Clothes are a much bigger subject than is generally supposed. I often say, “It doesn’t matter what happens, so long as you’re dressed for it.” I suspect more than a few women would agree with me.
The work of figuring out what to wear – how conspicuous to be, how close to the fashion, what desire or mood or role to represent, who one’s audience will be – takes concentration, the fine exercise of discrimination and, often, consultation with wiser heads than one’s own.
We were in India, where my husband pointed out a holy man. He was walking through a crowded public square. We saw him from the back, naked as a bluebird, just as gorgeous and just as unashamed. What role does shame play in the story of a civilization? In the Bible’s Book of Genesis, Adam does not know he is naked until (because he ate the forbidden fruit) he knows how to tell good from evil. For the holy man we saw, walking in the Vedic tradition of India, the realized saint is beyond good and evil. Is the saint therefore beyond shame?
In my personal experience, if we think we’re “beyond good and evil” — we’re evil! That is, for people like me, or like the people I know, there’s no such place as the alleged place beyond good and evil. The idea of such a place is a myth. I cannot speak for Indian holy men, but for us therefore, no place is beyond shame.
Clothes are an acknowledgment of our social constraints. We can’t pretend to a life lived solo, with only the divine dimension for company. We live among our fellow creatures. Some of them we will want to attract: professionally, as friends, sexually, or in some other way. Some we want to discourage or dodge. Some we want to impress or reassure.
The clothing we take such pains to choose or reject expresses these needs, subtly, diplomatically, blatantly, but in any case unavoidably. We have been defined as political animals and speaking animals. We can also be portrayed as the clothed animals.
Isn’t this photo zingy? Chanel helped to shape the modern era, in a sense analogous to the history-making political leaders of the early twentieth century. She understood how modernity looked. You might not like Joyce and Proust, but you couldn’t not like Chanel.