European Diary

The Rhetoric of Fashion

“For his birthday his wife gave him a riding crop that cost 100 francs,” a writer called Arnold Ruge complained of his newly married friend, a fellow German émigré in Paris,

and the poor fool does not ride, nor has he a horse.  Everything he sees he wants to have, a carriage, smart clothes, a flower garden, new furniture from the Exhibition, in fact the moon.

On another occasion, this consummate fashion victim—an obscure journalist named Karl Marx who had got himself hitched to the daughter of Baron Ludwig von West­phalen, a Prussian grandee descended on his mother’s side from the earls of Argyll—was told by a female acquaintance that she simply could not imagine him being happy in an egalitarian society.  “Neither can I,” Marx replied.  “But when the time comes, we will have been long gone.”

Was the author of The Communist Manifesto a hypocrite?  No more than most of us in the West, swept up as we have been in the irresistible rhetoric inundating the world through the opened floodgates of capitalism.  Yet the tale of Western consumerism is a good deal more piquant in the telling than its formalist scourges, academics excoriating it in the manner of Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, would have us believe.  In fact, it starts with the riding crop.

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