I’m saddened to note the passing of Anne Hollander, a leading scholar and essayist of the history, art, and aesthetics of clothing, fashion, and style. She died on July 6, at the age of 83 (New York Times obituary here). She leaves behind a rich body of work, books and journal and magazine essays both–a splendid example of an independent scholar (survived by her husband, philosopher Thomas Nagel) who never went beyond the BA she obtained in art history in the 1950s and never held a regular academic post, yet a writer who produced incisive scholarship and lapidary essays that very few academics come close to producing. Indeed, speaking as a close reader of her essays, in The New Republic and elsewhere beginning in the 1980s, I have always thought that her essays–tough and rigorous, and yet full of surprising critical turns–epitomize the critical thinking and writing that any writer might learn from, regardless of field.
Her field was an interdisciplinary crossing of art history and aesthetic theory with the study of clothing, style, and fashion. I realize that many Volokh readers will be tuning me out at this point, for the perfectly good reason that so much–nearly all, in fact–produced in these fields as academic endeavors is unreadable junk, mishmashes of every little bit of fashionable theory, cultural criticism, and fashion magazines. Yes, well, I feel the same as you do about all of that; but it would be a major mistake to tune out Hollander’s work, especially her two best books (in my view): Seeing Through Clothes (1978, reprinted 1993) and Sex and Suits (1994).
Sex and Suits traces, among its several themes, the evolution of clothing in Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the present, as reflected in its presentation in art; clothing in the Middle Ages reflected an emphasis on hierarchical station and authority, and men and women (mostly) of society’s upper tier in authority wore gowns. (I’m recalling from memory, so apologies for lapses.) Over time, however, male and female clothing became differentiated; some part of it owed to the assimilation of the clothing of the soldier in the field into a refined version for court. I’m not doing the argument justice; Hollander takes great care in presenting the historical twists and turns of dress, particularly as a signaling behavior the higher up the social ladder one went, more or less. When I first read the book, back in the 1990s, I had concluded somewhere midway through the book that this was a finely done social history of clothing, but essentially tied to a historicist thesis about clothing being shaped by various historical and cultural forces. Interesting, but only as descriptive history.
Still, even before the age of Mad Men, I and many others were fascinated by her description of the historical development the male suit–how it gradually became a civilized version of the clothing of, say, the Dutch soldier in one of those wars with the Spanish or the English or someone else, functional breeches, high boots, a simple tunic for a shirt, and a simple jacket, topped by a sword on a wide, leather shoulder belt. Hollander noted, too, that much of women’s clothing in the sense of daily wear gradually came to alter and adapt men’s clothing, with a quite different aesthetic for grand occasions. So one might think, then, that she is telling us a story about the functional importance of certain dress for soldiers and how it enters domestic life; somewhere in one of her essays she remarks that this is also true of daily items of dress that come out of sports-but it’s essentially a story with a historical driver, to which she adds some history of the rise of new fabrics and materials and technologies of weaving and sewing.
So as a reader, I was a bit taken by surprise when her argument turned from history to aesthetics. The convergence on the male suit, in some form or another, she says crisply, is far from being merely a matter of history and culture. It’s aesthetics: men look good in suits. The male suit, across a long history of its varieties, emphasizes the triangle of broad male shoulders coming downwards to the waist. The opening of the breast allows for an emphasis on the male pectorals and shoulders. She points out that despite adaptation of male dress to daily female wear, these are not how one would emphasize the female form were one starting the design of clothing from scratch. These observations extended themes of her earlier book, Seeing Through Clothes, which in part explored the then-current 1980s discussions over gender fluidity. I was always sorry that she did not produce a book on how today’s transgender movements were either consistent with, or fundamentally altered, the arguments of her earlier work.
For that matter, I would have been greatly interested in Hollander’s assessment of a proposition put to me by an anthropologist friend with decades of field experience in east Africa. What becomes of the male suit, he asked, when “adult males become too corpulent for it to be flattering for the vast majority of them, even with expensive bespoke tailoring, because–alas–they don’t have a ‘down-ward pointing triangle’ but instead an ‘upward-pointing one’?” He suggested (this was long ago, in the mid-1990s) that the male gown of the Middle East and North Africa might serve instead, conveying the authority of the warrior and preacher in one, while, as a matter of physical aesthetics, hanging off the pectorals but concealing the stomach and the waist.
The takeaway from those two queries, transgender movements and obese men, is that the story of fashion, style, clothing, and dress is not over, either historically or as a matter of aesthetics and aesthetic theory. But it is not very many people who are able to write about these topics in a way that draws them into intellectually rigorous traditions in the humanities, and one of them, Anne Hollander, is gone.