Style Matters: “grump and frump” or “open and kinetic”?

by Yule Heibel on August 2, 2006

A few days ago I finished reading Cosmopolis by Stephen Toulmin. It took me a long time to finish, and I’m still not sure that I’ve entirely comprehended it. The title gives an indication of its vastness, though, and helps explain why I might have difficulties distilling its insights into a mere gloss. I can’t remember when I acquired the book, but it was published in 1990 — not recently, in other words. It has been in my library for a while, but it’s not the case that I read it years ago and simply forgot that I did. No, this was a new read.

This evening I started on another book, a new one which I really did just acquire: Fashion at the Edge by Caroline Evans. It has a deceptive coffee-table book format and heft, but its real weight comes from the theoretical I-beams holding the arguments aloft: take a look at the bibliography, a poured concrete foundation capable of withstanding earthquakes and similar intellectual upheavals. Or its footnote references to Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin, Joan Riviere, Karl Marx, Donna Haraway, Carolyn Dean, Michel Foucault, and Lisa Tickner — all of whom are referenced in the first 7 pages.

Evans cites another author even I [ahem] haven’t read yet, Gilles Lipovetsky, who wrote The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy. In a particular passage I will cite shortly, Evans is coming to explain how she uses the term “modernity,” as per her book’s subtitle. Before we look at Evans more closely, note that Toulmin’s Cosmopolis was all about modernism and modernity: how we define it, what it means, and what its historical inflections have been.

With that in mind, the ideas in both books suddenly started sparking each other: I was reading Evans’s discussion of late-twentieth century fashion in relation to Toulmin’s analysis of the Platonic v. Aristotelian views of “cosmopolis.” The former (i.e., Platonic) being a static, eternal and unchanging ideal valid for all times and all situations, the latter (i.e., Aristotelian) being contingent and particular, rooted in an openness to case-by-case analysis. At the same time, I thought about a local SkyscraperPage forumer named KeyPlan, who has commented on my wiki a few times. On Sustain and Retain: A Short History of the Upper Harbour (written by my son), he noted (among other things) that Victoria is a “Terminal City,” terminal as in The End. According to KeyPlan, Victorians also express this terminal condition in their utter lack of style. He writes:

It’s the end of style, of grace, of form, including bodily form. Think of a body type and universal “dress code” for the City. I apologize for causing that thought. Is there ever a place where the rule of grump and frump still reigns.

“Grump and frump” (wonderfully onomatopeic) refers, I would guess, to what in Seattle was rebranded as grunge — a style given wings by music — but which here has remained mired in stylelessness. It’s true that many of Victoria’s youth (and most of its non-youth) are …let’s say: grumfy? Not quite cool enough for a musical style, not American enough to get in people’s faces the way Seattle bands did, and certainly not savvy enough economically to, as the New York Times Magazine article The Brand Underground puts it, figure out how to turn one’s lifestyle into a business. (Exempting yoga studio entrepreneurs, and the suppliers of yogawear — even here, they are in a category of their own…)

But wait, let’s get back to the Caroline Evans passage in Fashion at the Edge that ignited my fire. On p.6 Evans writes:

The late twentieth-century articulation of the idea of the self as culturally constructed has important implications for fashion.

Note that this connects with Toulmin, who argues that it was the historical turmoil of the early 17th century (think assassination of France’s Henry IV, who represented the hope that Frenchmen could be defined as loyal Frenchmen, vs. as exclusively Catholic or Protestant; think the 30 Years War; think the Counter-Reformation and its climate of religious intolerance, etc.) that made Descartes’ search for certainty, grounded in absolute rationality and science, so compelling for many people. Sixteenth-century “case ethics” and humanism consequently seemed inexcusably wishy-washy, while certainties based in rational analysis appeared to offer a way out of the mess that was the early 17th century.

Toulmin constantly re-examines the twin beginnings of modernity — in a more particularistic (Aristotelian) 16th century Renaissance humanism that explored individual human potential on the one hand, and in a hard, and hardened, 17th century scientific rationalism born of reaction against the historical horrors of religious excess, armed slaughter, and economic downturn on the other — and traces this birth and subsequent becoming through the historical epochs that followed.

(An aside: I can’t figure out why the First World War figures as a key 20th century watershed for Toulmin, while he more or less completely ignores the Second World War and in particular the Shoa, which was surely representative of an even more comprehensive crisis in Western rationality. Toulmin spends some time analysing the ideological function of “the clean slate,” that wicked idea we have of being able to start over again and again and again, from nothing. The tabula rasa, the uncontingent, clean, fresh start: that was a huge idea in the immediate post-WWII period, and it seems odd that Toulmin ignores it in favour of “clean slate” discussions after World War I.)

Back to Victoria and our question of style: I’m picking on KeyPlan a bit because in other postings on the forum, he had argued against taking seriously the question of style, which (he seemed to suggest) really shouldn’t matter and is a mere distraction. Well, I would make several arguments against this view. Here in Victoria, we’re dealing with a city that may be a tourist destination (and hence preens its quaintness quotient), but it is an urban centre (it is the capital city of British Columbia, it is the core for the region), and it’s undergoing changes, which makes some people rejoice and makes others feel very anxious and unsafe. It’s also a city located on an island, which can elucidate how or why the “feeling safe/ feeling unsafe” factor kicks in: many people seem naturally to think that life on an island should be safe …and mostly unchanging. (This might be a key component of the Terminal City complex, too: change stops here, the thinking goes.)

This mindset persists, despite that fact that living on an island is inherently unsafe, especially on this island: we live in a highly dangerous earthquake zone, and if A Big One hits, we’ll be cut off from everything, including our life line to the mainland. Even something as basic as our water supply pipe, running right under the Johnson Street Bridge, which will undoubtedly collapse and crush the pipeline, will be cut, leaving everything east of Vic West without drinking water. We have enough food to last 4 days, according to a food security study (in the fifties, much more food was locally produced, but since then everything’s been centralised and now comes to us via the ferries and the mainland — in the event of a Big One, the ferries would surely stop running while the collapsed piers get repaired — a couple of months, maybe; as for airport tarmac: think peanut brittle…). Victoria, unchanging and safe? Not in any realistic sense.

All this by way of explaining why change might subconsciously really push people’s buttons here. They come to Victoria thinking that nothing will change (the “Island Ideology” of eternal recurrance of tea at four). Yet now the city is changing (again), and who knows what other existential fears (see Earthquake Anxieties enumerated above) bubble to the surface like so much liquid earth in an 8.0 Richter scale event…

So what does style have to do with all of this? Victoria’s changes are happening in its urban fabric, which is part built environment, part increased population density, part economic activity, and so on. The built environment certainly isn’t the same thing as yet another fashion show by Alexander McQueen — if your budget allows it, you can buy a dress and throw it out when you tire of it. Throwing out a building is possible, but not advisable. So we have to think about the built environment’s style in a different time frame than the one of haute couture‘s season-to-season shelf life. But think about the built environment’s style we should. Continuing directly from Evans’s above-quoted sentence, her passage on p.6 concludes:

Gilles Lipovetsky has argued that fashion is socially reproductive, training us to be flexible and responsive to change in a fast-changing world: “fashion socializes human beings to change and prepares them for perpetual recycling.” [Lipovetsky, p.149] The kinetic, open personality of fashion is the personality which a society in the process of rapid transition most needs. No longer derided as superficial, frivolous or deceitful, fashion thus has an important role to play, not merely in adorning the body but also in fashioning a modern, reflexive self.

The “grump and frump” KeyPlan refered to is an expression of the absence of change in Victoria. With change, however, we’ll see more social reproduction, which means more fashion and awareness of style. “Perpetual recycling” means constant change and rebirth, contingency and particularity vs. timelessness and universality. It’s also the oppposite of deadly stasis. Awareness and encouragement of style “socialize[s] human beings to change,” which (extrapolated to the built environment) suggests that stylish, attractive buildings will ease the transition to a change culture, even here. Ugly or not particularly well-thought-out buildings will only make people dig their heels in even more. What’s attractive and what’s ugly is of course contentious, but it’s important that the debate takes place, and that people’s prejudices get deconstructed, dismantled, and explained. I would argue with anyone whose idea of “stylish” is “traditional heritage,” a perpetuation of the ideology of “unchanging” (not to mention: colonialist) “island” life. I will champion historical buildings and their preservation, however, just as I’d argue for devastatingly attractive new architecture that really knocks your ratty old unstylish grungy socks off.

Like constant whining, grump and frump simply expresses the absence of change. What we, who are in a “process of rapid transition” globally and locally, need now is the confident style of the “kinetic, open personality.” Style really does matter.


Cavalor Epthith August 5, 2006 at 10:36 pm

I may grasping at straws here but I find parallels now linked by lightning from Evans to Kevin Phillips’ “American Theocracy”. Who knew fashion, philosophy and a econo-theocratic attempted coup in the US. Amamzing how the mind can pull such connexions together.

To quote George Clinton, “Free your mind and your ass will follow.” Good advice for American voters this year.



yulelog August 6, 2006 at 11:35 pm

I think I see what you mean, Cavalor — the obsession with millennialism, theocratic “eternal” values, etc., as described also by Phillips, is a kind of “grump & frump,” too, that thwarts play, till we’re laced into a very unstylish corset, unable to get out…

Phillips may have coined the term “Sun Belt,” but that belt was nice and loose, then. Not such a tight suit as it seems now…

Holden West August 7, 2006 at 1:36 am

Mandatory footwear rules:
For gender: Female
Location: Victoria, BC

Up to age 18: Converse All-Stars

Age 18 to 32: Blunt-toed mary janes or similar bought from Footloose Shoes on Fort St.

Age 32 to 45: New Balance runners. Bought for the 5k charity run/walk. Now used for driving to Thrifty’s.

Age 45 and up: Plastic gardening clogs.

If you were born in Asia, the rules do not apply. You are wearing amazing shoes bought overseas that we won’t see on these shores for another season.

yulelog August 7, 2006 at 2:09 am

And let’s not forget this burning question in relation to Victoria’s “affordable housing” issues: Will you have room for a proper shoe closet?

If you can’t afford that kind of space (or the 2000 Shoes meant to fill it), you could take a soleful trip with Miss Meghan, and let her help you get in touch with your …sole at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in NYC. Only US$3,030. What a bargain…

Sadly for you, Holden, and all the other men out there, you have already missed the Elton John shoe sale, which took place last spring….

Next time, darlings!

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