You’ve Got the Look

on June 26, 2010

During the last week, I’ve been looking over the work I did in the 1970’s on the cycle of static and creative phases, hoping to come up with clues as to the nature of the “romantic break.” But instead of finding answers, I keep being reminded of puzzles I was never able to resolve at the time.

By far the most significant of these has to do with the role played by changes in fashion.

I suggested in the previous entry that the concept of a recurring cycle of cultural phases grew out of my study of the development of science fiction — and that is true enough as far as it goes. Between January and August of 1972, Alexei and I wrote a series of columns on the history of SF, in the course of which I began toying with the notion that periods of major thematic innovation, like the 1930’s-40’s, seem to alternate with periods like the 1960’s when authors are mainly concerned with fine points of style and attitude.

That idea was only half-formed, however, when we finished the historical series and turned to other things. Alexei spent the fall of 1972 working on an essay about SF as modern myth, and I took up one of my other interests, the history of fashion.

But I must have brought some of my new historical perspective with me, because as I pored over images of 18th and 19th century styles, I was suddenly hit with an insight that women’s clothing seemed to alternate every few decades between two basic silhouettes, which I dubbed “organic” and “geometrical.” And when I jotted down my initial observations, I casually noted at the bottom of the page that “there seem to be marked correspondences with periods of modern science fiction.”

It was the realization that two such very different cultural forms as science fiction and women’s clothing seemed to follow the same cyclical pattern of development that really seized my imagination and prompted me to devote the next several years to following out its implications.

Organic fashions appear at the start of every dominant partnership and typically highlight or exaggerate the secondary sexual characteristics. For women, this means an hourglass figure with the emphasis on a small waist and a rounded bust and hips — as in the examples above from the late 18th, late 19th, and mid-20th centuries. For men, it means a “manly” silhouette, emphasizing a broad chest and shoulders.

Geometrical fashions, which take over as a dominant partnership fades and reach their peak with the counterculture, are exactly the opposite. They not only downplay the female figure by camouflaging the natural curves of the waist and hips but subordinate it to a linear geometrical outline.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, this was accomplished with wide crinolines or hoop skirts, which produced a pyramidal silhouette. In the early 20th century and again in the 1960’s, it was most often achieved with garments that fell loosely from the shoulders to the hips, creating a rectangular outline. Men’s styles at these times were typically designed to present a willowy, juvenile, or even effeminate appearance.

Having arrived at my initial insight, I quickly became caught up in trying to bring other areas of culture into the cycles, determine whether they also extended to earlier periods and non-Western cultures, and establish precise timetables. In pursuit of that goal, I read histories and biographies and art books — but most of all I read histories of fashion.

Clothing styles provided my primary guide as I began to construct a chronological framework. The two basic silhouettes were easy to spot, and there were more subtle changes every few years which made it possible to mark off distinct sub-phases.

I did, however, have certain continuing doubts.

First was the general audacity of what I was proposing — a sweeping theory-of-everything of a kind that was completely out of favor in the late 20th century. But even worse was the utter implausibility of the idea that something as trivial and arbitrary as clothing styles could go through a recurring cycle with almost clockwork regularity. That more than anything else discouraged me for many years from attempting to publish what I had discovered.

In the course of those years, I worked to make the cycles more plausible. I came to see each cycle as dominated by its own distinctive worldview, then analyzed each worldview into a pair of dominant visions, and finally recognized the complex succession of emerging visions that I have been presenting here.

But I’m realizing only now as I look back that the subtle dance of the visions seems to operate in a very different context from the changes in fashion that I worked out 35 years ago. They may match up chronologically, but fashion has its own internal logic which is not controlled by the visions.

For one thing, the cycle of fashion appears far more deterministic. Similar forms reappear over and over at the same points in the cycle, regardless of which visions are in play.

For another, it doesn’t seem possible to link clothing styles to any particular vision, with the possible exception of socially-based visions. The casual styles which typify the 20th century may have some association with the democratic ideals of freedom and egalitarianism, but there is definitely no such thing as a “chaos vision” style or a “holism vision” style.

I’ve been vaguely aware of this problem for a while, but what really drove the point home was when I started trying to pin down the nature and timing of the “romantic break.”

The dates I’d laid out for the initial flowering of both technology and occultism were 1877-83 — and this was also a unique moment in the history of late Victorian fashion.

Women’s clothing in the early 1870’s was lush and flamboyant, featuring an elaborate overskirt draped around a bustle, but starting in 1876/77 it became a great deal simpler. Dresses were severely tailored and almost masculine in their lack of decoration, with smooth lines that hugged the figure instead of billowing outwards. Even the bustle all but vanished, only to return in 1882/83 and assume an increasingly extravagant form.

Even more striking, however, is that the same impulse towards simplicity and severity appears to occur at the time of each romantic break. To the right is a series of examples — one each from 1790, 1881, and 1942 — and they all display similar characteristics.

The message of these stripped-down styles has nothing at all to do with reason or science or democracy. Instead, they appear to express a practical, no-nonsense attitude, one appropriate to the moment when a dominant partnership reaches its peak of power and effectiveness. The statement they make is, “Hey. I know what I’m doing. Trust me. You won’t regret it.”

So what we may have here is a form of non-verbal signaling at a pre-linguistic and therefore pre-human level. And that brings to mind something else that occurred to me recently — which is the extent to which I’ve been using the term “dominance” in describing the visions.

Not only have I regularly been speaking of visions becoming dominant or forming a dominant partnership, but in the previous entry I suggested that the romantic break might result from a struggle for dominance between the senior and junior members of the partnership.

A focus on social dominance would certainly go along with the other instinctual elements that appear to be built into the cycle of fashion, but what’s particularly interesting is that it only appears to affect the two most established visions. This suggests that the dominant visions may be caught up in instinct-level relationships which have far less influence over the emergent visions.

And if that is the case, it could also explain the difference between the “organic” fashions that appear when a dominant partnership is formed and the “geometrical” fashions that typify countercultural periods.

Organic styles, no matter how refined and elaborated, project a very basic sexual message. The focus for women on a narrow waist and broad hips signals, “I am young and fertile.” The focus for men on a muscular chest and shoulders responds, “I am a strong hunter and will provide for your children.”

Geometrical styles, in contrast, say something like, “We are neotenic beings, with a childlike openness to new experiences, and are not obsessed with the old imperatives of survival and reproduction.”

All of this implies that on some level, every dominant partnership involves a reassertion of ancient, pre-human modes of relationship — and every counterculture involves a challenge to those modes. That is why partnerships are always dedicated to social stabilization, and why as they age they tend to rigidify into elite ideologies. It’s ultimately about power and control.

The instincts which underlies organic fashion seem likely to go back specifically to the Homo erectus stage of human evolution, which began about 1.8 million years ago. That was when our ancestors lost their ape-like body proportions and developed well-defined waists and hips and shoulders.

The same set of biological changes probably also led to men and women forming long-term partnerships in order to feed and protect their bigger-brained children through an extended period of maturation. Once pair-bonding became the norm, women whose body proportions proclaimed their youth and fertility, and men who had the physical appearance of being good providers, would have had a definite advantage in attracting mates.

And their relatively brainy children — who pioneered the peculiarly human phenomenon of adolescence — may have established the neotenic, exploratory, sexually undifferentiated, and non-dominance-obsessed prototype for every counterculture.

The visions themselves almost certainly go back no further than the appearance of the first modern humans. But it’s starting to appear as though we’ve been engaged in a 200,000 year long jam session, where the old biological imperatives provide the steady beat, measuring out proportional intervals of time, while the visions furnish the wild, improvisational melody.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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