Fashion and the Romantic

On fashion's long love affair with Romanticism

By Rebecca LiaoDecember 2, 2012

    Fashion and the Romantic

    Image: from Alexander McQueen's last collection, "Angels and Demons," Autumn/Winter 2010  (

    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 introspection and his vanity.


    When Alexander McQueen showed his first collection as a graduate of the prestigious Central St. Martins’s School in London in 1992, Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims announced the return of Romantic ideals applied to modern contexts. As closely as McQueen had hewn to elements of the fashion of the early 19th-century Romantics — the military cuts, the dark, heavily embroidered fabrics manipulated into grand silhouettes, the gothic color palette of black, blood red and ghostly white — his ultimate goal was not to align himself with Romanticism by reviving historical artifacts. No, McQueen considered himself a journalist documenting contemporary barbarism and melancholy. Accused of misogyny for all the grotesque clothes and images this vision midwifed, he insisted to the very end that his clothes celebrated women, and if they did not always reflect how a woman herself wanted to be celebrated, they at least shed a particular light on her reality, and one that presented her as a uniquely potent and fitting medium for articulating the violence and disruptive ideas that hitherto only men had had the privilege to express.

    With Eclect Dissect from Fall 1997 for Givenchy Haute Couture, McQueen signaled his ultimate intent: “My idea was this mad scientist who cut all these women up and mixed them all back together.” His was the rebellious enterprise of destroying what women were or were expected to be and putting in their place inhuman incarnations of every treasured Romantic fascination: Gothic melancholy, horror, and nationalism. He continued, “I do this to transform mentalities more than the body. I try and modify fashion like a scientist by offering what is relevant to today and what will continue to be so tomorrow.” Given that McQueen offered plenty of patently disturbing images along the way, it is a miracle that there remained something that might capture a creation-obsessed humanist — a clear element of perfection.

    As a former apprentice on Savile Row, McQueen was an expert at cutting, through which he tried “to draw attention to our unrelenting desire for perfection.” As a designer (and also as a Romantic), McQueen dreamed up narratives about women. For Widows of Culloden (Fall 2006), he added bustles and nipped waists on sheath dresses and cocktail dresses with slightly flared skirts, quintessentially modern dress silhouettes. His goal was to “exaggerate a woman’s form, almost along the lines of a classical statue.” These women were in exalted company according to McQueen: he named Catherine the Great, Marie Antoinette, Joan of Arc, and Colette as inspirations. His grand vision necessitated equally grand costumes. Indeed, if McQueen’s ability to craft a woman’s story left his Parisian counterparts in the shadows, his haute couture craftsmanship distinguished him from his British peers. Embroidery, beadwork, featherwork, expert manipulation of traditional, luxurious couture fabrics and newly invented ones, and an expansive view on the possibilities of construction flowed out of McQueen’s atelier.

    Wearability hardly matters to the McQueen woman or to fashion editors. As beautiful as the clothes designed for retail are, they contain only a shadow of the dream women that, for the 15 minutes of a fashion show, McQueen used to lay bare the deepest recesses of humanity’s psychological excesses. Better, for the fashion world, that Galatea transform like Dorian Gray than into a real woman.

    McQueen was hardly alone in his artistic outlook. Erdem, another British designer, confessed to a more modest, yet equally serious creative process:

    My ideas always start either from art or philosophy or music. You kind of become a bit of a magpie. You take bits of things that are random and you piece them together again. It’s always about a made-up story in fashion. You’re telling a story about a woman. You’re trying to get across who this woman is.

    Though the Frankenwomen who stalk the runways each fashion week vary in the breadth and intensity of their origin — some are merely urban working professionals, others are modern-day Jackie Os, still others are mermaids who get serenaded by Florence Welch (courtesy of Chanel) — each is the product of a designer’s desire to create, in addition to a wardrobe, an extension of a woman’s identity and her life. In other words, they first create the woman.

    But as much as such destructive creativity originates in the nihilist strain of Romanticism, its commercial underpinnings betray a greater affinity with absurdism. Designer control has become a rarity. Most major fashion brands, including Alexander McQueen, YSL, Gucci, and Dior are owned by either LVMH or PPR, the two main luxury goods conglomerates. This is not to say that designers have all become retail-centric clothiers, their artistic visions less important than profitability of the brand. The catwalk offers relative freedom if — and this is a big if — the collection generates editorial buzz and the designers can deliver in their other duties: creating a line that will actually sell in the stores (including, in some cases, a diffusion line), attending publicity events and designing “it accessories,” all at least twice, often four times a year. Above all, each season’s endeavor must appear completely new and original. In exchange for the privilege of being in a prime position to achieve the Romantic dream, fashion has become a Sisyphean endeavor to create the perfect person.

    It is not simply the forcibly repetitive commercial and artistic dialectic of fashion that merits the comparison to Camus’s Sisyphus, for even then a designer can be lulled into thinking that with each passing collection, he or she moves closer to capturing the ideal person. There is also the utter futility. Fashion could no longer hide its fatigue two years ago, when former Dior head designer John Galliano was caught on video alone at a bar engaging in an anti-Semitic rant and Alexander McQueen hanged himself in his closet. Neither occurrence could be attributed to the pressures and protocols of the job alone. However, the physical evidence of unrelenting stress, isolation, and, consequently, a warped reality, was unmistakable.

    Stefano Pilati was removed as creative director at YSL mere days before his fall collection was to be presented, and though he never quite fit the YSL aesthetic, fashion editors could not comprehend the timing of his departure. The firing of Raf Simmons at Jil Sander to make way for Ms. Sander’s return met with even more outrage. Also dismissed right before his fall presentation, Simmons was universally admired for his unique minimalist couture aesthetic that placed Jil Sander in the sweet spot: editorial darling and trendsetter (we have him to thank for bright-colored street clothing). His departure suggested the execs at the label’s Japanese owner, Onward Holdings, and its Italian subsidiary Gibo, neither understood nor cared. Whatever superior dignity there is in being fired for holding steadfast to one’s aesthetic, it is a small comfort in an industry that has made clear what it prefers.

    Indeed, fashion’s legitimacy lies in its unabashed embrace of one lie to defeat a bigger lie. In finding the ideal way to push the rock up the hill, the premises and purposes of the endeavor are affirmed. Nihilist and Romantic thought decided that if they could not close the loop in the abstract by themselves, then the best they could hope for is to approximate perfection in a walled castle. It is a bit of a tautology — that reality can be self-contained because we have made it so. Like Romanticism, fashion pretends that proof of ability to make good is sufficient to demonstrate that we have indeed made good. To maintain its coherence, it recognizes and believes its imperative lies.


    Romanticism is a victim of its own success. Its influence was so comprehensive that what began as a collection of thoughts was conceptualized thereafter as a distinct place in the cultural geography, with its own fashion, literature, politics and technology. In the modern era, the look of Romantic frenzy and emotionalism consists of dark lips, pale skin, dark eye makeup, and black clothes with vestiges of Gothic and Victorian design, a timeless uniform for deeply emotive rebels. None of this is to say that offering up the greatest hits of the Romantic sensibility is uninteresting, because it certainly is that, but it is superficial, and perhaps for reasons the designers did not intend.

    In the 1980s, the Victorian revivalists were the New Romantics, with their gender-bending makeup and punk eclecticism. They engaged in the sort of complicated rebellion that was as cocksure as it was insecure, and their clothes for the most part reflected that ambivalence. After thirty years, New Romanticism’s looks have hardly become less dated. Vivienne Westwood, who dominated the New Romantic club scene, never seems to want to leave it. For the fall collections, Westwood showed a floor length brown corseted cloak dress that looked like it had stepped out of an erotic version of the Grimm fairy tales, along with a modernized counterpart in royal blue with zippers to suggest a track suit. From her club days, she fished out bright patchwork blazers and leggings, drop-crotch plaid cropped pants, and a deconstructed Union Jack cocktail dress. Dame Viv fights the good fight, but her attachment to empty references makes her the most egregious of the designers who perpetuate the association of Romanticism with the narrow historical phenomenon of the dandy.

    She is not alone. Giles Deacon opened his fall show with a well-cut black Regency suit and a matching plumed scarecrow headdress, a cliché interpretation of macabre. Dresses with burnt-paper prints and silver lace hit other Romantic notes of a beautiful destruction and icy, otherworldly perfection. Andrew Gn veered into period clothes with military coats, chiffon blouses latticed at the shoulders, and a Victorian brooch at the neck. Costume National attempted an ambitious reinterpretation of the rebel with cropped, structured coats whose front panels featured rather complicated and dramatic pleating and draping. The label seemed to equate dark and moody with Romantic, a not uncommon mistake on the fall runways.

    To be sure, it is a rare designer whose brand can accommodate the very specific references of Victorian costume or a historical version of Goth. Most find sexual decadence or unabashed evocation of power to be the more attractive and aesthetically richer sides of Romanticism. For his last collection at YSL, Stefano Pilati worked with a palette of forest green, burgundy, black, dark purple, and pigeon’s blood lips to create leather tunics, sheath dresses made out of chain mail and rubber, waists cinched to the degree of strict fetish and leather jumpsuits, one of which featured a chain metal strap across the back similar to an S&M harness. While Gucci’s DNA is easily one of the sexiest, Romantic decadence, certainly the variety Saint Laurent shared with Jacques de Bascher, is unfamiliar territory. But creative director Frida Giannini interpreted it with a poise and maturity that speaks of a designer who is very comfortable, and therefore not fatally obsessed, with sex. Jacquard jodhpurs, the Victorian high collar rendered more sensuous and feminine in silk rather than leather or wool and close-cut blazers in velvet that recalled loungewear hummed with the strong undertone of lust. Androgyny, a core ideal of the original Romantic identity, appeared at its sexiest for its nonchalance.

    Over at Gareth Pugh, we found tributes to the Romantic articulation of “will to power”: that a rebel’s proclivity for power comes from his awareness of his vulnerability in a world where all have an equal right to destroy. His futuristic interpretations of armor included platform thigh-high boots that hid the calves and ankles, severe funnel necks and wraparound pointed shoulders constraining the arms, all in powerful fabrics such as snakeskin, fur and leather, giving the models a decadently ascetic persona — alien Goth. Pugh mentor Rick Owens was thinking, as he put it, of “Brutalism — the music very aggressive and the masks on women’s faces, something violent.” What he ended up with was elegant austerity, despite the flames that erupted around the catwalk to begin the show (recalling McQueen’s Joan collection). Floor-length coats were paired with gracefully draped column skirts, and cropped leather jackets framed the face with leather stand-up collars.

    Before he was murdered in 1997, Gianni Versace’s last show ventured into Gothic territory, introducing Byzantine crosses folded into the brand’s love of leather and attitude. 15 years later, his sister Donatella visited the motifs again and created clothes with a double-whammy of the Versace sexual power-play and militant dark glamour. The house’s trademark curve-hugging sheath dresses, rendered in yellow and orange, worked in panels of metal mesh, the house’s answer to chain mail. Combined with the crosses, it was as though Baz Luhrmann had been asked to direct a Goth film.

    All these offerings for fall share the same shortcomings: too literal and too unidimensional. The vast majority who jumped on the Lisbeth Salander train, hoping to dress Mara, focused on the character at the expense of the actress. Even the most careful reproduction of human action and characteristics is not enough to create unity, which is why Camus thought the world of Proust’s complex abstraction and found no appeal in Faulkner’s realism — “Rebellion, which is one of the sources of the art of fiction,” Camus wrote, “can find satisfaction only in constructing unity on the basis of affirming this interior reality and not of denying it.” The implication is that physical manifestations have a falsely unique and apparent relationship with their underlying intent.

    If it is any comfort to the Faulknerian designers, 19th-century Romantics are partially responsible for the misunderstanding. A difference exists between those who rebel according to instinct and those who rebel metaphysically. The former stand in total opposition, illuminating his contrast as “the other.” A metaphysical rebel retains elements of what he rejects, both to be honest about the contradictions in any developed rebellion and to control its relation to its enemy.


    No designers understand the potential of this duality better than Christopher Kane and Erdem Moralioglu (or Erdem, as he is known professionally). Both insist that fashion brings together incongruous elements in a unique manner, perhaps because of its need to justify itself as more than a frivolous celebration of beauty, or perhaps because they acknowledge its main purpose is to match the persona of the wearer, herself a confluence of contradictions. Erdem and Kane followed similar artistic trajectories to arrive at their signature aesthetics, but their portraits of a lady could not represent contemporary English battiness more differently. The jurors at the British Fashion Council have recognized these two designers in no small part out of gratitude for choosing London Fashion Week as the platform from which to revive the hometown industry — defining both a look for the Romantic and a Romantic by his look.

    When Christopher Kane graduated from Central St. Martins in 2006, he had already developed a reputation for pushing the limits of good taste by making classic silhouettes and luxurious fabrics look so cheap, gaudy, and breathtakingly tacky that, while the fashion world groaned at their lack of beauty, it was intrigued by the designer’s technique and imagination and eager to see what he would produce the following season. Erdem studied at the Royal College of Art and made his name with floral prints that somehow had more manic energy than almost any that had come before, yet without sacrificing polish. Though their fan bases were growing (Michelle Obama favored Erdem, and all buyers fell in love with Kane’s organza disk appliqués from Spring 2009), one couldn’t help wonder when they would become Designers.

    In Fall 2011, they finally debuted their muses. Erdem found his perfectly put-together lady in a turbulent artist’s home, where the artist’s lover flies into a jealous rage and destroys his canvases, splattering paint all over her polite Erdem pieces in the process. Treated with unfriendly chemicals, her tweeds were now coming undone, her lace bonded to the satin underneath and faded away in degrade patterns. A random smattering of paint stuck to her dark clothes, and if she cared to wear a print, it had the aggressively moody energy of Monet’s Waterlilies, occasionally made more violent by the introduction of red or orange satin.

    Where Erdem stunned, Kane worked in more sinister ways. His Fall 2011 outing was an is-he-or-isn’t-he that dared the audience to acknowledge that they recognized his perverse undercurrent. In Spring 2011, Kane already hinted at a return to the material references of childhood memories. This time, however, there was a true sweetness underlying the tack. When used to accent an overall dark theme, the result was a Lolita who grew up to be the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Skirts in a throw-rug weave seemed like they had been recycled from a family garage sale. Piping filled with glittery neon liquid snaked around beautifully cut black shift dresses and eventually around the models’s necks in a leash.

    What these designers had discovered was that the most effective way to destroy good as it is known is to force its union with evil. For the Romantic to have merely created an alternate that exists side by side with what he had sought to destroy is to betray his intellectual foundations. Evil can only claim superiority by being as inclusive as its predecessor. Ironically, Sade, Lautremont, and others who encouraged the destruction of civilization did not go far enough when settling on obedience to base nature as their end point. The primitive man is too complacent to be a rebel.

    Given the Romantic’s sincere ambition to create unity, it would be dishonest to claim that he could not entertain greater nuance than this: he did, but soon found himself in a constant state of paralysis. The perpetual burden of an impossible task could not be abated. For him, the Sublime experience therefore required transcendence, an escape so complete that even reality is left behind — “the brief and vivid union of a tempestuous heart united to the tempest,” as Lermontov put it. Paralysis could only be relieved by exogenous shock because it offers the illusion of progress. By running into the arms of emotions, the Romantics placed their bets on the shaky foundation of extra-rationality. The historical Romantic appeared to be completely confident in his intellectual underpinnings; he was, in truth, anything but. The contemporary Romantic, on the other hand, is fully secure in his intellectual premises while being nervous about everything else.

    Thus Erdem aims to dress the woman who, in his words, is “eerily composed.” Any attempt to figure out the slant of her persona only leads to vertigo, and he names only the Hitchcock heroine and Romy Schneider as his inspirations. Kane’s darkly sophisticated woman, on the other hand, acknowledges the expectations of adulthood while rejecting genuine maturation. Devoid of Erdem’s violence, she yearns for her childhood toys the way Proust did for his mother.

    These steady states of anxiety result from a more complete form of nihilism. Romantic frenzy is so delicious precisely because it still has a direction, and at least in theory its object still exists. If the historical Romantic were to know what the modern Romantic does — that unity is imaginary, not just impossible — then he would truly be without a shelter, and not even the tempest could offer respite. Through modernity’s acceptance of the inherent disunity of reality, the Romantic is able to see his attempt to create unity through to its conclusion. He needed the law of anxiety, not Sade’s law of crime, to be accepted before he could continue his endeavor. Whatever fashion does to perpetuate the misunderstanding of Romanticism, it absolves itself through its willingness to seize the opportunity created by this hard-earned psychological readiness.

    For fall, Kane promptly got back to work, basing his collection on a “Joseph Szabo image, where the girl was wearing a moiré dress.” While Szabo was more concerned with photographing the quiet turbulence of teenagers coming of age in the 70s, Kane, opening with a black boxy jacket watermarked with oversized roses over a pinstripe moiré sheath dress, a purple tulle dress embroidered with black flowers, a counterpart in black leather and red lacquer, and a pinstripe dressing robe with jacquard trousers followed, suggested something else — sin indulged with shameless precision and care. Kane also jumped on the season’s armor motif, covering dresses of metal mesh with cloth embroidered with a smattering of flower rondos in primary colors: a Romantic version of the tablecloth on a child’s tea set.

    Erdem insisted that his enraged muse of last year had settled down and was ready to buy art rather than destroy it. Judging by the clothes, though, she had only learned to control her darkness and channel it with more refined technique. Black rubber and latex were bonded onto tweed or embroidered with lace, which was also cut out in rough patches and appliquéd back onto otherwise ladylike dresses. Indeed, when pieces were not displaying their adult inclinations, they possessed a manic layering of laces in magenta, yellow, black, and royal blue.

    Erdem and Kane distinguish their brand of provocation — designers, rebellious and insecure, rarely shy away from shock value — as that which denies the satisfaction of Romantic love. Few experiences are more offensive and revealing than ugly trying to pass itself off as pretty, especially when we are asked to wear it. The two designers instead tap into the subconscious of the Sublime, a place that anoints something as beautiful before the heart can catch up to love it, if it ever does, and therefore a place full of anxiety. A woman “eerily composed” is a rebel who calms this anxiety by welcoming into her persona that which she rebels against.


    Fashion’s redemption is that vanity, the other trademark of a rebel’s psyche, is not its creation (ardent partner is the more accurate accusation). McQueen, who reveled in his role as the enfant terrible of fashion — he once declared, “I’d rather people left my shows and vomited. I prefer extreme reactions” — completes the picture by defining vanity’s role in solving the Romantic dilemma. Explaining after the Spring 2001 show, entitled VOSS, what it all meant, he said:

    [In this collection] the idea was to turn people’s faces on themselves. I wanted to turn it around and make them think, am I actually as good as what I’m looking at […] The show was staged inside a huge two-way mirrored box, whereby the audience was reflected in the glass before the show began and then the models could not see out once the show started […] These beautiful models were walking around in the room, and then suddenly this woman who wouldn’t be considered beautiful was revealed. It was about trying to trap something that wasn’t conventionally beautiful to show that beauty comes from within.

    It would seem that the rebel has been here before: the mirrored cube is only the latest artificially delineated environment in which unity may be created. By Camus’s count, its predecessors include:

    The rhetoric of ramparts in Lucretius, the convents and isolated castles of Sade, the island or the lonely rock of the Romantics, the solitary heights of Nietzsche, the primeval seas of Lautreamont, the parapets of Rimbaud, the terrifying castles of the Surrealists, which spring up in a storm of flowers, the prison, the nation behind barbed wire, the concentration camps, the empire of free slaves, all illustrate, after their own fashion, the same need for coherence and unity. In these sealed worlds, man can reign and have knowledge at last.

    However, although these previous methods allow for the crafting of some kind of unity, they could not sustain it once tested by the messiness of reality. Fashion may yet succeed. Its challenge is to create a new God from the different angles in the hall of mirrors. Its great advantage is that its method of creation is egocentric, and its great flaw that its discoveries are therefore unfortunately tautological. If its unity too strongly resembles the religious unity it is replacing, then fashion may prove to be insufficiently artistic, even while proving itself a perfectly successful pursuit of the Romantic dream. In its disregard for purity, fashion is free to ignore artistic ethicists, who desire more concrete evidence of moral purpose. It also avoids the bigger lie, the idea that unity may be achieved through less solipsistic pursuits of coherence. 


    Within the mirrored cube, reality can finally be identical to its escape. Sade’s prediction that people would crave authoritarianism when faced with complete freedom has proven to be unfounded. There is no desire to forfeit chaos when it does not seem so different from reality; both come to bore in quite similar ways. Fashion’s great advantage is that it only ever aspires to be an anasthesiological catalyst by which we realize the full Romantic enterprise. Still, happy endings are possible: Raf Simmons, the Romantic ethicist, enjoyed an unqualified triumph with his inaugural couture and ready-to-wear collections as creative director at Dior.


    LARB Contributor

    Rebecca Liao is a corporate attorney and writer based in Silicon Valley. She contributes to The AtlanticN+1Dissent MagazineThe New Inquiry, the LA Review of BooksTea Leaf Nation, San Francisco Chronicle, and San Francisco Classical Voice. A graduate of Stanford University, where she studied Economics, and Harvard Law School, she founded The Aleph Mag, a digital magazine about art, culture, and Chinese law and politics. Rebecca is a jazz and opera singer and remains active in the California Bay Area classical music scene. She tweets at @beccaliao.


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