September 2011

Kelsey Osgood

nonfiction

Accessorizing the Body: Habits of Being I edited by Paula Rabinowitz and Cristina Giorcelli

If an examination of fashion at this particular minute can provide insight into our worldview, then it stands to reason that an analysis of fashion -- its history, evolution, and the various blue jeans and baubles that comprise it -- can teach us about ourselves and can serve as an educational parallel to our own societal development. This is the studious endeavor that has been undertaken by Cristina Giorcelli, professor of American literature at the University of Rome Three, and Paula Rabinowitz, professor of English at the University of Minnesota. The two scholars have gathered their colleagues most knowledgeable on the affairs of style and asked each to write an essay on a sub-element of fashion, the lot of which will be collected into four volumes. 

One might, upon beginning the first volume, Accessorizing the Body: Habits of Being I, be expecting a text that seeks to give an overview of the meaning of the accouterment people add to their outfits for reasons both practical and purely aesthetic: handbags, bracelets, sunglasses, shoes, and so forth. The most comprehensive and inclusive way to accomplish this large task would be to first, narrow down exactly what is meant by "accessory." (Would, say, a tilaka [Hindu third eye] count, or is that less an element of style and more one of faith? Does one negate the other? What degree of frivolity must be present in order to declare something totally stylistic?) Of course the editors and writers needn't confine themselves to the most obvious and trite subjects available -- the Birkin bag, the string of pearls, the red-soled Loubiton shoe -- but still, there ought to be a nod in the direction of diversity.

I fear that Giorcelli and Rabinowitz, in their quest for the most deeply puncturing intellectual work, have lost track of the larger subject in favor of the minute curiosities it contains. Some accessories profiled in the essays (spoiler alert?): Futurist ties, the jewelry and style of poet Laura Riding, the "canary yellow" star of David worn by Jews directly before and during World War II, hats, anklets and shoes, "pagan" shoes (in this market known as Greek sandals) and mannequins (?!?). Other essays explore topics that are, of course, fashion-related, but in which the accessory is ancillary to the focus. Case in point: The essay entitled "Coca, Zelda, Sara, Daisy and Nicole: Accessories for New Ways of Being a Woman" focuses on these real and fictional giants of the Roaring Twenties and how accessories during these times, exemplified in use by these women, did "an exceptional thing by actually creating the social and cultural milieu." The author of the piece, professor emeritus of English literature at UCLA Martha Banta, makes a heavy push for the importance of accessories in the first few paragraphs, but then veers off and begins to talk about Chanel, how her aesthetic pitted itself against the cultural norms of the time, and how the following essay will be divided into sections: Chanel's World, The Chanel Woman, The Chanel Look, and Marketing Products/Becoming an Accessory. So the lens is not only not accessories nor the titular one offered (luminary Jazz Age women) but rather Chanel, which, while interesting, isn't what the reader had been prepared for, nor is it exactly a new topic. Sure, the writer turns her scalpel back toward Chanel's hats and scarves occasionally, but only as a nod to the required topic, as if she were a student trying to slyly get away with what she had really wanted to write about.  

Some of the essays in the book are fascinating, and also good fun -- the essay on Futurist Accessories by Franca Zoccoli once again proves that there is nothing more hysterical than that bizarre and self-important group of revolutionaries who believe epic world change can be brought about by abolishing the tie, those "noose-like knots... anti-speed, anti-hygienic, and anti-optimistic frippery!" The piece "Enchanted Sandals: Italian Shoes and the Post-World War II International Scene" shows well the symbolic value of a well-heeled woman in stride and purports a possible evolution for that symbol: from Gradiva mid-step on a bas relief to Diana Vreeland, sandal-clad, marching down a chilly Seventh Avenue. Some of the essays are just totally inexplicable, such as "Terra Divisa/Terra Divina: (T/E/A/R)," which seems to be an interpretational fabric piece by poet Maria Damon. There are a few that deal almost exclusively with clothing and what it means to be a body in clothing in postmodern terms and other academic buzzwords, which was befuddling to find in a text that was aimed at such a specific field. Thus in the end, the seemingly scattershot structure and wavering focus of the entire book makes it exceedingly difficult to draw any conclusion (or to determine if a conclusion ought to really be drawn). Only after finishing the book did I permit myself to read the synopsis on the back and it was then that I came across something that perhaps best sums up the book's accomplishment: "With contributions by leading scholars in art history, semiotics, literary and film studies, history and fashion studies, and with additional writings by psychoanalysts, textile artists, and fashion designers from Europe and America, readers will encounter a dizzying array of ideas about the modern body and the ways in which we dress it." 

Operative word being dizzying.

Accessorizing the Body: Habits of Being I edited by Paula Rabinowitz and Cristina Giorcelli
University of Minnesota Press
ISBN: 978-0816675791
288 pages