Book Review: Chic Thrills

The book jacket that this fashion reader is wearing is fabulous. The volume is a compilation of essays about Fashion and Culture, and the photograph it features front and center is a hallucinogenic pink and black rendering of a crowd of awkwardly dancing hippies. They are well dispersed for optimum hip thrusting and the odd kick or jump. This book jacket screams: “Read me on my terms. I am tacky, wonky, out-of-date. I am as god-damned serious and sincere as I was when these essays were assembled back in 1992, and if you can get past my unfortunate font choice you might just learn something.”

Essays in Chic Thrills are grouped in four categories: Imagery and Language, Identity, design and Ethnicity, Haute Couture versus Popular Styles, and Utopias and Alternative Dress. They are well researched but not stale, objective but also early-nineties risqué. “Menswear in the 1980s” by Neil Spncer in particular has delectable hints of magazine-style bite: “Both rocker and mod looks prospered through the early and middle eighties. The Reaganite return to the Cold War fifties (the last time the United States really felt good about itself), ushered in an era of quiffs and shaved necks, of pumping iron and hulking physiques in ‘power suits’ with shoulders like cliff tops (Superman also returned).” Fashion, as all of these authors remind us, is a great place from which to ask questions about what humans have wanted, who we’ve been, and what we like. Sometimes the answer is quiffs and sometimes it’s power suits.

In another Chic Thrills essay, “A New Vision of Society: Women Clothing Workers and the Revolution of 1848 in France,” Sheila Rowbotham gets to unpack some fascinating new bits of history, and it’s more of the kind of stuff that makes one think about the relationship between fashion and how one might want the world to be. First, she sets the stage with a deft and tasteful mix of context and suspense: “Working class women usually enter history as victims of oppression, or they appear momentarily in apparently spontaneous actions. It is quite rare to find records not only of their complaints and protests but of their ideas about alternatives.” Can you feel the long pause of the end-of-paragraph? The titillated historians in the crowd rustling in their seats at the thought of records that are quite rare? I can.

The punch line is this: “During the French revolution of 1848, working-class women stated their demands, created alternative forms of co-operative production which spanned work and home, and envisaged the transformation of daily life.” Not only did they imagine systems that would bridge public and private, but they wrote about them, and began to put many of them into practice. Some women were even killed, but the century that followed the heyday of innovative thinking did not defeat them. It’s a great story and it pours out of Rowbotham with a restraint that somehow makes it all the more moving.

All of the essays are balanced and loaded with excellent information. The entire collection is as speckled with typos as a fourteen-year-old is with zits, mind you, but I’m inclined to look politely away from the blotches on the face of this good book. It might be because the folks presumably responsible for this shoddy copy-editing (the editors) also contribute the very best piece of writing. Under the unassuming title “Introduction,” with no mention of the authors’ names, Chic Thrills gives us an astonishing account of the states and stages and relevancies of fashion.

This essay alone should be required reading for contemporary cultural theorists. The authors use the perspective provided by fashion’s place in history to lay out the tensions of the whole postmodern debate in the most decisive and compelling way I’ve ever read. In the place of theory-wanking and confusion they offer a concrete political vision for designers: “Corporate style, having attempted to standardise culture by postmodernist means, may yet be brought down by those who work in the image industry, if they can harness their inventiveness to the urgency of creating a radical yet realistic alternative for the twenty-first century.”

And the question still stands: Will those who work in the image industry be able to create a radical yet realistic alternative for the new century? What would the alternative look like, and what would it need to do for people to be truly radical? Chic Thrills has some suggestions but really innovative responses to these questions are, I think, still to come.

-Edited by Juliet Ash and Elizabeth Wilson, University of California Press, 1992
Reviewed by Risa Dickens (originally published in Worn Fashion Journal Issue 2)

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