Dressing for the Metropolis – Simmel in the City

How does your environment affect the way you dress? Of course, there’s the weather to be taken into consideration.  But what about the type of place that you live? For example, are we shaped – literally and figuratively – by urban dwelling?  Does the city impact not just the type of clothes we choose, but also how we feel when we wear them? Living amongst huge numbers of people, coping with the speed of street-life, the fleeting encounters with our fellow citizens … surely this impacts our psychology, our way of being, and therefore our way of dressing?

These are not new questions, German sociologist Georg Simmel published an essay in 1903 and updated in 1950 entitled, ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life,’ which tackled just such concerns.  At the core he argues, is the constant tension between individuality, and being part of society.  What is at stake is the ways we adapt (or don’t) to these twin desires/pressures.  Of course, Simmel was writing at the start of the 20th century, but many of his ideas remain relevant, and suggest the subconscious issues brought to bear on our daily outfit choices.

Or as Simmel puts it in relation to the ‘psychology of metropolitan individuality’ – which is founded upon: ‘the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli.’ Even crossing the road means experiencing multiple sights, sounds, and encounters with people and machines.

And this must be considered in relation to our brief interactions with other humans in much of daily city life, as well as the money economy that distances consumer from producer.  This means that the counter impulses to be hyper-individual and to assert your sense of self, versus the desire for a protective shield of conformity and anonymity are likely to influence how we dress.  It makes you think again about the ubiquitous male suit – is it in part saving city workers from the ‘violent stimuli’ Simmel identifies as part of urban life? Does it reinforce his argument that city dwellers must react rationally, rather than emotionally – creating a protective sartorial barrier between themselves and the city?

What is produced, he says, is a blasé attitude that tempers the dissonance that surrounds us.  Simmel sees this as a rich site for mental development, despite its problems.  And clearly, the Metropolis is equally rich for the development of multiple fashions as well.  Just as the suit-clad banker assimilates, so designers and wearers can experiment and create in response to the city’s speed and excess of stimulation.

By Rebecca Arnold

You can read Simmel’s essay in full here

 

 

Jewellery, Adornment and the Pursuit of Brilliance

Early 18th century diamond and gold necklace, Portuguese

Emerald and diamond girl dole brooch, c1830 and later

To Georg Simmel, adornment is a contradiction – on the one hand, it displays the wearer’s value, aesthetic taste, membership of a particular group, on the other, it is visible to the viewer, giving pleasure to her, as well as to the owner.  In his 1908 essay ‘On Adornment’, Simmel elaborates on this theme, outlining a spectrum, with tattoos at one end, since they are closest to the skin, and dress in between, moulded  by the wearer’s figure and marked by age, and finally, jewellery placed on the body, but separate from it.  Jewellery thus has special status, its uniqueness resides in its economic value, authenticity and style, but it always seems new, and supplementary to the wearer’s individuality.  While choice of fine jewels surely reflects personal taste, it is interesting to consider the ways gems interact with the wearer and add to her social value.

A case of sparking diamond and emerald jewels

I was reminded of Simmel’s essay when I visited Bonhams’ view day for an auction of fine jewellery last month.  Guided through the delicious rows of glittering rings, bracelets, necklaces, brooches … by Emily Barber, Director of the Jewellery Department, I was continually struck by Simmel’s comments about the pleasure given to both wearer and viewer by these gems – a fleeting relationship created by the bright light reflected by a diamond brooch as you glance across a room, or the deep red glow of a spinel cut to display its clarity as the wearer moves her hands.  In so many interactions, jewellery catches the eye and draws our focus.

A spinel and diamond ring, c1915

Simmel describes how ‘the radiations of adornment, the sensuous attention it provokes, supply the personality with such an enlargement or intensification of its sphere: the personality, is more when it is adorned.’  As such, wearing fine jewellery is ‘a synthesis of the individual’s having and being,’ it implies wealth, but also personal qualities – of taste, discernment, perhaps even beauty and style matching the gems.  At the heart of this is jewellery’s ‘brilliance’:

‘By virtue of this brilliance, its wearer appears at the centre of a circle of radiation in which every close-by person, every seeing eye, is caught.  As the flash of the precious stone seems to be directed at the other – it carries the social meaning of jewels, the being-for-the-other, which returns to the subject as the enlargement of … [her] own sphere of significance.’

Gold, diamond and fire opal ‘cinnamon stick’ brooch/pendent by Andrew Grima, 1970

So, as you look at these photographs of the jewels I saw at a Bonhams, consider Simmel’s words and the ways that, once purchased, they might infer what the wearer has, but also who she is.  As Simmel notes, ‘Adornment, thus, appears as the means by which … social power or dignity is transformed into visible, personal elegance,’ – a magical process brought about by the jeweller’s skill at cutting and setting each gem.

With thanks to Emily Barber, all images by permission of Bonhams.

Sapphire, ruby, emerald and diamond brooch, Van Cleef & Arpels, c1970

Sources:

Fine Jewellery, 27 April 2017 (London: Bonhams, 2017)

Georg Simmel, ‘On Adornment,’ (1908), in Daniel Purdy, Ed., The Rise of Fashion: A Reader (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), pp.79-84