Fashion is a subject not only considered for its superficial aesthetic, but a subject that integrates itself within the history of arts and culture, industrial and social change and radical ideas. Today, the popular trends we adorn ourselves in display remnants of symbolism relevant to a pastime, watered down to appeal to the modern western aesthetic, perhaps today the only enduring character of fashion is its aptitude for shock and awe.
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Charles Baudelaire in, Painter of Modern Life, expressed that it is possible to touch the eternal through the ephemeral because everything “from costumer and coiffure down to gesture, glance, and smile… combines to form a completely viable whole”.1 At the same time, the understanding of the dialectical image offered by Walter Benjamin also proves the inability to comprehend if fashion is something material or conceptual or if it is necessary to consider a picture or a perception of a picture. Benjamin explains the dialectical image as the one that is “constellated between alienated things and incoming and disappearing meaning… instantiated in the moment of indifference between death and meaning”.2 Here, objects have shifting meaning throughout time, they become more valuable as they age and acquire a history.
This paper aims at discussing the concept of the dialectical image, through the chemise a la Reine, whilst evaluating the works of Benjamin and Baudelaire to identify the role of fashion in modernity.
The Essence of a Dialectical Image
According to Auerbach, there was an optimistic development of the idea of the dialectical image offered by Benjamin in his Arcades Project.3 But Benjamin never fulfilled his concept with enough clarity to identify it as a complete theoretical discourse. His references to the role of the dialectical image and its possibility to create a meaning help to understand that the dialectical image is not the method that can be used in the analysis of fashion but rather a goal that should be achieved.
Benjamin created the dialectical image to identify the level of relations between such configurations like “the Now” and “the Then”.4 The ideas developed by Benjamin and his fellows suggested using the dialectical image as a means to comprehend the messages of the past in the present. The dialectical image can be considered as the basis and with its assistance the evaluating process is possible.
Fashion and beauty undoubtedly have a significant and lasting role in a cosmopolitan life and its continual presence and development indicate the importance of self-invention and self-image in modernity. Baudelaire explains modernity as “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable”.5 For modernity to exist in art and fashion, it had to capture the eternal by keeping up with the ever-changing society it exists in. The dialectical image may be regarded as an attempt to introduce a theoretical explanation to society’s attempts at new discovery. The analysis of fashion and its impact on society is one of the examples of the dialectical image that can help to comprehend fashion as the commodity offered by and to society.6
The Chemise a la Reine
The chemise a la Reine- also known as the Gaulle- was introduced in the 1780s, and was envisioned by Marie Antoinette who due to her fascination with the nature and creating a natural raw self-image, offered this loose silk garment to people as a possibility to create a natural silhouette using light fabrics.7 The peculiar feature of this garment for the time was its simplicity and its connotations to a sexualized feminine image, a concept that was completely new at that time. The design for the garment was simple compared to those used by the royal families in France, especially the queen.
To Antoinette, this dress was not only fashionable but also a symbol of liberation. It was a radical shift from the then present, to modernity where feminism had to be brought out in one’s attire. Strobel describes the Chemise a la Reine as “A garment that gives the woman a natural appeal, one that looks comfortable and not staged and in a way fulfilling Marie Antoinette’s original quest of feeling ‘at home’.”8 Its simplicity, elegance, beautiful style, and fluidity were all brought out in a uniquely feminine manner that was not common at this time.
Unfortunately, this beautiful garment did not receive acceptance in France when a portrait of the Queen adorned in it became public. The garment closely resembled a chemise, an undergarment worn by women; hence it depicted the queen in a state of undress. To the public, their queen was painted in her lingerie, a notion that highly shocked them. The name Chemise a la Reine was coined based on resembles of the garment with a chemise and its association with the queen. Figure 1 below shows the queen adorned in Chemise a la Reine. Another factor that made the garment less popular in France was its economic implications. The materials had to be imported from Britain, denying local manufacturers revenues.
Benjamin’s and Baudelaire’s Arguments
Chemise a la Reine as a uniquely feminine fashion came at a time when the society was used to a specific dress code for women, especially the royal family. To its proponents, it offered emotional freedom from the obligations that were usually imposed by society. However, it was criticized by many people a revealing dress that was not fit for the royals. The works of great philosophers and cultural or art critics such as Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire can be used as the basis of analysis of fashion and its impact on a human life, and the relations that are developed between people, people, and society, and the past, the present, and the future.
They bring out the idea that through the ephemeral, one may touch the eternal. This may help in understanding why Chemise a la Reine, a design that was embraced for a short period, was a major influence in the world of fashion. Though these two writers and fashion philosophers did not have much in common except the desire to understand fashion and its worth, their ideas are interrelated and combined to explain how one garment could define one epoch.
Walter Benjamin argues that dialectical images are fragments that create a mosaic of history. The past and present may interact, and this may bring about a feeling of sadness and longing for the past. The melancholy is caused by the longing for the past knowing very well that it cannot be achieved in the present. In fashion and design, the past always influences the present, and the present defines the future. When a design, which was used in the past, has some elements that make it relevant in the present, then designers can always find ways of making it a reality by bringing in modification that makes it relevant in the present context.
Benjamin argues that dialectical images can be interruptive because they break smooth conception of time by introducing sudden shocks in modernity. The past and the present illuminate each other, and a new concept is born in the present that heavily borrows from the past. It means that if there was a trend, then dialectical images may bring about a sudden shift from such a trend to something close to what was fashionable in the past. At some moments, there is a temporary halt in thinking about the future and a unique longing for the past takes a center stage. It comes with some form of tension as one tries to argue how the past can be relived in the present based on the current prevailing factors. Benjamin says:
Where thinking comes to a standstill in a constellation saturated with tensions – there the dialectical image appears. It is the caesura in the movement of thought. Its position is naturally not an arbitrary one. It is to be found, in a word, where the tension between dialectical opposites is greatest. Hence, the object constructed in the materialist presentation of history is itself the dialectical image. The latter is identical to the historical object; it justifies its violent expulsion from the continuum of historical process.9
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From this argument, it is clear that Benjamin considers the dialectical image as a radical shift from the continuum of a historical process. A historical process should be chronological, where one event consistently leads to another. However, the concept of dialectical image, according to this philosopher, disrupts this process when the past is brought into the present. People create images that depict their past and the outcomes that can be observed in the present. Instead of thinking about the future based on the present, the modern trend momentarily stops and reflects into the past.
The dialectical image is not only the method with the help of which people can understand what they should do. It is the goal they have to strive for. As soon as they achieve it, they can then find the required meaning. Benjamin explained how people should treat each piece of everything that is around them. Understanding the ephemeral helps in understanding the eternal because the two are closely related. That which appears for a short while may heavily influence what will come in the future. This concept is closely connected to the arguments by Charles Baudelaire in his book Painter of Modern Life.
In this book, Baudelaire talks about fashion and the beauty associated with it in various contexts. Fashion changes and some become history, but beauty is something that may be considered unique in the field of fashion. Baudelaire says that “Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quantity it is excessively difficult to determine.” It is not easy to quantify beauty just as it is not possible for beauty to change into something ugly because of the passage of time. This philosopher believes that elements of beauty are eternal, and once something has these elements, then time cannot be a factor that can change them. That is why a fashion that was beautiful in the past can find its way into the present as long as it can be made relevant. Baudelaire says:
The past is interesting not only by reason of the beauty which could be distilled from it by those artists for whom it was the present, but also precisely because it is the past, for its historical value. It is the same with the present. The pleasure we derive from the representation of the present is due not only to the beauty with which it can be invested but also to its essential quality of being present.
Baudelaire argues that a woman is that required ephemeral according to which the eternal can be judged and understood. Her choices define the style people should observe in different periods. It is the best example of how people can touch something abstract and general. Baudelaire advances the concepts put forth by Benjamin, especially about the beauty of the past and how ephemeral can be transformed into eternal. These two authors seem to agree on the importance and beauty of the past to the present, although neither of them focused on the works of the other. They spoke about the same issue from different perspectives. However, one can easily conclude from their works that the past and present can interact to bring something new, but in a manner that disrupts the modern trends of the present.
The Idea of Fashion
Fashion industry consistently changes with the changing needs, expectations, and other environmental factors. The Chemise a la Reine introduced by Marie-Antoinette in the early 1780s tells about the peculiarities of that period.
Type of Garment
According to Entwistle the Chemise a la Reine was one of the simplest types of garments introduce by a royal court.10 The concept used by Rose Bertin, the modiste of Marie-Antoinette, to design the dress was from the West Indies. The ladies in West Indies who wore this dress had to work on plantations for a long period and hence they needed garments that kept them cool under such hot tropical climate.11 Plain white muslin was used as the material for such a dress was the most appropriate for them. Marie Antoinette was fond of her garden, and she needed a garment that would allow her to spend some time there without straining.
It was an unusual decision at that time to use this material because the representatives of the 18th century preferred to use silk and similar material to underline the luxury of the period, especially for the royal family. The design was modified to make it more royal, but it maintained its simplicity and femininity. The material was gathered around the neckline and under the chest so that it was possible to hide and show the cleavage as per the wish of the wearer.12 Long full sleeves imparted the desired lightness of the garment. It was a radical shift from what was common during this period, but it brought with it comfort and beauty which are very critical in the field of fashion.
The Period’s Peculiarities
The Chemise a la Reine was designed to fit a new lifestyle that Marie Antoinette had embraced. Instead of spending most of her time indoors, Antoinette preferred spending time in the garden and interacting with the commons. She needed a dress that was fit for these outdoor activities. It was a personal desire to follow the dreams that could be accepted by the public at that time. On one hand, it was a representation of the economic threat to the French because the material had to be imported from Britain. The imported garment was cheap compared with what was available in France at that time. It proved that substitutes could be used even if they were imported.
The garment was a symbol of the new opportunities available to all people of France, especially those who could not afford the locally available expensive materials. On the other hand, the gender roles were redefined with the help of this dress. Marie-Antoinette was eager to prove her independence and the possibilities to remove the traditional expectations in a society that rigidly defined the role of a woman. There was a list of rules that had to be observed based on one’s social status and gender. Marie-Antoinette attempted to break the rules and promote new ideas through this garment.
People Associated with the Garment
Antoinette demonstrated her romanticism of a lifestyle that was simple other than leading a royal complex life. She wanted to relate closely with the normal people and wanted to feel what they felt leading a normal life. At that time, one of the tasks meant for women was tilling land. She spent much of her time in her garden, just to escape the royalties in the palace. The history of Chemise al la Reine shows that it was heavily borrowed from West Indies among plantation workers. It shows that although it finally found its place among the royals, the garment had its origin among the peasants who had very little to spend on a dress.
The Chemise a la Reine and Popular Culture
According to Auerbach, the Chemise a la Reine garment had a major impact on the Western culture and the current designs of women’s dress code.13 One of the main criticisms leveled against this garment was that it revealed the cleavage of the wearer, something that was not acceptable at that time. It was considered too revealing and too feminine to be considered decent.
However, the popular culture in the modern society emphasizes the need for women to be feminine in her attire. The cleavage at the chest is not the order of the day for modern dresses, and the material is getting even lighter. The dress was also meant to demonstrate the independence of women and their ability to make personal decisions. Some of the popular debates in the society today such as equity and women empowerment are all meant to make women independent in socio-economic and political spheres.
The Chemise a la Reine as a Dialectical Image
The arguments of Baudelaire and Benjamin confirm the Chemise a la Reine as one of the powerful dialectical images in fashion and history. Though it was one of the shocking garments at that time, it defined the popular culture and that time and quality of life meant for the royals. As a dialectical image, the garment brings to present the need for women to be independent in various respects because that was one of the primary philosophies that defined its creation. It brings the melancholic memory of a time when a woman stood up and challenged the systems and culture of the time. It is a reminder to people who champion for change that it is not easy to introduce new systems in the society. Just like the reaction that the Chemise a la Reine received from the public, change will always be received with skepticism and sometimes rejection, but through resilience, one can achieve success.
Dialectical image is a concept that explains the interaction of the past and present, especially in the field of fashion, as presented in the works of Benjamin and Baudelaire. In this paper, the Chemise a la Reine comes out as a dialectical image because of its influence on modern Western culture. Antoinette promoted this dress not only for its comfort but also as a direct challenge to the cultures and practices that existed at that time. She wanted to demonstrate to the society that women can also make independent decisions. Every time a group of people come out to champion for the rights of women, they have to remember the effort made by Antoinette, especially in promoting a dress that popular culture at that time did not allow. The dress also brought out the feminism of women, a concept that modern designers have come to embrace.
Auerbach, Anthony. “Imagine no Metaphors: The Dialectical Image of Walter Benjamin.” Image & Narrative 18 (2007). Web.
Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. London, UK: Phaidon Press, n.d. Web.
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. Web.
Blanco, Jose, Hunt-Hurst, Patricia, Lee, Heather, and Mary Doering. Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2015.
Entwistle, Joanne. The Fashioned Body. Cambridge, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2015.
Strobel, Heidi, A. “ Matronage of Women Artists in the Late-18th Century.” Woman’s Art Journal 26.2 (2005), 3-9.
- Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (London, UK: PhaidonPress, n.d.), Web.
- Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), Web.
- Anthony Auerbach, “Imagine no Metaphors: The Dialectical Image of Walter Benjamin,” Image & Narrative 18 (2007), Web.
- Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 942.
- Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, 13.
- Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 8
- Blanco et al., Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2015), 53.
- Heidi Strobel, “Matronage of Women Artists in the late-18th Century,” Woman’s Art Journal 26.2 (2005), 3.
- Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 475.
- Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body (Cambridge: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), 32.
- Blanco et al., Clothing and Fashion, 53.
- Blanco et al., Clothing and Fashion, 53.
- Antony, Imagine no Metaphors, 3.