Karl Barth characterizes eighteenth century man as the “absolute man” in his volume on modern Protestant theology. The absolute man’s attitude towards life, the natural order, politics, philosophy, the inner and outer self is that of autonomous master; it is the attitude of one who has come, or is coming, fully into his own such that his power and potentiality is increasingly limitless. Barth traces this “absolute” spirit throughout various spheres of cultural activity and thought to great profit. In reading it, one somewhat surprising section in particular caught my attention: his analysis of eighteenth century fashion.
Following his discussion of the way eighteenth century architecture expresses the absolute man’s will to subjection in form, he comments on the way that same spirit is at work in his treatment of the human form:
It must also be granted to eighteenth-century man that he did not, still in accordance with the same absolute will for form, spare himself his own personal outer appearance. We have only to think of the fashion of the eighteenth-century. There is no need for me here to describe the dress, the coiffure, both for men and for women, the forms of intercourse, sociability, play and dancing. One cannot look too attentively at the portraits of the time, the contemporary illustrations of historical and social life, and also at the caricatures, if one is bent upon finding out what it was exactly that these people who thus adorned and comported themselves were trying to express (unconsciously, and therefore all the more revealingly, as is always the case with fashion).
What they were certainly not trying to do say was that like the lilies of the field we should not care for our attire. And they were certainly not saying that no man can increase his height by an ell. What they were expressing the whole time, from top to toe in actual fact, was this: that man carries in his soul an image of himself which in comparison with his actual figure is still much more noble, much more graceful and much more perfect, and that he is not at a loss for means to externalize this image and render it visible. No age, perhaps, has made this confession of faith so systematically as man of the eighteenth century.
As to its results, they need not concern us here. We need only note the following: when man, as happened at that time, proceed to take himself (that is to say, his idea of himself) seriously, in the grand manner, without humour, but with a certain logic, all the things emerged which now cause us astonishment in the matter of men’s and women’s dress and in the manners of the age. Man felt bound to weigh himself down in these respects with all the burdens and discomforts which an absolute will for form apparently demands–but at the same time he was able to achieve all the dignity and charm to which eighteenth-century man did without doubt achieve.
For the absolute man, there was no physical barrier that could not and should not be subjected to the will of the self. Its fashion is at once an act of pride as well as longing and misplaced hope. Pride is obvious in that its excesses and ostentation give testimony to what can be see as a Pelagian act of self-deification. We can also see a longing at work it in it, a desire to return to a pre-fall splendor–or, with an eschatological focus, an over-reach at heavenly glory. Of course, that’s symptomatic of the whole of the eighteenth century–an over-realized, secular eschatology of absolute man’s eventual apotheosis in every sphere.
While some of us, especially those of us with an exclusively theological bent, might question the theological significance of fashion, Barth avoids this gnosticizing mistake. Barth’s exposition instructs us in the way that fashion is an important part of cultural production–another window into the soul of a civilization. For those seeking to be faithful interpreters of culture, fashion ought not be ignored. Nor should it be constantly be engaged in a damning or critical way. Like every sphere of culture, because of common grace and the Image of God, there are those elements which can be celebrated, condemned, or still yet, redeemed. Fashion requires a discerning eye–a development of theological as well as aesthetic sense. Barth apparently had both.
Soli Deo Gloria