Lars Svendsen On How Fashion Shaped the Modern World



Philosopher Lars Svendsen recalls being met with outrage when he told his colleagues he was writing a book on fashion. After all, it’s a subject that’s often viewed as frivolous — certainly not worthy of philosophical inquiry. But Svendsen — who’s also written books on boredom and work — believes in tackling topics that influence people’s everyday lives. The resulting book, “Fashion: A Philosophy,” is Svendsen’s treatise on clothing, examining fashion and its influence throughout history.

Even though humans have been adorning themselves since prehistoric times, Svendsen says fashion only came into being in the last few hundred years. Before then, he argues, people took a utilitarian approach to clothing. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that garments first emerged as a tool of individual self-expression. More importantly, it’s also when the underlying logic of fashion — seeking novelty for the sake of novelty — was first applied to clothing. Svendsen calls this “one of the most decisive events in world history,” signifying a break with tradition and marking the start of the modern era.

According to Svendsen, the pursuit of newer and newer styles first emerged in relation to clothing, but he says we can sees traces of fashion’s influence everywhere: in art, politics, even philosophy. Just about everywhere around us, people are searching for the next big thing. In short, he says, “the logic of fashion has turned us all into neophiliacs.”



How were clothes used before the advent of fashion?

Prior to the Renaissance, styles had been fairly stable. Of course, they’d change every now and then, but after changing styles tended to stay that way for quite a while. People did not seek novelty for the sake of novelty. For instance, there was no such thing as Viking fashions, even though Vikings were pretty vain, because their styles stayed the same. Similarly, if you go to ancient Greece when Alexander the Great was a huge hero, people started shaving, but that style remained for a long time.

For thousands of years there always had been this split between what the wealthy wore and what commoners wore. Doesn't this suggest that there had always been some sense of fashion?

Basically, the cuts were the same among the rich and the poor. The rich did have better materials and more ornamentation but you did not see this whole pursuit of change for the sake of change. This really is not observed until the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance.

Why did people at that point crave change and distinctiveness?

It’s really hard to say. It might be due to the introduction of new secular values, the emergence of capitalism and the bourgeoisie. Of course, it also might be related to the emergence of the idea of the individual. Today, we think it’s so obvious to think of ourselves as individuals, but we haven’t always done so. The individual is this character that takes him or herself to be a completely unique human being who has to differentiate him or herself from others. This is a huge difference between traditional and non-traditional societies. In traditional societies, you really don’t have to ask who you are or about the meaning of life because it’s already defined for you. But in post-traditional or modern societies, all of this is loosened. The collective doesn’t answer these questions for you anymore, so you have you show who you are as a completely unique individual. Clothing then becomes a tool in highlighting that identity.

The traditional notion of art is that there’s something eternal about it. But you’re saying that fashion, by definition, seeks novelty. So is fashion a form of art?

The fashion industry certainly attempts to portray fashion as art, and this has gone on for quite some time. If you go back to the late 17th-century, there was a split between art and craft. Fashion designers were left on the side of craft and have been trying to get back onto the art side ever since. There are examples of aesthetically brilliant examples in the realm of fashion. Martin Margiela, the Belgian designer, has designs that are way up with the best in contemporary art. But for the most part, fashion doesn’t live up to its claim of being proper art. On the other hand, one could say that the logic of fashion has really entered the art scene, which is so much about novelty -- what’s hot and what’s not. Someone could say perhaps that rather than fashion managing to become proper art, a lot of art has reduced itself to fashion.

Fashion Model

A Philosophy of Fashion

Philosopher Lars Svendsen talks about how fashion--the search for the new, for the sake of novelty--was born during the early renaissance, with the rise of Modern individuality. He says fashion shapes not just the clothes we wear, but almost every part of our lives.

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