The four-volume English-language series Habits of Being extracts more than forty of the best essays from the ongoing editions of Abito e Identità: Ricerche di storia letteraria e culturale, edited by Cristina Giorcelli and published since 1995 by Edizioni Associate (volumes 1–3) and Ila Palma Press (volumes 4–10) of Rome, Italy, augmenting these Italian essays with a few newly commissioned pieces and with examples of work by contemporary artists who explore the interface between text and textile. The result of fifteen years of research by international teams of scholars from Algeria, France, Hungary, Italy, and the United States, the series focuses on the multiple forms and meanings attached to various articles of clothing in literature, film, performance, art, and other cultural arenas as well as on the social, economic, and semiotic connotations of clothing. Bringing together literary and film critics, art and fashion historians, semioticians, sociologists, historians, and ethnographers, as well as psychoanalysts and fashion designers, these volumes offer an English-speaking audience a rare glimpse of the important work now published in Italy, that most modish of nations.
Moving among thematic, chronological, and aesthetic concerns, this series tracks clothing (and especially accessories) around four cardinal points—top, bottom, inside, outside—to allude to the complex implications of power, meaning, and sensibility associated with, for example, the head (of state as much as of body) or the foot, interiority and exposure. Each book addresses a complex of ideas encased within a set of terms that (p.x) at times appears contradictory. The first volume, Accessorizing the Body, reconsiders the cliché that clothes represent a “second skin” by showing how the body became an accessory within various political and artistic movements of the twentieth century. The second volume will focus on transnational circulation and exchange across time and space to consider how depictions of clothing in classic texts (for instance, Homer’s epics) might migrate into understandings of how items of clothing actually mutate within the secondary economy of used-clothing stores. Volume three is more traditional, organized by period (the nineteenth century) and place (Europe and the United States) to explore a crucial era within the consolidation and spread of Western culture, when dress signified class and other distinctions through excess and detail, even as mass production turned clothing into a commodity. The fourth and final volume in the series will interrogate connections between ornamentation and the quotidian, considering how aspects of apparel decorate everyday lives as men daily don sunglasses and women exchange handbags.
Each book addresses social and economic processes involving dress as well as psychic and ontological aspects of identity. For instance, “circulation” references global exchange of commodities or a pair of shoes walking the streets; “movement” stresses the fluidity of meaning—political, sexual, historical—attached to articles of clothing when worn in various contexts; “detail” focuses on accessorizing the body and the role of clothing in the construction of social formations; “intimacies” exposes how what appears outside is a complex of social meanings extending deep inside to the interior of the body and its psychic formations; and “value” addresses economic disparities coded within dress as well as examining how replication and individuation differentiate affect. Obviously these fluid categories leak one into another, because any attention to clothing and its representation necessitates awareness of what is seen and what is remembered for and by whom for what purpose activating which desires.
As an ongoing research project, the subjects covered in these books range from boarding-school attire to Futurist vestments, from lesbian pulp to Henry James, from used-clothing stores to analysts’ couches, from Spanish Fascist promotion of appropriate (p.xi) dress to Hungarian Jewish tailors embroidering the yellow star. The mix of essays provides a compelling argument for the inherent interdisciplinarity of fashion studies. Looking at how dress is represented in a work of fiction necessarily opens into a discussion of class, of social procedures, of psychic dimensions, of the very texture of language itself: after all, text is the root of textile. Considering materials—literally, the stuff out of which stuff is made—requires a discourse that brushes economics up against aesthetics. That so many scholars (experts in the history of Italian education, in the history of East European socialism, in the ethnography of Algerian wedding practices, to name a few) can unite through attention to items of clothing speaks to the transhistorical and cross-cultural ubiquity of clothing. It is a basic human need. Yet the vast differences and arcane meanings attached to any particular fashion trend or item of dress vary and change across classes, genders, time, and space. These embellishments appear utterly unnecessary. Such is the contradiction we all face daily.
Fashion studies extends from the ethnographic approach of Joanne Eicher to the art historical readings of Anne Hollander, from literary critic Marjorie Garber’s inventive readings of transvestism to Germano Celant’s exhibition of Giorgio Armani’s couture at the Guggenheim Museum in 2000. This fluidity has attracted many distinguished scholars to our project. Most considered clothing for the first time in their careers. Yet, once analyzed, the subject captivated them so deeply that they willingly extended their research to create many original meditations on the materials covering bodies both real and imagined. By no means exhaustive, these essays offer a range of styles, from rigorously archival to deeply textual, on objects and the affects they induce in their wearers and in those who observe them, desire them, and perhaps also shop for them.
As literary critics, much of our attention is on the ways in which literature relies on and participates in the construction of bodily presence through narrative or lyrical obsession with dress and habit. Because dress is at once tactile and visual—and often aural, as the crinkly sound of a crinoline or the swish of satin attests—the art of creating literary effects of touch and sight (and sound), especially when they are so intimately associated with character, offers tour de force examples of a writer’s skill in conveying affect (p.xii) through description. More obviously, film, photography, and visual culture present opportunities to foreground clothing, tracking its changing sensations over time. Film, especially from Hollywood’s Golden Era, worked hand in glove with the fashion industry, displaying the latest styles or costuming actresses in period clothing again and again to convey a world of opulence and ease seemingly accessible to all. Dress codes, whether in the form of school uniforms or corporate and government protocols, enforce, by contrast, a sense of clothing as a restrictive binding, controlling one’s ability to express individuality. Clothing both opens up and clamps down the body and its myriad identities. Even the same article of clothing can be at once freeing and restrictive—an empty sign full of meaning.
The essays in these collections are concerned with how subjectivity and identity, intimately tied to processes of incorporation, projection, and desire, are evoked by an item of dress. Thus, before scholars engage the subject, each volume commences with an essay by a woman psychoanalyst. Given the complexity of the problematic of clothes, it seemed essential to open each book with a reflection that ponders over its meaning in relation to identity from the point of view of her school—Freudian, Lacanian, Jungian. In every case, her evocative, even innovative, elaboration on the sparse shreds that the various masters have incidentally jotted down in their works calls for new ways of thinking about the habits of being. For instance, Freud noted Dora’s schmuckasten but could never fathom what she meant when she asserted her right to own, and show off, such a fashionable item—sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but a purse is never just a purse. In every volume we also include a conversation with or a statement by a noted fashion designer before extending the arena to scholars, and each book features women artists who appropriate traditional Western assumptions that weaving and sewing are aspects of women’s work, creating stunning visual links between text and textile. Like careful shoppers, we have been very selective in our choices. They remind us that all clothing is at once conceptual (someone designed each piece) and material (someone made it). Made for use yet extravagant, quotidian yet unique—what else is culture?
Attention to the mechanisms by which clothing and its representations affect psychic (p.xiii) and social structures underlies most of these essays, no matter how diverse their approaches. Representations of clothing, like the items themselves, can take on a fetishistic quality. Identity is perhaps little more than a matter of habit, of what is put on every day to construct one’s being. A habit of being. Clothed in the world and in the imagination.
This book is the result of deep commitments by our many contributors; we are grateful for their collaboration, enthusiasm, and insights. We thank our indefatigable research assistant, Sara Cohen, for taking care of the finishing touches on this volume. Support for the project has come from the Dipartimento di Studi Euro-Americani of Università degli Studi di Roma Tre and the Department of English and the Samuel Russell Chair in the Humanities of the College of Liberal Arts of the University of Minnesota. Our editor at the University of Minnesota Press, Douglas Armato, has been devoted to this effort from the beginning, and his assistant Danielle Kasprzak, as well as Nancy Sauro and Laura Westlund, helped guide us and trusted us to follow them throughout the process of turning an Italian series into an American one. Caroline Evans, Cynthia Kuhn, and an anonymous reader gave us cogent and encouraging suggestions that made this a stronger work.
Giuliana Di Febo’s essay originally appeared in Italian in volume 2 of Abito e Identità: Ricerche di storia letteraria e culturale. Volume 4 of Abito e Identità first published the essays by Franca Zoccoli (in Italian) and Paula Rabinowitz; the latter also appeared in the Catalan journal Lectora: Revista di dones i textualitat 7 and in Black & White and Noir: America’s Pulp Modernism (Columbia University Press). Essays by Zsófia Bán, Manuela Fraire, and Vito Zagarrio, and the conversation with Micol Fontana were first published (the latter three in Italian) in volume 5 of Abito e Identità. Essays by Martha Banta and Jeffrey C. Stewart first appeared in volume 6 of Abito e Identità. Vittoria C. Caratozzolo’s essay originally appeared in Italian along with Paola Colaiacomo’s essay in volume 7 of Abito e Identità. Cristina Giorcelli’s essay on Sonia Delaunay was published in Italian in volume 9 of Abito e Identità. We thank Edizioni Associate and Editrice Ila Palma for permission to publish these essays in English in this volume. (p.xiv)