What was driven by an ideological motive for George Orwell and Ludwig Wittgenstein is merely mindless fashion for the general public, says Shelley Walia.
No taste or judgment of taste is innocent. When I remarked the other day that up-turned trousers with a matching jacket, no shirt underneath and flip-flops on the feet was an act of defiance against the conventional proper suit worn by the elite, many disagreed, arguing that all haute couture was capitalist anyway. To be cool, to be trendy, and to be hip-hop is the rule. Tommy Hilfiger or Adidas test out a product on the suburban youth, using the lower socio-economic group consisting of street gangs or labourers as a sounding board, before youngsters get hooked on to the fashion. This is the appropriation of non-elitist cultures, commodifying and repackaging it and in a subtle twist of irony, selling what was always theirs to the rich. The upturned pair of trousers or the Khaki shorts or faded jeans acquire greater currency in postmodern times than ever before.
Meaning, therefore, is generated through the practice of fashion, especially in its relationship to matters of ideology and social class.
What came to my mind when dwelling on the constant tension between the casual and the formal, between the personal and the public, between the high and the low, was the disposition of resistance built into the very character of the novelist, George Orwell, when he left Eton, an upper-class institution where the common practice of wearing a formal suit and a tie to dinner became an intolerable chore.
I remember his famous memoir Down and Out in Paris and London that narrates his experience of poverty, of working as dishwasher in a hotel, and of travelling, all from the perspective of a tramp. In this very act of taking up a menial job and speaking on behalf of the marginalised, he was opposing the bourgeois ideology that had disgusted his liberal mental make-up. The first step he would take is to jettison the habit of wearing a suit and a tie for life. He is seen in numerous photographs in tweed, open-collared shirts, rolled up baggy trousers and working-class footwear.
Such attire was in keeping with the left-wing temperament of many academics who had come under the sway of the Bolshevik revolution in the 1920s. It was the assertion of working-class values and a call for a classless society.
The obvious rejection of the proper suit is significant and visible only because it counters the bourgeois trends, subverting existing styles.
Another glaring example of this kind of ideological aversion to upper-class formal dressing was the reaction of Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, considered to be the foremost philosopher of the last century. Belonging to a wealthy Austrian family, he had originally come to Manchester to study aeronautics. But his deep interest in philosophy took him one sunny morning to Trinity College at Cambridge to meet Bertrand Russell. One sitting with Russell convinced him to take up a research project in philosophy under his guidance. He was later known to have remarked that his doctoral thesis titled “The Tractaus” was unfortunately not comprehended by even Russell, an eminent philosopher in the western world.
Later, Wittgenstein would be offered the fellowship at Trinity which, he insisted, he would only take up if he was permitted to abstain from wearing the black gown or the formal black tie, a norm observed for centuries. Interestingly, he would wear a suit only once again in his life when he went to get a visa for his visit to Moscow; he felt that if he had appeared before the Russian diplomat at the embassy in his working class attire very similar to Orwell’s, he would give the impression of putting on a mask of his Marxist leanings.
An anti-dominant statement makes an impact because of its affiliations with the non-elite. It operates across class lines, a seamless boundary which emphasises connections, shared dispositions and communal social identities. The very casualness of the act of dressing down therefore has a creative and political motive, an anti-establishment fad that finally gets appropriated by the elite with the agenda that cuts across class affiliations.
Similarly the low-slung trousers worn by youth exhibiting cleavage demonstrates a style of indifference, thus creating legitimacy for itself because it stands up against the fastidiousness of formal apparel. Take for instance foot apparel which can signify comfort or funk or its high-low, establishment or anti-establishment value. Alternatives are innumerable as seen in the fashion of wearing torn and battered jeans; a fashion is borrowed and then made integral to the acceptable norms of the mainstream culture. In their juxtaposition lies the oppositional nature of class conflicts.
For Orwell and Wittgenstein the dress sense had an ideological motive whereas for the general public it becomes merely mindless fashion for the sake of fashion. Yes we look for deeper meanings in our sense of fashion but the purveyors of it are not looking at the ideology or the political statement in this day and age; it is being catered to an affluent class with enough dispensable wealth and clout to make anything they wear hip, hot and a “must be possessed”.
Truth is that millions of youth wear what’s trendy, but they think nothing of its origins nor does it bring them any closer to who you think they ironically emulate.