Last night I tied off Anne Hollander's Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress. It's an extended exploration of Western fashion's history, from ancient Greece to modern America.
Hollander offers a full-bodied account that explores the social, political and sexual role of costume as it's changed through the generations. The focus is on the push and pull between the two genders as fashion transformed from a straightforward primitive art into a complex modern form of expression.
Despite the common contemporary impression that clothing is the domain of women, Hollander argues that the march has been one led by men, who until very recently have set the standards for both sexes. She makes a compelling case on that point and also offers some other enlightening stuff, not just about the details of modern dress but also its sexual and psychological underpinnings, which she presents as a multifarious, capricious, titillating, intimidating but ultimately empowering thing.
Seen in one way, fashion makes many look remarkably alike; seen in another way, fashion permits each to look excitingly unique. Guilt and fear about this uneasy combination never seem to lessen; it is a responsibility.
If you do find and choose what strikes your most private fancy, you will, of course, reveal yourself. What will show, even if nobody is watching or interpreting that data, is which colors and shapes and styles of ornament you obsessively choose, which other ones you always avoid, which kinds of things you endlessly seek versions of—in sum, all that you might wish to hide, the things that contribute, even without your concious desire, to the image you unconciously long to resemble or believe you have.
But we know fashion isn't founded on reason; the desire to summon explanations only shows that we know how irrational it makes us all seem.