What is sophistication?
We now think of it as a kind of cultural cool, say Faye Hammill, but the word has never quite lost its early negative associations
Globe and Mail | June 12, 2010 | Ryan Bigge
On the season finale of 30 Rock, Liz Lemon (a.k.a Tiny Fey) joked that “people wear flip flops to church.” You might mourn along with her that sophistication is dead. But it’s not. It’s alive and well and embodied in people like Alan Rickman, Audrey Tautou and Stephen Fry, according to Faye Hammill, a senior lecturer in English at Glasgow’s Strathclyde University. According to Hammill, Fry’s ability to convey worldly wisdom made him the perfect actor to portray Oscar Wilde; “he even played the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland,” she said, “which I think is a very sophisticated caterpillar.”
Hammill is the author of a new book, Sophistication: A Literary and Cultural History. She was seduced by sophistication while working on her previous book Women, Celebrity, and Literary Culture Between the Wars. “I was researching Dorothy Parker and I found out that her first job was at Vogue writing captions for underwear illustrations. And her next job was at Vanity Fair.” She realized that those magazines, along with The New Yorker, were using sophistication as a way to market themselves. She decided to explore “at what point the word changed from being a derogatory term to being something celebratory.”
Originating from the ancient Greek word for wisdom, sophistry soon came to mean something like disingenuous reasoning, and sophistication has never shaken free of its guilty-by-association semantic roots. But unlike hipsterdom or trendiness, sophistication involves smooth, invisible cool -- the ability to intuit dress codes for gala events, bring a superior syrah to a dinner party or talk accurately (or at least convincingly) about contemporary art. Think Tyler Brule, who founded not one but two bibles of global sophistication (Wallpaper* and Monocle magazine) which serve simultaneously to educate and affirm the stylish sensibilities of cosmopolitan urbanites in Zurich, Berlin, Madrid and Toyko.
However, sophistication has evolved considerably from being defined as “adulteration, not genuine” in the 1799 edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary to its valorization during the interwar period. Today, as Hammill concludes, sophistication has become too diffuse a concept to be meaningful and is “applied indiscriminately to everything stylish, luxurious, clever or technically complex.”
Still, some core attributes of sophistication have remained fairly consistent. What has really changed is society’s attitudes toward those qualities. As Hammill writes, “Sophistication is often associated with a degree of hedonism, an unshockable attitude in sexual matters, a distrust of bourgeois values … and a focus on the pleasure of the moment.” That description, once fraught with moral and political defiance, could now easily double as a corporate mission statement for the American Apparel clothing chain.
As she explains, the problem with sophistication, at least during the late 18th and early 19th century, was that “the Romantic privileging of expressiveness entailed a rejection of artifice and literary sophistication.” Sophistication became associated with “moral laxity and self-indulgence” and was so strongly distrusted that “unsophistication” became a term of praise. It was not until the 1830s that a modern understanding of sophistication first appeared, involving “taste, elegance, delicacy, leisure, and above all refinement.” Through a close reading of various authors, including Jane Austen (Mansfield Park), Edith Wharton (The Age of Innocence) and Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), Hammill traces sophistication’s slow and subtle shift from disingenuousness to discrimination.
For Hammill, the most exciting era of sophistication was during the 1920s and 30s, when conflicting definitions were in flux and the mannerisms of the time had much to recommend them. “We think of the Twenties as the last days of the leisure class,” she says, “when people had the time to be really stylish and sit around smoking long cigarettes and making witticisms.” As if to reinforce this, the cover of her book is a photograph of Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence taken from the play Private Lives.
That said, the decadent lifestyle that sophistication upheld, like punk rock, has lost its ability to alarm the bourgeoisie. Women smoking is no longer considered subversive and standards of virtue have dissolved so dramatically that flip flops should be the least of Liz Lemon’s concerns. Hammill believes that sophistication now involves class aspiration and being a discriminating consumer, instead of the ambitious, heady modernism of the 1920s: “I think Vanity Fair in the Jazz Age was encouraging an intellectual openness, rather than simply encouraging people to try new thing that they might need to pay for.”
Although Sophistication focuses on British and America novels and magazines, Hammill, who specializes in Canadian literature at Strathclyde University, hopes to one day examine Canadian-specific responses to sophistication. She points to the launch of Maclean’s and Chatelaine (1911 and 1928 respectively), along with lesser-known Canadian magazines of the era, including Mayfair (a high-society monthly launched in 1927 that once described itself as “Canada's Smartest Magazine”) and Montreal’s Le Revue Moderne.
Hammill would also be inclined to add Ethel Wilson to the pantheon of sophisticates. Wilson was a Vancouver novelist who published Hetty Dorval and The Innocent Traveller during the 1940s.
“Because Ethel Wilson was such a stylist and had a detached ironic attitude, often reviewers and commentators have described her using the word sophistication,” she says. “And I think she’s quite unusual, because that’s not the word that comes up the most often in reviews of other Canadian writers at that time.”
There’s something charmingly incongruous about hearing Hammill list off current Canadian examples of sophistication in her heavy English accent -- she mentions Guy Maddin and Atom Egoyan, along with The Walrus magazine. And, of course, La Belle Province.
“I talk a lot about Frenchness, as in Paris, being associated with sophistication in my book,” notes Hammill. “But you could imagine a Canadian version where Montreal would be at the centre.”
Ryan Bigge’s recently completed debut novel contains the phrase “cigarette swirls of sophistication.”