Kung-Foucault & the Temporal Identity of Vintage Clothing

Order is suggested by Foucault to be related to a threshold, below which is same, and above which is other. The ordering process, in some ways, is an expression of our cultural tendency to distinguish between that binary we seem to create. An aphasiac’s inability to create order in objects they are given to arrange suggests a hardwired connection between the capacity for communication and the synthesis of distinguishing criterion between dynamic stimuli. Musings on the whimsical ordering logics of a Chinese encyclopedia, and the alphabetization of Eusthenes, fuel Foucault’s argument that theory is born somewhere between language and science. Science operates within the fundamental codes of language, and between the two is a middle ground upon which theory has taken root and grown into our modern systems of classification. Language is much more than reproducible alphanumeric vocal or textual patterns of meaning; semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, permeates and defines the identity of many objects that remain excluded from the traditional archive.

Foucault (KM McCready)

Before the modern age, establishing orders taxed language to its limit, and since language often represents the culture that has refined it, order could be thought of as an expression of culture, if not a key recursive factor in its genetics. We likely cannot conceive of a time when language had substantially more authority, while having less fixity. Both global literacy and the definitional fixity of language seem, by the reasoning of Foucault, to be negatively correlated to its subjective, authoritative potency. That bond has seen its inverse peaks creep closer to zero in the past two centuries. When Foucault suggests the actual Grotian birth of man occurred recently, with the retirement of classical thought, he seems to be referring to an idea that humanity finally stumbled upon a more objective means for authoring and managing whatever portion of its cumulative identity is epistemic in nature.

Prise de la Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houël (1874)

As revolutionaries stood around piles of burning Bastille archives in 1789, I wonder if there was a palpable catharsis felt by individuals on behalf of the species; it would seem that on the archival scale of the item people were merely burning paper, but on the scale of the fonds, however, society was rejecting monarchy. This moment in human history sparked the development of what we know to be a hugely determinate epistemological protocol that, even after its own prime, continues to catalyze changes in what defines collections, knowledge, and collective knowledge. Born from the familiar conundrum of how best to conserve history selectively in the wake of regime change, Respect des Fonds created a relevance for the origin story of all subsequent archival data. Along the line of subsequent additions to archival guidelines, the Dutch Manual christened the concept of Original Order, the restoration of which allowed respect des fonds to govern records within (or below) the fondal unit.

Theories were not without critique; restoration of original order risked damaging the meaning a collection had accrued since creation. While adoption was, and has, been far from universal, the effort of a more detailed classification system has obviously enabled a growth in the efficiency of the knowledge pool. It took nearly two centuries for the Scott and Fenyo series system, which allowed for multiple interrelationships in ordering logic. As the successful deviations in practice across Europe over time suggest, respecting the Fonds wasn’t necessarily an attempt to cryogenically freeze the aura of a particular data with its origin, but rather an effort to tag it with a dart, paint a modest portrait of its genealogy, and re-release onto the shelves of the scholarly sea.

The prospect of finding a contemporary, tactile example of some of these principles is daunting. Meditating on my choices, I wander through my neighborhood, smartphone in hand, browsing through the mobile sites of countless libraries. As the unholy marriage of a search engine and my personal geolocation narrow down which locations lay within the reach of my metrocard, I pass beneath a window display of a local vintage clothing store. I stop dead in my tracks, and double back.

An uplit mannequin dons a shockingly period-accurate mid 50s outfit (jacket, shirt, pants, hat, shoes, briefcase – a complete temporal displacement via the subtle semiotics of textured fabric which reveals, conceals, or frames the hosting body). Here, the language of costume communicates to me a sense of suburban American coziness I have only seen depicted in visual storytelling; my grandfather’s generation and its picturesque postwar prosperity lives on in the soft cuts of its surviving period attire. The design conveys the economic confidence of a global superpower counting its profits after a lucrative world war, while simultaneously trying to swallow the the unsettling reality of the atomic age.

mid 1950s attire – illustrated ad – (why? magazine)

On the surface, the outfit before me, while impressive for seeming complete, was not epistemologically active beyond the meaning it evoked in me, nor was it a relevant example to the assignment at hand. What intrigued me, however, was the principled process through which the different elements of the outfit had been unified after having traveled through time and space among countless other garments of dissimilar style. This shop’s curator had assembled a functional semiotic archive by clustering unique garments together in restoration of a modular conceptual cultural artifact an observer could detect. Such a restoration was governed by a respect for the meaningful origins of that which only retains meaning if its origins are retained along with it. While “knowledge” can only be presented through garment with a high degree of abstraction, the aforementioned methodology of conceptual restoration is akin to an archive’s handling of physical volumes of text and visual media with great respect for the fonds. Both garment and book can be processed as artifact, I suppose.

Uffner’s office and records – from NYT

A New York Times article from this past August resurfaces in my memory, and I recall a description of a Sunday afternoon spent shopping with Helen Uffner, one of the most reliable sources of period clothing for the film industry. Like the curators of countless small vintage clothing depots, Uffner’s work is in some small way made possible by the tectonic shift in archival theory and methodology centuries prior concerning what was of value for knowledge based artifacts. She restores order between found items, turning them into wearable modular artifacts of fashion history.

Letty Lynton Dress (George Hurell)

The nuances of a garment’s life as it relates to its historical identity present many of the same issues which faced archives during the attempts to standardize Respect des Fonds. Uffner’s blog documents a style of dress worn by Joan Crawford in the role of Letty Lynton, who went on to define women’s fashion for a generation. The dress design was copied by department stores however (a frequent occurrence due to patent loopholes), so classifying a found dress presents obstacles for the goal of a linear identity as artifact; the item’s actual history (if a clone) represents an important era of American manufacturing, while its design represents a pivotal moment in pre-code Hollywood. Which origin is the determinate one? What is the setting on the foucaultian threshold machine? A responsible system of preservation would demand all potentially notable characteristics of the artifact be part of its classification. Uffner describes an interesting paradox for the vintage clothing collector: nearly every item was manufactured, making it ubiquitous in origin and creation, but the life it has lived has made it unique without severing its connection to the original, abstracted design. This might offer insight into the archive, where the soul of each weathered volume reminds us, in our pursuit of refurbished meaning, not to confuse guiding order with law.




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