up into one little dress and a few obligatory accessories. She knows her elegance, she knows that she can convey this elegance naturally and with ease, and she knows that her clothing will express this confidence and contentment. Her dress is her messenger. It carries her individual and enviable character outside of her and into the society she loves. She translates all of these internal attributes through the universal language of clothing.

The most interesting thing about this passage is that it shows us the thoughts of someone on the receiving end of a style-happy woman. We do not see Odette’s mental discourse as she selects a dress and then ruminates over what sort of person she’ll be today. Instead, we see the narrator’s response to her persona, his immediate recognition of her careful, yet natural crafting of an outfit and of how it accomplishes her desire to interact with a world. She appears to him to be happy in her creative power and confident in her accomplished elegance. Proust shows how fashion can influence the way one is seen. Odette, as she is viewed by our narrator, becomes a style icon. She projects such an air of fashion and self-contentment that she seems to carry with her an entire suitcase full of identifiable traits.

The narrator is probably of a slightly more sensitive nature than your average passerby, and he may have even let his imagination run away with him a bit, but what he is tuning into when he reacts so rapturously to the way Odette looks is her innate style, which is much closer to the surface because she has expressed it through her clothing. Odette may not realize that she has such an effect on anyone, and, in fact, we are never entirely in control of the way in which we are seen, but fashion provides us with an excellent method of expressing ourselves without words or emotions. We select our clothes so that they can step in front of us and shake hands with the people we meet.

I could list other places in this multi-volume work where Proust sends me into raptures through his description of a well-tailored coat, a correctly handled hat, or even the incredible effect of an all gray skirt suit that transforms, like a rainbow does to the gray sky, when the jacket is removed to reveal sleeves of delicately hued plaid. But beyond his poetic recollection of well-clad women is his incredible description of the construction of identity. Memory, emotion, imagination, fantasy, all of these can be found in our own lives, and explored through Proust’s La Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Letters From a Librarian: An Introduction

Literature and Fashion.

I've always thought of myself as a creature of disparity (disp- not to be confused with desp- as in desparation) and one of the most obvious manifestations of this is my strange love for both the fleeting world of fashion and the endurance of great literature. Of course there is much analysis to be done regarding the truth on both sides of that statement, but I'll settle for their intersection.
Because, yes, there is fashion in literature. Quite a bit. I like finding it, noticing little statements that give me a strange feeling of excitement...it's the feeling of opposites coming together and appearing, for a moment, to be not so different after all.

Literature encourages us to think of other ways of seeing. Great literature helps us to do this; we read through the pages of Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Mann, or Marcel Proust and our hearts are stirred by the beauty of the words, the images conveyed by the words, and the philosophy present in the total text. But our heart is also stirred by a sense of recognition when one finds a book that truly speaks out. It is as if a string inside of us has been plucked and left to reverberate, ringing out the as-yet undefined tones of some part of who we are.

If you have ever felt this sort of resonance, you have felt a consciousness of similarity. You have felt something that seems to be simultaneously outside/other and inside/personal. The formation of this consciousness is what forms the oft-spoken-of “personal style.” No one should be told what to wear any more than they should be told what books to enjoy or what music to listen to. We are drawn to certain things naturally, and are indifferent to other things just as naturally. Forcing ourselves to like something because it is trendy, or because we feel we ought to, is the fastest way to impede any development of personal style. However, we do like to discover new things, and it is frequently through a discussion or conversation that we are turned on to new sources of inspiration and excitement.

I call this blog "Letters from a Librarian," but I'd like for them to be more than letters, something closer to a discussion or conversation about what it means to read and engage the mind; what it means to fashion an exterior by drawing on your interior; what it means to explore who you are and then to translate what you've found into a visual aesthetic; I'd like to explore what "personal style" really signifies.

Letters From a Librarian: An Introduction

Literature and Fashion.

I've always thought of myself as a creature of disparity (disp- not to be confused with desp- as in desparation) and one of the most obvious manifestations of this is my strange love for both the fleeting world of fashion and the endurance of great literature. Of course there is much analysis to be done regarding the truth on both sides of that statement, but I'll settle for their intersection.
Because, yes, there is fashion in literature. Quite a bit. I like finding it, noticing little statements that give me a strange feeling of excitement...it's the feeling of opposites coming together and appearing, for a moment, to be not so different after all.

Literature encourages us to think of other ways of seeing. Great literature helps us to do this; we read through the pages of Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Mann, or Marcel Proust and our hearts are stirred by the beauty of the words, the images conveyed by the words, and the philosophy present in the total text. But our heart is also stirred by a sense of recognition when one finds a book that truly speaks out. It is as if a string inside of us has been plucked and left to reverberate, ringing out the as-yet undefined tones of some part of who we are.

If you have ever felt this sort of resonance, you have felt a consciousness of similarity. You have felt something that seems to be simultaneously outside/other and inside/personal. The formation of this consciousness is what forms the oft-spoken-of “personal style.” No one should be told what to wear any more than they should be told what books to enjoy or what music to listen to. We are drawn to certain things naturally, and are indifferent to other things just as naturally. Forcing ourselves to like something because it is trendy, or because we feel we ought to, is the fastest way to impede any development of personal style. However, we do like to discover new things, and it is frequently through a discussion or conversation that we are turned on to new sources of inspiration and excitement.

I call this blog "Letters from a Librarian," but I'd like for them to be more than letters, something closer to a discussion or conversation about what it means to read and engage the mind; what it means to fashion an exterior by drawing on your interior; what it means to explore who you are and then to translate what you've found into a visual aesthetic; I'd like to explore what "personal style" really signifies.