THE LANGUAGE OF CLOTHES by Alison Lurie

THE LANGUAGE OF CLOTHES

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KIRKUS REVIEW

For Alison Lurie, clothes speak before we do. Indeed, ""By the time we meet and converse we have already spoken to each other in an older and more universal tongue."" Yet while Lurie (Real People, The War Between the Tates) promises to translate the language of clothes, its vocabulary, its archaic and foreign terms, slang and vulgar words, and use of adjectives and adverbs, much of her semiology boils down to rather commonplace interpretation. We choose clothes for purposes of utility, sex, and/or status; we dress our age, or older, or younger, all to put across different messages, different identities. Much here relates more to a history of clothes than a language of clothes, with Lurie detailing the development of clothes designed specifically for children: muslin frocks, Kate Greenaway dresses, sailor suits, and Little Lord Fauntleroy costumes. But adult women also have endured transformations of figure and fashion, from the drooping adolescent of the early 1800s to the full-blown Victorian woman, ""a queen-size beauty,"" back to the image of childhood favored by the jazz age. Today, we may be regressing from the relative liberation of the 1960s-1970s pantsuit to a more restricted femininity of straight skirts and high heels. Indeed, according to Lurie, the whole history of fashion for the past 70 years ""can be viewed as a series of more or less successful campaigns to force, flatter, or bribe women back into uncomfortable and awkward styles, not only for purposes of Vicarious Ostentation and security of sexual ownership, but also and increasingly in order to handicap them in professional competition with men."" Lurie offers little support for this, or for her assertion that the popularity of blue jeans among students is due in part to their signaling alikeness in lower natures, however dissimilar their upper natures (and tops) may be--just as, in her college generation, students wore identical bulky sweaters over varied skirts, kilts, and slacks (signaling, presumably, ""We're all nice coeds from the waist up; we think and talk alike. . . but as women we are infinitely various""). Too many other comments on fashion's relation to place, time, status, and opinion are similarly dubious or banal (on the topic of color, for example, we learn that white symbolizes purity, innocence, and status; black, gloom, guilt, sophistication). Clothes do indeed form a complex language--but more of a sociological imagination is needed to unravel the layers of meaning and their correspondences to reality. An intriguing topic, a disappointingly superficial treatment.

Pub Date: Nov. 16th, 1981
Publisher: Random House