BY Katrin Kruse in Opinion | 04 JUN 15
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Issue 20

Look Again

The first collected writings of legendary fashion critic Helen Hessel

BY Katrin Kruse in Opinion | 04 JUN 15

Presentation of evening dresses in a Parisian fashion house, c.1930 (courtesy: ullstein bild – Roger-Viollet)

An overview of Helen Hessel’s articles on fashion and lifestyle should begin with her own quotes. This makes sense because what she does so amazingly well in her writing doesn’t get lost in fragmentation; her views on things is sketched out in startlingly precise sentences. Hessel looks with curiosity and pleasure. She draws reality into herself and then gives it back, refracted in a sagacious prism. Here’s an example: ‘A hat shrinks, many, even all hats shrink, and as they get smaller, fashion’s biggest problems emerge.’

The book Ich schreibe aus Paris. Über die Mode, das Leben und die Liebe (I Write From Paris. On Fashion, Life, and Love, Nimbus, 2014) is the first (albeit incomplete) collection of Hessel’s articles, most of which are from the mid-1920s to mid-30s, during her time as fashion correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung. This means, among other things, that the paragraph by her that Walter Benjamin quotes in Passagenwerk (The Arcades Project, 1927–40) can now be read in its original context: ‘The toque tipped forward over the forehead, a style we owe to the Manet exhibition, demonstrates quite simply our new readiness to con­front the end of the previous century.’ Elsewhere Benjamin, in Über den Begriff der Geschichte (On the Concept of History, 1940), takes that same observation and turns it into: ‘tiger’s leap into that which has gone before.’ Ultimately then, this book brings to light Hessel primary but oft overlooked identity: as an author.

To most people, Hessel is chiefly known through Jeanne Moreau’s portrayal of her in François Truffaut’s film Jules et Jim (1962), which was based on a quasi-auto­biographical novel by Henri-Pierre Roché. While she was married (twice) to the writer Franz Hessel, Roché was Helen’s lover and, just as in the film, the love triangle existed, complete with revolver – the difference from Truffaut’s version was that Helen survived both men in real life. (She was also the mother of diplomat, ambassador and writer, Stéphane Hessel.)

Helen Hessel photographed in Paris, c.1929 (courtesy: Nimbus Books / Manfred Flügge)

The book makes abundantly clear why Helen Hessel, who was born in 1886 in Berlin and died in Paris in 1982, was an important fashion writer. There is a precision to her descriptions of clothing that one should steal from – particularly because ‘fashion’ no longer exists in the way it once did. In the 1920s, when Hessel began writing, the ‘new woman’ brought a ‘type’ to fashion for the first time on a mass scale. Her texts (which she signed with her maiden name, Helen Grund), testify to the bitter debates of the time over the increasing ‘masculi­nization’ of women. Socio-political issues became negotiated via lines: the cut of a dress.

For Hessel it went something like this: ‘Ever since the “silhouette” was stabilized, in other words, since a woman’s natural shape is no longer disguised, but clothed, fashion lacks another pretext for mysterious, complicating refinement.’ From this Hessel concludes: ‘For the moment, women have escaped the dictatorship of the fashion house, or to put it more pessimistically, fashion is passing the initiative on to women for the time being. One thing that’s certain is that there hasn’t been this degree of appeal to women’s personal taste in years, and with so few irre­futable restrictions.’

This book contains glorious descriptions of the kind that whet the appetite not only for fashion, but for Hessel’s world: ‘One can already see all around Paris, and not only in sensation-seeking Montparnasse, figures of young women that stand out because they look so outrageously “natural”’, writes Hessel in reference to one of her favourite designers, Renate Green, who ran the studio Ré Sport from 1928 to 1934. ‘There’s nothing extra to deny the form of the body; the effect of a coloured hat, a belt, high patent-leather gauntlets that gallantly protect slender arms, a fluffy bow of Angora wool that wraps tenderly around the neck, are added in such a sure way that they appear thoroughly germane and necessary.’

On the other hand, other passages feel insufferable. It’s hard to understand why Hessel’s lecture On the Essence of Fashion (1935) is regarded to this day as an emanci­patory flight of fancy. The essence of fashion? ‘It helps women to fulfill their dual role: to become mothers while remaining lovers.’ And this fits in the basic constellation of ‘man’s natural polygamy’, as she writes elsewhere, further underscored by the surplus of women. From even the tamest feminist point of view, this reads as somewhat lacking today.

In contrast, Hessel’s analysis of fashion developments is inter­esting as trends are still explained similarly: when things are seen too often, everything tips over to the other side. She portrays the industry behind the elegance and how the zeitgeist is fabricated. Yet this collection of texts poses another, larger question: what does one write about when one has captured all of fashion’s protagonists in their various guises? When all the chatter over shows is no longer new, and fashion’s logic sufficiently known? When the larger movements behind it all have been mapped out and there’s no longer a pressing need for a major new interpretation of the zeitgeist?

Satin dress by Jean Patou, photograph by d’Ora, Paris, c.1931 (courtesy: ullstein bild – Imagno/Austrian Archives)

At this point one no longer gleans meaning from clothes, but foists it on them. In any case, beginning in the 1930s, the tone of Hessel’s articles changes altogether. There’s less curiosity and more sparkly yet set phrases – jaunty talk meant to distract from the lack of substance. Letters testify to the fact that Hessel tired of fashion during this time, which occurred parallel to the end of her affair with Roché. In his unfinished novel Alter Mann (Old Man), published posthumously in 1987, Franz Hessel summed it up thus: ‘From now on, I want to describe my fashion items the way others do it. I am exhausted to death by the subject, and I scrape up my last phrases from my last reserves. Actually, it’s all supposed to be light and amusing. But for me, it’s as though I didn’t have any more fuel in my stores of words and images, as though I’d spent everything.’ Added to this was the fact that in Europe priorities shifted following the Nazis’ seize of power in Germany in 1933.

Today what we can learn from Helen Hessel above all is the worth of looking closely; not merely at fashion, but at the people beneath. How fashion affects people’s movements, attitudes and how they behave. How one can read others and their not-so-hidden ambitions. As Hessel wrote on American women in Paris: ‘Some come over here to get the European stamp on their little local fame. […] Very smart, very efficient in their travelling dresses, they laugh over every last one of the European’s compliments, accept their American friends’ roses and orchids. Of course, they say, I’m coming back next year – and: “Paris was too delightful, I had the time of my life” – and: “I’m sure I learnt a lot.”’

Hessel is not being mean in these texts, which becomes all the more clear when one compares texts written not by, but on her. In those there’s a certain nitpicking tone, as though her biographers – including Marie-Françoise Peteuil in her Helen Hessel. Die Frau, die Jules und Jim liebte (The Woman Who Loved Jules and Jim, 2013) – had lost their affection for their protagonist somewhere along the way. As though they became disillusioned by a love-struck Hessel – part proud of her, part amused. All of a sudden, the talk is of an ‘ageing’ Helen.

I will allow her the last words: ‘hastily and full of conviction, we put friend and foe into categories we don’t release them from very easily […]. If, in the course of time, the adjectives no longer ring true, the claim is conveniently placed in the imperfect, or one winds up in the dubious category of the unpredic­table.’ Clearly, Helen Hessel deserves a second look.
Translated by Andrea Scrima

Katrin Kruse is a writer and cultural studies scholar who lives in Basel. She has worked as the style editor for Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Sonntagszeitung. She curently teaches fashion theory at the Basel School of Design and the Zurich University of the Arts.