>The Affected Conservative: It’s All About Eve

>Last evening I had the very enjoyable experience of taking a visiting friend from Barcelona and a few colleagues around the village to do some shopping, followed by a good dinner at Leopold’s, where we ran into some other friends of mine. Georgetown is, of course, part of Washington D.C. proper these days, but geographically and stylistically it continues to have a sense of “otherness”, which is very noticeable, particularly if all you have seen for several days has been the inside of a hotel ballroom in Crystal City. For me the benefit of the experience was not only catching up with an old friend and meeting new ones, but also having an experience the antithesis of yesterday’s cautionary post about Twitter – which seems to have struck a nerve with a number of people – about using social media to build real connections.

When I arrived back at the manse, I proved this last point by engaging in an email conversation with a conservative friend I met some time ago via Twitter – the proof being, we do not merely tweet to each other but communicate outside of it on several platforms. We talked briefly about a number of subjects, including personal style, and it was pointed out that I come off as a strong-willed person. Less kind persons might have said “stubborn”, but it is a fair assessment.

Second-hand, I have heard myself referred to as “intimidating”, which certainly ought not to be the case at all. Someone’s being opinionated should not intimidate others, if they have their own developed sense of self, though I have occasionally had to step back and apologize when I fear that I am being too forceful. I suspect that the combination of being rather tall, a trial lawyer, and a conservative would do it, if my personal habit of sometimes affecting what I like to call “biker preppy” style does not do it alone. Exterior appearances may easily deceive the untrained eye, particularly where conservatives are concerned.

To those on the outside looking in (and perhaps even to the majority of those within), there is often an apparent “sameness” of appearance among people marked as conservatives. Yet among genuine conservatives there are people who espouse certain affectations which may seem incongruous or surprising. Part of this surprise has to do with a false assumption that everyone who believes in conservative principles ought to look a certain way. Yet part also has to do with the inherent human desire to name and categorize, which is inescapable. Let us consider each of these in turn.

Whatever the liberal press may tell you, a conservative can have just as much style, if not more so, than your average Hollywood bleeding-heart liberal fashion plate. Of course, the fact that Hollywood is dominated by the latter type does not mean that the film industry fails to show us examples of idiosyncratic style among people who have decidedly conservative views. When they do appear, it is not only their point of view but their style which surprises us, when we pay attention to detail.

This evening for example, I am going to a dinner party where we will be watching one of my favorite films, “All About Eve”. Director and screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who was as bleeding-heart as they come, probably intended the witty, urbane, but somewhat shady character of Addison De Witt (George Sanders) to be the lone Republican in the ensemble, given some of the searingly vicious lines which he has Addison say. Yet also, I think notably, Addison is distinguishable by what he wears, as much as by what he says in conversation, or what he writes in his newspaper column.

Unlike the other men in the cast, Addison is shown on multiple occasions to enjoy wearing hats. He also likes to wear what looks to be a very expensive overcoat lined with fur – probably vicuna – and often smokes using a long, ebony cigarette holder. Addison not only has a hugely expert eye with respect to the theatre world, but in his personal style he stands out from the others. This is not just because he is considerably taller than the rest of the men in the room, but also because he has a clear appreciation for style and attention to detail. He pulls off looking different from the men of his day because although he dresses appropriately for the occasion, he also knows what he likes, and does not care whether others also like his choices or not.

Addison is, interestingly enough, quite the ladies’ man despite his seemingly aloof, foppish and snobbish personality. We learn that he picked up the stunning and considerably younger Miss Caswell (Marilyn Monroe) dancing at the Copacabana nightclub; later Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) discovers that she “belongs” to him after he bends her to his will. In the scene where Eve comes to understand this, he is very much aware of the importance of appearances: when Eve throws open the door to her hotel room and tells him to get out, Addison scoffs, “You’re too short for that gesture.”

As the scene continues, we get a glimpse of Addison’s respect not only for the political change of heart after Pearl Harbor which gave America a new role in the world, but also his appreciation for human decency. When Addison catches Eve in a lie about her supposed fiancee, killed during World War II, the realization that she has been found out sends her into a paroxysm of rage. “That was not only a lie,” he chides her, “but an insult to dead heroes and to the women who loved them.”

That line of Addison’s always reminds me of the character of Lieutenant Fred Boynton, another crypto-conservative, in Whit Stillman’s brilliant film “Barcelona”. Fred Boynton (Chris Eigeman) is a naval officer being shown around the Catalan capital by his cousin Ted (Taylor Nichols). A rather trashy-looking group of Catalan youths pass them and sneer at Fred’s naval uniform, calling him a fascist. Ted tries to calm his cousin down by explaining that it is not his uniform which is the problem; if you comb your hair and put on a tie, those types of Barcelona youths will call you a fascist. Fred then goes off into a diatribe where he points out that men wearing the same uniform died ridding Europe of fascism. He is, in effect, showing the ignorance of the liberal in mocking his style of dress.

While Fred may have been ill-advised to wear a naval uniform when not on duty – we later learn that he has brought no civilian clothes with him, and needs to borrow from Ted’s closet – one suspects that he is secretly glad to be wearing it, as a stylistic indicator of how he sees himself. Its unexpectedness in the setting is what makes it – and him – stand out. We find it hard to believe that Fred has really forgotten his civies, and instead realize that this affectation comes about because he knows he looks good in a uniform, and because he likes how the uniform sets him apart.

Similarly, in Whit Stillman’s earlier film “Metropolitan” the character Nick Smith – ironically enough also played by Chris Eigeman – has a conversation with another character, Tom Townsend, in which he explains his own personal affectation, that of wearing dress shirts with detachable collars:

Nick: “You haven’t seen this? Detachable collar, not many people wear them anymore, they look much better. So many things which were better in the past have been abandoned for supposed convenience.”

Tom: “I had no idea anyone wore those anymore.”

Nick: “It’s a small thing, but symbolically important. Our parents’ generation was never interested in keeping up standards, they wanted to be happy. But of course, the last way to be happy is to make it your objective in life.”

Tom: “I wonder if our generation is any better than our parents.”

Nick: “Oh, it’s far worse. Our generation’s probably the worst since…the Protestant Reformation, it’s barbaric. But a barbarism even worse than the old-fashioned, straightforward kind. Now barbarism is cloaked with all sorts of self-righteousness and moral superiority.”

Tom: “You’re obviously talking about a lot more than detachable collars…“

Nick: “Yeah, I am.“

When we leave the world of moving pictures for the real world, things become a little less clear. If Georgetown, in its best sections, has a sense of otherness, much of white-collar Washington has a sense of “sameness”. However, not everyone in Washington who wears a blue blazer and khakis to work is a conservative, as the first-time visitor often mistakenly believes. That is simply the local mufti, worn irrespective of party politics. In its blandness perhaps it tells us more about the general population of the capital area, rather than anything about those persons who adopt it, as individuals or party members.

By trying to class people through their style we are of course naming and categorizing, and by naming and categorizing we are engaging in something which we as a species have done from the very beginning. In the Bible we are told how God created the universe, from sun, moon and stars, right down to the animals and human beings. But the observant reader will note that while God Himself names certain elements and principles of His creation – “day”, “night”, “earth”, “sea”, and so on – and He also names Adam, it is Adam himself who names the animals.

Certainly God could have named the “things which creep upon the earth”, but He chose not to do so, leaving that job up to Adam. It is interesting to note, by the way, that in the Koran it is God rather than Adam who names the animals. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there are some important considerations we could take from this difference between Judaism/Christianity and Islam, but that we shall perhaps leave for a future post.

As creation unfolds, God wants to see whether Adam is going to become particularly attached to any of the animals, so that they will be his companion in creation:

So the LORD God formed out of the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each of them would be its name.

Genesis 2:19

As it turns out, none of the animals prove to be fully satisfying to Adam, which brings about the creation of Eve. Thus, the human female is the very last element of the universe which God created. Women should recognize that fact with some understandable pleasure, and men should be aware of its significance, for God was clearly aware of the fact than men are usually not so good at taking care of His creation all by themselves.

When God brings His final creation to Adam in Genesis 2:23, Adam does not at first give her an individual name, as God did to him. Instead he calls her “woman”, recognizing that she seems to be part of his nature as a human being, having been formed from part of Adam himself, but at the same time not seeming to fully understand exactly what she is. One could make the observation therefore that man’s inability to completely “get” women is of primeval origin. After they have sinned by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but before they are cast out of the Garden of Eden, Adam recognizes the woman as an individual who fully shares his nature, and his fate, and gives the woman the individual name of Eve, Genesis 3:20.

When they are finally thrown out of the Garden of Eden, God does not give Adam and Eve seeds, or ploughs, or even teach them how to make fire. The only thing He does do, is to make them clothing out of leather, to replace the leaves that they themselves had unsuccessfully tried putting together to cover themselves. God Himself becomes the first true couturier. [N.B. Just imagine having the label “Hand Made by Almighty God in the Kingdom of Heaven” on the back inside lining of your biker jacket.]

Ultimately, the conservative recognizes that it really is all about Eve. Sin, death, salvation and redemption are all woven around a single decision she made, long ago, to exercise her free will, and to convince Adam to do the same. That recognition of the supreme importance, spiritually and philosophically, of the concept of free will, is foundational to the Western conservative, operating in the Judeo-Christian understanding of humanity and of himself.

When a conservative fellow stands out a bit from the crowd then yes, he is probably hoping in part that an attractive eye will bat his way – that is all about Eve, too. But outside of that fact, he is also engaged in exercising his free will in order to say something about himself: what he enjoys, what he supports, what he appreciates. The more stylish he is, the more unique or subtle the exercise.

Centuries ago the choice of a particular color, pattern, symbol, etc. in a man’s dress or accoutrement would have been endowed with a great deal of symbolic significance not only by the wearer but also by those who saw him. Today, as Nick Smith points out, many do not take the time to think of such things. Among those who do, it is with men of a conservative persuasion that the exercise of free will often proves particularly interesting.

George Sanders and Anne Baxter begin to form
their unholy alliance in “All About Eve” (1950)

Review: Coco avant Chanel

Rarely have I seen a movie more apologetically but accessibly deferential to the intelligence of its viewers than director Anne Fontaine’s beautifully thought-out 2009 film “Coco avant Chanel” (“Coco Before Chanel”) starring Audrey Tautou. Based on the early life of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971), the film chronicles Chanel’s rise from obscurity to become one of the most innovative and celebrated fashion designers of the 20th century. If it were simply a bio-pic there would be plenty to chew over, for Chanel was a complex and unconventional woman whose past she intentionally kept somewhat obscured during her own lifetime. Yet this stunning production also assumes that the viewer will be able to pick up on the influences which shaped Chanel’s work, taking the piece outside of what might otherwise seem a made-for-tv costume drama and creating something extraordinary.

The film begins with the young Gabrielle Chanel arriving at a provincial Catholic orphanage with her sister, where the two are being left by the father, who is either unwilling or unable to take care of them; the film never makes this clear, and Chanel herself does not help. In fact, from this point on the viewer should be aware that during her lifetime, Chanel changed her biography numerous times, depending on whom she was speaking to and what she wanted them to believe. Throughout the film, as she moves from working in a dressmaker’s shop and singing in a bar (where she obtains the nickname “Coco”) to auditioning for the dance hall and becoming a live-in mistress, we see Chanel lie about some aspect of her upbringing, background, connections, experiences, and so on.

In doing so Chanel is creating the persona she feels is necessary in order for her to scramble up out of the gutter. To her surprise, she comes to understand that it will be in fashion, rather than in the bedroom or on the stage, where she will make her name. But make no mistake: Coco wants the good life and is going for it, conventions be damned. When she and her sister are observing from a distance some of the wealthy assembled together, her sister comments how bored they all look. Chanel replies, presciently, “Soon they will be willing to kill just to dine with us.”

It is perhaps difficult for us today, when an item such as a Chanel tweed suit (or a knock-off of one) is considered de rigeur among successful women, to realize what a shock Chanel’s style was to the women of her time. The film takes pains to point out to us how exceedingly uncomfortable it was to be considered well-dressed at the turn of the previous century, wearing yards and yards of fabrics, heavy make-up and jewelry, with giant hats pinned into long ropes of hair. At one point Chanel meets her sister at the races; the latter is wearing a long, fitted white lace gown, and explains that it is the latest fashion from Paris. Chanel snorts at its impracticality and remarks, “I’m sure that train picks up a lot of mud.”

In another, beautifully shot scene, Chanel walks down the boardwalk at Deauville toward the sea, wearing a simple plaid dress and straw hat of her own design. Despite the sun and the heat the women on either side of her are cinched into enormous, heavy dresses that cover every part of their bodies, which of course are dripping in jewels. On top of their heads are hats piled with accordion folds of material that then tie beneath their chins. The modern movie-goer, watching these women try to keep from moving about too much, can only imagine how stiflingly hot and uncomfortable it was.

As she walks past them with the love of her life Arthur “Boy” Capel, Chanel makes catty, but well-observed comments about these supposedly fashionable women. About one, wearing a huge necklace which spreads like a peacock’s tail across her chest, Chanel says, “She’s wearing the family silver.” About a group of others in enormous, uncomfortable hats she sneers, “Looks like a bunch of meringues.” When Capel offers to take her dancing that evening, she explains that she does not have any evening clothes. He counters that she should make a simple evening dress, like the one that she has on.

This is the impetus for Coco to create the famous “little black dress”, Chanel’s lifelong mantra which has become a staple of women’s attire down to the present day: a simple, comfortable, but elegant black cocktail dress that every woman should have in their closet and which can be worn to any dressy occasion. Chanel and the tailor whom she visits that afternoon have quite a discussion about how the dress is to be constructed; Chanel knows what she wants, but needs encouragement from Boy to keep the dress from looking too conventional. When Chanel and Capel waltz around the hotel ballroom later than evening, she stands out in a sea of more enormous white dresses, feathers, and frippery with her simple dress and hairstyle. It is a look which, despite the passage of nearly 100 years, would be completely at home at an evening event today.

It is in these moments of observation, and there are many, in which the filmmakers excel, by giving us a taste of materials, experiences, and the like which came to have an influence on Chanel as an artist. I use the term “artist” intentionally for, as a friend pointed out last night in discussion of the film, one cannot separate Chanel’s radical departure from the fashion of her own day without considering what was going on artistically at the same time. Picasso, Stravinsky, and Gropius were doing in painting, music, and architecture what Chanel was doing in fashion: learning the conventional and then rejecting it to create something new.

The filmmakers take full advantage of the environment that surrounds Chanel to not only provide hints and suggestions of what she will do later in life, but also to create beautiful works of art themselves. Many of the scenes have an autumnal palette to them, like the leaves falling at the House of Elrond, for the Gilded Age does not know that war is on the horizon and that the world they know is coming to an end. Indeed, the often-found-riding Chanel is, from their perspective, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, if they would but recognize it.

When Gabrielle Chanel makes the final transition to become Coco Chanel, the lighting changes: the golden glow disappears and black and white come to dominate the camera’s eye. There is one scene in which she is shown, working alone at night at her sewing machine not long after Boy’s death in an automobile accident, where the only source of light is a sort of gooseneck lamp. Virtually everything in the scene is jet black but for the bright scarlet fabric she is working on, and Chanel stops her work to reflect on and mourn her lost love. It is a short sequence but a brilliant composition, with its vivid slash of red cutting through the darkness reminding us of the work of Eduard Manet or Edward Hopper.

Audrey Tautou is, as ever, an actress who is not only capable of wonderful subtlety in her expressions, but also develops her character through such things as movement, posture, and manner of speaking. Because my French is practically non-existent, in fact I did not pick up on a further subtlety in the performance which was pointed out by a colleague. During the course of the film, just as she visually becomes more and more polished, as she moves up the ladder Chanel’s French also becomes more and more polished. By the final montage when Gabrielle, in the fully-realized persona of Coco Chanel, is seated at the top of her famous staircase watching the models parade past her, the transformation is complete: Tautou is like a Horst photograph of Chanel come to life.

It is interesting to consider the fact that, from a practical perspective, Chanel has had a far greater influence on people’s day-to-day lives than any of the aforementioned artistic giants of the early 20th century. Yet her contributions may not be recognized by the general public for the enormous significance they carry in this regard, in part because she made clothes, and in part because she was a woman. If you are at all aware of the rag trade, or at least have a curiosity about anthropology and sociological development in the 20th century, you will find much to muse over in this film. Even if you do not fit into these categories however, you will enjoy the stunning cinematography of this film in its re-creation of a now-departed age, as seen through the eyes of one of the figures responsible for ushering it out.

Alessandro Nivola and Audrey Tautou in “Coco avant Chanel”

Christ and Clothing

The fashion industry was born out of sin. Some people of course, would say that it has never left its birthplace.  From a Judeo-Christian perspective however, the existence of the rag trade, from haute couture to bargain basement, stems from Eden. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate of the fruit of the Tree of Life, the first thing that happened was that they realized that they were naked. They immediately began to cover themselves, and thus clothing came to be.

Jesus Himself, interestingly enough, gives us an interesting lesson on clothes both in His words and in His personal example, and this is something that I have been thinking about recently. First in a piece which I wrote recently about not looking like a schlub, as Jesus Himself instructs us, I thought about what Christ’s attitude toward what we wear is not a sort of all-or-nothing proposition completely rejecting concern for personal appearance. Yet also since this past Sunday’s Gospel reading from St. Matthew, where Christ tells us not to worry about what we are to eat or what we are to wear, and in particular for our discussion the example of the lilies of the field, He gives those of us who do care about our appearance some food for thought.

In the context of the sermon of course, Jesus is telling us not to concern ourselves with material worries, but rather with putting our trust first in God, who ultimately will provide what we need. And given the “don’t worry” message in this very affecting passage from Scripture, it somehow does not surprise me that so far it has turned up, albeit in different contexts, in several places so far this week, including in conversation with a friend worried about the U.S. Presidential race in 2012, and even in Sean McCarney’s most recent podcast of “Just A Catholic Dad”. There are many big questions we have which Jesus tries to allay for us by reminding us to keep our eyes fixed on the goal of Heaven, and not down here on things which are fleeting and temporary, whether good or bad.

However, I know many people, myself included, who sometimes find themselves in a quandary about what to wear; it is a natural human occurrence which hits some more frequently than others. The Gospel reading caused me to think about the question of what Christ Himself thought about the rag trade, an industry which has been in the news a great deal this week because of the Oscars this past Sunday, John Galliano going off the rails at Dior and into Hitler worship, and Paris Fashion Week being covered in the better news outlets. Vanity, of course, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, but in some ways it is the least serious because it is ultimately ridiculous (just look at Lady Gaga.) Jesus does not want us to be dirty, weird, and unkempt, but at the same time He does not want us to obsess over what we look like, either; in what little we know of His own appearance, this bears out.

Despite the fact that we all think we know what Jesus looks like, because of the imagination of artists over the centuries, the truth is that we have absolutely no idea. There are no contemporary descriptions of Him, and no contemporary images of Him either. It is a reasonable assumption that He probably looked strikingly like His mother, because of the great mystery of the Immaculate Conception, but since we do not know what she looked like either this does not provide us with much of a clue. What we do know however is that, strange as this may sound, He had style.

One of the very few clues we have about Jesus’ personal taste comes from the Gospel of St. John. All four Gospels describe how, at the Crucifixion, the soldiers divided up His clothing among them in a game of chance, thereby unwittingly fulfilling the words of Psalm 22: “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.” But St. John gives us the added detail that when it came to His tunic, the soldiers decided to cast lots for that piece in particular. We are told that it was a seamless garment, woven in one piece. This may seem a small and insignificant detail, but in another context it was recently brought home to me that a seamless garment is quite a special thing indeed.

Some weeks ago I purchased a rather unusual scarf in cotton jersey from Spain, which is not shaped like a standard, open rectangle but rather a very wide tube. It allows the owner to wear it in different ways, such as looped tightly several times around the neck, covering the head and mouth in very cold weather or when robbing banks/fomenting revolutions, worn loosely draped about the neck and shoulders, etc. In a pinch one could even tie up the corners and use it as a sort of knapsack. A lady of my acquaintance who is an avid seamstress admired it greatly, telling me that a garment such as this was a very rare thing indeed, and that one would need a special machine to weave it.

In the fashion world seamless garments are not easy to come by, in part because of cheap manufacturing in Asia which now predominates in the off-the-peg market. There are examples of seamless garments one can find in ready-to-wear, though typically when one does so they are rare and rather expensive. The legendary Italian design house of Missoni, for example, is very famous for its vibrant and distinctive woven garments which are often seamless; however unless you are very fortunate to pick up one of their sweaters on sale, you are looking at paying something approaching $1,000.00 for a single item because of the enormous amount of specialty work involved in producing it.

In the time of Jesus, it was a custom for mothers to weave a seamless tunic for their sons and present it to them when they finally left home. It is possible that this is what Jesus was wearing at the time of the Crucifixion, and there is something to support the idea that this was a garment woven by the Blessed Mother, for not only was St. John there with the Virgin Mary at the Crucifixion, but the Virgin Mary was given into his care by Christ, and we are told that St. John took her into his home from that very day. It is not a stretch of the imagination for us to conclude that she told him that she herself had made the garment and that it was seamless, something which St. John himself might not have noticed otherwise.

In point of fact, St. John is the only one of the Four Evangelists who mentions the detail of the garment being seamless. Alternatively of course, the tunic may have been a gift from one of His disciples, since we know that many women helped to support Him and the Apostles financially as they moved about Judea and Samaria. Admittedly, I prefer the notion that Jesus’ Mother made it for Him.

Even in Jesus’ day, seamless garments were very rare things indeed as they required a great deal of work and were therefore pricey. The High Priest himself, from the days of the Exodus, was required to wear one as part of his office. And as it happens this is an important fact for us to keep in mind: there is another seamless garment which plays a part in Christ’s Passion, but we often overlook this detail.

St. Matthew tells us, in his Gospel at 26:64-65, that the High Priest Caiphas tore his clothing in anger at what he perceived to be Jesus’ blasphemy. This is a problem for Caiphas, because according to liturgical rules he needs to wear a seamless robe in order to enter the Temple of God and perform his priestly function. We can assume that he owned others of course, but ironically enough the rending of his own seamless garment could in and of itself be considered an act of blasphemy – which of course no one calls out Caiphas for doing. The Levitical garment is destroyed, whereas Jesus’ remains whole. I do not need to point out to my Catholic readers, I hope, the great symbolic importance of this.

So here is Jesus, the itinerant Messiah, going about Israel preaching the Gospel and wearing a very distinctive, finely made tunic, almost certainly a gift from His Blessed Mother or the gift of one of the great ladies of the Early Church. (And as an aside, let us never forget that it is the ladies of the community who, more often than not, keep our parishes going on a day-to-day basis; that has not changed since the very first days of the Church.) He is not His Cousin, St. John the Baptist, wearing some sort of shift made out of camel’s hair; nor is He King Herod in all of his finery. He is wearing something that was probably beautifully made, but also very simple, and something which the people of His day would have recognized. They would have owned one themselves at some point in their lives, made by their mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, etc., as a gift recognizing their manhood and independence.

Jesus certainly does not care about material possessions – He Himself tells us in St. Luke’s Gospel that “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” But He does care about Christians going out and encouraging people to abandon their old ways of living and come into His Church. He does not ask us to do so by force of arms, but rather by strength of example. Indeed, many Catholics of my acquaintance could take a lesson from the well-dressed and polite young Mormons I often see in the mornings on my way to work, when I pass their center near my parish.

Is Jesus concerned then, about what brand of socks you wear or if your jacket is from last season? Absolutely not. However, unless you have a calling to be a mendicant or hermit – which most of us do not – you do have a calling as a Christian to take care of the body God has given you, and to remember that it is by your example that you will either draw people into or repel them from ever considering the Church.

Like it or not, we are creatures who respond to visual stimuli. Jesus Himself was fulfilling prophecy and creating a contrasting symbolism by wearing a seamless tunic, but it is worth considering that He did not eschew wearing such a nicely-made garment in favor of something coarser and cheaper. That should give us something to think about.

The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ’s Garments by William Blake (1800)
Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge