The Secret of Style

Helmut Newton (Australian, b. Germany, 1920-2004), Mennequins, Quai d’Orsay, Paris, 1977 CahunDon'tKiss   Ralph Gibson (American, b. 1939), Antiquities Dealer, Rome, 1984Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987), Shoes, 1980 Ralph Gibson (American, b. 1939), Untitled (Bronze Divan), Paris, 1982F. Holland Day (American, 1864–1933), Ebony and Ivory, 1898

The “secret of style” for literary critic D. A. Miller is a labor of restraint and of abstraction by which style never shows as such. Style appears marked when it manifests as a stylishness that spills over into flamboyant excess or the disguise that calls attention to itself. But even where style does not display itself as Style with a curvaceous capital, the conventions of the photographic I.D. and the portrait call on us to read the styling of the surface as if the skin were deep.

In encouraging us to cruise the visible skin but also the clothes for telltale signs of the kind of person beneath, photography might be understood to objectify in the sense of reducing a person to the look of the surface. At the same time, the luxuriant attention paid to the exterior has the effect of making not just the clothes and objects that prop the body but also the objects that appear in place of bodies take on lives and seductive possibilities of their own.

Against such objectification of bodily surface and fetishizing animation of things, we might feel called upon to refuse the surface, insisting on style as dangerous. Yet, in “Style and its Image,” Roland Barthes cautions that the belief that we can pry content or meaning free of the seductions of the surface is the danger. From the beginnings of photography, the figure of what Miller calls the “stylothete,” the person of taste who makes the cultivation of their style a competitive sport, became synonymous with the unheterosexual. The moralizing division of form from content supports the regime that casts style as superfluous and deviant and the unheterosexual and the feminized as figures of shame.

If there is a secret of style, it is, for Barthes, that there is no shaking the surface. Peel the onion, strip the body, and there is no core—only more surface. Rather than disregard style as deviance, this section takes style seriously as a creative practice of re-citation, circulation, and survival. Style, Miller suggests, is the utopia of those of us with no place else to go.


The Secret of Style, Installation shot © 2015 Natalie Kirk

The Secret of Style, Installation shot © 2015 Natalie Kirk