A Fashion Manifesto
April 9, 2016 § 2 Comments
Thus fashion represents nothing more than one of the many forms of life by the aid of which we seek to combine in uniform spheres of activity the tendency toward social equalization with the desire for individual differentiation and change.
Georg Simmel, “Fashion,” in On Individuality and Social Forms.
For some time I’ve been thinking of writing about “fashion” and tango. By fashion, I am not referring to the outfits worn during stage performances but the kinds of attire found at milongas. Even cursory observation reveals a spectrum of sartorial choices ranging from T-shirts and jeans to custom-made tango dresses and three-piece suits. Such variety can be found at just about any milonga on the local scene here. To my knowledge no milonga enforces a dress code; the possible exceptions being special events—New Year, Christmas—where “formal” attire is recommended. Not surprisingly, the least formal and most relaxed events are the outdoor gatherings that go live during the warm weather (from late spring to early fall locally). Here, as might be expected, we see anything from shorts and sleeveless undershirts on the male side to semi-formal dresses on the female side. Footwear runs the gamut from none at all to dance shoes.
At milongas, apparel for women ranges from “tango” dresses and skirts—often brightly colored and strikingly patterned—designed for dancing (through the inclusion of a split seam or a gusset in the back for added freedom of movement), to less “purpose-built” but still somewhat formal outfits (dresses, skirts and tops), to dress slacks and blouses, to jeans and T-shirts (often decorated). On the male side, there is considerably less variation. Here, styles range from suits and ties or sports jackets and slacks, to casual shirts, trousers, T-shirts and jeans.
If I had to quantify the above, I would guess that maybe 10 percent of women wear “formal” tango attire (specifically designed for tango), 70 percent wear less formal but still “dressy” outfits, and 20 percent wear casual clothing. For men, the situation is considerably different. I’d estimate that, at any given milonga, no more than 5 percent of the men wear a suit and tie or a sport jacket and dress slacks; roughly 55 percent wear what might be described as “business casual” attire—button-down Oxford shirts and chinos—and the remaining 40 percent wear jeans or something equally informal, paired with some kind of top—T-shirt, Polo shirt, sport shirt. Here, as elsewhere in modern life, the women carry the burden of dressing well.
This was not always the case, of course. If we turn to images of the “Golden Age” of tango, roughly the period from 1925-1955, we find that, for the most part, men wore suits and women wore dresses—not purpose-made dresses designed exclusively for tango but something that might be worn to a dance or an evening out. In some, rare, cases men can be seen in formal wear.
Of course, during the first half of the twentieth century, up until the sixties, in fact, it was not uncommon to find men in suits and ties, often wearing a fedora. Photographs of Depression-era America show men in suits standing on breadlines or looking for work. They may have had only one suit and it may have been threadbare, but it was a suit nonetheless. Tango, like many social events of a similar nature, was marked by a kind of formality. It afforded—at least once it had become respectable and socially acceptable—an opportunity to mix and mingle with the opposite sex, to listen to music, often live, and to eat, drink, and, most importantly, dance. Visual media (and anecdotal commentary) seem to confirm that suits were a common sight at local milongas.
The modern suit has provided so perfect a visualization of modern male pride that it has so far not needed replacement, and it has gradually provided the standard costume of civil leadership for the whole world. The masculine suit now suggests probity and restraint, prudence and detachment; but under these enlightened virtues also seethe its hunting, laboring, and revolutionary origins; and therefore the suit still remains sexually potent and more than a little menacing, its force is by no means spent during all these many generations.
Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress.
What is interesting is that there’s been a kind of inversion in dress since the midcentury milongas. Men have become more casual in their dress, less attentive to displaying the signs of elegance, prosperity, and bourgeois respectability, and women have become more formal, often hewing closer to an image of the female tango dancer drawn largely from stage and screen. However, this was not always the case. If one looks at older videos and still images of milongas or milongueros, even performances, few of the women wear what might be termed “tango fashion.” In fact, in many cases, dancers, even when well-known, wore fairly conventional attire—staid, conservative, the kind of thing that could be worn to dinner with the inlaws or Sunday services.
The change in how performers dress, which, to a large extent, seems to have influenced women’s tango fashions generally, appears to be largely driven by the success of tango shows, such as Tango Argentino, and the growth in popularity of televised amateur and semiprofessional dance contests. In such contexts, dancers wear what should more aptly be described as a costume, rather than a dress, one designed to provide maximum freedom of movement and reveal more of the body than it conceals. It is risqué in the least interesting sense of the term. You see it with increasing frequency among younger performers, and it marks a significant contrast with the sobriety and restraint of dancers of an earlier time.
Such fashions, which almost always refer to women’s fashions, have drawn their inspiration from popular images of tango (visual and literary) as louche, flamboyant, sexually charged, dangerous, daring, marginal, vaguely unsavory, and harboring a range of connotations that it rarely supports. The fact that such associations are belied by the reality of tango in its everyday manifestations has had little impact on the public imagination or the global myth of tango that inspires clothing designers.
In spite of the impact of stage and screen on the popular imagination, the reality of the contemporary milonga (in North America, at least) is far more mundane. As noted earlier, there is a paucity of formal or purpose-specific clothing on the contemporary dance floor (primarily tango dresses and skirts, although custom-made suits have been made for male performers, affording greater freedom of movement). Attitudes to this can be positive, negative, or indifferent.
Notwithstanding the admonitions by teachers and authors to “dress for success,” as noted above, male attire is characterized by its informality, with “business casual” being the preponderant look. On the more formal side, we find men in suits; on the extreme informal side we find something akin to grunge, which shares pride of place with the nuevo look of parachute and cossack pants, T-shirts, and sneakers. Outdoor venues provide an opportunity for even greater variation. Here, the casual look reaches an extreme in the form of sleeveless undershirts, shorts, sandals, and, bare feet.
So, although we are encouraged to dress the part (and why not try to maintain the traditions of tango, an inherently atavistic pursuit?), and respect our dance partners in the process, one can only conclude that such wise counsel has fallen on deaf ears. There are periodic complaints, of course, but I don’t see these as having had any visible impact in practice. A friend once casually suggested that a list of tango dress Do’s and Dont’s be drawn up and posted at local milongas. But who wants to be prescriptive? Rather, as Michael Pollan has suggested in An Eater’s Manifesto, I’d like to offer three simple rules for success modeled on his own for healthy eating. (For those unfamiliar with Pollan’s writing, his three rules are: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) So, along those lines, I’d like to offer the following: Wear clothes. Preferably clean. Mostly stylish.
Fashions are a collective medicament for the ravages of oblivion. The more short-lived a period, the more susceptible it is to fashion.
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project