Why Huysmans’s “À Rebours” is still important in defining modern decadence today.
by Eugenia Weinstein
Defining ‘decadence’, both in modern and the original sense of the term has proved troublesome and outright bewildering.
Traditional connotations of the term include expressions of decay, deterioration, the downfall of a societies’ morals and other detrimental depictions; the conclusion is something profoundly atrocious. The true meaning of the word has been muddled throughout history and finally trivialised, nowadays being frequently used to describe a golden toilet, extravagant engorging of food or mere sloth.
For the more educated individual it might prompt to recall a 19th century movement of artists and writers, including Oscar Wilde’s “Portrait of Dorian Grey” and Joris-Karl Huysmans’ “Against Nature”. The latter would be the correct choice to begin an in-depth investigation of the true meaning of decadence, considered as a prime example of a decadent.
Jean Des Esseintes - the main and sole protagonist of the book; is everything that the original decadent represented. A feeble aristocrat, longing for escape from the sickening bourgeois society, he is a pitiful and admirable persona. A profound aesthete, he strives to achieve the utmost beauty, seeking absolute solitude and surrounding himself with extravagances such as a live gold-painted and a gem encrusted tortoise - that later on dies from starvation.
He meticulously chooses the shades for his interior, compulsively arranges real flowers so that they look gloriously artificial and fills his rooms with stifling senses which make him hallucinate. Poring over his book and art collection, he obsesses over ecclesial and secular writers and artists, such as Gustave Moreau, Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire. Hypochondria and melancholia prevail in his mood, he hates society and secludes himself in a remote country house, slowly deteriorating both physically and mentally.
His rejection of nature and elevation of artifice is perverse, his vision and feeling towards religion, unorthodox; ultimately he is someone the society would point out as a weirdo. He is not particularly relatable to the modern reader - however, the sensual descriptions of the fluctuations of his state of mind captivate, the long discussions on the dullness of nature, society, art and literature show an alternative and fascinating reality.
Quite frankly, some of his life choices and experiences shock and bring to mind the Sadeian libertines, debaucheries and perversities. His eccentricity comes through his style - wearing white velvet suits and gold-embroidered waistcoats while throwing funeral-themed dinner parties where “to the sound of funeral marches played by a concealed orchestra, nude negresses, wearing slippers and stockings of silver cloth with patterns of tears, served the guests”.
He isn’t any less bizarre with his sexual interests. While seemingly being impotent he nevertheless experienced sexual desire which is frequently fetishist - being aroused by the steel strength of locomotives and by statues of chimera and sphinx, animated by a voice of a ventriloquist. Within the endless compelling and baffling descriptions in this book with no plot, the reader can get profoundly ambivalent about the morality and normality of Des Esseintes’ actions and reflections.
Religion dominates his erratic thoughts, anxiously rejecting and searching for it at the same time. He obsesses over the acts of sins and their atonements, drifting between glorification of monastic devotion and religious perversities as necromancy and witchery. It becomes his nightmare and salvation, very much like in Huysmans himself becoming a devout Christian after years of spiritual search. Perhaps this relates to those of us who are battling with the concept of morality today, with religion not being the main impetus anymore.
Decadence in the traditional sense of the word is not as obvious these days, as it perhaps was to the Greek philosophers witnessing the decline of Roman Empire or to Des Esseintes, who lived in the fin-de-siecle. Almost twenty years into the millennium and although we can’t call ourself fin-de-siecle, decadence is vastly approaching no thanks to digital advancements. Many of Des Esseintes’ dilemmas are present in today’s society. As the original title states, he is ‘à rebours': against the grain, orderless, upside down. The truth is, we have become so digitally doomed that we are unable to see our own decline. The modern decadent today is, in fact, stuck in a social media tirade, enveloped by loneliness from digital narcissism, glorifying the artifice and is driven to smaller groups whether they involve fetish, cults, religion, or virtual worlds as a result of our need to feel secure.
The Wild Wild Dress
by Eugenia Weinstein
When an army of crimson dressed cult members invaded a quiet town in Oregon, nobody could predict the scale of drama about to unfold. Netflix’ gripping documentary ‘The Wild Wild Country’ tells the story of the Rajneeshes and brings to light the force behind spiritual dress.
The recent Netflix creation ‘The Wild Wild Country’ is an excellent example of great documentary making - perhaps even a fashion documentary. Telling the tale of Rajneeshes, a controversial 80’s cult community, the most forceful impression is made through the clothes they wear under the reign of cult leader Bhagwan. Although the unnerving original footage showing mass-poisonings, wild orgies, rituals is shocking enough; the profound emotion is caused by colour. The army-like uniforms of flaming orange, lilac, coral, yellow, maroon and crimson attire creates a rock-solid visual identity which enchanted, bewildered and terrified the neighbours and the whole world.
Still, one is found simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with both sides and unwillingly relating to the members’ search of happiness and an alternative community. Is it so wrong to reject traditional values? Were they heartlessly misunderstood for being different, for deviating from the expected norm? As New York’s Met Gala took place a couple of weeks ago, the world saw parading superstars in irrelevant creations and essentially overlooking the significance of the relationship between fashion and spirituality. “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” exhibition explores the relationship between design and Catholicism; the spiritual fashioning of the body should come into focus.
Better yet, we somehow misjudge the daily rituals that relate more to cult-like behaviour than anything else. The term ‘cult’ has many connotations, from something massively popular - a ‘cult film’, to any organisation with an alternative set of beliefs. The most conventional definitions describe cults as religious or ‘therapy’ groups with a distinctive leader often, using mind-control techniques to recruit people, deceiving and exploiting its members. While religion is a widely accepted form of spirituality, such denominations as cults are frequently frowned upon and seem perverse. The question is, where is the line between religion and cult? And what role does dress play in controlling people?
Not unlike some of the religion’s regulations, the dress code in cults has a great power over minds and behaviour. The clothes Rajneeshees wore and the way they wore them have directly influenced the demise of the movement. They were immediately noticeable and intimidating in their overwhelming dominance, the villagers named them ‘red vermin’ and put up ‘better dead than red’ signs around town. Bhagwan himself famously wore every colour except for red - flowing robes in white, blue and gold, emphasising his own divinity. How about that for a fashion statement? A comparison arises with the infestation of so-called fashion cults in the likes of Supreme and Vetements. The worshippers duly pay respect to their leaders by obediently flocking to the next hyped-up launch to acquire dept-inducing streetwear. Rajneesh seemed to beat them all in the trend game.
In all seriousness clothes are a pretty powerful tool in the power structure and the psychological coercion within cult-like communities. It visually and mentally isolates them from the big bad world and creates a sense of invulnerable community, breaking down individuality and original identity. While the Rajneshees’ explicitly visual and recognisable style is unparalleled nowadays, some cults still impose a certain dress code, even if it’s hidden from the public view. Ian Haworth - an ex-cult member and founder of UK’s Cult Information Centre - explains the psychology behind the manipulation through fashion: “When you are drawn into a cult you are programmed to understand that everyone who’s critical is wrong, negative or evil. If you’re wearing a completely different type of clothing than the average person on the street is wearing, you can identify with others in the group.” He points out that today cults are much less visible and prefer to remain underground to avoid media exposure. “Clothes are not as relevant today as they were in 70’s, the rules for clothing and general appearance are more subtle and internal, giving out visual clues that are still identifiable to its members.” In the cult that he himself was a member once men were prohibited to wear ties and heeled shoes and women couldn’t shave their underarms. In his case the reason behind the peculiar sartorial regulations was the personal preferences of the leader, who was quite short and liked his women hairy. Nevertheless, everyone must obey and not ask any questions - the ultimate and unquestionable power of the leader is one of the pillars of cult’s existence.
The world saw parading superstars in irrelevant creations and essentially overlooking the significance of the relationship between fashion and spirituality.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is one of a few movements that still has a very powerful and strict dress codes - especially for women. The leaders of the controversial polygamous organisation impose the utmost idiosyncratic look, made to deprive women from any notion of sexuality, free will or individuality. From small children to the elderly the aesthetic is the same - 19th-century-style drab, ill-fitting, ankle-length prairie dresses, with buttoned-up collars, topped with elaborate old-fashioned uniform up-do hairstyle. An outsider could mistake the group’s US compound for a period drama set, however it’s the reality - one that is profoundly disturbing. All bright colours are outlawed, a single hair out of place will be seen as a devilish seduction technique and any deviation from the uniform is severely punished. Rebecca Musser - the author of “The Witness Wore Red” has escaped and publicly defied the leader, famously making a major power move by wearing a short-sleeved, fitted red dress to testify against him. The gesture meant liberation and rebellion, a personal victory as well as condemnation of the committed crimes - including paedophilia and abuse.
Turning the gaze to other relatively well-known contemporary societies, the seemingly unorthodox fashion guidelines manifest themselves in diverse forms. Freemasons, their cult status being widely debated - are known for dressing smart in immaculately tailored suits and wearing symbolic patches, aprons and white gloves for rituals. Their appearance in the Lodge is uber important and although not strikingly different from many suited men on the street, when in the Lodge they are unitedly impeccable. Hare Krishnas are recognisable for their flowing saffron robes. Members of Opus Dei, a Roman Catholic institution, practice mortification of the flesh by wearing cilice - a metal chain with spikes, worn around the thigh to control bodily desires. An ongoing sex-trafficking trial in New York revealed that the secretive self-help organisation Nxivm has been enslaving women, allegedly branding them and starving in order to achieve the leader’s desired body type.
While some of the visual identities of the groups are harmless, others frequently include full submission to the will of the leader. And yes, some of the practices are loudly screaming ‘perversity’, seeming alien to a Western member of mainstream society. Although nowadays religion’s grip on people’s life is relatively loose, the basics of morality, the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ are still present in the back of the society’s head. While certain organisations - some of those discussed above and numerous secretive underground groups - are involved in criminal activity and are violating human rights, the idea of the cult is so much broader. Reid Calvert, a Central Saint Martins Fashion Communication student, has just completed a project focusing on communities such as Freemasons, making his way in by pretending to be interested in joining them. He explored the concept of group mentality and leadership, perpetually linking his findings to politics and people’s desire to belong. “I was trying to understand what it means to be a leader, especially now in our political climate. It changes so much and I’ve tried to reconsider what government and leadership means. You could say the organisation of what Donald Trump has created is somewhat of a cult, and it's a scary one. I think the idea of the cult is what you make of it.” Political activity, power hierarchy within the society, clearly defined dress norms, certain amount of isolation, propaganda and mind-control - same things happen in Russia, North Korea and Saudi Arabia as well as in FLSD and Rajneeshee cults.
“You could say the organisation of what Donald Trump has created is somewhat of a cult, and it's a scary one. I think the idea of the cult is what you make of it” - Reid Calvert
In some way cults are an exaggerated version of our society and rules, they frequently invert and distort the very morality that rules us. It all depends on our perception of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, we are simply used to seeing the world in a certain light, therefore rejecting existence of an alternative reality. Looking through fashion perspective - the social and psychological control of the body through religious clothes can be found in both Muslim and Christian societies, as well as in secular communities and subcultures. Dress and appearance is just one aspect of a dictatorial environment, and we are all more or less living inside one. Everyone follows some kind of leadership and we are all being manipulated and exploited - the question is in the extent. With morality being a relative concept, perhaps, the cults are not so perverse after all?
Reid Calvert video, exploring cults and micro-nations in the UK.
The Knicker Trick
by Alexandra Castle
When a group of girls at a fashion college were forced out of boredom into the student lounge, conversation promptly fluttered away from work and was peaked’ by one of their sister’s online endeavours: selling her underwear.
Through a visual documentary, film-maker Hannah Brinberg discusses the alternative routes young people will take today in order to support themselves: “School is expensive, London is extortionate. Most of us can’t stomach the fact that we will complete full university courses and finish up working on a minimum wage salary in Boots”, she explained. As a result of this, she decided to create a short film, in response to discovering the normality behind the operation. She goes on -
“if I could lie in bed after school and sit in my underwear watching a movie and someone wants my underwear; I would gladly sell it to him for 50 or 60 quid and do nothing rather than work for 6 hours for minimum wage”.
Fetishism, or the attempt to control external phenomena by witchcraft, hough the lowest stage of religious conception, yet manifests a certain advancement between an image and its creator. Though we know fetish as the Berlin figurine, latex-covered S&M maven or perhaps what comes to mind is a certain fancy fetish for five fingered hooves. The reality of fetish resides in its subjective nature. As strong independent women like to feel dominated in bed; some lights may be switched on by a pair of socks - the possibilities are endless and unapologetic when it comes to attraction.
Still, Hannah explains, “Its funny how little people know about it. I remember one friend got a stalker out of it, it was really bad. You are opening the door to a lot. I don't know where it stands in terms of legality if you did have to go to the police”. Another friend, she later says ended up in a relationship with one of her customers claiming, “they spent the entire summer together”. Although an usual introduction, who is to know (despite us asking), what he even did with the discharge-covered knickers in the first place.
Well as it turns out, bondage and handcuffs are not all used on silk sheets. Rumour has it, fashion serves another purpose than previously assumed. A fellow-journo involved in this magazine approached a car-boot salesperson in aid of discovering imagery associated with the word ‘perverse’. Though sex and creepy old men were not the only visual innuendos. In fact, one woman claimed she had to stop selling women’s stockings due to increasing numbers of buyers requesting sound specifics to certain items they were purchasing.
“One man who called” - the north London shopkeeper explained; “asked me what kind of rustling the stockings made when I touched them”.
In fact, paving the path for many we approached were the fetish associations when it comes to clothing. Another item, deemed too enticing for the online fetishists were women’s undergarments, apparently producing rustling vibrations too strong for the wicked.
Fetish, as explained by London’s very own fetish expert and owner of ‘Club Submission’, Rubber Ron - “is the pleasure and sex with inanimate objects, be it a chair or clothes”. Having set up the fetish night Submission almost 30 years ago, it grew from 150 people coming once a month to 3,000.
He later explains it all depends on what “is morally correct and isn’t, there are certain people born with inquisitive minds, born kinky”. Yet accessibility to these spaces haven't always been socially accepted to the masses, “oh god, I've friends who lost everything, back then. They worked behind the counter at Barclays bank and they got caught out going to swinging parties, and that was it, boom”.
Growing up we are taught to explore ourselves in every possible way, often involving awkward conversations behind closed doors. Despite fetish being associated as perverse, it can be bring together a group; yet can also be a divide. As a five year old, Rubber Ron explains, “ I thought I was a bit of a freak, constantly thinking of bondage”. For many these fetishes can be alienating, having to hide them as well as ignore the urges. In conversation with “Nancy” 32, her nights at home were filled with “fear and betrayal” having discovered her husbands secret fetish for her clothes, uncovering socks filled with semen and long hair he had kept hidden underneath floor boards in their bedroom. A fetish can be uncontrollable and for the most part innate to the person’s sexual desire whether it is discovered at a young age or not. For sculptural leather designer Patrick Whitaker, it appeared as early as the age of 12.
Today the world is so focused on obeying rules previously delimited by the good and the bad. Fetish, along with perversity both seem isolating and enlightening at the same time like these parties were for Rubber Ron at the time. As explained by Hannah at the end of our interview, “I don't think this world is meant for everyone - i think you have to look to find as not everyone agrees with it all”. Well, the truth is, no one necessitates the world’s undecided agreement. There will always be groups of people reacting to the life around them.