Barbara Vinken in conversation

Knowing the rules, breaking the rules

“But what am I going to wear?” This question may well have plagued many who have been granted an audience with Barbara Vinken. After all, the esteemed literary scholar has long established herself as an authority on fashion. So ... a white shirt? A black jacket? That can’t be completely wrong – but it has nothing to do with fashion. “Being fashionable,” Barbara Vinken says, “means knowing the rules of style but always consciously bending or breaking them a little.”

Ms. Vinken, isn’t being a fashion expert awfully exhausting?
Why? Because you always have to be on the ball?

And maybe because you can’t go to the bakery wearing jogging pants.
Yes, that’s true! You need to enjoy pleasing people, and you have to abide by certain conventions. “People who wear jogging pants have completely lost control over their lives.” Karl Lagerfeld did have a point there. For me, fashion is fun.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama wouldn't have agreed. His closet was almost completely dominated by gray and blue suits. By choice: that way, so the lore, he never had to worry about his clothes and could concentrate on more important decisions instead. Can you understand that there are people who don’t want to have to think about clothes?
That’s tantamount to sacrificing one of life’s greatest pleasures! Michelle Obama obviously didn’t do things that way. But fashion is the privilege – or a burden, depending how you see it – for women in bourgeois society. Men have to keep proving that they have more important things in their heads than the hairstyle on the top or the clothes on their backs. Choosing apparel is something that makes me very happy. It relaxes me, just as cooking does. It gives life scents, colors, sensuousness.

Why do men have such problems with the topic of fashion?
It hasn’t always been that way. In the pre-bourgeois age, noblemen were almost obsessed with adorning their bodies – with silk, ribbons and perfumes. They paraded their legs in fine fabrics, and in aristocratic circles the male physique was regarded as the more erotic of the two genders. In bourgeois society, men deliberately rejected that image. Being body-conscious was decried as being effeminate. Ever since, men have been basically banned from fashion, while the bourgeoisie showcases the castration of the aristocracy on its women.

The sociologist Norbert Elias supports the theory that our modern rules of etiquette trace back to royal courts before the spread of democracy. By emulating their kings, subjects wanted to demonstrate their dependability and hence further their careers. Isn’t that what fashion is about as well? Demonstrating one’s predictability to society?
Certainly. Fashion is like a language. You can speak a language correctly and know all the rules. And it's the same with the way you dress as well. Fashion-conscious people can express or restrain themselves. They demonstrate that they know the rules, that they know how to apply them – this is where fashion takes over – but that they don’t just blindly follow them; they show that they can tinker with them, manipulate them, change them. And that’s the fun of fashion: demonstrating that while you obviously have a firm command of the conventions, your control is so perfect that you can afford to ignore them, flirt with them, or even lampoon them. In that sense, fashion is an intellectual phenomenon.

And fashion is change. But change is the one thing people fear most. Does that make fashion the preserve of the brave?
I would agree with you there. Fashion generates fear and fascination alike.

Barbara Vinken, born in Hanover in 1960, is a German literary scholar. Having held teaching posts in Constance, New Haven, New York, Bochum, Hanover, Hamburg and Zurich, she was appointed to her current position of Professor of Literature at Munich’s Ludwig­ Maximilians­ Universität in 2004. Several of her many books are devoted to fashion and dress as vehicles of self-expression and communi­cation, including in English Fashion Zeitgeist: Trends and Cycles in the Fashion System (2005). (Image: K. Rade)

How much money do you need to be fashionable?
Believing that fashion depends on money is one of the greatest misconceptions of our time. That was the case during Balzac’s age, when people spent a much larger percentage of their income on clothing than we do today. Fashion has increasingly less to do with money, and today that is not down to H&M, Zara, Mango or any of the other well-known chains. It’s all about the vintage thrill. You can be very stylish if you live off the detritus of the rich. There are great second-hand pieces to be had for relatively little money.

Does the clothing available from the discount chains you mentioned also qualify as fashion?
Sure. But I personally refuse to shop there because those stores are built on foundations of dual exploitation. Firstly, because imitations of designer collections are hanging on their racks five minutes after they’ve been presented. That’s a lack of respect for intellectual property. And secondly because, as everybody knows, the conditions under which their apparel is produced are totally unacceptable. But's there is a third aspect that merits mentioning here as well.

And that would be?
In fashion, the sense of sight is generally overrated. Obviously, you see the clothing. But a dress is also a second skin. What is the fabric like? Does it caress and cling to us, does it glide smoothly and cool the skin? Can we move freely, does it constrain us, hold us? We feel the softness, the heft, the airiness of a fabric; its sway as it moves with our bodies. Does it crackle? Rustle? Does it have a scent?

Isn't the image problem that still hampers fashion in some circles rooted in that very emphasis on the visible? In debates on fashion, shouldn’t greater weight be attached to the effect a piece of clothing has on us, to the response it triggers inside us?
Yes, that’s right. We talk about a piece of clothing as though it were a picture. Our other senses – touch, smell and hearing – are all marginalized by overemphasizing the eye. A pity, actually.

So people who embark on the journey that is fashion will also come to know themselves better as a result?
Of course. A dress does something to you. How I walk, how I sit … the dress determines my posture. In that sense, it puts me in touch with myself.

Would a fashionable society be a better society?
Yes, it would be a more polite society that accords others more respect. But it would also be a society in which there would be a significantly heightened sensitivity toward the body’s uniqueness. I’m not referring to physical beauty in the traditional sense, but rather to the beauty the body derives from its underlying ephemerality. I’m talking about a society that would no longer deny that the transience of life. A society that would live more happily because people would deal differently with the frailties of their own bodies.

But if everyone was fashionable, would that not neutralize the impact of fashion? Doesn’t fashion need contrasts?
Yes, certainly. It’s not easy to define fashion. Let’s postulate: clothing is a code and fashion supplies its commentary. This code cannot become visible without fashion, because as a commentator fashion explains, overemphasizes, shifts, modifies and disguises it. In that sense, dress sociologists are right when they say that fashion has an ironic side, even a side that takes delight in destroying the status quo. Yet this aggression by no means explodes into violence, but rather is channeled into imaginative, perfected shapes. So fashion is a highly civilized form of conflict: the pinnacle of refinement in a world of verbal and physical violence.

Are there fashion phenomena that you find annoying?
In my view, the big luxury labels are currently playing a very odd game. For years they have been showing and telling us that we are all fetishists. Chanel has been the most prominent, saying, “You think that other people are brand fetishists, but you yourself will buy anything bearing our label. And I give it to you! Here it is!” In ways that are not exactly subtle, they’re rubbing the “stupid customers'” noses in the fact that, due to their grotesquely bad taste, they have once again fallen for this branding hype. That cynicism was thoroughly justified at a certain point, but it’s slowly on the wane. Things like Christmas trees laden with Louis Vuitton ornaments – specially designed to make the initials sparkle – were always bizarre, but it’s time now to put them to bed. These labels have been taunting us with our own barbarianism for too long now.

Colors are part of fashion. But apparently you don’t much like wearing colors.
That’s not true! Today I’m in mourning for Alaïa. An incredible designer who I liked very much. So at the moment I’m wearing my black Alaïas. Otherwise I'm a fan of color. In bourgeois societies, wearing color is a woman’s privilege. Men traditionally wear more understated shades – midnight blue, charcoal.

And you think that’s a good thing?
No way! It goes without saying that we need to subvert the masculine versus feminine axis that underpins modern fashion. Men need to finally surrender that fake corporate identity and show their true colors – and stop pretending that they never give a second thought to the clothes they wear. If we no longer had this gender-based dress duality, our society would be much more balanced. But I’m not saying that women should become more like men. On the contrary: the men should be doing the assimilating.

But shouldn’t good fashion emphasize the masculine in men and the feminine in women?
I’m not talking about unisex. That is, quite frankly, simply tedious – and more a gray utopia than reality. From the beginning of the 20th century and into the 1980s, women’s dress was oriented toward men’s fashions. It was a one-way street. Currently, by contrast, the techniques of feminine haute couture tend to be translated into masculine high fashion. That includes, for instance, the contrast between skin and fabric, the transparency, the necklines, the ruffles, the whole pantomime of rendering the body an ornament. Nowadays a man’s suit isn’t only skin-tight; it might also be studded with Baroque roses against a deep red background. So recent years have brought an about-face. Men’s dress is now demonstrating the allure that was reserved for feminine fashions in the bourgeois era. The aesthetics of minimalism, Bauhaus-style – i.e. form follows function – are slowly disappearing.

What's your take on orange?
Orange is the new black, since Hermès at the very latest. (laughs). But hey, every color is the new black.

Frank Haas is head of brand strategy and communication at Gebrüder Weiss and editor-in-chief of Atlas.

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