Mallarmé on Fashion: A Translation of the Fashion Magazine La Dernière Mode, with Commentary
(Bero Publishers, 2004)
Stéphane Mallarmé’s fashion magazine La Dernière mode, Gazette du monde et de la Famille has long presented something of a conundrum for those lucky enough to come upon it. The 19th century French poet—famed for his dense and complicated verse—edited, designed, and wrote the majority of each issue, employing several male and female pseudonyms to elaborate on such unanticipated subjects as gumbo recipes, prime vacation spots, and appropriate hat decorations. The journal exists in near entirety in only two editions: the uvres Complètes de Stéphane Mallarmé (Gallimard) and the 2004 English translation by P.N. Furbank and A.M. Cain, Mallarmé on Fashion. Such rarity is disproportionate to the peculiar and original nature of the work, and the latter translation’s commentary sheds a necessary light on one of the more enigmatic pieces of 19th century French writing.
La Dernière mode was a fully established bi-monthly fashion magazine, with numerous subscribers and a bi-monthly distribution, although it is clear that Mallarmé did not pursue fashion journalism in complete earnestness. Indeed, part of the joy of reading La Derniére mode lies in the scathing and thinly veiled critiques of the women who read the journal. He was, however, dismayed when he was replaced by another editor after four months and he urged his friends to refrain from contributing to the new issues, a fact which might suggest that his interest in the publication extended beyond the simple ridicule of upper class women. The few critical texts that exist on La Dernière mode (principally Jean-Pierre Lecercle’s Mallarme et la mode and Roger Dragonetti’s Un Fantôme dans le kiosque) attempt to clarify the poet’s inscrutable reasoning, but in the process they overlook the colorful, strange wealth of his writing, which constitutes the most salient aspect of the journal. Mallarme’s vantage point as a poet grants him the ability to reflect abstractly on the nature of fashion in much the same way Baudelaire recorded his sartorial thoughts in Le Peintre de la Vie modern a decade earlier.
The poet’s interest in the decorative arts was evident even before the appearance of La Dernière mode in select poems and prose (Frisson d’hiver in particular), and his original design was for a review entitled l’Art décoratif, Gazette mensuelle. His pronounced statement in the first issue, Decoration! Everything is in that word, makes the claim that everything can be seen in terms of its decorative value, and his broad definition of la décoration is illustrated by ingenious metaphors that apply the organic quality of the natural world to an ornamental one:
That instinct of beauty, and of relation to climate, which, under each different sky, governs the production of roses, of tulips and carnations: has it nothing to say as regards ear-drops, finger-rings and bracelets? Flowers and jewels: has not each of them, as one might say, its native soil? This sunshine befits that flower, this type of woman that jewel?
While such statements are humorous and reveal Mallarmé’s penchant for the absurd, Furbank and Cain conclude that his insights about the nature of fashion and decoration “can hardly not have involved love.” Their statement touches on something true about Mallarmé’s relation to his subject, but it is difficult not to sense the presumption and even condescension of their opinion. Mallarmé’s astounding technical knowledge of dress design, his dedication to the journal, and his unique insights are among the examples they use to prove his “love,” but they are never presented as anything more than justification. The editors remain tethered to the fruitless task that so many critics are bent on: defining the poet’s intentions. In so doing, they pigeonhole the work of a great writer and overlook questions brought to light by his journal. How superficial, for instance, is the superficial?
One conclusion to be drawn thus from La Derniere mode is that fashion makes for a very obliging subject in literature when it comes to satire and the masking of social commentary (as it did in the 19th century for Thomas Carlyle in his Sartor Resartus). Another is simply that parody often provides a means of investigation: it is an instrument for both mocking a thing and understanding it. Whether such an investigation was intentional or merely consequential on Mallarmé’s behalf becomes irrelevant in the face of his contemplations, and fashion writers today—indeed writers of any genre—would do well to pay attention to the acuity born of humor and derision.