Speed Reading

Pub date July 1, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature


By Lars Svendsen

Reaktion Books

188 pages


As a once and future dandy, I’ve noted the growing field of fashion philosophy. In the realm of the academy, the idea of a unified theory of style has become something of a holy grail. The latest knight-errant, Lars Svendsen, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Bergen in Norway, starts his quest by seeking the meaning of fashion.

Relying heavily on Immanuel Kant and Walter Benjamin, Svendsen (as translated by John Irons) creates a concise and comprehensive primer on fashion and clothing as it relates to identity. He then stitches on a virtual CliffsNotes of philosophy on fashion, citing Roland Barthes, Charles Baudelaire, and Michel Foucault, and then appliqués some hep quotes from Bret Easton Ellis, AbFab, and the Pet Shop Boys.

In the end, Svendsen finds that we cultivate surfaces, that we live in an increasingly fictionalized reality, and that our identities are in steady decline. He concludes that fashion is a highly diverse phenomenon that pretends to have meaning, but in reality "has meaning to only a limited extent." That’s it? Fashion has no meaning, but some meaning? How weak is that?

If philosophy wishes to find meaning in fashion, it must make room for the power of talisman, totem, and fetish — elements that pure reason cannot abide. Svendsen errs in a manner many fashion philosophers have, by refusing to look away from the runways of Europe toward the magical elements of dress in Africa, Asia, and South America. The eggheads just don’t get it.