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Lyle Zapato

Narcissus: An Anatomy Of Clothes

Lyle Zapato | 2015-11-16.1540 LMT | Fashion | Technology | Retro


Is fashion an extension of architecture, or vice versa? Is a fancy car a type of suit in which to strut around the road? Are clothing and housing phenotypical traits that natural selection is now acting upon? In the future, will we wear our homes like hermit crabs wear shells, our bodies whittled down by evolution and surgical manipulations to the barest essentials? These are some of the questions Gerald Heard raises in Narcissus: An Anatomy Of Clothes (1924).

The thesis of this book is that evolution is going on no longer in but around the man, and the faster because working in a less resistant medium. Man becomes like a wireless valve, a transmitter which in the process immensely amplifies the current that he receives. When the Force that shaped all life evolved man, it seems that it kept him henceforward un-specialised, gave him, strangest of gifts, no vocation and equipment but, if not at one blow, freedom, innate opportunism. This was reserved for the favourite. To all the others their function and place. They sink into their groove, deeper, ever deeper; they run their appointed race; they become every generation more perfectly adapted to be what they are. Vague Trial and Error pass into the exquisite precision of instinct: restless wandering, physical preparation for doubt, distress and conflict, settle into a functioning so appropriate that by all to whom it befalls Nirvana is attained. Desire becomes ever obviously compassable until it follows unrest beneath the vast sea-level of indifference, and Life is justified in all her children: she has rounded their day in perfect completeness. But man she has not completed. That is her supreme bequest to him: he shall finish the story as he likes.

While the short book consists mostly of a history of clothing trends and their relation to architecture and the cultures that produced both, Heard's real goal, laid out in the final chapter, is a manifesto of fashionable transhumanism: we will reshape ourselves, both culturally and physically, through our most intimate of all technology, clothing.

I mentioned Narcissus in my previous post on Heard's Riddle of the Flying Saucers, and you can see the origin of some of his ideas in this, his first book. For instance, the small Martian humanoids in his story "B + M - Planet 4" have forsaken clothing and have evolved to a "streamlined" form in a way similar to what Heard predicts for Humanity in Narcissus (albeit with the guidance of superbees).

We don't often think of clothing as technology, but only because we've become so accustomed to it, to the point that we feel, well, naked without it. One could argue that the first cyborgs were humans who relied on animal hides to survive in harsh climates, upgrading their bodies with technological augmentations no less paradigm-shifting than cochlear implants or robotic limbs.

Today we talk about "wearable technology" (e.g., a Christmas sweater with a pocket to hold a mobile device to create the illusion of a creepy-eyed Santa) as a new category of things, but these are just the most recent innovations that we have attached to our bodies. Eventually the novelty will wear off and they'll be considered just plain, old clothes -- like woven textiles, zippers, and screen-printed t-shirts before them.

What is the distinction between a sweater and a house? We enter both to separate our bodies from the discomforts of the outside world, only one is mobile and the other offers more comforts. But if sweater technology converges with house technology (e.g., both now apparently can contain video screens), would a distinction matter?

Louis Biedermann's Drawing of Two Swagger Metropolites Meeting Above "the Avenue" in 1975, When, Science Predicts, Wings, Fuselages and Individual Engines Will Take the Place of Clothes. [Click for larger. From article about Heard's theories titled "Skyscraper Hats, Smokestack Skirts, in 1926, Says Science" in the Springfield Missouri Republican, 1925-09-27, p.19.]

Heard charts the progression in clothing technology through history and its intertwining with architecture and transportation, leading inexorably to a type of sartorial singularity. He sees the conjoining of all our technologies with ourselves into strange new creatures. (Is not your chauffeur a type of centaur you can ride inside of? Best not to ask him or your commute will be very awkward.) He anticipates the rise of R.V. life (as well as my own concept of naked "pneumads"): people living in homes which closely encompass them, breaking down the distinctions between self, apparel, domicile, and vehicle. Clothing as we know it will disappear as we instead clothe ourselves in mobile homes.

This new mode of living will encourage us to modify our anatomy. Clothes lead to hair razors which lead to surgical scalpels which lead to CRISPR. We will excise more and more of our anatomic baggage as we anthroform the immediate environment around our skin, tailoring both our fashion and ourselves to some sort of ideal equilibrium.

Ultimately, Heard imagines a future in which humans have been streamlined to small, opalescent bodies (perhaps like the "tentacled brains" of H. G. Wells' Martians), flying about in swarms of little clock-work machines, without which it would be indecent to appear in public.

The future of nudism: scandalously exiting one's mechsuit in public? (Illustration by Frank R. Paul from Amazing Stories, Aug. 1927, for reprint of Wells' War of the Worlds.)

While this extreme body modification may seem unthinkable, some are already advocating toward it. For instance, Dutch artist Arne Hendriks argues humans should be downsized to an average height of 50 cm for a variety of health and sustainability reasons (see: The Case for Making Humans Smaller and his blog The Incredible Shrinking Man.)

As we become more reliant on exoskeletons of technology, vanity about our meaty bits might give way to a practical appreciation that it is indeed the clothes that make the man.

Since it's not an easily obtainable book, here's the entire final chapter of Narcissus, which contains the bulk of Heard's fashion futurism:



We cannot, however, take leave of our philosophy when it has only dipped over the horizon of a few hundred years. Tracing its ancestry, we have gone back millenia. Our age has a secular outlook. Let us with a last glance see as far as we can.

It will not be denied that our architecture is in flux. We must take it, then, as proved that our clothing will soon begin to flutter — indeed that it will be twisted out of all recognition. Beyond that it is difficult to foresee; two main lines are, however, probable. A fresh tide welling from the centre may flush the whole course of life with revived appetite, new habit, original architecture. On the other hand, "projection" may get clear of costume's skirts, and, abandoning them, may pour unrestrained onto the outer environment. Against such a course it is true we have the precedent of sartorial reaction, how architecture has created the styles of tailoring, so that the projection has to come back like a boomerang. But this, as has been suggested, may only belong to the elaborate process necessary to a primitive mind. Unable to gain expression directly, it attains it by putting the subject out and taking it back again, as the lemur, unable to pass an object from one hand directly to the other, places it on the ground and then picks it up. On the other side, a stronger argument can be drawn from the history of vestigial remnants. They are nearly all doing some other work than that which they performed at their first appearance; they are not by any means mere hangers on. The descent into desuetude is, we are finding, amazingly devious. It has also to be kept in mind that much that is genetically a means becomes in the single fight of consciousness quite legitimately an end. Man may by a series of arcs, like a skater, advance, irrupting the closed circle of natural sequence and entering upon a larger, if less immediately satisfying, process. The end is not defeated, but enriched. It is doubtful whether delight in the means has ever caused the miscarriage of a larger purpose. Often has man imagined it so, but as a fragment of nature it is more probable that his imagination rather than its invention is at fault. What we witness at such moments seems rather its branching than its truncation, an early air beginning to be wrought into an orchestral harmony.

The two lines seem therefore equally possible; indeed, both may be followed by different societies. In the one we shall have a constant reciprocation, a lighter, stronger architecture imposing cleaner, closer, more convenient clothing. Colour will come back onto building surfaces, and men's dress will begin to flush in reflection.

On the other, if there is complete projection, architecture may take the place of clothing, and some outer art, more austere, less intimate, may take the place of architecture. That art has for millennia been the communal garment, the city's habit. In spite of its grandeur, it is always at its truest domestic; the most astounding temple is at base the House of God. Beside it, our engineering is as remote as it seems from our wardrobes. Is not then this austere, archaic, mighty art which has begun to stretch its great arms over branches of the sea and set its feet on ocean floor, the thing which will make the experiments in form, while architecture will follow reflecting in intimate stone and tile, brick and beam the styles it sets?

Will not architecture become all that clothing has been? The main fabric will be given by a skeletal structure sustaining a circulatory system that already begins to imitate the elaboration of the body's. Formerly an architect had only to design rooms; the only channels for which he had to provide were stairs and chimneys, and these were often to his sparse invention obstacles, not opportunities; they were wholly beyond the Greek. Now he has to clothe series of pipes and communications, valves and orifices, until his task is utterly beyond any but genius. The only hope, therefore for lesser men in the profession is to recognise that henceforward their work must approximate more to the tailor's and less to the builder's. They must hang and fit and stitch onto the body the engineer gives. Moreover, they must, if they are to make good fashions, take their themes not from the past but from the present, not from archaeology but from engineering. The reflection of its immense and lean tensility will be seen in a spare style of fabric and decoration. The inhuman possibilities of metal are not needed in domestic structure. The roof-tree still adequately covers the head, which in potentiality has reached the stars. The human voice, which has at last indeed "gone out into all lands," un-amplified, fails in Bramante's encompassment of stone. We have enough for our actual, individual need in the old material; only in our terrific, united force do we prove it inadequate. Already for two generations we have needed steel to stable our iron horses, and ours should see sky-scraping columbaria for our metal carrier-pigeons' mewing-posts — to which the Spire of Salisbury "were but a wand" — whereon the mechanic hawks of war may swoop and be hooded, and stalls which would over-reach a city and in which the airship whales of the upper atmosphere, beside whom those of the sea are shrimps, may glide and be tethered.

If then architecture takes the place of clothing, what of clothes themselves? On this hypothesis they must ultimately disappear. The radiation of life will have become so strong that the veil nearest to it will be consumed. On the analogy of physical evolution they may of course hang on, reduced completely to some other purpose, but ever growing slighter. Such a deduction may, however, be unsound. Clothing is not living tissue: it is at once less intimate and more under control. It is worn for modesty, for protection and, for display. Two-thirds of its strength might therefore remain untouched. It might — but it seems more probable that with the unconfessed purpose of display brought like a complex to the surface of consciousness and resolved, with the force that inspired it drawn off to engineering and architecture, modesty too would be affected. Physical display and the concealment which is modesty are only two sides of one process; eliminate the one, can the other remain? As to protection, we no doubt have overrated this necessity. The vasor-motor system seems immensely adaptable. We wear far less than the medieval gentleman generally had on, buttoned to the ears and the palms, but we do not need half our wardrobe. Much indeed may be positively harmful, preventing the pigmentation of the skin, which seems the best protection that man can present to the elements. Any covered portion becomes bleached, relaxed, and tender. Hygiene, if it could have things all its own way, would no doubt strip us naked.

The three purposes of clothes seem outworn, and our last garment in danger of falling to the ground. Perhaps the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge has this at least in common with other vegetable poisons: continuously taken, it becomes its own antidote. The first effect was, it is said, to create a condition of "hyper-autognosis." As knowledge has increased, clothing may ebb, until, the cycle complete, we return to our original exposure, incapable any longer of being put out of countenance. Such a progress is, however, dependent of course on a prior advance in domestic architecture. For people unshod the floors must be smooth, soft, unchilling, perhaps of some substance like rubber, in which resistance-coils keep a gentle and constant warmth. Indeed, all around, the standard of comfort of present clothing must be projected onto the house. That we are facing that way, however absurdly distant the goal may seem, can be shown by looking back. For centuries men and women delicately shod had to carry their wood paving with them and go tottering in pattens over the quaggy roads. Now, with what would have seemed to them a fabulous effort, we have spread it over square miles. So, too, with the wayfarer's lantern; and soon the umbrella, in glass-covered streets, will seem as archaic. Within the house central heating keeps a dry and equable temperature already.

Probably there will be a Minoan transition. Certainly men will not step straight out of the dress of to-day, and, pointing to a house as metallic as Alcinoous', say with the projected pride of mother Graccus, "This is my wardrobe." Physical evolution, too, may not be instantly amenable. It is possible that the instep is as unfinished a piece of engineering as the musculature of the abdominal wall. Nature, that is the sub-conscious evolutionary side, may have abandoned both and left us for psychological reasons to add the necessary bracing. Certainly if the wall, as anatomists seem to agree, because of our sudden shifting onto an upright position, is insufficiently buttressed, it does not appear unnatural to suppose that the arch needs, with this even greater increase of strain, underpinning. Boots and Belts, which we have seen have also other strong associations, may then remain for a long time, perhaps as long as we are recognisable as men, upholding, bracing, displaying ever more slender figures. For the Rococo female and the archaic male will probably both disappear, she braced, he smoothed, both refined into an exquisite intergrade.

Naturally such a vision of an inverted Eden seems extravagant, but it is indicated by architecture. Without a doubt it is a possibility. Let us, then, in taking leave of the far future, while still at the cross-roads turn again and study the sign-post of building. Of its condition there can be no doubt. It is ruinous, say most who glance up at it and hurry by. They mistake the jungle for decay. It is exuberance that has unbalanced it. The classical facade is riven, but the force is far other than corruption's. The calm but somewhat low forehead of Zeus is cloven — and thence Pallas. The fault of our building is that it is dynamic. All architecture up to the present, save that of ships, and even they moved founded by their keels upon the waters, has been static. Our age is anabolically dynamic. The age of metal passes into the age of energy. The repose of proportioned architecture we can never hope to recover. We abandoned the petty dynamics of Gothic; we felt that was too absurd. Deliberately adopting a mask, we felt that it had better be unmistakably expressionless. It was better than with a simper of romance to pretend we were only a little made up, elderly people with an artful touch or two recovering their youth. At least no one can accuse us of imagining that we are Romans. As deliberately as grey kid for Town gloves, we have chosen from the wardrobe of history a style with which we ourselves have no organic connection. For the moment we are tired of modes and out of sympathy with revivals. Most sensible men simply want decency — though it is very questionable how far they get it. But merely wishing a problem to disappear because it can't be solved is no solution. We have to go on building. We may have no clear vision as to where we are going, but we cannot stand still. Stark building seems in itself to have its own life and evolution, regardless of our aims, proportions, building laws, and elevations. Like Natural Selection, all these things can only oppose, warp, thwart, but never control, the Life Force. Once again, as in the last Imperial phase, building is fighting for air, struggling to win to the surface, and this time "taste" is fortunately divided: there are, instead of one, so many aesthetic canons that their own cross-fire silences them. The promise of an organic architecture is even greater. Look how fine are our buildings when they are building. It is only when we put the lid of style upon them that they are shut down into insignificance. When we see our age on its own plane, the lean derricks waving across the sky with their fine gear and tackle — as finished, significant, and balanced as the perfectly turned ceriphs on the lettering of a noble inscription — we expect such fingers of the Gods to build unprecedented palaces. Too restless they build the most majestic vessels, engines that have an archaic splendour beside which Karnak is the work of mud-pie makers, but the houses are random recollections, the scamped work of a mind bored with anything that will not move.

So there is nothing barbarous in this. It is a natural evolution, and has respectable ancestry. Mr. Geoffrey Scott in his Architecture of Humanism maintains that Baroque is a culmination: it is "psychological" architecture. This, however, means an architecture framed to impress, an architecture to be looked at from decent, prescribed distances and never to be penetrated or analysed. Such a use of psychology is familiar to readers of late theology: it is the mistake of Modernism. Psychology cannot be used to prevent the mind from analysing what it experiences. It must go deeper, not less deep than ordinary conviction. If behind the screen there is no rampart, or below it foundation, psychology will not make them. The fact that great masters worked in the Baroque is not to show that it is a supreme style, but that they had exhausted all the potentialities of the materials they had inherited. No wonder they were driven to be scientists and engineers. They were striving to find a new material for their huge conceptions. They never found it. Michael Angelo wanted ferro-concrete. His work was a defiance of the older mediums, because his designs were so great, but he had no pleasure in sham. All the work of the Renaissance in architecture is but a beginning; the churches are only full-size models, experimental designs run up with all the temporary shifts of an Exhibition pavilion. No wonder such men liked to play about with stage scenery.

Granted, however, that the dynamic building of which we catch glimpses should come to its full attainment, will one day not be dismantled but hit itself as the end, because of its nature it would not rest there. The static phase of architecture over, the long arrested spirit of man might take up his house and walk. Our vessels, motors, and engines grow vaster and still increase in speed. The static, tap-rooted phase of cities is but a chapter in our social lives. In themselves the greatest cities are by now become, for their present purposes, accidental in site, founded for some long out-grown convenience and continued in from inertia, incoherent in plan, heterogeneous in inhabitants. While we watch, the yeast begins to work in them, the buildings effervesce, and with accentuated force the lines spoken of a city, which, with a back-cloth of miracle-play, called itself Eternal, recur:

Disce hinc quid posset fortuna, immota labascunt,
Et quae perpetuo sunt fluitura, manent.

[Trans.: "See fortune's power: th' immovable decays, and what is ever moving, ever stays." More...]

Medieval London lasted to the middle of the seventeenth century. Its successor not half as long. Baron Haussmann's importance is that he destroyed Paris, the capital of France: his stop-gap improvisation of a Wellsian Pleasure City is insignificant. Man and the Seine between them will move it away, probably in our lifetime. Every generation will see less permanence. Already there is an Imperial architect who moves whole buildings the better to group them. He is one of our best, and in this without doubt is showing that he is a man of his age with enough creative power to live up to the possibilities of modern dynamics. The Americans have long been familiar with the idea. We may live to change our buildings as quickly as a woman her clothes.

Will motors set the style of dress? There is of course already the chauffeur, centaurwise half-groom, half-yachtsman. But he is only a temporary blend, and artificial at that. The true influence of the motor is to be looked for elsewhere. Even in the archaic stage of motor design there are two authentic indications that this is a real architecture. Colour was at once recovered. The carriage and its nationalised relation the cab went black in the dark hour of industrialism. Motor bodies at once resumed the brave paint originally put on to match the clothes within. And now the invariable influence of architecture on costume is beginning to show. If you want to see the smartest male fashions do not go to Saville Row. The tailor dresses as the man of twenty years ago. But in Great Portland Street, and indeed beside every painted and varnished motor, may be found its genius, no murky mechanic but a youth as perfectly turned out, as advanced in his fashion, as the limousine in whose panels he is reflected. But, if living beside a car has already had such effect, how much greater modification may be expected when the association becomes more intimate, and man is seldom visible outside the machine, when it is clothing? If like a snail possessed we learn to carry a rushing home everywhere with us, it will be our costume and habit. Already the centre of interest in domestic building shifts and narrows. Already "nice people" prefer to live in a cottage and keep a good car. Soon the pied-à-terre will be raised and the vestigial remnant of Home be a locker in a golf club or a reserved parking plot on a favourite common. Living in a home which closely encompasses us and everywhere accompanies us we cannot escape great modification. Architecture has affected clothes, clothes have modified anatomy. The razor, the corset, and the boot are only clumsy initial efforts to reduce our barbarian bodies to something smooth and delicate, which we have never been. After violent and ignorant short cuts, comes manipulative surgery, facial operations, and other interferences. This method will give way to graftings, and finally with endocrine dosages and the other powers of the new bio-chemical pharmacopoeia we may change our frame as once our fashions. The control of the pituitary body, which seems to have the hair of the body as its province, might at a stroke put every barber out of business. All the while this is no idle fluctuation. the slow wash of life drifting up and down. There is a purpose in what the Puritan loves to denounce as empty vanity. There is the constant aim at reduction of mass. The centre of the vortex when there is perfect transmission, may itself appear empty. Physically, evolution passing out of us, our bodies may actually be on the way to disappear. With the house, the wardrobe, and the tool-chest, we have already begun to lay aside our fur, our nails, our teeth. But progress is still slow, for even on the threshold of the motor age we yet carry ourselves, yet bear with us a clumsy distillery of intestinal coils of which our laboratories, had our diet been scientific, would have relieved us long ago. The hermit crab abandons his own plate armour when he finds a better shield in someone else's shell. We shall make a great leap forward when we have fully evolved machinery and motors by living in them. Indeed, what then is to prevent us fulfilling Mr. Wells stupendous prophecy and becoming like the Martians only tentacled brains? This is not to say that we should become inhuman and horrible. Nice people of that day, it is certain, would be as disgusted at the sight of a man outside his machine as a Victorian lady at such a vision on the beach, or a normal man at sight of the brain through the decent, familiar hair and skin that cover it. Then, as the reaction of mind and matter never can cease, the machine would grow smaller to suit the condensation of the ever less encumbered, more intense spirit. The time machine takes a step forward and we see a world about which fly swarms of bright little clock-work organisms, opening like small watches their cases, spreading iridescent wings, closing and settling. There will be no Brobdignagian naturalists then, but could such net a specimen, at the centre he would find, at the heart of the springs, a small, opalescent body. In the end:

Dominus non in fortudine equi voluntatem habebit nec in tibiis viri beneplacitum erit ei. [sic]

[Source & trans.: "The Lord shall not delight in the strength of the horse; nor take pleasure in the legs of a man."]

So we must end as life began an idea implicit at the heart of matter; deep down a complete energy, on the surface a calm, complete condensation. Supreme sublimation, the spun stuff at length so fine, that Clotho can at last throw a gossamer which the shears of Atropos cannot sever.

So much for prophecy. What actually will happen who can say — we who cannot even tell if next year well-dressed men will have two or three or even four buttons on their sleeves? One thing alone seems established; however they may develop, clothes are an authentic part of that eternal Becoming which is Life.

Such are the root-endings of the strange subject of costume which many think, because on the surface it looks withered, they could brush off like the dust. So deep and difficult, patiently considered becomes even "the nice conduct of a clouded cane."


Narcissus was part of a series of speculative essays on the future of science and society called To-day and To-morrow (more and more). Most of the titles were some variation of Mytho-Historical Allusion, Descriptive Subtitle, such as Icarus, or the Future of Science by Bertrand Russell and Callinicus: A Defence of Chemical Warfare by J. B. S. Haldane. Haldane's other, less horrific entry in the series, Daedalus; or, Science and the Future, is also notable for its transhumanist themes.

The Gerald Heard Official Website's page about Narcissus, such as it is.

Narcissus has illustrations, but only a handful of simple drawings of historical clothes and architectural features. Unfortunately Heard didn't include his visions of airship whales and golden-snitchesque mini-Daleks.

[UPDATE: 2016-01-26] Added illustration by Louis Biedermann above.

End of post.