This issue’s unlikely heroine is Mollie. A mixture of pity, fascination and incredulity gripped me when I first came across her at the age of 12, and those feelings remain just as unresolved today. Mollie, for those who need a refresher in the Orwellian canon, is a minor character in Animal Farm. She is the vain, self-centred, downright stupid mare who runs away from the recently liberated farm and back into the yoke of men. She chooses enslavement over “freedom” because she misses the blue ribbons tied into her mane and the sugar lumps she was fed as a treat.The slave who chooses her shackles because she finds them aesthetically pleasing is something of a ham-fisted satirical figure. Orwell, who was himself something of a stereotype (the earnest yet grumpy and self-righteous leftie), shared the intelligentsia’s tendency to disdain and dismiss frivolities such as fashion, or at worst, to see it as the purest and most corrupting of capitalism’s evils. If only things were so simple.
The left’s reluctance to recognise fashion potency as one of life’s many pleasures is only partly a form of moral antagonism, a method by which proletarian deprivation is brought to garish light by the glittering frippery flaunted by the rich. This is before the poor were also allowed to care about fashion. It is also an aesthetic decision, rooted in modernism’s pompous decree that ornament is sin. Socialist moral aesthetics owe much to the reformist Christian Puritanism that preceded them, and its very bourgeois sense of propriety. Strangely for a movement that declares war on the middle class, classic socialism was and is a very middle-class idea in certain key respects. The philosopher John Gray has observed that, pre-fall, the Eastern Bloc countries of the Warsaw Pact were in some ways the most middle-class of nations: their excellent health and educational systems were combined with suffocating oppression and drabness; a nuclear-armed, grey suburbia. The film The Lives of Others is a perfect illustration. So while, in the 1930s, the far right camped it up in knee-high leather boots and bold graphic insignia, fretting about the right shade of black for their shirts, the far left tried to look as unkempt, impoverished and bland as possible.
The left’s hostile relationship with fashion manifested itself in Mao’s ill-fitting and much-hated suit and the Soviet’s famously non-chic shabbiness and their hopeless inability to make leather shoes that didn’t leak. Anyone who travelled to the USSR before the fall of communism could testify that the furtive Soviet citizens who approached with whispers had no interest in hearing about democracy but every interest in buying your jeans virtually off your arse. For every book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that found its way back to Russia, there were trainloads of contraband Levis. In a way, much more corosive and damaging to Soviet Union. As the televised images of the fall of the Berlin Wall testified, the hordes who smashed it and rushed into West Berlin returned home clutching not the works of Milton Friedman but shopping bags stuffed with what today we might politely call “fast fashion”.
There is a direct lineage from Mollie that explains much of the attitude of lefty highbrow intelligentsia today. I am often tapped for information about, and interpretation of, fashion still considered by my leftist friends as Mollie's folly by the otherwise intelligent and subtle people. They have, at best, a rather foggy notion on the subject. If there are no topical issues to do with sweatshops and child labour, then there are the perennials: the under-representation of ethnic minorities, older and larger people. The question always comes in the form of a jabbing finger, the accusatory note barely concealed. Even if an attack is expertly parried (and I’ve had practice), they always retort with some parting declamation about the utter wastefulness and insanity of such a luxury as fashion, and add that their Hugo Boss suit has done them just fine for 20 years. Interestingly, I find that I am invariably having this conversation in the charmed settings of a Michelin-starred restaurant. The ladies and gentlemen of the leftopia would never question whether fine food or wine is an absolute waste of resources, or if we should next meet in a McDonald’s.
Mollie helps to pull forth the cart of history, with her search for personal experience and expression, one blue ribbon or blue jean at a time. iHistory, if you like. Her quest has had a greater impact on history than a hundred Soviet university departments dedicated to the historic study of scientific materialism. The image you see here is courtesy of Tehran's first pioneer of street-style blogger proving that what Levis did Celine can repeat. Fashion is certainly a flawed and often silly animal, with strange quirks; in many ways it represents a glitch in the otherwise more or less comprehensible social history of mankind. Like the so-called God gene, fashion’s incessant ability to illicit desire enters culture virally and in unexplained ways, however hard you try to keep it out. And sometimes, like the grain of sand that germinates the pearl, this crazy nonsense makes a huge social impact.Which is a long way of answering the question: why do we have a fur gilet by Prada on the cover of our spring issue? The short answer is: because it looks exactly right.
photo courtesy of THETEHRANTIMES.COM