Our author is a fashion blogger. She casts a contemporary eye over Ferdinand Hodler’s picture “Jenenser Student” (Student at Jena).
It’s quite a timeless outfit, I think to myself. I am standing in the light-flooded Pinakothek der Moderne (art gallery), in front of a huge oil painting by the Swiss symbolist and Art Nouveau painter Ferdinand Hodler from 1908. It features an almost life-size young man putting on his coat. It looks a little as if he has just stood up from his wooden chair at a table in the Bar Centrale, after reading the newspaper at leisure and then drinking his espresso in a hurry. And although this man is the subject of a 112 year old oil painting, I quite like his outfit. It is classic, high-quality and universal. In principle, I would wear it in just the same way in 2020, even as a woman.
The young man is a student from Jena – the title of the painting tells us that. But his rosy cheeks, his beardless face and his full and tidily trimmed hair also make him look like a student. He looks sober, yet also full of vigour due to his movement. There is also something moving in the background, at the upper edge of the picture: three shadowy black silhouettes that are walking out of the picture to the left – otherwise, the narrow, two metre high painting focuses only on the student in a full-body portrait.
He is wearing black, classic leather lace-up shoes with black, loose-fitting suit trousers. Today, you would say that they are “high waist” trousers, as they go up to his waist. His soft pink, long-sleeved and buttonless shirt is tucked into his trousers. Neither his coat nor his shirt or trousers have buttons or other visible accessories. They all radiate just one thing: timeless simplicity. The outfit looks as if it fits so well and pleasantly that you would not want to take it off. As if it were a composition of high-quality classics made of really pleasant materials, in which you have once invested and no longer want to wear anything else from this point.
An approach to clothing that precisely captures the zeitgeist today, 112 years later. For timelessness, simplicity and durability are the key words of a trend that is currently transforming the fashion industry. Ever new collections that make everything from the old season “out” and worthless, “fast fashion” that is produced under terrible conditions and loses its shape after a single wash – all of these are things that have been subject to scrutiny for some time. And that are leading to other factors becoming more important than trends or what is currently being hyped on Instagram: Anyone who gives much attention to fashion, with all the overstimulation of the overabundance with which we are faced today, and anyone who begins to reflect upon the contexts of overproduction, upon the darker sides of the fashion industry, will learn to appreciate a good, timeless and durable design.
Although this man is the subject of a 112 year old oil painting, I quite like his outfit. It is classic, high-quality and universal. In principle, I would wear it in just the same way in 2020, even as a woman.
The German Future Institute speaks of the “neo-ecology megatrend”, which combines the new understanding of fashion with the key words timelessness and sustainability – and, as the next step, also with the idea that clothing no longer necessarily has to be made just for women or for men. The most sustainable item of clothing is not only durable, but also unisex and can be worn by anyone.
Small labels focus on timeless, simple unisex designs made of high-quality materials. However, larger brands have also launched unisex collections in recent years: basics such as black slacks, white T-shirts and shirts, often made of organic cotton and suitable to be worn by anyone. The fact that the shirt of our student is pink makes me think even more of the diminishing gender boundaries in the fashion of our age – even if that is unlikely to have been Hodler’s thinking behind his painting in 1908.
The thing that has always fascinated me about art, so much so that I studied art history because of it, is the transition from our own interpretation of a work to the knowledge of what it is really all about. I only experience this after spending a long time standing in front of the “Student from Jena” and pondering on the timelessness of his outfit, on really good leather shoes, trousers with a universal cut and pink unisex shirts. However at some point, my gaze falls onto the text panel next to the painting: in reality, when painting his student, Hodler was not painting a contemporary from 1908, but was looking back almost 100 years to the time of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1813, the student belonged to a movement that revolted against the French domination in Europe and Germany and actually pushed Napoleon back behind the Rhine in the Battle of Leipzig.
What the “Student from Jena” is putting on is not a simple coat, but a uniform. Like many students, he belongs to a volunteer corps, a self-organised group that is going to war voluntarily – and his uniform is put together from his own clothing that has been died black. This background is clear when we look at Hodler’s 3.65 by 5.60 metre monumental painting, for which the two metre high “Student from Jena” in Munich’s Pinakothek is just the preliminary study: “The German Students in the War of Liberation of 1813” still hangs in the hall of the University of Jena. Ferdinand Hodler painted it in 1908 for the 350th anniversary of the university. Our student can be seen in the centre of the painting, slipping into his coat – surrounded by students in full uniform who are just mounting their horses, whilst a troop of soldiers is already marching in the background.
In reality, when painting his student, Hodler was not painting a contemporary from 1908, but was looking back almost 100 years to the time of the Napoleonic Wars. What the “Student from Jena” is putting on is not a simple coat, but a uniform.
Fashion has nothing to do with how the painting has been interpreted and used time and again since its creation: at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, just six years after the completion of this painting, professors such as the philosopher and Nobel prize winner Rudolf Eucken made fanatical propaganda speeches in front of the painting in the university in order to mobilise students once again. By looking patriotically at the war against Napoleon as an act of liberation, they now called upon the students to join the new “War of Liberation”. In the National Socialist era, the painting was given a similar propaganda character to give the act of going to war a greater meaning, supposedly embedded in history. In East Germany too, the painting kept its place in the University – to underpin the idea of the “people’s army”, an anti-fascist army that consisted of the citizens itself.
Whether it’s 1813, 1908 or 2019, the student stands for a a spirit of optimism – and the will to change something. The moment of transformation that Hodler chose is striking: whilst he is putting his coat on and it it is not yet recognisable as uniform, we still see the student as an individual – who will become one with the group of soldiers in full uniform in the next moment. In the snapshot that the painting features, the student does not yet have this function, however. It records the situation in which he makes the decision, as an independently thinking person, to put the uniform on and go to war.
The idea of independent thought and acting on our own responsibility brings us back to the present: for a long time, clothing was not charged for as many political issues as it is at the moment With the clothing that we buy and wear, we influence issues such as production conditions, CO2 emissions and gender stereotypes. And we are increasingly often choosing sustainability instead of the fast fashion that can have serious consequences, timelessness instead of short-lived fashion, and quality instead of quantity. Regardless of whether he is currently deciding to put a uniform on or whether we can interpret his clothing in a completely different way, the student in Hodler’s painting is wearing a completely timeless outfit that transcends time.
Milena Heisserer is a fashion blogger. She works as an independent journalist and a social media lecturer. After many years in the Instagram fashion bubble, she particularly appreciates timeless items of clothing.