… ‘the suffocating anxiety of waiting for the sign on which one believes one’s life depends, wanting it to come and at the same time fearing it.’
This is from Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies by Stella Bruzzi (1997):
… As Louise J. Kaplan comments, ‘[a] fetish is designed to keep the lies hidden, to divert attention from the whole story by focusing attention on the detail,’ an allusion to fetish as narrative tool that is pertinent to film, as, likewise is Robert Stoller’s definition of a fetish as ‘a story masquerading as an object.’
… Fetishism (as opposed to eroticism) is founded on tension, distance and imagination, and is dependent on symbolic rather than actual association between the subject and the object of (his) desire. It is precisely because the crinoline says ‘touch me not’ that Laver finds it seductive.
In costume films interested in sexuality (above nostalgia and history telling) the contrast between the obtainable concealed body and the means of enforcing that concealment (namely the clothes) is seen to heighten expectation and arousal. The shiny black boots in Diary of a Chambermaid, the Amish cap in Witness, the lock of hair in Golden Braid or the scrap of dirty lace in Picnic at Hanging Rock are personal fetishes, inappropriate substitutes as Freud would deem them for the unobtainable woman they represent. Important to all these instances of the fetishisation of the woman and of the man’s desire is the notion of difference, contrast and, most significantly, distance.
… As Edith Wharton puts it in the original novel, ‘They all lived in a hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.’
… At first Newland appears oblivious to the weight of convention, a lack of awareness delicately signaled during the second sequence (the Beaufort Ball) by the table of neatly laid out and labeled white evening gloves to which he blithely adds his own. Men are defined through their conformity and Newland, before he falls in love with Ellen, is quite content to comply. As the film progresses the distanciation between masculine conventionality and Archer’s desire increases, until he is smothered rather than complemented by the formality of his heavy layered clothes.
… But just as the attention on obsessively researched surface details in The Age of Innocence serves to deflect attention onto what is not visible, so Newland’s renunciatory stillness serves to accentuate his potential for passion.
The romantic necessity of unfulfillment is experssed verbally by Countess Olenska in the shoe-kissing scene when she says ‘I can’t love you unless I give you up,’ but it is evoked filmically through the subjectification of Archer who, right at the end when he is offered the chance to see Ellen again, declines to meet her and bridge the gap between imagination and reality. As with every act of fetishism, distance preserves the mystery.
[line break added to make this easier to read online] So Newland would rather imagine the past Ellen than meet the present one, and as he closes his eyes a rapid montage culminating in the Ellen he remembers turning round and smiling at him flashes across the screen. Archer is playing a game with himself which he’s played before: if she turns around he will go to meet her; if she does not, he will walk on by.
[line break added] As Amy Taubin suggests, The Age of Innocence is about ‘the suffocating anxiety of waiting for the sign on which one believes one’s life depends, wanting it to come and at the same time fearing it.’ Fetishism keeps the danger of change at bay.