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The Opposite of Elegance: Walter Benjamin’s Fashion Theory and the Practice and Criticism of 1930s Paris Couture - 15 January 2020

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This research seminar will be led by Dr Philipp Ekardt (Basel), and chaired by Dr Sebastian Truskolaski from the Department of German at King's. 

It is a little known fact that Walter Benjamin attended fashion shows during his Parisian exile, and that his prime systematic contribution on the question of fashion - a convolute of fragments dedicated to the subject in his unfinished ‘Arcades Project’ (1927-1940) is actually framed and interlaced by a number of implicit and explicit connections to the fashion of his time, namely, the practice and criticism of 1930s Paris couture.

This lecture will trace one such connection, focusing on the relation between Benjamin and the fashion critic and editor Helen Grund who in her reflections on the gait of Parisian mannequins and the dress-codes of Parisian women proposes a small theory of elegance, amounting to the idea of an immanent animation of matter, moments of lightness. By contrast, Benjamin’s idea of fashion - as embodied in a set of references to the Surrealists and Baudelaire - revolves around an idea of a hieratic articulation of matter, a sort of hard-edge chic avant la lettre. Both Grund’s and Benjamin’s views correspond to positions in the couture of the decade: the flowing lightness of Madeleine Vionnet’s neoclassical designs, and the witty alignments of dresses and objects in the couture of Elsa Schiaparelli.

The lecture is prefaced by a brief extract from Marcel L’Herbier’s 1939 short La Mode rêvée (A dream of fashion), a promotional film produced for the Paris Syndical Chamber for Couture, in which the camera impressively captures what must count as the reference garment for both Grund and Benjamin: the gown.

Free and open to all to attend. No registration is required. 

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Event details

15 January 2020

Virginia Woolf Building, Strand Campus, London