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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Silk and Seduction

A capitalist thread runs through the history of temptation


“I should hate to see our country endangered by my underwear.” – Greta Garbo, Ninotchka


The very word is a luxury. It slides over the tongue like the fabric slides on skin. And the fabric itself? It shines in candlelight. It whispers seductively. It makes the gowns for queens and princesses, the scarf at the throat of the aviator, the lingerie that suggests and arouses before it is even worn.

Since the earliest days of the famous Silk Road trade route that connected China’s silk manufacturers with the rest of the world, everyone has wanted silk. It is light. It is warm. It is strong. But we scarcely care about those sensible concerns. It is so very, very beautiful. And we want it.

The powerful pull that silk has for us — both as itself and as a symbol of a more luxurious and glamorous world — plays a central role in Kate Chopin’s famous story, “A Pair of Silk Stockings.”  Chopin’s story follows “little Mrs. Sommers,” a wife and mother on a very tight budget, as she decides what to do with her unexpected $15 windfall. She begins, as I suspect most mothers with budget constraints would, with very practical plans:

A dollar or two should be added to the price usually paid for Janie's shoes, which would insure their lasting an appreciable time longer than they usually did. She would buy so and so many yards of percale for new shirt waists for the boys and Janie and Mag.… And still there would be left enough for new stockings — two pairs apiece — and what darning that would save for a while! She would get caps for the boys and sailor-hats for the girls.

As little Mrs. Sommers makes her plans and gathers her strength to face the crowds at the department store, her ungloved hand rests, for a just moment, on a pair of silk stockings. And like the real and fictional shoppers detailed by Virginia Postrel in The Power of Glamour, Mrs. Sommers becomes tempted by the “longing, projection, and … impulse to buy.”

Her practical plans are no match for the promise of such luxury. “She went on feeling the soft, sheeny luxurious things — with both hands now, holding them up to see them glisten, and to feel them glide serpent-like through her fingers.” She buys them, and then buys new shoes and gloves, a few magazines, lunch at a restaurant, and tickets to a play — all the while wiggling her toes blissfully in her new silk stockings.

Chopin’s story is, for some readers, a warning about the dangers of succumbing to one selfish temptation. Those serpent-like stockings draw Mrs. Sommers down a path of more and more luxury until her little windfall is all spent. For others, it is a quietly sad story about a woman who married unwisely and can no longer afford the pleasures of her past — and who has made a habit of sacrificing the few pleasures she can afford for the benefit of her family. For those readers, Mrs. Sommers has broken under the strains of scarcity, and her single day of frivolous spending is understandable, poignant, and all too human.

But Kate Chopin was not the only writer who found silk, and silk stockings in particular, a perfect symbol of a small but enticing luxury — a forerunner of Lauder’s Lipstick Index, perhaps. In Ernst Lubitsch’s great 1939 film Ninotchka, the severe Russian comrade played by Greta Garbo heads to Paris to chastise three others who have been led astray by the city’s delights. (How severe is she? She praises “the last mass trials” as a “great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”)

Ninotchka is, of course, instantly corrupted as well. And what does it? Well, there’s a handsome aristocrat, of course, and there’s champagne and Paris, but most importantly, there is silk. The movie’s Paris scenes are draped in it. From the moment that Ninotchka sees her first Parisian hat and demands to know, “How can a civilization survive that allows its women to put such things as that on their heads?” to the moment when she stands in the communal kitchen of her shared Moscow flat, with nothing left of her Paris romance but a single silk teddy, Ninotchka’s discovery of the joys of Paris is a hymn to the pleasures of the market. And those pleasures, Lubitsch suggests, are the key to the triumph over communism. Ninotchka’s friend Anna warns her, “You know how it is today. All you have to do is wear a pair of silk stockings and they suspect you of counter-revolution,” and the movie strongly suggests that “they” might be right to be so worried.

The musical version of Ninotchka, 1957’s Silk Stockings, employs Cyd Charisse’s ballet training to good effect in a wordless scene that conveys the transformative power of these small silk luxuries. Beginning the scene in her drab Russian dress, black cotton stockings, and flat Oxford shoes, Charisse dances through her Paris hotel room, drawing one luxury after another from their hiding places. The first luxury she retrieves? A pair of silk stockings.

As the dance ends, the now fully Parisian-clad Charisse leaves the room as she contemptuously tosses the old black stockings aside.

In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter, who was famously interested in both economics and women, noted that

Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort…. The capitalist process, not by coincidence but by virtue of its mechanism, progressively raises the standard of life of the masses.

I don’t know if Schumpeter saw Ninotchka or not, though it certainly sounds as if he might have. I do suspect he knew that Queen Elizabeth loved her stockings and ordered more, but refused a patent to a later inventor of a machine that would have made such stockings faster and easier to knit. She was worried that the machine would put too many of her subjects out of work. What she feared is, of course, precisely the creative destruction that Schumpeter is famous for describing. And it is that creative destruction that enables capitalism and that puts silk stockings into the hands of Mrs. Sommers, Greta Garbo, Cyd Charisse, and anyone else who is willing to flirt with a little material seduction in order to obtain a seductive material.

Kate Chopin, “A Pair of Silk Stockings,” 1897.

Ernst Lubitsch, Ninotchka, Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas, 1939.

Rouben Mamoulian, Silk Stockings, Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire, 1957.