Monday, May 18, 2009

Book Review: Seeing Through Clothes

This is a book for serious scholars of fashion or art. If that does not describe you, stop reading now! However, if you want to immerse yourself into the meaning of clothing as portrayed through works of art, then read on.

Seeing Through Clothes is concerned with the interconnection between clothes worn in real life and clothes portrayed in works of art. "With clothes as with art, it is the picture itself, not the aspects of culture or personality it reveals, that demands the attention first and appeals directly to the imagination through the eye. Because they share in the perpetually idealizing vision of art, clothes must be seen and studied as paintings are seen and studied -- not primarily as cultural by-products or personal expressions but as connected links in a creative tradition of image-making." (page xvi)

This book, densely packed with original ideas and analysis, is comprised of 5 chapters, each of which could be a book, in and of itself.

Drapery traces the visionary history of fabric through its portrayal in paintings and sculptures. "Fabric is thought to decorate and beautify, not only because of its direct appeal but because it has been shown to do so in an incredible variety of works of art since the remotest antiquity." (page 2)

The chapter on Nudity traces the meaning of the unclothed or partially clothed figure in works of art. The clothing we wear carries significant meaning and the absence of clothing in turn shares this same complexity. "Nakedness is not a customary but rather an assumed state, common to all but natural to none, except on significantly marked occasions. These may be ritual, theatrical, or domestic, but they are always special, no matter how frequent." (page 84)

In Undress, Hollander explores the idea that the suggestion of partially removed clothing creates an intensified erotic force in works of art. "In art the body without its clothes is a pale shadow of its clothed self. But the body shown either partially nude or closely accompanied by cloth and clothing can carry a more complex message about itself and its dress. The dialectic of clothes and body is more sharply focused when both appear." (page 236)

In Costume, the conventions of costume in theatre, ballet, opera and film are examined. "The history of theatrical costume shows that the first purpose of dressing for theatrical events is to catch the eye with something unusual." (page 239)

In Dress, the idea that dress is a form of visual art, with changes in what is considered fashionable dress being accomplished through filters of artistic convention (ie, photography, film or portraiture). "And the difference between the way clothes now look (at any given time) and the way they used to look is made most clear to the eye through changes in the style of their pictorial respresentation -- including styles of photography and cinematography. Dressing is always picture making, with reference to actual pictures that indicate how the clothes are to be perceived." (page 311)

In Mirrors, Hollander considers the interrelationship between mirrors and images. By looking in the mirror, we create a self-portrait by which we measure our looks against images that we have seen (in painting, photography and other media). "People look at their clothes in mirrors to see how they fit into the common visual scheme or indeed to make themselves fit in." (page 417)

Seeing through Clothes is illustrated with extensive black and white images of the works of art that Hollander uses to support her arguments. When I first opened this book, I was disappointed by the quality of printing and put it aside, not aware of the wealth of information inside. Eye candy it is not. This is brain candy! With original thought and weighty analysis, this book requires very careful and thoughtful reading. In fact, I probably should read it again.

Title: Seeing Through Clothes
Author: Anne Hollander
Publisher: University of California Press, Berkeley (Paperback version 1993)
(Originally published by Viking Press in 1973)
Category: Non-fiction - Costume in art; Costume history
Price: US$28.95 Canada $36.50
Number of Pages: 504

P.S. I've also ordered Anne Hollander's other book Feeding the Eye but I expect it will take me a while to get through it.