Iam writing in response to Sabina Lovibond’s article ‘Feminism and Postmodernism’, in New Left Review Number 178, in which I am pigeonholed as an apologist for or advocate of anti-Enlightenment philosophy. I now believe that the case I tried to state in favour of adornment in dress in Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity could have been more clearly put, and that it was unfortunate that I had almost finished writing the book before I became aware of the debate on postmodernism. As someone who still finds Marxism highly relevant in the present world, I absolutely reject, however, any attempt to align me with the likes of Rorty et al.
In Adorned in Dreams I tried to develop a critique of ‘rational dress’, in part by suggesting that some of its premisses were actually irrational, my particular objections being to its biologism and utilitarianism. I was critical of contemporary feminist attitudes to adornment, not because of their attempt to challenge sexist stereotypes of woman-hood, but because the implicit beliefs upon which they were based seemed to me to subscribe, in part at least, to mistaken views about the cultural significance of dress. It is as if some feminists felt that you could escape fashion (changing styles) and style itself, and that to care about your appearance was necessarily to be cast into a fallen state of false consciousness. (Paradoxically, of course, feminists who advocated particular forms of clothing themselves cared deeply about their appearance.) My view, by contrast, was that dress transmits a variety of complex cultural meanings and that it is therefore impossible simply to opt out, as some feminists seem to have hoped to do. There were also very strong moralistic prescriptions in the way in which some feminists in the 1970s discussed dress; for example, for some it was always an indication of ‘incorrect attitudes’ to dress in a ‘sexual’ way. With the reaction against such attitudes in full swing in the 1980s, they perhaps seem less oppressive than they did in the 1970s, but I feel that Sabina Lovibond seriously understates the problem when she speaks of the ‘occasional moralism or “moral elitism” of radical movements’ as ‘a vice of excess’. To read Boris Kagarlitsky on ‘The Soviet Crisis’ in the same issue of New Left Review immediately after ‘Feminism and Postmodernism’ is to be made aware of just where these ‘vices of excess’ can lead.
Sabina Lovibond castigates me for aligning adornment with pleasure. She misrepresents me, however, if she believes that I was simply arguing for a ‘celebration’ of fashion hedonism. Like many others, I was suggesting that it is useful to investigate the sources of pleasure rather than merely condemning them. The question of pleasure has important ideological implications, and is surely a legitimate focus of investigation, which feminists have studied in many different areas, perhaps most importantly using psychoanalytic theory. To attempt to excavate the sources of pleasure in popular culture is not necessarily either to endorse or condemn. In any case, the aesthetic and moral value of various kinds of popular cultural product surely diverges considerably.
I am not making the same argument as that advanced by Brenda Polan, as quoted in ‘Feminism and Postmodernism’, and in fact I don’t think her argument is quite right. Yet Sabina Lovibond’s argument in this passage is itself odd, when she equates ‘pleasure’ with ‘staving off boredom or sadness’. This is a peculiar and irrational leap. No doubt women and men do from time to time use shopping for this purpose, but that was not what I had in mind in discussing the pleasure to be derived from dress. Many women and some men (and both sexes much more equally in many non-Western cultures) show tremendous creativity in their adornment of the body, whether with fabric, paint, metal, beads, embroidery or many other forms of adornment. It is quite possible to be critical of the specific form that consumerism takes in capitalist societies and at the same time to defend the practice of bodily adornment. Why should the body not be a bearer of cultural signs? Can it ever not be? In fact, as I suggested earlier, the feminists of the 1970s and 1980s themselves transmitted a very specific cultural message within the parameters of contemporary styles, using punk, hippie and other countercultural motifs and bricolage—thoroughly postmodern, in other words.
The feminist search for a styleless style and the rejection of adornment does, though, align feminist attempts to reform—or revolutionize—dress with proponents of modernism such as Adolf Loos (author of ‘Ornament as Crime’), and Bauhaus architects who believed that the functionalism of their buildings transcended fashion and therefore change, achieving universal relevance. I find much modernist architecture inspiring and beautiful, yet it wasn’t, surely, correct to see it as timeless and universal. Indeed, part of its charm today is its period feel. In other words, our responses to different aspects of different aesthetic and cultural movements vary and one of the more disheartening aspects of the modernism/postmodernism debate has been the attempt to align all sorts of different practices along a single continuum. Do all Marxists admire all modernist architecture? Do all postmodernists enjoy Dallas and MTV?
In Adorned in Dreams I never undertook a defence or celebration of anything, and certainly not of ‘anything-goes’ postmodernism, as Sabina Lovibond would be aware, had she read my more recent essays
Yet postmodernism is itself not a single unified entity. Perhaps in time we shall come to see the period we are now living through as one of transition or intensified struggle, when new forms were seeking to burst through from the old—rather like the aestheticism, ‘decadence’ and fin-de-siècle atmosphere of the 90s, with which the decade on which we are just embarked is already being compared. I have argued elsewhere that the ‘decadence’ of the 1890s was part of just such a struggle to find new ways of understanding and expression.footnote2 It wasn’t a terminus, and no more will the anti-historicism and entropy of postmodernism be.