- The September Issue: Excess and Austerity in Fashion
Vogue’s September issue, the annual fashion event of the periodical year, comes out in August; this journal’s September issue probably squeaked out just in time; and the exhibitions discussed here are now like totally fermé, babe. Here in the ivory tower we were shooting for the piece to appear in this journal’s September issue. Then one of the books came to me late, and like most academics I read slowly and think slower. What used to be virtue—the stately pace of considered opinion—is now plight: fashion has no time for virtue, and academic publication calendars are glacial by anyone’s standards, let alone the giddy, vicious impatience of the modern clothing business. Academically speaking, modernism is à la mode, but schmatte ain’t hay. It pays to look ahead, and—you’re hearing this here first—modernism’s relation to fashion is the future.
Since it is in uneasy relation to the marketplace (like all aesthetics), fashion markets itself seasonally by looking forward: fall and winter looks come out the summer before, and if it’s autumn, you’re seeing what spring and summer will look like—that’s The September Issue: of Vogue, and of vogue. Academia could do with some catching up. Fashion may be in a race with death (Giacomo Leopardi said this in 1827; Walter Benjamin copied it as an epigraph for the fashion convolute in his Arcades project), but academia is in a race with fashion. [End Page 219]
That’s the other September Issue: we in academia need to take transience seriously. Modernism has been reckoning with the ephemeral for some time, beginning with Baudelaire (or Marx, or Descartes), and in Anglophone studies, tracking the salon, contemplating the role of popular entertainment, the Little Magazine, and then more sweepingly with the rise of periodical studies and the issues regarding institutional art that would turn into happenings. Ephemerality embodied, fashion hits all the marks. The “transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid” that Baudelaire marked as half of modernity goes hand in glove with “the eternal and the immutable.” 1 At the scholarly level, the transitory is here to stay, and it’s time to catch up with what is gone. That’s the future.
So let’s look back. Two things happened in London last spring that had a great deal to do with each other, even though the amateur probably would not put them together, thinking they clash. In fact however, just as fashion and death run apace, excess and austerity are two sides of the same coin.
On the one hand, excess: the Victoria and Albert Museum’s spring incarnation of the Alexander McQueen Savage Beautyexhibition broke all museum records: 85,000 tickets in advance sales, and, the day after visiting, I tried to book tickets online to see what mere mortals went through, having sailed in on someone else’s well-cut coattails. I stood on line onlinein order to be informed that as a member of the general public I would have to wait until the following month to repeat the experience. While I was dithering with my imaginary schedule—busy, busy, busy—the weekends were vanishing in front of my eyes. By the beginning of summer, advance tickets were sold out. Having for the first time remained open 24 hours a day for the show’s final two weekends, the museum reported that, by the time the show closed in early August, over 480,000 tickets had been sold to what the museum’s website is currently (in this moment of typing) calling the “Most Successful V&A Exhibition Ever.” Meanwhile, the Imperial War Museum’s Fashion on the Ration: 1940s Street Style...