Musil on Fashion

Bonadea is hurt by Ulrich’s rejection. She adopts a strategy of insinuating herself into the Parallel Campaign. She suspects Ulrich is in love with Diotema and so begins to transform herself into her rival’s likeness.

The poise and beauty of her idol, and the latter’s sense of fulfillment, then rippled upward inside her like the tiny, shallow, warm waves of a mysterious if not yet deeply consummated union, much like sitting at the ocean’s rim dabbling one’s feet in the surf. What she did was akin to an act of religious worship–from the times when primitive man crept bodily into the masks of the gods down to the rites and ceremonies of civilization, so carnal a joy of faithful mimicry has never quite lost its power!–and had all the greater hold on Bonadea because of her compulsive love of clothes and adornments. When Bonadea studied her appearance in a new dress in her mirror, she could never have imagined a time to come when leg-of-mutton sleeves, little curls framing the forehead, and long bell-shaped skirts would be replaced by knee-length skirts and hair cut like a boy’s. Nor would she have argued against it; her brain was simply incapable of imagining such a possibility. She had always dressed like a lady and contemplated the latest fashions, every six months, with reverence, as though she were face-to-face with eternity. Even though an appeal to her intelligence could have brought her to admit that such things were transitory, it would in no way have lessened her reverence for them. The tyranny of the mundane entered her bloodstream unnoticed, and the times when one turned down the corner of one’s visiting cards, or sent one’s friends New Year’s greetings, or slipped off one’s gloves at a ball, were so long gone by the time one did not do any of these things that they might as well have been a hundred years in the past: that is, wholly unimaginable, impossible, and outdated. Which is why Bonadea without her clothes on was such a comical sight, stripped as she was of all her ideological protection too, the naked victim of an inexorable compulsion that was sweeping her off her feet with the inhuman force of an earthquake. (I,572)

‘Hurrying on past the thought of seeing Bonadea naked, we ponder the power of clothes to project our inner being into the world.

Clothes, when abstracted from the flow of present time and their transmogrifying function on the human body, and seen as forms in themselves, are strange tubes and excrescences worthy of being classed with such facial decorations as the ring through the nose or the lip-stretching disk. But how enchanting they become when seen together with the qualities they bestow on their wearer! What happens then is no less than the infusion, into some tangled lines on a piece of paper, of the meaning of a great word. Imagine a man’s invisible kindness and moral excellence suddenly looming as a halo the size of the full moon and golden as an egg yolk right over his head, the way it does in old religious paintings, as he happens to be strolling down the avenue or heaping little tea sandwiches on his plate–what  an overwhelming, shattering, sensation it would be! And just such a power to make the invisible, and even the non-existent, visible is what a well-made outfit demonstrates every day of the week. (I,573-574)

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