Pembroke College, Oxford
In Système de la Mode (1967), his structuralist critique of fashion, Roland Barthes argues that modern-day consumers appreciate fashion insofar as it is synonymous with what is new. Since the birth of capitalism, newness has become embedded in our psyche as the ultimate mark of prestige, status and sophistication, a concept so wedded to our innate desire for social recognition that it actually assumes greater importance than the commodities to which it pertains. In order to launch fashion as a consumer phenomenon, this 'néomanie' has been, from the nineteenth century onwards, exploited and reinforced by a discourse in which the clothing industry posits newness as the absolute criterion for the acquisition of garments. Yet such a discourse is knowingly based on a doubly false premise - that the new is somehow financially and conceptually appropriable. To begin with, economically and practically speaking, the fashion industry is incapable of creating new designs at the rate at which the public demands them. It is thus forced to 'cheat' by reviving or modifying old designs that consumers either are too young to have known or simply cannot remember. Such a deceitful tactic cannot possibly be revealed to the public, so fashion journals are forced to adopt a rhetoric of disguise and manipulation which gives the impression that the garments under discussion are 'the latest thing'. But the acquisition of the 'latest thing' is itself a temporally flawed idea, for it is by its very nature ephemeral and hence unobtainable. As soon as consumers buy a particular garment, another one comes along to replace it. They are thus caught in an endless cycle of consumption deliberately encouraged by a fashion discourse in which newness is presented as something indispensable, yet tantalisingly out of reach.
Although primarily linguistic rather than economic in focus (he quotes his examples from fashion journals), Barthes' critique usefully draws attention to a curious paradox: the fashion industry can only survive if it constructs a discourse which masks its true nature. His distinction between fashion as commodity and fashion as discourse has been taken up by more recent critics such as Miller, Bowlby and Rappaport who have focused their attention on more obviously commercial modes of representation, such as advertisements and department store diaries. Following Barthes' example, they argue that these discourses unequivocally identify the appropriation of fashionable commodities with the acquisition of status . Where they differ with Barthes is over the nature of the status that is marketed. They claim that its promotion caters less to the consumer's desire for novelty-value, than to a supposedly innate aspiration towards more concrete, socially definable goals: bourgeois identity, female emancipation and urban leisure. Consumers are thus led to believe that shopping for fashionable goods is equivalent to gaining a more permanent foothold in the social hierarchy. It would seem, then, that seen from a linguistic or an economic viewpoint the discourse of fashion is motivated in equal measure by the industry's desire to retain its reputation and the consumer's desire to acquire one.
In this light, how then are we to interpret La Dernière Mode, a fashion journal written and edited by Stéphane Mallarmé in 1874 and aimed at a female readership? Do the journal's various contributors (all of whom are pseudonyms of the poet) adopt the allusive, utopian rhetoric emphasised by Barthes, or do they more plausibly project an image of fashion as the passport to socio-economic betterment? Are the garments described governed by the rules of temporality or do they fulfil a latent desire for something more substantial? The answer, it seems is both. As the very title of his journal suggests ('the latest fashion') Mallarmé celebrates the idealised temporal quality of his garments (there is no question of referring to old designs), but he also refers to clothes as purchasable, material commodities, which have a bearing on our everyday needs and aspirations. In promoting fashion as unobtainable yet accessible, as a transient but also permanent status symbol, he appears not to differ from the standard discourse of fashion.
However, this article will propose that such a perception is too reductive and oversimplified, for there are occasions in La Dernière Mode when, Mallarmé self-consciously adopts a theoretically polemical stance which questions and redefines the double premise on which fashion discourse is built, that of consumerism and temporality. First, it will be argued that he considers that his role as fashion journalist is to steer his reader away from restrictive views of fashion as commodity, towards a more discerning recognition of its role as symbol capable of fulfilling her more fundamental human needs. His reader should acknowledge the consumerist trap presented by fashion and the superficial, snobbish criteria by which fashion is judged. By virtue of its aesthetic, abstract qualities it should, on the contary, be intellectually accessible to Mallarmé's reader as an intelligible source of solace in her day-to-day existence, regardless of her income or social position. Mallarmé therefore altruistically wrests fashion from the clutches of an elitist economic discourse, so as to confer on it a more collectively pertinent role. In the second section, I will argue that Mallarmé also aims to give fashion a more cohesive universal function by rescuing it from the fragmentation of transient value-judgements. Fashion should not be fleetingly glimpsed by his reader as an endless succession of unconnected, commercially appropriable garments, but fully grasped, over time, as the harmonious interrelation of components forming an aesthetic whole. In his dual attempts to reconceptualise and reappropriate fashion discourse in this way Mallarmé is, however, faced with the problem of having to compromise his financial responsibility - as writer and editor - to sell his journal. He must thus accommodate these economic imperatives within his polemical discourse by applying barely disguised commercial methods to publicise his journal, as well as acknowledging that which is said in rival fashion publications.
|1) The Consumption of Fashion|
Let us first examine, then, a passage from La Dernière Mode's 'Gazette de la Fashion', written by Mallarmé's pseudonym Miss Satin, on November 1st 1874:
In this extract, a purportedly unselfish desire to inform her readers about the state of affairs in the Paris fashion world, serves as a pretext for Miss Satin to launch a damning critique of consumer culture. She expresses her concern that the whole of Paris has been caught up in a cycle of compulsive buying. Wherever they go, the sole purpose of shoppers is to spend money ('dans un désir immense de dépenser de l'argent'). The suggestion is that consumerism has blunted all discernment in the appropriation of fashion, since the mere act of buying has become more important than the commodity purchased. The reason for this, suggests Miss Satin, is that consumerism, by virtue of its visibility on a grand scale, ('témoignage des yeux') is a potentially status-enhancing activity. Quite simply, to be seen (and the way in which one is seen) shopping in a reputable store, can have as much social impact as the commodity purchased. This point is implied by Miss Satin's subtle distinction of the class and purchasing power of shoppers frequenting the Bon Marché department store ('ces foules qui se pressent') from those who arrive at M. Worth's high fashion boutique 'en équipage à deux chevaux'. Mallarmé was clearly aware of what these two stores represented in the fashion world. Both had recently opened, both were instrumental in launching fashion as a consumer phenomenon, but each catered to a different class of client. On the one hand, Charles Worth single-handedly launched 'haute couture' as a commercially successful enterprise among the 'haute bourgeoisie', acquiring a world-wide reputation among famous high society ladies. On the other hand, as the world's first department store, the Bon Marché used advertising and promotional events to introduce consumerism to the middle class, selling not only fashion, but a vast array of new commodities at a relatively affordable price. As Michael Miller has argued, shopping in the Bon Marché became synonymous with acquiring a bourgeois identity.
If this is the case, then Miss Satin's implicit, hierarchical distinction between these two temples of fashion consumerism and the type of clientèle they represent - the aspiring bourgeois on the one hand and the haute-bourgeoisie on the other - could legitimately be interpreted as a sign of snobbery on Mallarmé's part. But, more subtly, it suggests his acute awareness that an all-pervasive culture of consumerism, linking the consumption of fashion with the acquisition of prestige has been forged in the public's psyche, regardless of their social or economic standing. Everybody feels the pressure to spend money but nobody asks herself why. Employing as a smokescreen a discourse which on the surface is quite typical of fashion journalism (Miss Satin's tone is one of maternal, philanthropic concern and gentle rebuke to a childish reader), Mallarmé makes a serious point about the iniquities encouraged by consumerism: fashion producers make too much money and many of the garments they sell are unaffordable to certain members of society:
This strategy is hinted at in the next few lines when M. Worth's dress is gradually shorn of any tinge of commerce or snobbery, in order to be presented as a palliative to the restless, unconscious urges of the human psyche:
Words such as 'enguirlander', 'méandres', 'plis opulents' connote sinuosity, movement, a refusal to be pinned down. For Lacanian critics such qualities would pertain to the structure of the human unconscious. But in this context they more plausibly conform to Barthes' model of an escapist fashion rhetoric which 'disguises' the commercial realities underpinning the garment in question. Having exposed the ruthless logic of production and consumption which governs the fashion industry, it is now quite in keeping with conventional discourse for Miss Satin to retreat behind a euphoric, utopian description aimed at masquerading such an unpalatable truth. This strategy would appear to be borne out by a lingusitic transition from the commercial hubbub of Paris to an idyllic bucolic realm. The phrases quoted above all conjure up the image of a dramatic sky, the meandering of a river and the birth of spring. Moreover, the earlier references to Tibet, and to the colours of the cashmire as 'thym, loutre et héron' ('thyme, otter and heron') would appear to suggest that the dress is the material pointer to an idealised natural landscape.
Yet for a writer as self-questioning and socially concerned as Mallarmé, to unequivocally endorse such a frivolous bucolic rhetoric would be wholly unsatisfactory. And indeed, if we delve beneath his conventional discourse we find a richer vein of argumentation that is central to the poet's thought- the so-called Tragedy of Nature. For the poet, Nature, in all its glory, offers mankind the visual spectacle of the solar cycle, an external backdrop which mimics the human cycle of birth and decay, but which at the same time, with the certainty it brings of regular renewal, answers our fundamental human need for reassurance and tempers our innermost fears. In an urban setting, blinded by consumerism and bereft of such a spectacle, symbolic solace must be derived from artificial, man-made sources of beauty. What better example then, than a dress designed by Charles Worth? 'Nous avons tous rêvé cette robe-là sans le savoir', is Miss Satin's way of saying that the garment answers not so much her readers' socially and economically determined needs, but the unconscious desire for something psychologically more rewarding. This is confirmed by the fact that read in sequence, the earlier references to Worth's dresses - 'bleu-rêve, chaos et Infante' - metaphorically enact the rhythm of hope and despair, of death and resurrection that is central to the human condition and symbolically represented in the diurnal rhythm of the Tragedy of Nature. Thus the sense of optimism and potentiality nurtured by the suggestion of a bright daytime sky ('bleu-rêve') is thwarted by the desperate apprehension of mortality represented by nightfall ('chaos'), only for reassurance to return with the birth of a new day ('Infante'). If this claim seems exaggerated then it is worth noting that Miss Satin attributes to the dress a solemn ceremonial significance, alongside its more conventional designation: 'Voilà une toilette de jeune femme et de grande cérémonie.' From the clutches of a hierarchically structured consumerist discourse, Miss Satin therefore reappropriates and confers on high fashion, a universal intellectual dignity it would otherwise lack when perceived in purely materialistic terms.
|2) The Temporality of Fashion|
A similar attempt to reconfigure and redefine standard perceptions of fashion is undertaken in the eighth issue of the journal by another of Mallarmé's pseudonyms, Marguerite de Ponty. This time an ostensibly conventional discourse is overlaid with a critique of the temporal limitations imposed on 'haute couture'. Marguerite de Ponty brings this critique into sharper focus by situating her discussion in relation to that of rival fashion journals. She begins her article on a note of self-justification, defending the fact that she has dared to omit mentioning certain fashionable garments which have already been discussed in other journals. In a section provocatively entitled 'ON NOUS HARANGUE ET NOUS REPONDONS' the very survival of La Dernière Mode appears to be at stake, since Marguerite de Ponty passionately justifies her omissions:
If Mallarmé is writing within these commercially and temporally defined constraints, how then does Marguerite de Ponty justify her omissions? The answer lies in her preference of Costume over individual garments, for she claims that rather than discuss each new item as soon as it came out, she preferred to delay mentioning it until it formed part of a harmonious whole. In other words, the narrator seeks to employ her own taste in order to transform single garments into an aesthetic synthesis which transcends the individuality of its constituent parts:
Nevertheless, Marguerite de Ponty's theoretical redefinition of fashion requires justification to her readers. Since she is at pains to defend herself against the charge of failing to keep up with the latest designs, she boldly claims that she has a superior 'artistic' vision of fashion which demands a different temporal perspective. In her eyes, the aesthetic value of garments lies not in their novelty but in their potential to form part of a harmonious costume at a future date. This is why the narrator claims she is a step ahead of the latest designs rather than behind them, for she reappropriates clothes from the transient state conferred on them by the conventions of haute couture, in order to assert their eternal, aesthetic value as manifested in the costume. In this regard, Marguerite de Ponty self-consciously defies the standard practice of rhetorical disguise identified by Barthes in fashion journalism. Clothes must not be overshadowed by their conventionally determined function ('il ne suffit pas, non! de s'écrier: telle chose se porte'), nor should they be denied a history, but envisioned as part of a cumulative analytical project ('mais il faut dire: en voilà la cause. Et: nous le prévoyions!'). Demands are thus made on the readers' memory so that they view fashion as a diachronic process of aesthetic creation rather than as a fleetingly glimpsed invitation to buy.
But Marguerite de Ponty's reconceptualisation of fashion as a spur to a synthetic perception is so manifestly at odds with a discourse which encourages immediate commercial appropriation that she must accommodate this discourse within her redefinition. This she does by quoting the fashion items named in rival newspapers, which she herself failed to mention. Thus the description of 'la fanchon-frileuse' and 'le chapeau à la Maréchale' is taken directly from the newspaper Le Sport and the 'grand col montant droit' is plucked from La Vie Parisienne. These descriptions are deliberately adumbrated by Marguerite De Ponty's earlier defence of La Dernière Mode as a journal aimed exclusively at the sophisticated reader, a 'Gazette spéciale de la Mode', as opposed to its rival journals which are dismissed as 'journaux simplements mondains (reproduits par la grande presse quotidienne)'. As with Miss Satin's reference to fashion boutiques, this hierarchical distinction should however, not be interpreted as social snobbery on Mallarmé's part, but more subtly as the reflection of his genuine desire to distance himself from a purely commercial mode of fashion discourse. Thus those quotes from rival journals, which are humbly presented in the guise of an apology to his readers, in reality serve to strengthen Mallarmé's argument by way of counterpoint. This strategy is announced at the end of the extracts taken from these rival newspapers, where Marguerite de Ponty ironically assumes the mantle of a chastised fashion journalist when she states: 'A nous maintenant de parler, si nous l'osons.' Having humbly acknowledged her competitors she is now free to resume her own opinions of fashion with a stylistic virtuosity intended to reassert her competence and superiority as fashion journalist. The highly-wrought, ornamental language which follows appears to be a deliberate attempt by Marguerite de Ponty to distinguish herself linguistically from her journalistic rivals, whilst at the same time orchestrating La Dernière Mode's aesthetically recuperative enterprise through language. Phrases such as: 'les marabouts plus que jamais mêlent leur vapeur épaisse à l'éclat des cheveux', and 'les volants s'étageant dans une ascension délicieuse vers le haut de la jupe' demonstrate a taste for preciosity, metaphor and alliteration that is evidently not present in the extracts quoted from other fashion journals. Marguerite de Ponty's decorous language is thus the stylistic enactment of her different attitude to fashion, one which values the suggestive qualities of a harmonious costume rather than the novelty-value of the latest garment. Just as Miss Satin reappropriated fashion from a consumerist discourse, so too Marguerite de Ponty has rescued it from temporal erosion, thus confirming Mallarmé's overall attempt to confer on fashion a more collectively pertinent symbolic role.
 Barthes writes: 'La Mode fait sans doute partie de tous les faits de néomanie qui sont apparus dans notre civilisation probablement avec la naissance du capitalisme: le nouveau est, d'une façon tout à fait institutionnelle, une valeur qui s'achète.' Système de la Mode (Paris: Seuil, 1967), p.302.
 'L'une des fonctions de cette rhétorique est de brouiller les souvenirs des Modes passées, de façon à censurer le nombre et le retour des formes....elle discrédite les termes de la Mode passées, en euphorisant ceux de la Mode présente...En somme le système est noyé sous la litterature, le consommateur de Mode plongé dans un désordre qui est bientôt un oubli, puisqu'il faut voir l'actuel sous les espèces d'un nouveau absolu.' idem.
 See Michael Miller, The Bon Marché: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869-1920 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); Rachel Bowlby, 'Modes of Modern Shopping: Mallarmé at the Bon Marché', pp.186-204, in The Ideology of Conduct: essays on literature and the history of sexuality, ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse (New York: Methuen, 1987); and Erika D. Rappaport, 'A New Era of Shopping: The Promotion of Women's Pleasure in London's West End, 1909-1914', in Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, ed. Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz (London: University of California Press, 1995) especially pp.136-7. I am grateful to Patick Mc Guinness for drawing my attention to this last book.
 The purpose of these diaries or 'agendas' first introduced by the Bon Marché to its clients, was to promote the store in a respectable way, by assimilating its more frivolous commercial events (sales, concerts and so on) to serious established religious festivals. See Bowlby, op. cit., pp.189-90.
 On this point see Miller, op. cit., pp.178-9.
 Bowlby subtly argues that in La Dernière Mode Mallarmé encourages in his readers a more discerning awareness of their gender than that presented to them in standard fashion critiques: '[Mallarmé] divulges the process by which the image of a natural woman, in which women learn to recognise themselves, is sewn up into the apparently seamless text of a world in which women shop', op. cit., p.202. The aim of the present article, however, is to show that Mallarmé's attempts to redefine fashion discourse went beyond questions of gender to embrace more universally human needs.
 Focusing her attention on London's Edwardian department store, Selfridges, Rappaport argues that the store legitimated and defined a 'heterosocial urban culture' in which 'store advertisements and feature articles situated the department store shopping... in a larger context of commercialised leisure. Copy-writers and journalists drew upon a metaphorical repertoire from both urban high and low culture. They described the store and the West End as a carnival, a fair, a public festival, a tourist sight, a women's club and a pantomime', op. cit., p.137.
 Stéphane Mallarmé, Oeuvres Complètes ed. Henri Mondor et G. Jean-Aubry (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), p.782. All subsequent references will be to this edition.
 Charles Worth's boutique in 7 rue de la Paix became, from the time it opened in 1857, 'le haut lieu de l'élégance parisienne où se pressent les femmes de la plus haute société: la princesse de Metternich, la princesse Mathilde, la Castiglione, Mme Octave Feuillet, Sarah Bernhardt; Worth consent même à habiller Cora Pearl, la Païva, et quelques autres actrices en renom', see Jacques de Langlade, Oscar Wilde, Stéphane Mallarmé: Noblesse de la Robe (Paris: les Belles Lettres, 1997), p.23.
 Miller writes: 'The common thread running through the clientèle was less one of temperament than of identity. The Bon Marché sold its wares to all those who shared, or wished to share, in the middle class way of life....swept through its portals not only those lured by irresistible prices or an irresistible event, but also those who saw in the emporium an irresistible linkage with their life-style and their dreams', op. cit., p.179.
 This is what Barthes calls: 'le langage d'une mère qui "préserve" sa fille de tout contact avec le mal', op. cit., p.264.
 Oeuvres Complètes, p.783.
 These appeared at regular intervals alongside other 'réclames'. Moreover, Mallarmé indirectly publicises the Bon Marché (under his pseudonym Miss Satin) in the seventh issue of the journal: 'Le hasard n'est pas le seul à nous faire, avant tout autre, écrire le nom du Bon Marché; mais nous obéissons à une intime conviction que jamais la Lectrice qui aura, montant en voiture jeté ces mots! rue du Bac ou rue de Sèvres, ne reviendra chez elle, contrariée de notre conseil ou de son propre mouvement à elle', Oeuvres Complètes. Rachel Bowlby also quotes this passage; see Bowlby op. cit., p.196.
 See Miller, op. cit., p.173.
 This point is perceptively made by Jacques de Langlade, op. cit., p.69.
 Oeuvres Complètes, p.783.
 ibid., p. 830.
 This probably explains why Wendelen, the journal's publisher, was officially to sack Mallarmé as editor and replace him with the Baronne de Lomaria, in a letter dated January 12th 1875. This letter is found in the Bibliothèque Jacques Doucet, Paris (MVL 3220).
 Oeuvres Complètes, p.831.
 I wish to thank Prof. Roger Pearson for valuable guidance, as well as Thad Kobylarz and Naci Mehmet for helpful suggestions in writing this article.