Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Neglected "Science of the Artificial?"

While I appreciate the “shock value” of Brigitt Hauck’s piece for the BBC News Magazine Web site, “Andrej Pejic: The man modelling womenswear,” I wish she would have shown a bit of respect for keener minds who were addressing this topic before both she and her subject were born.  I raise this point because she ended up covering pretty much the same ground that Colette (one of my favorite authors, not to mention librettist for Maurice Ravel) pursued when she was writing about fashion in the early decades of the twentieth century.  Consider the concluding paragraphs of her essay “Logic” (entitled probably with tongue in cheek), included in the collection of translations by David Le Vay entitled Journey for Myself:

Logic, feminine logic, astounding decisions, sudden, possibly long-meditated changes, secrets of little boyish heads, arrogant above sheathes of gold and pearls. … At the couturier’s a Byzantine splendor promenades on shorn collegians.  Lelong drapes ravishing little emperors of the decadence, sexless types accomplished in grace, so young and so ambiguous that I could not refrain from suggestion to the young couturier, on a day of upheaval in his court of models:  ‘Why don’t you employ—oh, quite innocently—some adolescent boys?  The lively shoulder, the well-poised neck, the long leg, the absent breast and hip, there are plenty who’d give good value …’

‘I understand perfectly,’ interrupted the young master couturier.  ‘But the boys who get used to dresses very soon acquire a gain, an exaggerated feminine grace in comparison with which my young female models, I assure you, would come to resemble transvestites.’

The logic of that first paragraph has returned.  Only the context has changed.

As one who knows absolutely nothing about the world of fashion, I have to believe that this discipline comes closer to being a “science of the artificial” than anything that ever occupied the attention of Herbert Simon.  As we know from the “semiological adventures” of Roland Barthes, what Simon would have called “symbol manipulation” figures just as strongly in fashion as it does in artificial intelligence;  and in both settings it is too easy to accept how arbitrary a signifier can be, preferring instead to confuse it with the signified.  Out of curiosity, did Watson have to answer any Jeopardy questions that would have required familiarity with material published in Vogue?

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