Lapham’s Quarterly Fall 2015: Fashion

[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
[Click HERE to see my previous posts referencing Lapham’s Quarterly.]
[Some of LQ’s contents are available free.]
[All pictures courtesy L.Q. Fall 2015]

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Is ‘Fashion’ a suitable topic for such an insightful publication as L.Q.?  I was skeptical when I received my issue.  They must be taking a break by doing an ‘easy’ one I thought.  Such a superficial, or at least lightweight, theme compared to L.Q.’s forays into Religion, Philanthropy, Time, Nature, Comedy, Death, etc.

Not that there is anything wrong with fashion of course.  It is who we are, our expression of ourselves.  Our heart on our sleeve.  Luring and alluring.  The latest rage.  (I have had no idea of what is the latest rage for quite a few decades now.  I can’t remember the last one.)

For example browse the Party Pictures at for a dizzying array of clothes fashion of the R&F:

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I love to look.  True fashion just seems beyond my reach.  From my vantage point it is Celebrity (Lapham’s Quarterly Winter 2011 for example) that is the purview of fashion.  The charity ball crowd too, those wealthy enough for the luxury of frequent costume changes.  Those of us in the great unwashed middle class try to look ‘nice’ to some extent.

If there is one rage that has come of Gen-X and Millennials it is the competition to see who can dress DOWN more than the other.  “I can afford this fine restaurant so what do I care if I wear a t-shirt and jeans to dinner.  I am independent!”, I think they are saying.  They are still affecting a look, wearing their ego on their (short-) sleeve.  There must be a middle ground somewhere.  Even Steve Jobs immortalized the mock turtleneck, which I love because it keeps my neck warm, cold-hearted that I am.  But Mark Zuckerman’s hoody sweatshirt?  Puh-leeze.  Trop décontracté mon ami.

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L.Q. describes itself much better than I:
“Lapham’s Quarterly is a journal of literature and history, edited by Lewis Lapham. Four times a year we collect fiction, non-fiction, poems, and essays from over four thousand years of recorded time, all gathered around a single theme.”

Due to my preconceived notions of the theme did I somnambulate through the Fashion issue of L.Q.?  NO!  It’s GREAT!!  Not only do we wear our heart on our sleeve we wear our entire psyche!  Even Thoreau notes “It would be easier for [most people] to hobble to town with a broken leg than a broken pantaloon.” (p. 51) (I just realized there is no excerpt from Freud in Fashion.  Glaring omission.  Nietzsche is here but he rambles a bit.  I guess Dorothy Parker will have to do.)

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Mr. Lapham’s preamble/introduction is titled Product Placement.  Though never lacking in substance he is frequently grandiloquent to the point of loquacious soliloquy.

Perhaps he sums it best on p. 17:
“About the meaning of fashion what little can be inferred from the historical record… …suggests that prior to the ages of scientific enlightenment and democratic revolution, clothes served as statements of function and rank within societies grown accustomed to a presumably God-given distribution of wealth and privilege.  Clothes didn’t make the man, they signified the man already made, usually at birth–as king or commoner, tinker, tailor, soldier, beggar-man, prostitute, priest.
The capitalist conquest of Europe that begins to gather momentum around the turn of the seventeenth century disrupts the medieval and renaissance seating plans.  The divine right of kings gives way to the sovereign rule of money, and the new bourgeois social order exults in flying false flags to signal a wished-for, not a given, identity.”
(Emphases mine. –JH)

Mr. Lapham’s rapier wit cuts to the quick throughout.  Read it carefully.  It is available free online.

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The four sections of this issue are Mode, Manners, Mores, and Markets.  This issue I found the source for the section titles in Miscellany:
“In 1993 Estelle Ellis, Seventeen magazine’s first promotion director, gave a speech at the Fashion Institute of Technology titled “What ls Fashion?” Ellis gave her answer. Fashion is a perpetual-motion machine expressed in four areas: “mode-the way we dress; manners-the way we express ourselves; mores-the way we live; and markets-the way we are defined demographically and psychologically”” (p. 208)

The first extract speaks volumes on fashion.  In Buzz Bissinger’s own words: “I own eighty-one leather jackets, seventy-five pairs of boots, forty-one pairs of leather pants, thirty-two pairs of haute couture jeans, ten evening jackets, and 115 pairs of leather gloves.”  …”Gucci’s men’s clothing best represents who I want to be and have become… raging against the conformity that submerges us into boredom and blandness…” (p. 24)

There is certainly no conformity in his wardrobe.

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 1.21.41 PM  Napoleon I on the Throne, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1806

World-renown hermit Henry David Thoreau seems to have had the insights of a prophet during his isolated sabbatical:
“Perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty, and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring clothing, than by a true utility.”
“Kings and queens who wear a suit but once… …cannot know the comfort of wearing a suit that fits.  They are no better than wooden horses to hang the clean clothes on.  Every day our garments become more assimilated to ourselves…”
“Of what use this measuring of me if she [my tailoress] does not measure my character but only the breadth of my shoulders, as it were a peg to hang the coat on?”  (p. 51, 53)

Emily Post has her own rapier wit: “Clothes are to us what fur and feathers are to beats and birds; they not only add to our appearance, but they are our appearance.  How we look to others entirely depends upon what we wear and how we wear it; manners and speech are noted afterward, and character last of all.” (p. 71)

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Malcolm X was especially insightful in his telling Alex Haley about getting his first ‘conk’ (straightened hair) as a young man of about 16 in 1941:
“How ridiculous I was! Stupid enough to stand there simply lost in admiration of my hair now looking “white,” reflected in the mirror in Shorty’s room. I vowed that I’d never again be without a conk, and I never was for many years.
This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are “inferior”-and white people “superior”-that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look “pretty” by white standards.” (p. 120)

   “Of course, any white woman with a black man isn’t thinking about his hair.
But I don’t see how on earth a black woman with any race pride could walk down the street with any black man wearing a conk-the emblem of his shame that he is black.” (p. 121)

Nikolai Gogol is equally poignant in his mid-19th century story of the sacrifice for a new overcoat: “Truth to tell, it was a bit difficult for him at first to get used to such limitations, but later it somehow became a habit and went better; he even accustomed himself to going entirely without food in the evenings; but instead he was nourished spiritually, bearing in his thoughts the eternal idea of the future overcoat.” (p. 125)

Ah fashion and shades of Thoreau with his broken pantaloon.

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There is Waris Dirie on the regimen of being a model.  Virginia Woolf on her fictional Orlando (man or woman?).  Chandler Burr on selecting a celebrity fragrance for Sarah Jessica Parker to promote.  Thorstein Veblen from The Theory of the Leisure Class: “Much of the charm that invest the patent leather shoe, the stainless linen, the lustrous cylindrical hat, and the walking stick, which so greatly enhance the native dignity of a gentleman, comes of their pointedly suggesting that the wearer cannot when so attired bear a hand in any employment that is directly and immediately of any human use.” (p. 154)

Elizabeth Hawes.  Emile Zola.  Kafka.  Sylvia Plath.  (So many suicides.  (Plath and Woolf.))

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The extended essays in the Further Remarks section are excellent, as nearly always.

Do I ever find extracts I don’t care for?  Of course.  William Hazlitt was wordy.  Miguel Cane was political and uninspiring.  Castiglione was wordy.  Shakespeare is almost always incomprehensible to me but that is my problem not his.

Side-quotes are scattered throughout like scraps of exotic fabric on a designer seamster’s floor:

“Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.” –Epictetus, c. 100 (p 186)

“It is almost as stupid to let your clothes betray that you know you are ugly as to have them proclaim that you think you are beautiful.”  –Edith Wharton, 1905 (p. 197)

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Did I mention this is a great issue?  (Yes.)  Read it.  Make notes in the margins.  (There may be a quiz!)  Read it again.

[The now-standard notes:
1. Since L.Q.’s inception with the Winter 2008 issue its size is always 7″ x 10″ x 1/2-17/32″. White-covered with very high quality paper throughout, richly printed reproductions of fine art from time immemorial, exactly 221 pages up to the Sources index at the back.
2. For more details see my previous-posts link or my Goodreads site for earlier reviews of the 25+ issues I’ve read so far.  I have 6 archive issues remaining to have read them all the first time.]

The Winter 2016 issue just arrived. The theme is SPIES! Back to work!

6 thoughts on “Lapham’s Quarterly Fall 2015: Fashion

  1. “It is almost as stupid to let your clothes betray that you know you are ugly as to have them proclaim that you think you are beautiful.” –Edith Wharton, 1905 (p. 197)
    Boy, and I just pick what I like! I wonder what my clothes say about me? I will not ask Edith’s opinion. She is so black and white! Really is interesting, even though I am as interested in fashion as you are. I had a neighbor once tell me, “You are not like my friends. They talk about fashion and fun stuff.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. I’m not sure what prompted me to include Wharton’s quote. Perhaps she was referring to the extremes of dressing ‘down’ and dressing ‘up’. “They talk about fashion and fun stuff.” That’s a good one. I knew there was something missing in my life. We do wear our psyches on our sleeve, so to speak. There certainly is more wisdom in Epictetus’ “Know, first, who you are…”. That is a life’s work.


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