Image: from Alexander McQueen's last collection, "Angels and Demons," Autumn/Winter 2010 (www.alexandermcqueen.com)
THERE IS A CALL-AND-RESPONSE PATTERN to fashion collections from season to season, the frenetic creative pace requiring the harshest detox to move from one intense focus to another. This fall, after a tranquil adventure underwater for Spring 2012, designers returned to the old stand-bys of darkness and Romanticism, with whom fashion has had a long love affair. Their cases were certainly helped by Lisbeth Salander, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and how much the look of her character has stayed with previously fresh-faced Rooney Mara. With her signature fringed bangs, blood-red lip, heavy eyebrows, porcelain complexion and supermodel’s bone structure, Mara captured the imaginations of previously inspiration-starved designers and fashion houses looking for the next cool clothes horse to move sales. It isn’t often that a cultural ethos, even one like Romanticism, the emotionalism of which still resonates broadly (though its other sensibilities, such as nationalism and horror, can seem dated and idiosyncratic), so thoroughly permeates a fashion season. The acid kaleidoscope that is fashion month can confer relevance on anything — it did Romanticism one better by liberating it from its historical baggage.
To hear Romantics tell it, they were the first modernists. No other movement that had come before dared to confront and embrace the chaotic implications of insisting upon absolute human freedom. Indeed, while most trace the lineage of the Romantics back to the Byronesque heroes, it was the rebel whose intransigence punctured the wellspring of irrationality, from which Romanticism arose and modern thought continues to draw.
For the rebel, success was within reach only after he had flirted with self-destruction. The Romantic rebel gave up on God and immortality, and yearned for a unity to replace the one he had just lost. Without the promise of immortality, nothing had meaning, and so everything was permitted. Sensing the intellectual opportunity in this, people like the Marquis de Sade argued for the rule of instinct, for a return to nature, and that freedom requires destruction of the existing order and the embrace of sin. A tough proposition, especially when the same nihilist morality that felled God would itself have to be rejected in the rebel’s exacting search for unity before it reached its breaking point. No matter — it is not important that unity be achieved in practice when it can be perfectly conceptualized and executed in the echo chamber of a prison or asylum. The irony of having to create in order to destroy, or vice versa, depending on whether nihilism is taken to be a means or an end, could not have been lost on the later Romantics Sade influenced.
Contrary to how he is commonly understood, then, the Romantic rebel is not fundamentally interested in social change as much as a reconstitution of the moral, philosophical, and psychological order. Indeed, the Romantic’s patron saint was not the rebel in his purest incarnation, but the dandy, whose fetishizing of the individual consecrates his life as a work of art and asks that others watch the performance. “To live and die before a mirror,” according to Baudelaire — there is really no separation between a Romantic’s introspec...read more