First hypothesis: Fashion developments in the modern period must always be understood as acts of cross-dressing. Across gender, certainly, but also across status, class, even race—not my subject here, but those are the parameters. Such cross-dressing is bound by rules. Fashion is neither tyrannical nor unpredictable, and changes of fashion adhere to a system.
Let’s begin with women’s new legs. For the last decade, the female silhouette has been dominated by legs and more legs. Impossibly long legs, often visible to the crotch and lower butt. Legs in leggings or in tight pants. Legs with opaque stockings beneath shorts or very short skirts. Boots—of all lengths—even sometimes coming up to the knee. The tallest boots are mostly flat soled, while the lower boots, falling in folds or grossly chunky, almost menacing, have an edged heel. Or the legs may be extended by platform soles, which make them appear even more endless. In such shoes, there is no mincing or teetering. The woman’s leg in motion is determined. The boots in soft folds, especially, recall those one sees sometimes in woodblock prints of the 16th century—as the footwear of Swabian mercenaries.
Such legs are very clearly the opposite of the “classic female leg” that was constituted by sheer nylon stockings and their play of nudity and enclosure. Over the last thirty years, nylons have been supplanted by sophisticatedly patterned and embroidered stockings, lace and crochet tights, thick wool tights in rainbow colors—not to mention the ubiquitous leggings and knee-highs or thigh-highs. No longer is the leg seen through the silky nylon stocking, but the dressed, decorated, ornamented leg has taken center stage to bewitch its onlookers. Thus the old censorious question, How much leg does it show?, like the technical question, How high is the slit of the skirt?, has been shelved. The puritanical or, actually, prurient question, whether “you” can “see up” the skirt, formerly connected to the pinup iconography of grown women riding swings, skirt-clad adults awkwardly shifting to cross their legs, secretaries bending to pick up the boss’s papers, the “snug” skirt bottom, the hem that “slips too high” or “reveals too much,” the ambiguous speculation about whether a skirt might suddenly blow up in a gust, “revealing everything,” even as it covers the helpless wearer’s blushing face—all these archaisms are equally done for.
Marilyn Monroe, standing on top of a subway vent during a New York summer, hot air blowing up her skirt from underneath, was the erotic icon of the last century. Visible thighs signaled the fulfillment of one’s wildest dreams. From Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel all the way to Mad Men and its mock-turtle Sixties, garter straps have been the shorthand formula for “making love.” The play between hiddenness and exposure, which keeps the focus on the shielded female sex, has become peculiarly irrelevant for the new female legs that have defined street style over the past ten years. Up until now, every attempt to replace this silhouette with another—with flared pants, longer skirts that swirled around the legs, swinging A-line skirts—failed miserably. Yet the fact that the “classic skirt” has been advertised in nostalgic settings and pastel colors, for example by Prada, illustrates how outdated the once inevitable form has finally become. It can and will only return now in the soft focus of retro, a quotation from the past.
The new legs of women, in fact, turn out to be the long-ago legs of men. Before the fashion innovations of the so-called sans-culottes, before men hid their handsome legs beneath long pants, they proudly showed them off. These finely turned, prerevolutionary men’s legs in tight stockings have become women’s new legs, which move just as freely, decisively, and extensively as those of the freemen of the Renaissance. Another characteristic that recalls those men and their legs is the open approach of the eye to the visible outline of the sex, or, rather, the abandonment of the classic zone of female shame. With the new female legs, the old opposition between showing (male) and hiding (female) is replaced with an indifference toward the sex, which suspends shame.
The new legs come to us courtesy of a principle, if not the determining principle, of all “modern” women’s fashion: the systematic transmission of elements of menswear into womenswear. This principle, has, however, in the case of these legs, experienced a notable shift.
Formerly, modern menswear was appropriated, meaning that menswear items that developed in 18th- and 19th-century England and remained masculine staples were transferred into female clothes. In the realm of haute couture, the men’s suit and its many appurtenances were transferred into womenswear. In this way, and only in this way—such was the credo of the more “advanced” 20th-century designers—could womenswear shed its anachronisms and similarly become modern, join up with the civic ethos of the post–French Revolution Republic, stop being frivolous, abjure decoration, get with the times.
The new fashion of the 21st century, on the contrary, appropriates menswear from before the French Revolution. Menswear until the Revolution expressed the same byword as the latest womenswear: Legs are meant to be seen. Legs and more legs—more beautiful, longer, more superbly shaped men’s legs—fill the paintings of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Even our most extravagant female stockings today do not exceed in artful patterning the skintight leggings of the prerevolutionary male. This infinite leg, which was further elongated by delicate shoes, and the silhouette of which was highlighted by colored, boldly striped, or white shimmering stockings, can be seen in the pictures of the Flemish and Italian Renaissance—as the centerpiece of male bodies, of course. During the reign of Emperor Charles V, the long, lean, taut-stockinged leg, adorned less colorfully but contoured no less clearly, shot out from beneath extremely short bubble skirts—called “Spanish breeches”—or else from knee breeches of the snuggest material. Charles, it was recorded, exhibited “wonderfully beautiful legs” in precious, delicately knit stockings (see Titian, Charles V, 1533). Such stockings, also known as tricot pants, exhibited the most delicate, enchanting embroidery. Spanish breeches had grown so voluminous by the reign of Elizabeth I that the width of seats in the British parliament had to be adjusted to accommodate well-dressed gentlemen. The only fashion that could outdo them was the “petticoat breeches” of the 1650s, which looked like their name. Not the least of harbingers of the coming Industrial Revolution was Spain’s loss to England in 1589 of its monopoly on production of knitted panty hose (appropriately, one year after the defeat of the Spanish Armada) when William Lee of Nottingham invented the mechanical stocking frame.
For prerevolutionary men, not only the legs were showpieces. In their pride of creation, they neither concealed nor denied the sex, but projected it all the more impressively by means of the codpiece, which enlarged and exalted it. In the codpiece, the sex—well padded and apparently in a permanent state of erection—even received adornments of ties and ribbons and, as on tricot stockings, rich brocade. Only with the sans-culottes and the gradual international rejection of knee breeches did cockiness, and fabric-enhanced intimations of virility, pass out of fashion. From the French Revolution, the visible third leg withered away as it was smoothed down from a lion rampant to Pasteur’s test tube. It did enjoy a short afterlife, formally, in the pants worn during the Empire; yet even in those flesh-colored pants, which fastened underneath the foot with stirrups and hugged the legs almost as tightly as had the tricot, it did not recover its old garish glory, but lurked all the more naturalistically in silhouette beneath the fabric, plain and natural, or at least naturalistic. Napoleon Bonaparte’s answer to the proverbial question of every man’s tailor, whether monsieur dresses to the left or to the right, can easily be discerned from Jean-Léon Gêrome’s painting Napoleon in Egypt (in the Princeton University Art Museum). The outline of the simultaneously victorious and melancholic Emperor is clearly silhouetted—against an alien background of Oriental luxury—in his tight, pale trousers. Only American blue jeans, originally the work uniform of gold prospectors, advancing to Hollywood respectability and proper tightness in the 1950s with Marlon Brando and James Dean, allowed a man to emphasize his sex and ass again. In spite of this shy recovery, this classic erotic zone for men never attained the boasting display it enjoyed before the Revolution.
When we ask when modern fashion begins, the answer, as for so much else in the modern age, is roughly with the French Revolution. While dress until 1789 largely separated society’s “estates”—the nobility from the clergy and from the third estate, and all three from the peasants—fashion after the Revolution ceased to divide classes as openly and instead divided the sexes. All Men were Brothers—but not women. Because women were quite entirely, indescribably—female. The distinction, in terms of each sex’s quest to attract the other, made sexuality marked for women and unmarked for men, a difference we find to be the most natural thing in the world thanks to the dress code of modernity. It defines the whole of modern fashion. The aristocratic display of one’s body and all its erotic possibilities became, after the Revolution, exclusively the privilege, or burden, of women.
What happened to the male body at that moment? Menswear in the bourgeois epoch constituted itself in deliberate contrast to everything that had constituted the aristocratic fashion of the ancien régime. Yet the distinction could only be made visible by displacing everything that had constituted ancien régime male fashion to feminine fashion in the modern era. Ostentatious display of the male body, the showing off of clothes, was now frowned upon as effeminate: less became more. Bourgeois man does not make a spectacle of himself. The suit is an iconic representation of the modern, implicitly male, subject as the norm. It is a pure incarnation of civic virtue; the corporate identity of the body politic can only occur if each man’s unique, eccentric body becomes invisible. Men are not “trendy”: once the Republic has been declared and the New Times have come, man does not change from year to year.
The modern, post-1789 suit draws on the clothes of the English landed aristocracy and of the third estate. The standard suit is loose fitting and not body hugging. It has muted colors, and its material—wool, linen, or cotton—is set in contrast to the shiny silks of the nobility.
In the suit, a man’s shape is idealized on the ancient V of antique statuary—with narrow hips and broad shoulders, petrifying citizens into ancient athletes and heroes. The buttocks and the sex alike are covered beneath the suit jacket. There is no gapping of fabric between bare skin and costume, and except for the hands and face all skin is covered. Contours are smoothed, carnality dematerialized.
The men’s suit is only barely subject to the fashion cycle. While the female silhouette has changed radically over the last two hundred years, the male silhouette has evinced an astonishing, one might even say classical constancy. The suit is worn equally in public space, in the city, and in the private workplace, the office. The only alternative, at least in rural areas, is the “traditional costume.” Even “evening dress” for men is laid out as clearly as the choice between tuxedo and tails.
Let’s fast-forward through the development of women’s fashion for those two hundred years. Women’s fashion is, first of all—here is the crucial thing—clearly anachronistic, an aristocratic remnant in the bourgeois era. This might seem surprising, since “fashion” even etymologically (as mode) is twinned with modernity and has always been associated in media with avant-garde movements. Yet the former nobility’s distinction from society now is women’s distinction—and only women’s—as their erotic charms are brought to the fore. Theirs is not the labor market, but the marriage market. Their field of action isn’t the Republican public sphere but the exclusively private: they can only act in the court-like private intrigue of erotic attraction between the sexes. Adolf Loos put the point most sharply: grotesque obscenity, unreformable anachronism, hopeless retardation, female fashion was in his eyes a “horrible chapter in cultural history,” a repudiation of all the principles of modernism, nothing short of an aesthetic crime. Yet the cause of all this misery, both moral and aesthetic, from which one would prefer to avert one’s eyes, is modernity, or the gender order of modernity. As long as women can’t compete with men in the labor market but must compete for men, all attempts to reform women’s clothes according to the modern principles of art are destined to fail. Minor distinction is the motor of men’s fashion such as it is, but the energy behind changes in women’s fashion is variation in the perverse sensual preferences of men. After masochism, pedophilia: one season, the dominatrix; the next, Lolita.
Women’s fashion struggles with modernism; it suffers horrendous relapses. What has marked the truly fashionable for women? Coco Chanel, pioneer of the new modern woman of the 20th century, went right to the point: “All my life I’ve done nothing but translate men’s clothes piece by piece into women’s clothes.” It is the transfer of the modern men’s suit into womenswear that makes women’s fashion modern. Over the course of that century, the corset was abandoned, and women’s clothes went from three-dimensional to two-dimensional, like the men’s suit. But the outer frame had to be replaced by an internal one. For this metamorphosis from flesh to silhouette, surface to movement, sports and exercise had to become important as perhaps never before. We went from static and voluptuous to mobile and slim.
The milestone of the “little black dress” was certainly based on the transfer of men’s fashion to women’s. In the little black dress, as in a suit, the face is emphasized. The dress does not draw attention to itself, but to the person. And yet the male principle is adopted with a twist: for while the little black dress may put the focus on the face, it creates, quite unlike the traditional suit, a razor-sharp, body-hugging silhouette in motion.
The question arises once again: Are we now, finally, in the 21st century, approaching unisex?
First of all, for the word to have any meaning it must describe a phenomenon that doesn’t go only in one direction—that is, from men’s to women’s fashion. Up until now, you could wear his pajamas at night and his sweatshirt in the morning. He, however, would look funny in your Uggs, tank top, and sweater. When men and women wear the same thing, are they doing the same thing? Chanel in her translation of men’s into women’s fashion did not transfer the underlying principle of men’s fashion: namely, the incorporation of the individual body into an anonymous collectivity through the blurring of the bodily silhouette by the modern suit. The step to uniformity and collectivization undertaken by the men’s suit, she would not take.
What actually happened in the fashion of modernism was never unisex. Both pants and ever shorter skirts showed what aristocratic men’s fashion had seductively displayed, but women’s fashion in the age of ornament and luxury—and long dresses—had always concealed: legs. Much that was called a step toward “unisex” traveled under a false flag, displaying, on the contrary, more of the fundamental modern opposition male/female. While men in the bourgeois era simply didn’t put their bodies on erotic display, women gained the choice of calling attention to their ass and legs in a miniskirt or fitted pants. Pretensions to “unisex” led, from the toes all the way up to the now openly displayed locks of the hair (no more hats, no more veils), to the continuous eroticization of the entire length of the female body.
Then are we still stuck in the 19th century? She is sensual, statement-making, with eye-catching jewelry; he is dressed functionally, rather simply? She is for the marriage, or, say, the sex market; he controls the job market? I am well aware that the question is decidedly out of style. Here in Germany, the Sunday Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine heralds, decades after the climax of “androgynous fashion” in the 1980s, a “completely sexless” fashion, with photos by Juergen Teller of model Andrej Pejić, a female model with a male sex—and refutes this “sexless fashion” in the same breath, as Pejic announces that he/she, “as a woman, is more sensual and sexy; as a man, rather plain.” It would have been nice if even the notoriously theory-innocent Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine had gotten to the point of noticing how fashion makes the difference between “man” and “woman.” So, yes, there are many indications that we still live within the gender order of the 19th century. Sociological studies of the fashion behavior of young people show that boys and girls don’t dress the same even when they wear the same things, namely T-shirts and pants. For girls, both must be form-fitting; for boys, that would be, in their words, “gay.” In bourgeois neighborhoods, women show by their dress, even if they do a lot of work and work successfully, that they do not work and wear the uniform of no vocational group. Your clothes—pretty, flattering, casual—pose as bits of bricolage, apparently due to chance. But above all things—fanned by the good luck of a day off or a weekend, carrying this scent into workaday life—you must wear the complete opposite of workwear. No uniform style has been as successful for bourgeois women as this feminine style of absolute individualism, where jacket and trousers must not match anymore, and nothing should be designed to fit together (thus the mockery of pantsuits, sweater sets), but everything must just be perfectly combined. The norm of female adult bourgeois fashion becomes false freedom from the norms and constraints of workaday life, even as you live it. Collectively, bourgeois women show individually that they are not, like men, part of a collectivity, not part of the uniform, alienated, working population.
And yet. Metrosexuals! Frankfurt train station at rush hour: young women in black, in tight business suits, with white shirts; young men in similar, boyishly slim suits. Let’s take a closer look. Beneath the surface, something is happening. On the one hand, the classic men’s suit no longer represents a universal norm. Technical, intellectual, and creative elites have abandoned suits for work. The suit has ceased to be a general civil garment. Rather, it belongs to a distinctly uniform but limited ruling class, as the dress of power and money. Businessmen, bankers, politicians, senior civil servants wear suits. In short, to wear a suit is no longer to be an unmarked, equal citizen. On the other hand, fashion does genuinely become a principle in suits, as this iconic garment of the bourgeois democracies has just in the last twenty years come close, menacingly close, to the body. Here, at last, is fashion proper: a feminine principle transferred to the male.
Apparently a development has occurred in men’s tailoring that abstracts the body into a line, thus drawing on a feminine, pre-bourgeois principle. Pierre Cardin pioneered it with its tight-fitting pencil suits. The “unconstructed” jacket by Armani, not to be confused with the so-called deconstructed jacket, was an important step in this development. Another milestone was the slim-fitting suits of Mugler, which looked almost like ballet clothes. Boss’s “little black suits” went in the same direction. Tom Ford suits fit like gloves. And the slim line of Helmut Lang and subsequently Raf Simons for Jil Sander marked the completion of this style principle. These suits are often referred to as fashions for “boyish men.” This new type of man is somehow unmanly—indeed, asexual—so that the usual distinction between gay and straight doesn’t work. He exhibits a youth that doesn’t mature into manhood, that has something virginal about it but isn’t innocent. The historical counterpart to this new man is, perhaps, the 19th-century lesbian stereotype of the “maiden aunt.” The extreme thinness of the body remains somewhat ascetic. And it is really this extreme thinness, not bodily exposure or form-fitting, that drives the new suit. This kind of refined silhouette emphasizes the flexibility of the body, its physicality, brought to a line—a line, however, that exceeds the “functional.” Functionality only exists as a quotation of earlier modern style. Rather, the new suit lets the whole body, abstracted, exist as an ornament. Here, perhaps, the moment of feminine fashion par excellence—namely the ornamentalization by fashion of the female body and its movements—finally entered menswear. To top it all off, in these shortened, tight-fitting pants, you even get full view of the naked ankle!
All fashion critics, when describing the newer collections, seem to be describing the same show: one that displays, in the truest sense of the word, an inappropriate physicality, an unfitted body. Let us listen for a moment to Ingrid Loschek on Helmut Lang: “Tight hips, coats and jackets, lying so close to the body, as if they were too small.” On Tom Ford, who started out as a men’s tailor: “Trousers in stretch satin looked about three sizes too small.” The classic trope, of the ultimate mystery of female fashion, if not the secret of the female sex as a whole: “The audacity of nothing.” The male body in its strict reduction to the line is made an ornament. It was left to Helmut Lang, ironically, to cover this fact up, so happy was he to underline repeatedly his finding inspiration for his minimalism in Adolf Loos—who called this kind of ornamentalism a crime—a claim of “function” that only brought out all the more the purely ornamental character of the new pencil lines in motion: an arabesque, abstract movement, drawn languidly around the room.
Only when this has been accomplished can women enter again—not to “dress up” men’s fashion, but to wear this new men’s suit as their little black dress. The trend can be seen and understood as a minimalist unisex, but one now really sexy, because it is based on the transfer of a feminine principle of ornament, of the sex and marriage market (rather than labor and power), into men’s fashion, too. Ostensibly, the body may now be brought to the fore for both sexes, brought into the light—but at the cost of its reduction to a flexible and supple line. Its functionality is only a cover for another arabesque of modernity. In this respect, at least, one supposes, some men are the new women.
—Translated from the German by Mark Greif and Anne Schult