Fashion, From Gap to Gaultier, Stitched With Cultural Clues

A Dedicated Follower of Fashion , by Holly Brubach. Phaidon Press, 232 pages, $29.95.

The End of Fashion: The Mass Marketing of the Clothing Business , by Teri Agins. William Morrow & Company, 320 pages, $25.

We all have to get into clothes every day and they have to suit a particular purpose: either make us stand out from a crowd or help us blend into it. This is the function of fashion–as opposed to Fashion, or couture –its wilder, more romantic (and pricier) twin, where the art of clothing design finds form.

Holly Brubach has been a slave to fashion–and Fashion–for 20 years. She admits to this without embarrassment, even though her subject, fraught as it is with gossip and whimsy, might seem too feeble to withstand serious analysis. For her, fashion is not just an esthetic proposition but an identifiable pathology. Her mission, in gathering between hard covers a selection of essays she wrote for The Atlantic Monthly , The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine , is to signify the ins and outs of fashion as essential guideposts to human behavior.

In her two decades as one of the rag trade’s sharpest critics–she’s since become creative director for Prada’s sport and home collections–Ms. Brubach managed to serve as one of its chief apologists as well, viewing both Fashion (“the official version”) and fashion (“what people actually wear”) with a mix of affection and chagrin. Such ambivalence suits her subject, with which so many of us have a relationship that is equal parts love and hate. But she actually went to the runway shows, ran backstage with the models, visited the gyms where men and women toil to achieve bodies that conform to the cruel dictates of fashion, profiled the leading designers–Coco Chanel formulating a timeless style, Yves Saint Laurent self-destructing, Karl Lagerfeld inflating his ego–and limned the trials not aonly of dressing with allure but shopping with a vengeance. Her book is like the friend who dares to be honest, confirming that we’re beautiful but flawed and smart enough to live well in spite of it.

Reading her, we can begin to characterize fashion in our century as belonging either to the pre-feminist era–when women wore whatever designers told them to wear–or the post-, when they wore whatever they wanted. But, Ms. Brubach implies, they still don’t have a clue how to dress. Why not? Because of sex. “If the way a society keeps sexual behavior under control is one of its organizing principles,” she wrote in “Landscape With Figures,” a 1995 essay, “then fashion, being the language in which sexuality (among other things) is expressed, is a key to something basic.” That something turns out to be the cut of our clothes, either close to the body or away from it, which directs the way men and women relate–with desire and suspicion, courage and fear.

Men fetishize women’s bodies; they can’t help it. But they hesitate to compliment a woman on her looks, for fear of insulting her intelligence. So what’s a girl to do? Beat ‘em or join ‘em? This dilemma Ms. Brubach takes by the horns in one of her finer essays, “The Religion of Woman,” in which she makes the once hotly debated issue of hemlines the basis for a disquisition on sexual politics. “To what extent,” she asks, “are we willing to make ourselves into the images men need to get sexually aroused?” Shouldn’t men be doing the same for women? she wonders, while defending a woman’s wish to be seen as more than the sum of her body parts. However, she continues, if women want to dress in ways that show them to be thinking, feeling people rather than mere sex objects, they won’t get much help from the European fashion world, which continues to emphasize clothes that fulfill men’s fantasies. Still, she says, ever the loyalist to her cause, “How dull fashion would be if men’s fantasies, even the inhospitable ones, went unrepresented.” Well, their fantasies are represented aplenty and fashion still gets duller every day, what with both sexes now dressing in the Gap–the tailor of choice even to sultry Sharon Stone.

So to hell with Fashion! Even the strongest personalities fall prey to its impossible demands. How many times have you bought an item of clothing based on the way a perfect stranger, usually a sales clerk, thought you looked in it? How many pairs of shoes do you own in which you can barely walk? Perhaps no part of us is as vulnerable to outside influence as our self-image, which is what the purveyors of fashion are in business to mess with. “Fashion knows no pain,” we explain. Ms. Brubach calls this reasoning to account. At some point in our lives we’ll do anything to be trendy. Or we’ll do just as much to avoid the same. Either way, we take a lot of trouble to stay in the game.

And a game it is. Or it was. Fashion used to be fun; now it’s serious business. Just how serious is the subject of The End of Fashion , by Teri Agins, a Wall Street Journal reporter who covers much the same territory as Ms. Brubach–but from a retailer’s, rather than a shopper’s, point of view. One follows the money; the other elaborates a myth. Guess which one is easier to relate to?

What Ms. Agins calls the end of fashion, Ms. Brubach terms the end of elegance. Fashion will never die, says Ms. Brubach. It just gets different: The most seductive clothes in America today may be gym togs. Ms. Agins riffs on the same theme, charting the top fashion designers’ transformation from custom tailors to household brand names that sell far more perfumes, home furnishings and accessories than they do clothes. Designer logos–what she terms the “‘branding’ of fashion”–are all that separates the men from the boys in the malls, where labels count. So if it’s market behavior that rips your gut, read Teri Agins. Her book well documents the sacrifice of innovative design to clever merchandising, giving the story the Hollywood treatment it deserves. But if it’s bright, witty commentary on the life of style you want, pick Holly Brubach (she also happens to be the more engaging writer).

To support her arguments, Ms. Agins quotes fashion professionals. They include Ms. Brubach, who is more likely to cite Virginia Woolf, Randall Jarrell and Colette. By itself, I don’t find the backroom industry narrative all that riveting. If anything, it’s sad. Its also, by now, overfamiliar: Fashion’s surrender to the corporate bottom line mirrors that of every other cottage industry in America, from book publishing to movie production to pop music. Ms. Agins decries fashion’s promotion of manufactured image over style; Ms. Brubach laments the absence of design theory from America’s intellectual discourse. See the difference?

Provocative though it is, Ms. Brubach’s book plays musical chairs with the march of time. Her essays appear out of sequence, sometimes linked by subject, sometimes not. She follows a 1991 piece on the supermodel Kristen McMenamy (who?) with a 1989 report on the country’s new embrace of designer sunglasses. Her 1992 summation of Mr. Saint Laurent’s career leads into a 1988 recap of Perry Ellis’. As history, it can get confusing; as a series of spot-checks on the “vanity, love, greed, snobbery, sex and other fun subjects” that mirror our collective obsessions, it’s pure theater, as entertaining as it is distressing and as cutthroat as it is consoling.