A Psychology of Fashion

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: John Weitz
Title: “A Psychology of Fashion”
VTR: 9/19/83

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. For most of the more than 30 years I’ve been in broadcasting now, I’ve, wisely I think, focused on news and politics, which I know something about. On science occasionally and literature too, as they touch on familiar patterns of public affairs. Only occasionally have I had the temerity to step outside these bounds. Once in a great while with extraordinary people from fields that for me are essentially uncharted and unknown. People like humorists Alan King and, back a long time ago, Fred Allen, or film producer David Brown, or popular novelist Judy Krantz, or women’s magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown, or musician Isaac Stern. And today a man best identified with leadership and renowned in a world I obviously know nothing about: the world of fashion. Indeed, I dress the part, I know. But John Weitz is so outrageously eclectic in his tastes and temperament, and I was so taken at lunch recently by a comment he made about “catering to people’s vanities” that I asked him here today to explain that phrase. John, what about it? What do you mean?

WEITZ: Well, when you design clothes, quite clearly you’re not catering to them in a deep-rooted hates, fears, and likes and dislikes. You are catering to their surface. And to the things they fancy themselves as rather than the things they are.

HEFFNER: You say “surface”, and I have the feeling as I read through things about John Weitz, and indeed read your novels and your book “Man in Charge”, there’s something, something that disturbs you terribly much about that notion of catering to those vanities and surfaces.

WEITZ: It does not in the least disturb me. The field itself doesn’t disturb me. Possibly my involvement in it occasionally disturbs me.

HEFFNER: What a statement.

WEITZ: And that is, that is the great difference. The field itself is absolutely a most wonderful discipline for those who feel driven toward it and who can live with it for the rest of their lives, but there are people who I believe after a certain…more than a dollop of, or the knowledge or the vanities of people will begin to shy away from it and may occasionally, like all men, ask themselves one day, “What am I doing?” Particularly when one has reached that ender age of 60. I have one great contemporary who is one of the great designers of America and who I think, occasionally and I will probably not dare to use his name, will say to himself, “This is ridiculous”. It, it…The old couturiers of before the war, a certain man for whom I apprenticed, Captain Edward Molineaux, didn’t have that feeling. There were men dealing with daily problems of rich women, and they were quite willing to live their lives with them. They dealt with them specifically with a dressmaker or like the tailor dealing with a gentleman. And they didn’t live around this pretentious nonsense that goes on in which a blue suit suddenly becomes the statement of Admiral Nelsons and in which a red coat suddenly becomes a major oppressive symbol of the age. So, so here and there, now and then, I dare with friends to say that perhaps I’m not fully fulfilling my life’s ambition.

HEFFNER: Well, here you are among friends, and one might say, “Vanity, vanity, always vanity; pretension, pretension, always pretension”. Why make the point now?

WEITZ: I make it only in response to your very open playback of, of something I said to you en prive over lunch the other day. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Well, John, if I had known that I shouldn’t repeat it, I wouldn’t have.

WEITZ: On the contrary. I’m delighted you did. It gave me an opening. I now have valved off all the fury that I occasionally feel when I face one more season on which such matters as the width of men’s lapels are supposed to take my entire attention, and which I can urgently drive toward the business of either writing a novel or photographing or drawing or doing some paintings, or doing all the other amateur things that I try to do in order to divest myself of the person of my profession, the occasional profession.

By the way, this does not mean that I’m not perfectly happy making a perfectly nice living out of it and having gotten to me what Scott Fitzgerald once called “a little bit known”. When I asked him what “a little bit known” was, he said, “A little bit known is when ten people out of a room of a hundred know you, but nobody asks you if you sleep in the nude”.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) No one has asked you that? I’m not going to ask…

WEITZ: No one’s asked.

HEFFNER: I’m not going to ask you that, John, but I, I, I want to go back to what puzzles me about…I guess I reacted to what you had said when we lunched together as someone who would have thought that you would find, now, after many, many years, still enormous pleasure in catering to people’s needs. You call them vanities. Their needs concerning themselves. Their appearance, their sense of themselves.

WEITZ: Yes. If that fulfilled them, I would. I can see that a man who is hungry and were I a chef or a restaurateur can be catered to and can be fulfilled because he does stand up, burping slightly and says, “Wasn’t this wonderful?” as he walks out. Unfortunately, with fashion there’s an instant sense of Chinese cuisine in that the moment that a woman wears that dress, the moment that a man looks at himself in the mirror, that is the only moment. Two and a half minutes later he is firmly convinced that everything is wrong with him, or she is convinced that something is wrong with her once more. And so it is the lack of fulfillment of fashion that I think is probably the only oppressive thing. The people find themselves seeking over and over again yet one more system for trying to be that which they may not be and never seeing what they really are. In blatant, blunt terms, a perfectly lovely, highly skilled dentist from Brooklyn in his soul pretends to be an Italian count or a British country gentleman, he is not. He is what he is, and how marvelous it would be if he could only pat himself on the back and say, “Aren’t I a marvelous scientist, piecing together people’s bites, and my background is this. And I do not pretend to be something I’m not.” And there are certain fashion disciplines which literally set out to cater to people’s illusions, and they’re annoying to me. They’re journalistic. They have nothing to do with fashion. They will talk about the true look of tweed, 16-ounce tweed. You don’t need 16-ounce tweed in modern American life. You did need it if you were a young second son of Lord Tweedsmer and you were on the estates and were very cold and you had to go in and had no central heating and you had to scratch you bottom against the fire. That’s when you need tweeds. Considering the fact that you may not even bathe, you’d better wear tweeds. These art the things that bother me. That piece of apparel does not belong to an American wardrobe.

HEFFNER: But that’s hype. That’s the other side of the coin, and the thing that puzzled me about what you just said, indeed I was going to say, John, forgive me, I’ve never said this to a guest before: But I don’t believe that you could mean what you say when you say, “In two minutes it’s all over. He stands up, she stands up, and that’s it”. I, I, I…Perhaps the analogy is not quite as good as I wish it were…

WEITZ: Would you believe ten minutes? The person who looks at himself in the mirror in the morning, the devil of a fellow who is wearing that new British tie and wearing a new, natural-shouldered WASP suit that he thinks will instantly transform him into a member of the eastern American aristocracy, within 15 minutes falls apart. He can no longer sustain it. He is not on his way to watch the Americas Cup because he’s part of one of the great sailing clubs. He’s on his way to whatever he’s doing, and his life will not change. And this is the…And he has just spent $700. Now I know that I can do clothes for very little money that do suit people and that I run into terrible troubles by saying, “No, I will not cater to fashion. I will not do heavy tweed suits in winter that are not needed. I will not do wool suits in summer that are not needed. I will not provide all-cotton shirts because someone has some cockamamie delusion that they cannot wear anything but all cotton”. Do they know what a cheap all-cotton shirt is like? It is filled with polymers which end up being, being so hot that you are twice as hot as you are in that fancy polyester that you’re worrying about. You know. There’s a whole world of people who say, “I cannot wear polyester fabrics”, but they want their wives to toss it right into the washing machine. So, so they find themselves in this quandary of modern use and reactionary nonsense.

I really do think that what I try to do over and over again is, day after day, to attempt some honesties in the field that begs delusion. And occasionally I give up like everybody else and say, “The heck with it. If that’s what they want, let ‘em”.

HEFFNER: Was there ever a time when you would have spoken differently, perhaps more positively about getting people through if not the night at least the day through clothes?

WEITZ: I, yes, at one time. I just didn’t see the whole picture. And I do not at this point of the game pooh-pooh the field of fashion, nor do I pooh-pooh my profession. What I do, at this point of the game, want to say is that I do wish people saw more clearly what is really, occasionally happening to them; that they are being led down a fearful garden path.

HEFFNER: John, illusion, how important a role illusion plays in our lives. Why, why are you disillusioning us?

WEITZ: Only because that is not the, that is not the true illusion.

HEFFNER: What is?

WEITZ: The true illusion is a much, much bigger one, I think, and that is, you know, the illusion begins on, on, on the day that we read the Constitution. It’s the pursuit of happiness. I don’t think that’s going to be it. I think there are many other things. I think there’s the, the happy illusion of, of marriage, children. Because eventually it ends up, but at least there are the years in which you can say, “Isn’t it marvelous to grow up with kids?” The years in which you can say, “I’m living with a woman I adore, and who’s worthwhile and who is my chum and my friend, and who is part of my life”. These too are illusions because eventually these things must end. I don’t mind that. There is life. But that’s an illusion worth fostering, as far as I’m concerned.

HEFFNER: How could I respond possibly to that? You’re not for mother, home and country.

WEITZ: I’ve tried to put myself into the reactionary corner.

HEFFNER: All right, that’s fair enough, but I’m a little surprised at your unwillingness to concede that which perhaps you insisted upon at another time. The sense…

WEITZ: Or at another age, and in another set of circumstances. Because I was a 15-year-old undergraduate student at Oxford reading history, much too young to be at Oxford in that year just before the war, surrounded by Brideshead. Surrounded by the Bridesheadean undergraduates who were living down the hall from me at the Queens College, and who made life miserable for me. And at that point, when somebody said, “Why don’t you come to work and apprentice each weekend at our fashion house? We’ve got lots of pretty girls there and you’ll like doing what you’re doing”. I thought it was marvelous. I couldn’t have begun to tell you the amount of joy I got out of the craft, and out of the field, and out of doing it, and out of doing it successfully, eventually.

HEFFNER: And you’ve stayed in the field for 40 years without having the same feelings that are positive? I don’t believe it.

WEITZ: I hope that every historian who taught at the age of 28, every journalist who got a Pulitzer Prize at the age of 30 feels the same way at the age of 60. I think that eventually illusion and disillusion are…follow each other.

HEFFNER: Were you writing about illusion and disillusion when you wrote about a young German who, perhaps whose vanities, whose needs took him into a seeming relationship with the Nazi movement?

WEITZ: No. I was telling the truth of many of us in that we are prone to opportunism and that, whereas we point our fingers so easily at people and say, “Ah ha”…It’s a book we’re talking about that I wrote called “Friends in High Places”. It’s about a young Nazi who was an opportunist that came out of a question that has begged itself in my life, and that is how many times I’ve asked myself since I’m a German Jewish refugee by birth and descent, “What would I have done had I been born a Protestant in the middle of Berlin? What would my father have done? How many Jewish friends would we have protected? How would I have faced the man who would have said to me, ‘Hey, why don t you join the party? It’s good for your career and you’re a partner in an architectural establishment and we really would like you to consider joining the party. Now, we realize you might have some political problems about that, but look, that’s life. You just gotta do it because we need party contact, and you’re it’” Then what? So that was the point of the book. It was to allow myself to see things clearly too.

HEFFNER: Not because you say your major character resisted opportunism, but because you seem to say we all…

WEITZ: Oh, I don’t know if I’m trying to excuse myself and anyone else, but the fact is that around me I know friends…Do you know, there must be at least 20 friends I have with whom I have an unspoken agreement. They don’t invite me to their clubs and if they did I wouldn’t’ accept it. I’d find some gentle way of saying, “Gee, I’m awfully sorry”. I don‘t go to the Everglades Club in Florida, for instance, though I have many friends who belong to it, simply because I know that they have no Jewish members. It’s as simple as that. I will not go to the Everglades Club in Florida. There have been invitations. I have once accepted one to my sin, and said to myself, “Never again”. It was fearfully charming though, but I am who I am. As far as they’re concerned I’ve got a German name, I belong to nice clubs and whatever it is that pleases them. But I will not do that. Now isn’t it ridiculous to find myself in a situation where I have never openly expressed the reason why I won’t accept their invitations to the Everglades in Florida and Palm Beach, or why they have never said to me, “The reason I’m not inviting you is because it would be embarrassing for you since there are no Jewish members. And if it were find, or found out that I did invite you, I would be criticized”. I think it happened to Caesar Gasponse. He invited Estee Lauder, I am told, and I think Jerry Zipkin, and all kinds of hell, I am told, broke loose.

HEFFNER: But I’m puzzled at your almost innocent involvement with this notion that we are all opportunists, and this seems to disturb you.

WEITZ: Oh, no. Well, I would rather there were courageous ones among us. I would rather that I were one of them, and I guess the, one ends up still being that same child who reads hero stories and one worships heroes and wishes one could worship oneself. And I guess that is where disillusioned begins.

HEFFNER: I’ve had the feeling as I’ve read this story of your various exploits – and your exploits are so varied – that you almost wish as though you were back in the OSS.

WEITZ: No, the OSS was simply a marvelous organization in which I was a foot soldier, no more. Because the top men did the top work, and I was surely doing agentry which at that point was the infantryman of intelligence work, and only because I was qualified physically and linguistically to do this kind of work, and that I could pass for other than a German Jewish refugee, and that, with the exception of most private moments, I could get away with things. And, and, and it…I was, I was totally bilingual. I still am. I just came back from Cologne where time and again people said, “What part of Berlin do you live in?” because I am a Berliner who speaks with a strong Berlin accent still.

HEFFNER: John, let me go back, let me not go back to, but continue to press this matter of opportunism in your own professional field of fashion at this moment. Not as a soldier, a foot soldier in the OSS. I didn’t know there was such a thing. Not for an officer, at any rate. But let’s, let’s leave that for a moment. One might have expected that a person of such renown in fashion would have found rationalization for what it is that you do for people in a very, very positive way. Go back to the beginning of our colloquy here and you have dismissed that. A two, a two-minute contribution. Man, woman gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror, well-dressed, John, and in two minutes it’s gone.

WEITZ: Well, ten minutes, 20 minutes, at the end of the day.

HEFFNER: But that gets you through the day. What is it that you’re against…

WEITZ: Well, I’m perfectly willing to accept any rationale that you build for me. This is a highly intelligent host, the audience of a highly intelligent show, therefore I will accept your rationale. The terrible fact of life is though, that I, I, of course I’ve built a rationale for what I’m doing. I can think of many of them. There are not too many people who dislike me, and people don’t walk up to me at a dinner party and say, “Hey, I hate the junk that you showed in your last fashion show”, or “I saw some photos and it was nonsense”. I have a surprising amount of goodwill from people who say, “You’re the only designer who’s sensible. You’re the only fellow who knows what he’s doing. You’re the only one who doesn’t, whom my wife wants to wear. Blah, blah, blah, et cetera”. It makes one feel very good. Even all over the world, happily, this happens. In Japan they, they’re very good to me. In Europe…I just got a letter yesterday from a young German couple to whom I spoke at a bar in Cologne and they said, “Why did I camouflage myself”? They have finally found out who I was, and all of these years they have been great admirers, and so on and so on. It’s all very nice. I’m sure now. And sure it’s perfectly nice, but sure one has to have clear ident…Who’s to say that one has to be satisfied? I mean, you’re a historian. Read Michelangelo’s attitudes about himself. Read DaVinci’s, he yells and howls about himself. Read any creative person’s truthful dislike of himself. I cannot believe that Michelangelo in the midst of the most important assignments, the things that you and I consider to be incredible things from the chapel ceiling on did not many a time feel, “What the heck am I doing here?” He couldn’t say “hell” under the circumstances, because the fingers were touching, but “What am I doing here? This is ridiculous”. Besides which, he didn’t respect the Pope and hadn’t gotten paid, so this wasn’t a question of deep involvement, this was an assignment. I believe the Mona Lisa was also an assignment, wasn’t she? A commercial one.

HEFFNER: There is almost a kind of innocence there. A considerable level of unreality or a considerable desire to inject reality. That’s why I go back to that…

WEITZ: I doubt that you can. I am not in position to…One can’t see oneself. And I suppose there must be a certain rather naiveté. I have been happily married three times to two grave mistakes, but still decent and wonderful women, and one wonderful marriage. So obviously I love the idea of marriage, which of itself is a naïve notion I suppose in this modern world. I, I spend a great deal of time involved with my children, so obviously I love the naiveté of fatherhood, and which I suppose is considered not part of the abrasive modern world. People laugh. I’ve just sent a $1,200 check to my Japanese associates because of the, I don’t know, 65 phone calls I made over such major matters as how did an exam go for one of my kids, the first one, because they just got back to school, or how’s my freshman son doing up at Wesleyan University. These are the things that I want to know about and I want to be involved in, and so I have my own naiveties.

HEFFNER: John, those weren’t the ones that I was referring to because I don’t think they are symbols of, or expressions of naiveté, but just believing for a moment this matter of innocence – and we have a comparatively short time left – what do you see as the future of the vanities of…

WEITZ: Vanities? Bigger and bigger. Huger and huger. More and more journalism descending upon the notions of the designer. The star is a greater and greater star. When, I guess most of us who are of a certain generation, Bill Blass, I, the French of the time, Givenchy, were still baby stars compared to the stars begin built now, the Calvin Kleins, the Ralph Laurens, the Perry Ellises. I just read a story that Ralph Lauren has a $14 million income. That is well beyond the stardom of any star. That it’s impossible for Calvin Klein to walk down the street anywhere in the world today without being recognized. So obviously the stars are going to get more starry. The notions of what sells, be they knit shirts or Levi Strauss’ blue jeans with other names on them, are not highly creative because most of the things that sell very well are things we’ve known forever, are totally familiar. Navy blue neckties and light blue shirts and blue jeans and knit shirts. Nothing new. Journalism will grow. Fashion magazines will prosper.

HEFFNER: So it’s huge that we’re talking about.

WEITZ: Well, if motorcars be hype…You cannot say about a piece of apparel that it has better mileage or won’t kill you on the road or handles better in the turn. What you can do about, about a piece of apparel is say that it washes better, packs better, et cetera. The rest must be hype. I don’t like the word…illusion, how’s that?

HEFFNER: That’s where we began.

WEITZ: That’s where we began.

HEFFNER: And now you, you kind of wrap yourself around that word.

WEITZ: Well, because “hype” is such a modern day, nasty, abrasive description for self-delusion or illusion, as promoted by somebody.

HEFFNER: Two different things…


HEFFNER: …illusion and delusion or self-delusion.

WEITZ: Yes, yes, yes.

HEFFNER: And it’s interesting to me that just as we come to a conclusion of this program we, we, we come to that point.

WEITZ: Well, series two is going to be next week, isn’t it? (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Good enough, John. Thank you, John Weitz, for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you too, will join us here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

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