Bernard Rudofsky’s 1947 essay “Are Clothes Modern?” ponders the passing of fads, the ideology of luxury goods, the changeability of body taboos, and the psychic satisfaction of a chic self-portrait.
The fashion calendar flipped to July and brought forth the rarefied presentations, in Paris, of clothing by the members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture—a lot of sumptuous gowns to wear on autumn evenings among superstars, plutocrats, and oligarchs. The artistic director at Christian Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri, opened her couture show with a simple white dress resembling the peplos of classical Greece: a rectangle of cloth draped to make a flowing column. Chiuri puts a lot of muscle into textual messaging; in 2017, she famously created a T-shirt printed with the phrase “We Should All Be Feminists,” in homage to the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This year, Chiuri printed the peplos with the title of a crucial work of social criticism—Bernard Rudofsky’s “Are Clothes Modern?”—in a typeface inspired by the cloth cover of its first edition, from 1947.
Rudofsky, who died in 1988, was an architect by training, a polymath by appetite, and an iconoclast by temperament. He is best known as the author of “Architecture Without Architects,” about ancient monuments, nomadic tents, and other amazing instances of primeval design, and second-best known as a reform-minded interdisciplinarian whose work ranged from urban planning to interior design. (His contribution to fashion studies, and, thereby, social theory, includes a lecture titled “How Can People Expect to Have Good Architecture When They Wear Such Clothes?”) Chiuri described “Are Clothes Modern?” as a major influence on her collection, telling the Guardian that everyone who makes clothing should read Rudofsky: “He writes about how fashion is not just about creativity but about all of human life.” I would go further and recommend this book-length essay to everyone who even thinks about wearing clothes. Its analysis offers an exceptional structure for considering such topics as the passing of fads, the ideology of luxury goods, the evolution of tattoo art, the changeability of body taboos, the persistence of pointless pockets, the psychic satisfaction of a chic self-portrait, and the splendor of Cardi B’s manicure.
“Are Clothes Modern?” is out of print, though available on the Web site of the Museum of Modern Art. (It is the catalogue essay for a 1944 exhibition curated by Rudofsky, the influence of which extended to the 2017 MOMA exhibition “Items: Is Fashion Modern?”) Rudofsky’s writing style is conjectural, aphoristic, coolly passionate, generally fantastic. Deploying broad historical knowledge and a keen comparative eye, he does an enormous amount of discoursing around the premise that “the clothes we wear today are anachronistic, irrational and harmful.” The accompanying illustrations, uniformly delightful, include a juxtaposition of the patterns of traditional Marquesan tattoos with those of late-Victorian hosiery. Pages 120 and 121 boast a jazzy graphic mapping the twenty-four pockets and seventy buttons of a mid-century man fully dressed in a suit and overcoat. “What glass beads are to the savage, buttons and pockets are to the civilized,” Rudofsky writes, intending no disrespect to primitive culture. On the contrary, his analysis flows from the belief that the physical constrictions of Western clothing, like the capitalist contortions required by the system of producing and consuming them, often represents the corruption of ancient desires for bodily decoration.
He gives a rich account of what has been thought attractive and appropriate on various continents in various centuries, braided through with a progressive manifesto in favor of renouncing such shackles as throttling collars. (The personal wardrobe of the author was that of a mellow and worldly academic—traditional suits in flannel and tweed, a jacket with a gently futuristic vibe in its mandarin collar, a pastoral straw hat matched with a checked cravat and dotted shirt.) He admires such reformers as Amelia Bloomer, whose fight for the right to vote was entwined with her advocacy of trousers, and he smiles on promising signs of the advent of the equalization of men’s and women’s clothing. Rudofsky wrote thrillingly tart prose, as when condensing a historical overview of an undergarment into a one-sentence story of transfiguration: “This corset which first was used as a remedy for supposed shapelessness, later became a focus of erotic attraction, wound up by being an indispensable requisite of decency.”
The book is calling clear across a gulf of time. Rudofsky was writing only a generation after the corset went out of style. The zipper was new enough that he calls it a “slide fastener.” His distance only enhances his relevance and encourages the contemporary reader’s sense of perspective. Rudofsky seems, now, prophetic for anticipating “play-clothes”—athletic gear and beach wear—as “the starting-point for the creation of a genuine contemporary apparel.” But he did not foresee the changes in social formality and technology functionality that have led to a world of men in fine-wool trousers with elasticized waistbands, and women in maternity overalls made with elaborately pre-ripped denim, and people carrying themselves with yoga-trained discipline as they go about their business in swishing mesh gym shorts or cropped lycra tank tops. He would receive the news of our world with a jolt of pleasure at the dropping of some pretense of false modesty and a shock of recognition at the evolution of athleisure.
Rudofsky’s agitation in favor of sensible design included the creation, with his wife, Berta, of a shoemaking enterprise, named Bernardo Sandals. The sandals, with their healthfully flat leather soles that follow the outlines of the foot and their straps like festive riffs on rustic tradition, were a favorite of Jane Birkin and Jacqueline Bouvier. Bernardo Sandals still thrives, and a pair can be yours, on Zappos or at Bloomingdale’s, at a fair price. These utopian artifacts are souvenirs of a mind that begins “Are Clothes Modern?” with an unexpurgated retelling of the Grimms’ version of “Cinderella,” where a maiden amputates a toe to force her foot to fit the precious shoe, and that returns to that theme about two hundred pages later. “The modern shoe is among the articles of dress whose improvement is retarded by the fact that it is an erotic implement,” Rudofsky writes. “The generation that will see the end of the barbarical initiation custom of putting females on high heels, and the young man whose emotions will still function without the stimulus of Cinderella’s slipper, will fare better.” Many of the shoes that Chiuri presented, in Paris, hewed to the Bernardo Sandals ideal. They exist for a future in which the Dior client comes to feel that the house’s current collection of pumps and sandals, distinguished by crooked high heels that look like artful exaltations of deformity, have gone out of style.