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Fashion Week and the Drive to Display

February has been the month for Fashion Week in New York, London, Paris, Milan and maybe even Peoria. I don’t get out much, so I have to get by with the slide shows. Where else would I see something like this?

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This design is much more refined than most of the dresses, which often seem intended to insult every known aesthetic principle on behalf of sheer indulgence. By contrast, this retro accessory is a model of simplicity, at once elegant and bold. (Not too bad, eh? I also can write restaurant menus and label house paint colors.) And it is retro:

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Some things never change, however: note how both models are looking in the same direction. In fact, the world of fashion is a continual swirl of variations on a theme. One wonders why. Human invention probably has its limits: if we are ceaselessly inventive, it is largely by variation rather than genuine innovation. And how many ways are there to make an impractical hat? There will be other answers as well. One of them is suggested by this recent photograph from National Geographic:

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This is an act of competitive display to maintain breeding rights. Here as in many species the males carry the burden of ornamentation, but the results are the same: variation on a theme, often to excess. Nice tail feathers, don’t you think?

What distinguishes the human display is that we imitate other species. In 2008 as in 1942 and long, long before that, we have imitated birds, fur-bearing animals, fish, insects, you name it. Design, in other words, is one way that we are part of nature. The connection may seem tenuous during Fashion Week in February; hothouse fashions certainly seem far removed from the icy winter I see every day. But sometimes it is when it is most extravagant, impractical, and obviously decorative that fashion can suggest a wonderful unity to the world, a panoply of aesthetic forms that have to be both beautiful and functional. So take a look, and enjoy the show:

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Photographs by Nicholas Roberts/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images; Life Magazine; Mauritz Preller/National Geographic.

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Fashion Week and the Drive to Display

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