Fashion, according to Baudelaire, is a moral affair. It is, more specifically, the obligation laid upon a woman to transform herself, outwardly and visibly, into a work of art, or, at the very least, into a work of artifice, thus acknowledging the distance that must be measured between her natural and unredeemed state and the peculiar idol she must become if she espouses the work of self-admonition and self-regulation, and therefore of disguise, constraint, impassivity. She must do this because, naked and unashamed, she once performed the original act or sin of flouting God's will and of bringing man to full knowledge of himself. Since that time she has served as a constant reminder of the fallen state, and, to Baudelaire, was only tolerable when her body was corseted, her legs disguised by a crinoline, her arms immobilised by the dropped sleeves of her low-cut bodice, and her face rendered unrecognisable by rice powder, rouge and kohl. At once travestied and made inaccessible, she could then take her place in a box at the opera, and inscrutably fulfil her duties both to the passing scene and to the demands of her conscience. Or, rather, to the demands of Baudelaire's conscience. A failed dandy himself, he appreciated signs of effort in others; the loose, the slipshod, the revealing drove him to bitterness, and the unbound hair of his mistress was only too closely associated in his mind with her venality. 'La femme est naturelle, c'est-à-dire abominable.'
LRB 15 April 1982 | PDF Download