Deviant Leverage and Fashion Regulation

Fashion is both a normative information of the Zeitgeist as well as an escape route from the same: a deviation from the norm that is fashion. Similar to Bateson’s definition of information as “a difference that makes a difference” (Bateson 1972). Fashion is “to look like everyone else, but before everyone else” to use Susanne Pagold’s (2000) words, that is, fashion breaks with the norm just the right amount to become what people desire as the new difference, the latest difference, the desirable deviation.

These times of social media and image culture suggests that “image is everything” and many studies in fashion highlights how the basic social psychologic instinct is that of differentiation. But as Blanton and Burkley posits, there is a basic paradox in how this difference is discussed in popular media, the messages clash drastically: there are highly contradictory forms of difference.

“Pages that focus on teen fashion, for instance, tend to assume that the driving identity concern for most teens is to be different, to find a unique identity. Interestingly, however; many of the other pages assume exactly the opposite. Pages that focus on adolescent health, for instance, tend to emphasize the pressures that teens feel to fit in, and these pages counsel teens with such slogans as, “it is okay to be different.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 94)

Even in times of aesthetic multitudes and overlapping cultures and subcultures, not all aesthetically deviance is good and acceptable, and definitely not imbued with high status. As Blanton and Burkley posits, much theory on social psychology has concerned how to fit into groups, or the basic standpoint has been to emphasize the individuals’ desires to conform to others and their actions, such as the work of Asch’s (1956) demonstration how “college students (and members of the general population) often are willing to answer questions incorrectly to avoid the disapproval of their peers.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 95) This has been set into contrast to the individual’s desire to stand out, especially during adolescence, such as in the works of Erik Erikson (1950) and Abraham Maslow (1968).

The idea has been that a healthy individual must be independent of the social environment, that is, the “humanistic principles assert that every person must realize his or her full potential by achieving a unique and authentic self that is not contingent on the approval of others.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 96) But in this tension between distinction and uniformity, the question of how much deviance is good or bad still remains unanswered, and is something Blanton and Burkley approaches in their Deviance Regulation Theory (DRT; Blanton & Christie 2003). “According to DRT, people do not choose actions so much out of a desire to feel more similar or more different, per se. Instead, they simply act out of a desire to have positive self-image.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 98f)

To Blanton & Burkley, deviant behaviors are twofold. Firstly they are “behaviors that cause one to stand out in relation to social norms.” and by this, they “generate stronger reactions from observers than nondeviant behaviors.” (99) Secondly, “certain behaviors are more meaningful than others,” that is, they “generate strong reactions from important reference others.” Firstly, the context and timing matters, and secondly, difference is sought to generate response with “reference others”; we seek the reaction of certain groups to leverage this response into status. From a distance we may be our norm, or the groups “behavioral base rate,” but individually, we are our difference: “in our own eyes and in others’ eyes, we are that which makes us different.” (100)

Blanton & Burkley (103) further suggest there are “ought norms”, norms that are the base-line or “default” rules of the group, the foundational rules, “not just desired by a reference group but also required by them of all group members if they wish to be ‘members in good standing.’” These ought rules, shape conformity, and “pressure will typically take the form of a ‘negative incentive system.’ This system reminds members of the negative consequences of deviating, not the positive consequences of conforming.” (104)

“In this type of environment, where there is conformity pressure on members to engage in risky behaviors, the power of the group is not its ability to reward those who go along with the norms of the group. The power of the group is in its ability to punish those who deviate.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 105)

There are also “ideal norms” and aspirational deviance were subjects can chose “between positive alternatives, between different sources of pride. These outcomes could only be framed in this way if the actors have internalized the positive opinions of important referent others; others who have reinforced accomplishments in these domains.” (105) This is a “positive incentive system” which “reminds members of the positive consequences of deviating, not the negative consequences of conforming.” (106) We admire those who are considered “worthy” and our shared positivity acts as an incentive to imitate their behavior.

“Whereas ought norms promote conformity toward a shared way of acting, ideal norms promote diversity and a multitude of actions. Thus, two people who internalize the values of the same reference groups generally would share all of the same definitions of morality and conform in their moral actions, but they may differ considerably in the sorts of achievements they value or choose to pursue.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 106)

Robert Stebbins (2011: 24) defines deviance as “behavior judged as violating one or more of the community’s moral norms,” that is, collective judgments which “emerge from the community’s definition of right and wrong behavior and activity in certain emotionally charged areas of everyday life.” These are in turn regulated through passive tolerance, or active forms of social regulation such as scorn or embracement. Stebbins differs between tolerable, intolerable, acceptable and positive deviance and posits how subject’s relationships to deviance is often ambigious, as “many people are ambivalent about one or more of the activities falling under the heading of tolerable deviance. They know they ought to refrain from engaging in them, yet they find it difficult to escape their magnetic pull.” (25) Indeed, as Stebbins highlights, leisure often pulls towards deviant activities;

“This is the type of deviance Becker (1963: 26) had in mind when he observed that “it is much more likely that most people experience deviant impulses frequently. At least in fantasy, people are much more deviant than they appear.” Little wonder that tolerable deviance is the classificatory home of most forms of deviant leisure” (Stebbins 2011: 25)

“To be fashionable is to ve acceptably deviant,” Stebbins argues, “Personal good taste keeps the fashionable individual safe, from going beyond acceptability to forms of dress regarded as serious aberrations. The latter is ‘outrageous’ fashion.” (27f) “One may bend rules to the extent that the individual appears to have control over them, but not to the point that s/he poses a threat to the social order” (Harman 1985: 2–3). Echoing Simmel’s discussion on the conflicting pulls between community and individuality, Stebbins points out,

“Increases in society’s individuality and creativity are encouraged. Still the existence of society as a collection of rule-governed individuals interested in the common goal of social order requires members to share basic conceptions about what it is that makes them a group. These two demands of conformity and deviation are contradictory.” (Stebbins 2011: 27)

Drawing from Harman’s study, Stebbins compares fashion to the use of slang, where,

“If a few members begin using the new word or phrase, its outrageousness declines, drifting toward fashionableness. If the trend continues, the new term becomes increasingly common in the group’s vocabulary, its use becoming a mark of membership there.[…] Members of the group who use such terms display an appropriate sense of being fashionable. Being in fashion through introduction and use of new slang is also a mark of the user’s distinctive identity.” (Stebbins 2011: 28)

As the example of introduction of slang shows, the moral norms and boundaries around deviance are not fixed but in a continuous flux or “drift.”

“Some forms of intolerable deviance may gradually become tolerable, as is presently evident to a greater or lesser degree for abortion, use of marijuana, and production and consumption of pornography. Meanwhile, tolerable forms may drift toward intolerability, which appears to be happening today for smoking and has already happened, in a way, for use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport.” (Stebbins 2011: 26)

This type of deviance drift thus overlaps well with Paul Fussell’s (1983) discussion on “proletarian drift” (or “prole drift”). This status drift of products and expressions denote “the tendency for originally upscale products and services to become popular with the working class” (Jaffe 2008). As Fussell points out, its is an unintentional sinking (or could one say “stinking”?) of status as the once upward moving classed are being “bumped down” and in “a process of class sinking” as everything becomes proletarianized. With the availability of mass production of status goods, with a reduction in price and quality, the proliferation of status objects undermines their value, as also argued of luxury fashion by Thomas (2007). Yet this does not mean norms and deviance disappears, no, deviance is still regulated as the status and values of deviance shifts and the previous transgressions lose their status (together with the people connected to these behaviors.)

As we have seen earlier, fashion has a long tradition of challenging moral and social norms, pushing the boundaries for what is considered acceptable or positive deviations, transgressing taboos and turning expressions of cultural rebellion and seduction into new signs of the times. Sumptuary laws tried in vain to control the social and moral norms around dress and its significations. The boundaries of deviance drift together with the norms and often switch places. This is not least noticeable today, in a culture saturated by seduction, porn and sugar powdered BDSM in the tradition of punk bondage in McLaren & Westwood’s store SEX, or the best selling EL James 50 Shades of Grey, where certain forms of sexualized violence is no longer considered deviant (together with the fashion expressions of the scene) – while simultaneously the norms around power are moved towards expressive consent. As highlighted by Byung-Chul Han (2017), the challenging and unknown “other” of Eros is erased to become a predictive sameness. “Post-fetish jewelry” of Zana Bayne is the mainstream, or a new wave of a recurrent theme (as noted in Steele’s classic Fetish: fashion, sex, and power.) Similarly, it has traditionally been the rich kids who can wear second-hand clothing with pride (not the poor kids who have to accept hand-me-downs), or wearing military outfits for leisure is not something soldiers normally do.

As the norms and boundaries of deviance drift, so does our desires. We are oriented by our desires, and how deviance pays off. As Blanton and Burkley (100) shows, if a subject “thinks she will gain from smoking, then she will be oriented towards smoking.” We are what makes us different, and if we play the game of deviance we know the rules and continually try to find leverage for new status. That is where fashion comes in: deviant leverage in the realm of dress.



Asch, S. E. (1956) “Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority.” Psychological Monographs, 70(9, Whole No. 416).

Bateson, Gregory (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York: Ballantine

Blanton, Hart & Christie, C. (2003) “Deviance regulation: A theory of action and identity.” Review of General Psychology, 7, 115-149.

Blanton, Hart & Melissa Burkley (2008) “Deviance Regulation Theory” in Mitchell Prinstein & Kenneth Dodge (eds) Understanding peer influence in children and adolescents, New York: Guilford Press

Erikson, Erik (1950) Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Fussell, Paul (1983) Class: a guide through the American status system, New York: Summit Books

Han, Byung-Chul (2017) The Agony of Eros, Cambridge: MIT Press

Harman, L. D. (1985) “Acceptable deviance as social control: the cases of fashion and slang,” Deviant Behavior, 6: 1–15.

Jaffe, Miles (2008) The Hamptons Dictionary: The Essential Guide to Class Warfare, New York: Disinformation Company

Maslow, Abraham (1968) Toward a psychology of being. Princeton: Van Nostrand.

Pagold, Suzanne (2000) De Långas Sammansvärjning. Stockholm: Bonniers

Stebbins, Robert (2011) “Tolerable, Acceptable and Positive Deviance” in Bryant (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Deviant Behavior, New York: Routledge, pp.24-30

Thomas, Dana (2007) Deluxe: how luxury lost its luster, New York: Penguin Press


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