Monday, September 22, 2014

The Roar, the Crash: Sofi Thanhauser on Thomas Mann, fashion, “Bourgeois competence”, and fascism

There are many writers to whom clothing is dear. Sappho’s poetry, or rather the fragments that remain of it, nearly always center on some article of clothing. Oscar Wilde was a notorious clotheshorse. Virginia Woolf maintained a kind of negative fixation. Edith Wharton, asked as a child what she wanted to be when she grew up, replied, “the best dressed woman in Manhattan.”  However for pure, melodious ravishment upon clothing itself Thomas Mann is by far my favorite writer. If it weren’t for a phrase in the short story “The Blood of the Walsungs” about a “Florentine cinquecento frock of claret coloured velvet” I would never have fallen under his beneficent spell at all.

Or consider this ensemble, worn by Madame Chauchat to a picnic in the Swiss Alps in The Magic Mountain. Madame Chauchat arrived, Mann writes, in “a belted coat of some warm, fuzzy, large-checked fabric, and had even thrown a little fur over her shoulders. The brim of her felt hat was pulled down on one side by an olive colored veil she had tied under her chin, in an effect so charming that it was almost painful for all present.”  Almost painful.

Could a more perfect ensemble than M. Chauchat’s be conceived of? Chauchat is one of these virtuosos who are still born among us, who are evident from earliest childhood. There are perfect rakes even now in America although they are most commonly four years or five years old and have not yet had their style neutered. Mann was one of these virtuosos himself. See him at eight years old in a striped sailor suit, forearm on a book and one thumb nestling in the opening above the second shirt button, coal black eyes already indicative of the earnest-ironic fusion he is destined to transform laboriously into art. Unlike most children’s sailor suits this ensemble does not simply mark him as the child puppet of a bourgeois family. The young Mann delights in his ensemble. See him again in the 1940s posing for a photo in Vogue: his white patent leather shoes, pale grey suit, bow tie, panama hat. 

In the essay On the Greatness of Richard Wagner, Mann explains that Wagner was incapable of working without “palpable expressions of an extravagance of taste” which included, “wadded silk dressing-gowns” and “lace-trimmed satin bed-covers embroidered with garlands of roses.” Buttressed by these things, Mann writes, Wagner “sits down mornings to the grueling job, by dint of them he achieves the ‘atmosphere of luxury and art’ necessary to the creation of primitive Nordic heroes and exalted natural symbolism.”  Is this a tacit admission on Mann’s part that the artist cannot create until first he is properly dressed?

Mann described the clothing of his fictional characters so impeccably not out of empty volupté, but because he knew the world he described was going extinct. His craftsmanship is an homage to another kind of craftsmanship. The disappearance of handmade clothes and furniture as a result of mass manufacture, and the erosion of the material culture of old Europe had in William Morris its utopian denialist, in Thomas Carlyle its Jeremiah, and in Mann its quiet, bourgeois eulogist.

Mann was willing to fight for discernment in clothing, food, manners, and furniture, all of which he grouped together in the phrase bourgeois competence in a June 1926 speech given on the occasion of the 700 year anniversary of his home city, Lübeck. “Bourgeois competence” as Mann deploys it signals a sort of spacious capacity for the leisurely, deliberate prosecution of one’s affairs in a world where appreciation for the arts is central. Bourgeois is not offered to us in the way it appears in Marxist doctrinal disputes of the period (as the vilest type of insult) nor to imply cupidity, avarice, and mediocrity, as Godard used it after his conversion to Maoism (“I started making films because I wanted to escape my bourgeois family but then I discovered that the film industry was just another, bigger bourgeois family.”) It is presented as a positive spiritual value (the speech itself is entitled "Lübeck as a spiritual way of life.")

If this spiritualization seems overburdened or elitist we might consider that the analogous (supply-side) vector to loss of bourgeois competence is proletarianization. Erosion of style among the bourgeois is concomitant with the destruction of a way of life for the artisan. An artisan class denuded of traditional organizations and skills (that is to say, a proletariat) cannot possibly produce objects that will please the possessor of bourgeois competence. It is thus a tacitly anti-industrial stance albeit one based less on fairness than on beauty. (Beauty is, in any case, an ideal place to begin the fight for an ideal society. William Morris tread a direct path from disgust for the British middle class interior design tastes to socialism.) “Bourgeois competence” has more in common with the earliest iterations of German labor theory than it does with either socialism or the late 19th or early 20th century German liberalism that might seem to be the natural political home for such a “bourgeois.” This early German labor movement, writes historian Stefan Berger, “differed from its late nineteenth century variant in that it was rooted not in a future utopia of classless harmony but in attempts to fend off perceived threats to traditional lifestyles.”  Mann’s argument was for stolidity and balance against blind rapacity on the one hand and utopian fiction on the other. It was also an argument for a system of labor relations that, though it did not create perfect economic or political parity, extended opportunities for artistic expression to a far wider range of citizens.

Clothing historian Carl Kohler notes that when one compares the costumes and suits of Ludwig 1 of Bavaria with those of his grandson Ludwig II, preserved alongside one another in the National Museum, “One cannot fail to be struck by the baneful effect produced by the sewing machine as compared to skilled hand-sewing. By the year 1859 the sewing machine had gradually replaced sewing by hand, and one grieves to have to say that men’s clothes of this period make a sorry show when compared to the carefully made garments of earlier times.” 

In 1864, when Ludwig II ascended to the Bavarian throne, only two garments were being mass-produced in any true sense: the corset and the uniform of the American Union soldier. As early avatars of ready-to-wear, however, both of these garments displayed what was to be its primary characteristic: indifference to the individual body. The uniform’s function is, after all, to submerge each body in a sea of like bodies, and the corset does not accommodate the shape of its wearer at all, but rather assists her in accommodating her body to the shape of clothing.

Mann’s bourgeois characters, by contrast, exist in amazing specificity, each in a unique ensemble, each participating in the twilight of a world in which individual people matter. Take the picnic scene in The Magic Mountain for an example, the scene for which Madame Chauchat is dressed so ravishingly in fuzzy, large checked fabric. Herr Settembrini (the book’s humanist pedagogue character) is hoping the picnic will offer the opportunity for a “democratic chat” between the guests. No such luck. Instead, the party is steered by its host, the dominating Mynheer Peepercorn, to a spot at the very base of a waterfall, where the “deafening, insane, extravagant roar…frightened and confused them, baffled their ears.” At this peculiar location Peeperkorn rises to gives a speech to the assembled company that of course, no one can hear. When the picnic is over and the guests retreat, they can hear, “from behind, from above, from every side-menacing, threatening trumpet calls and brutal male voices.” The scene serves as a mythic signaling of the end of discourse. Goodbye to the old world, goodbye picnics. Goodbye to olive colored veils, hello fascism.

In both Germany and in America, the political and aesthetic consequences of mass production began to become conspicuous in the celluloid forms of the 1930s. In Leni Riefenstahl’s elaborately choreographed crowd scenes of 1934, the visual effect is nearly identical to that produced in the four back-to-back blockbuster musicals choreographed by Busby Berkely in America during the same year. Berkely, like Riefenstahl, used the individual body as a minute pixel in an enormous geometric diagram.

In the 1850’s, the British intellectual John Ruskin had noted the trend towards diminishing opportunities for creative expression on the part of the worker as a result of mass manufacture. As an art critic he extolled the medieval European Cathedral, in whose asymmetries and idiosyncrasies he claimed that it was possible to read a generous sharing of creative control among many artisans. In the perfect symmetries of a classical Greek temple, by contrast, Ruskin saw proof of a system of slave labor perfectly executing the design of a single architect. The mass produced clothing emerging in Ruskin’s time, establishing themselves in Mann’s, and ascendant in ours are like the Greek temple of the Ruskin dichotomy not only because they are the work of one intellectual laborer (a designer) and a fleet of manual workers without artistic choice, but also because of the inconsistency of medium with message.  Just as the Greek temple is intended to epitomize the democratic ideal but reveals in its mode of production a system of authoritarianism, postwar western clothing is marketed as a system of objects that provide an opportunity for expression, while in its actual mode of production we can read a vast diminution in the opportunities for expression on the part of the worker. One thing that can be said for Triumph of the Will is that at least it was the intended effect that we read in its sea of uniform bodies a monopoly on human action of unparalleled intensity.


Sofi Thanhauser studied history at Columbia University and got her MFA in creative writing at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, WY, where she now lives. She is currently working on a book about clothing. You can listen to her weird music at

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