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What is style, Prof. Vinken?

August 10, 2021

reading time: 8 minutes

by Sacha Batthyany, guest author

Barbara Vinken

We talk to Prof. Dr. Barbara Vinken, a German literary scholar and fashion theorist, about style and the lack thereof.

Ms. Vinken, style is a word we use every day, and we categorize a whole range of things according to whether they are stylish – or not. What exactly is style?

It might help to think about the distinction between language as a system of rules and speaking as a concrete instance of the use of language, or what in French is referred to as: langue and parole. The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure came up with this distinction. We all use words to express ourselves in different ways, but when we do so, we move within given norms, a system of rules that we call language. The same is true of style: we move within a system of rules, in other words fashion, that we have to master in order to break these rules or express them a bit differently. Style is like words in the sense of parole – it is individual expression within a system.

Style is often treated as an accolade. You either have it – or you don’t.

This perception does indeed exist, but it’s not something I can really work with. The scientist Comte de Buffon defined style wonderfully: “Le style, c’est l’homme même.” Which means that style is a reflection of a person’s character, expressed in different areas: language, clothing, furnishings, food, the way they live. Just as you can’t escape the way you speak, you are born into a style and absorb it naturally from the time you come into the world.

Some people don’t differentiate or don’t perceive these differences.

Such people do indeed exist, but they aren’t really looking. Or they follow the ideology that form has no intrinsic value and that it would be better if aesthetics did not exist.

Barbara Vinken
"Style means not being afraid of breaking character every once in a while." © Dirk Bruniecki/laif

Having a style protects us from following whatever fashion dictates. A personal, established style makes us independent.

Style gives you a certain nonchalance with regard to the latest fad. You don’t have to chase after every trend; that can give you the courage to, for example, break ranks in an extravagant way, to not conform, and perhaps even be shocking. Although style doesn’t protect us from the all too familiar “bad buy” – we are all vulnerable to seduction – it can protect us from ending up as a fashion victim and from losing the pleasure found in self-fashioning.

Some people say that while style is inherent, fashion can be bought.

That is absolutely true. Style means not being afraid of breaking character every once in a while. What is dictated by fashion is reshaped – and perhaps even contorted at times –through individual appropriation.

During the corona pandemic, there has been an increase in the number of online purchases. The fact that everything can be bought at the click of a mouse probably means that the number of bad buys has increased.

I think so too. I read somewhere that 70 percent of the clothes that are ordered are returned. That’s crazy – just think about how many packages have been sent around in circles over the last several months. In the US, unlike here, most stores have a 14-day exchange policy. People get into a veritable frenzy and buy lots of clothes, which they then exchange again to buy new ones, etc. A bit dizzying, really.

It’s a reflection of our overheated consumer culture.

It is the inability to take ownership of an object, to invest love in it. Objects are exchanged arbitrarily, the only thing that matters to people is that they are consuming. And that is, in keeping with the theme, literally unstylish: people no longer have a feeling of what’s good for them, what feels good to wear, what they truly need to have. It’s an expression of disorientation.

What does style mean?

This article was first published in the client magazine CREDO issue on style.

Barbara Vinken is Professor of Literature and French Literature at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich and has taught in New York, Paris and Chicago. She is a columnist for various newspapers and the author of many essays and books on literature and fashion. Her book “Angezogen. Das Geheimnis der Mode” (Dressed. The secret of Fashion) was nominated for the Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2014.

And yet the guides and websites that tell us what to wear and how to dress are hugely popular. According to some of these, wearing shorts after the age of forty shorts is no longer allowed, and from sixty onwards, you shouldn’t wear skirts – never mind short-sleeved shirts! What do you think of the so-called fashion police?

Let’s put it this way: age is not a category in fashion, although many people think it is. In earlier times, hierarchies within society had rules relating to status and age, but these clear definitions overrode fashion. The flexibility of the boundary is more important than a person’s age, as Coco Chanel put it. In other words: some women can wear tight patent leather jeans with platform shoes in their old age and look fantastic, while others can’t even pull that off in their twenties. And as far as all the unspeakable rules that are dictated by fashion experts go: I find them far too timid. Style has a lot to do with pleasure and inclination. If it gives you pleasure, it’s allowed.

A lot of things are, of course, allowed. Having said that, a man who decides to wear a colorful suit instead of standard gray is often judged as being vain, a dandy.

It depends on the culture you live in. In Romance-speaking cultures, men are also allowed to be vain, even beautiful. Unlike in northern Protestant cultures such as Germany and Switzerland, there is no total ban on fashion for men.

Barbara Vinken
"The aristocratic man was considered not only the stronger, but also the more beautiful and ostentatious sex." © Dirk Bruniecki/laif

But the dandy is an invention of the British.

Yes, but it was a big hit in France. And this also has to do with culture. In France, the upper classes took their cues from the aristocracy. In England, the bourgeoisie also adopted aristocratic values and thus a weakness for extravagance. When it comes to culture, it’s also important to know who embodies authority in a society. Friedrich Nietzsche noted that in Germany, this was the intellectual in the suit, who has more important things to do than waste time on thinking about what to wear. Unlike in Italy, for example, this thought pattern can still be seen today, especially in intellectual circles, where people act as if they have more important things on their minds than worrying about something as frivolously superficial as their own appearance.

Which isn’t the case.

Let’s put it this way: it takes a lot of effort to express with your clothes that you don’t give them much thought – and that if you do put thought into them, it’s only to ensure you look decent. In fact, expressing that you don’t care about aesthetics is a rather complicated form of aesthetics. To then deny that is a bit hypocritical.

You spoke of Nietzsche’s influence in Germany. Who influenced the style in countries like France or Italy?

Nietzsche analyzed and propagated the bourgeois Protestant aesthetic. For a long time, the aristocratic man was considered not only the stronger, but also the more beautiful and ostentatious sex. A trip to a museum is all it takes to confirm this. Before the French Revolution, men not only dressed in colorful, sumptuous clothes, they also wore shimmering silk stockings that showed off beautiful legs and often their buttocks, they wore shoes with red soles, bows and heels, and during the Renaissance they sometimes even wore clothes with a décolleté. The erotic parts of the aristocratic man were transferred to women’s fashion in the 20th century: women began to show some leg, sometimes wearing leggings that went all the way up to the groin, like men during the Renaissance. They started to wear heels, bows and red soles, like the French male nobility during the Age of Absolutism.

Speaking of leggings. Some say that functional wear has triumphed. Sneakers are now worn in the office, even in combination with a suit. What does that say about the times we live in?

Many people think that sneakers represent a rejection of strict dress codes. A relaxation of the overly rigid business look. But the opposite is true. Not attaching importance to the aesthetic dimension of clothes, and instead dressing in a purely functional way, is an escalation of the modern speech act par excellence: form follows function! In this respect, outdoor and sports fashion are an extension of the credo of modernity. Functional clothing, such as outdoor jackets with all kinds of Velcro fastenings, are a peculiarly narcissistic rejection of one’s fellow man. And a rejection of all aspects of life that relate to aesthetics. Clothing no longer has to be beautiful or bizarre, but purely functional: breathable and water-repellent.

What does that have to do with narcissism?

People think of themselves now when it comes to clothing – and negate and deny the fact that others will see them. With their fluorescent biker short and helmet combinations, today’s cyclists are reminiscent of a swarm of locusts zipping around the city. And you have to be careful not to get in their way. They are on a higher mission to realize their inner self. In reality, they want to ostentatiously demonstrate that they move through life as aerodynamically as possible, without breaking a sweat, while remaining untouchable.

Aren’t functional clothes also a consequence of feminism, which rejects lipstick and tight clothing because it is what men want to see?

There is a certain kind of feminism that sees fashion as the epitome of female self-alienation. In other words, the woman makes herself an object and actually enjoys doing so. According to this logic, equal rights are only possible if the woman refuses to be enslaved to fashion. This was above all a revolt against the marriage market of the bourgeoisie. Today, various movements within feminism exist in parallel. One of these is the idea of specifically not mimicking what is considered masculine and instead, emphasizing the stigma of the feminine but in a way that has been recast. After all, feminists didn’t just wear pants, they also wore the shortest skirts.

Title picture: © Gunter Glücklich/laif

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