Essays on Education Aesthetics and Ideas


Gertrude Stein on Fashion and War


In Paris France,  a short book published on the eve of World War II, Gertrude Stein poses a considerable question: what is the relationship between crisis and fashion? For a woman who lived in Paris when Paris was the cultural and artistic center of the world, that is, from 1900 to her death in 1946, she observed a thing or two about fashion, and, also, about war. For instance, she observed that "if you like fashions you get tired of crises, and the French like fashions they do not like them they naturally create them and crises are occasionally a help to fashions, an occasional crisis is. . ."  Nations go to war, she seems to say, because they do not like fashions and certainly they do not create them. Thus under the cover of a charming and humorous vignette of the country Stein chose to spend her adult life, Paris France can also be read as an analysis of the profound historical, cultural and political movements of the first half of the twentieth century.

But to see this we need to step back to the nineteenth century, the Victorian or the British century, in any case, the century of European progress. In the nineteenth century modern Enlightenment rationality was beginning to pay off on its immense promissory note.  Public health took a massive leap forward with improved sanitation, child mortality rate dropped dramatically, life spans increased, the rule of law was more universal than ever, there was an exponential boost in efficiency and the time when manual labor would be largely overcome seemed to be in view.  But just when this was happening, just when the argument for progress was all but won, the best minds in Europe threw their hands up as if to say, "No, this is not what we want. We want something different, something with some life in it, something that we can actually live.  Not just trudging off to work every day." Thus the beginning of bourgeois self-hatred.  And yet, the nineteenth century was very much a British century because outside their novels, they were not too troubled by progress.

In the twentieth century, we see this negative response to the flatness of modern life gain ground, not only among intellectuals and artists, but among the politically ambitious men and through them, eventually, entire nations felt the urge for something more.  In Nazi Germany this manifests as the attempt to go back behind modern bourgeois life through an ideology of blood and soil, or in Soviet Russia as an attempt to accelerate out of it through the exponential increase of technology. I would argue that what Stein calls for in this book, sitting on the precipice of the second world war as these ideologies gain ground, is a third way, the French way.  As she describes it, the French way is “exciting and peaceful”.  Underneath this fairly innocuous description hides a blueprint for a twentieth century unencumbered by the mass devastation that in fact turned out to be the horrifying truth.

Gertrude Stein, by Pablo Picasso, 1906

Stein gives us a kind of phenomenology of war through the lens of fashion and the lived life. Fashion is a type of play, a creative act in a field of necessity, like cooking. It is always wedded to survival and our relationship to the earth and its seasons, which, though cyclical, maintain a constancy similar to the permanence of logic.  However, despite its relationship to the inevitable recurring of nature, given the space, fashion thinks anew this relationship and gives a certain joy to human life.  In this sense fashion extends beyond clothing, encompassing everything from cooking to the way homes are heated to the way we name our pets.  As Adam Gopnik puts it, fashion “means in Steinese something more like ritual, the elements of surface excitements that give life novelty without pretending to finality.”  The last part of Gopnik’s description is the most important.  Fashion is always new but never ultimate.

In an inimitable sentence, Stein writes,

"But the thing to remember is that the french know the difference between a fashion and something that is being done that is not a fashion, some people follow everything but the french have a delicate sense, they know what is a fashion and what is not a fashion, and just following the way some nations do is not following a fashion, and of course they do not want to feel any sense of obligation or obedience, obligation and obedience is the death of fashion and therefore as the workman said we have had enough of what they make us do."

What the French seem to express in their “delicate sense” is the subtle difference between the recurring overlaid with the new and the new simply.  What is new simply is the death knell of fashion because the new without a recognition of the cyclical logic of nature and the seasons is the slippery slope of tyranny.  Fashion rests within circular time, tyranny within a linear progress.  The French with their delicate sense recognize this, too.  “The season and the fashions that exist with the seasons are the things France lives by, the earth has its seasons and the people who live on that earth have fashions and that is all."

But then what is it about fashion and the “delicate sense” that benefits from war? It is similar to the way in which wars are good for Americans because it teaches us geography. You do not need to know about geography if you need no traffic with the rest of the world. War makes that traffic necessary.  So fashion, for Stein, is benefitted by war because war interrupts fashion, that is, it interrupts a fashion’s movement toward finality or toward being new simply, which is always a possibility.  Without war,"there are fashions that change and fashions that do not change or fashions that change slowly but there are always fashions.” In war, fashion and the “delicate sense” is rendered ineffective—the “always” is taken away.  

War is then the separation of season and fashion, the break-up of the cyclical logic of nature. In war, the free association with the season that is fashion becomes overdetermined, hemmed in by the arbitrary needs of the moment. This is hard for us to acknowledge since it is very hard to for us to see how war could slow down fashion because fashion is not now something that comes and goes with the seasons (cf. H&M).

"The difference between propaganda and fashion is very interesting."

This becomes clearer, however, when we see how fashion and war create followers in different ways. War creates them by making people obedient to an artifice, to an ideal, and the aesthetics of war is propaganda. Stein reminds us that propaganda is not logical, "If there is one thing in the world that is not logical it is propaganda, and it is one thing in the world that has nothing to do with fashion.” Fashion, on the other hand, creates followers by showing them a new relationship to a necessity, that is, to the annual rotation of the seasons. We must relate to the seasons, that is the fact, but we must not do so in a way that is forced.  

Fashion is thus a civilizing affair, for it refines the way we connect with our world.  “Propaganda is not French,” Stein adds, because “it is not civilized to want other people to believe what you believe because the essence of being civilized is to possess yourself as you are, and if you possess yourself as you are you of course cannot possess any one else, it is not your business." In this regard, Napoleon was the most non-French moment in the history of France precisely because he was someone who loved to go to war, a decidedly illogical and uncivilized thing to do. In her estimation, "he was not civilized he was not logical and he was not fashionable." 

We should note that being logical for Stein is not the same as being rationalistic.  It is recognizing something like immutable laws without attempting to subject those laws to our desires.  To be logical for Stein is something akin to being fashionable.  

"Wars and the threat of wars are different things and threat of war does perhaps help to logic and fashion."

Stein writes during "war-time," not war itself. War-time was when the men were gone and children wobbled along uneasily on bicycles vacated by their brothers and fathers. It was a time when pets were able to hunt game, the horses were enlisted, and empty bottles stood upright in the road, not on their side as they would during peace-time. War-time was when "there was not any difference between day and night . . . . The nights were black and the day was dark and there was no morning. Not in war-time."

War-time and not war. Crisis but not too much crisis. The directness of Stein's language at times obscures its underlying shiftiness. It is war-time and not war itself that is, perhaps, a help to fashion.  In war-time, in the stillness of an anticipation, things stand out in sharper relief.  War-time creates what she calls a “concentration of isolation”.  "There are so many more animals and fowl and children... A war brings you in contact with so much and so many and at the same time concentrates your isolation." And that is how war helps us refine the “delicate sense”.  Alone, we see our relationship to others and to the seasons, and we see how this relationship is in danger of not being free, civilized, and logical.  In this danger the “delicate sense” faces up to its possible eclipse.  

And in a way, Stein suggests, this is what twentieth century art was so willing to convey. Painting in the twentieth century was indifferent to impressions, the call to arms of the previous century. Instead, twentieth century are was giving expression to the conceptual life of the artist and the time. What were these conceptions that were painted? It was "everybody knowing" that the world was round and that space was "illimitable”.  It short, it was the nineteenth century’s success in delivering everyone over to the framework of Enlightenment thinking and modern science and the progress we have made.  

Yet, and here is where the real Frenchness of the twentieth century comes out, even though we all know that we know the earth is round and space illimitable Stein maintains that "the French background never did dissociate itself from the earth . . . there is still the ground, it is still there. . . Facts are facts. It is a fact and so let us know it but not remember it." Remembering keeps us from living among the thunder and storms and mountains and birds. These are the things to live among. The French know this, which is why, as Stein notes obliquely, they all retire in the provinces, the vantage from which Paris, France was written.

To know and not remember.  The known facts are chaotic, unruly, and often solicit us to impose an unnatural order upon them.  And yet living in the face of these facts, unremembered, cooly, freely, that is what logic and fashion and civilization are to the French.

It may be what they are.  Period.



[Note: for those who wish to get a general summary and overview of Gertrude Stein's Paris France, you can do no better than reading Adam Gopnik's new introduction to the work published by Liveright, 2012. In many ways the thoughts above are a coda to Gopnik's introduction.]