ONE OF THE FIRST scholars, and a long-time conservator at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, James Laver is a key figure of early fashion academia, and one of the first to write critically on clothes (or ‘finery’ as it was then referred to), and how we engage with them socially and culturally. Well-known for his Laver’s Law on the cyclical nature on fashion in culture, he shows a more personal note in his vaguely auto-biographical novella A Letter to a Girl on the Future of Clothes, reflecting his own personal feelings towards the power of fashion on a young girl. The exerts below give an insight into how Laver viewed fashion, and its transformative power, in our lives. This power is indeed now, seemingly more than ever, intrinsically connected with age, something which is seen in the the coming-of-age realisation of the powerful effects of dressing and appearing. In the metaphor of this young woman, these inherent qualities of fashion are illuminated through the eloquent lens on one of Britain’s earliest fashion scholars.
I am assuming that you are now ten years old and that, therefore, in another ten years (when you are reading this letter) you will be twenty. I do not want you to read it now, because clothes do not yet mean very much to you, although if you are a normal little girl, as I am sure that you are, they already mean something. You already know the thrill of the ‘party frock’; but for ordinary work and play you prefer something more practical and less easily soiled. You do not yet submit very willingly to the discipline of finery: you do not realise that il faut souffrir pour être belle.
I have called you Susan, but there are other names you might equally have been called Gillian, or Shirley, or Jane, or Bridget, or Judith, or Patricia Ann. You might have been called Pamela, or Ruth, or Sally, or Alison, or Caroline, or Pricilla, for all these names were exceedingly popular when you were brought into the world. But you couldn’t by any chance have been called Maud, or Elaine, or Daisy, and you were not very likely to be called Marjorie, or Eileen, or Doreen, for those names were out of fashion when you were born. And names, especially girl’s names, follow a well-marked cycle of fashion. They filter down, like clothes, through the social classes, and become in time a little dowdy, so that nobody likes to clothe their children in them, until the wheel comes full circle and all the old names come in again. When I was a little boy only grandmothers were called Jane, and only aunts were called Maud. Now one’s little nieces are called Jane and perhaps their children will be called Maud.
I want you to think of me as a rather elderly uncle. I am not elderly yet (at least in my own eyes) but I shall be by the time you are reading this letter. Or, if you like, you can think of me as an old astrologer bending over his books and looking through a telescope of his own construction at the wheeling stars. Actually I am in a Museum, and have been for the last quarter of a century, but to your young eyes the difference between a museum official and an astrologer is so slight that you would hardly notice it. Just think of me as a man with some knowledge of the Past, an acute interest in the Present, and an incurable curiosity about the Future. I am purposely playing into your hands. By post-dating my letter ten years, and by forbidding you to red it until 1956, I am trying to treat ten years of the Future as if it were already in the Past, and giving you ample opportunity of seeing how wrong I was and how little claim I have to be writing this letter at all.
I can’t help it. Speculating about the Future is one of my hobbies, and I am especially fond of speculating about the Future of Clothes. For I am one of those who think history is a continuous process, in spite of all its ups and downs, its catastrophes and revelations; and that if one can really understand the Past one can say something worth saying about the future also, and even make some contribution to the understanding of the incomprehensible present.
There is no doubt, I think, that the mere idea of clothes has a certain emotional significance for most women, so that even to talk about them, even to read about them (even if there is no possibility in buying) provides an unmistakable thrill. I am sure this is one of the reasons for the extraordinary success of fashion magazines ever since they were invented at the end of the eigthteenth century. They are purchased only partially for their guidance, their practical instructions. The real pleasure which women get out of them is to go into a kind of swoon – a hashish dream. But it is no good trying to find masculine equivalents or indeed any equivalents at all.
There is nothing more intimately part of ourselves than the clothes we wear and it often astonishes me that there is so little curiosity about them. If you venture to ask why they wear clothes at all, most people will think you are too mad to deserve a reply. If they do answer they are likely to say something about the English climate, or refer you with half a smile to the Garden of Eden.
With cloche hats and short skirts and universal beige every woman of a certain build looked like every other woman of the same build. Even their faces were made (and made-up) to look as much alike one another a possible. If you had asked any of those women why they she wore the clothes she did she would have replied that she did so entirely to please herself. Those particular clothes, she would have explained, were the clothes she happened to like the best. But why do all women “happen to like” the same clothes at the same moment?
A Letter to a Girl on the Future of Clothes by James Laver was published in 1946.