The Plague of Stigma: Contamination & Drift

How we usually think of fashion is dependent on the signification of status associated with certain objects: certain brains and items signify attributes, values and belonging to groups. A Rolex watch may signify leadership or wealth, a new BMW technocratic excellence, the latest sneaker trend a knowledge and belonging to the current cultures of cool. The position are not fixed, and extremely few object are “classic” enough to stand again the shifting values and status “drifts” of time.

As mentioned earlier, this drift may come in many forms, and perhaps the two most apparent is the upward drift of subcultural style elements. Some classical elements of this situation is the “bubble up” of punk into higher classes (or an up-market brand like Westwood), or the popularity of couture street culture (the vehement passions of Vetements) harnessing the codes and expressions of the “dark matter” of other cultures (Sholette 2010). This is similar to the “bourgeoisement” of expressions and habits; haute culture embraces the “cool” of the other, and often with an ironic twist only reserved for those with the right attitude and status (looking like a “bum” or a “bag lady” works for a young, rich and attractive person.)

But as objects lose their status they do so not only because the material and symbolic status has changed because media is saturated by images and cheap copies have flooded the markets. The status is lost because the objects have become contaminated by impurity: they have not only become sick, but befouled by malevolent forces – the plague demons.

The opposite drift is the “prole drift” where expressions “trickle down” not only from the very top to the middle, but also further towards the bottom. Not only do malls move from the top of 5th Avenue and Oxford Street to become Wal-marts and strip malls, soft drinks which were once a mark of youthful cool it is now often the staple food of poverty with stigmas of obesity and urban food deserts. It is people who are being ridiculed for their dress, not the innocent symbol or style of clothing.

Advertising is about permeating a symbol or brand with emotion and symbolic status. Associating a brand with celebrities is the classic method. But symbols and brands can also be tainted by events in unwanted ways. An example can be Lacoste’s attempts to stop Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik from wearing their clothes to court.

The important part of this dynamic is that the symbols are not only material goods, but worn by bodies. A celebrity wearing a brand is an adored body imbuing status onto an item: the radiance of allure which shines from the celebrity now emits from the item. Like an icon, the wearer is now nearer the superhuman being of the model.

But the opposite also happens, yet we seldom discuss this fate in fashion; an item gets tainted by the body and deeds of a rejected and abject body. Yes, they style may “trickle down” (an aesthetic aphorism for people being rejected and considered impure). The impurity of the rejected body contaminates the item. The symbol now signals stigma more than status.

The same dynamic is at basis for bystander behavior in bullying: the social anxiety one may be tainted by helping the victim and not only lose one’s own status, but that one’s peers will also be dragged down by the target’s debasement. As Thornberg argues bystanders are led by a “fear of social contamination — a fear of becoming a victim by being associated with the actual victim.” (Thornberg 2013: 7) This is what Søndergaard (2012) calls “social exclusion anxiety” which makes bystanders prefer not to intervene, even as they see something they normally would think is wrong being done to others.

Emotions and stigma thus drifts between bodies, caught up in social status struggles, but we not only seek higher status but through modulating our values and behaviors we also seek to avoid being contaminated by those rejected. Fashion may look seductive and amazing as long as we shy away from the pollution. Is fashion really toxic to the social environment?


Sholette, Gregory (2010) Dark matter: Art and politics in the age of enterprise culture. London: PlutoPress

Søndergaard D-M (2012) “Bullying and social exclusion anxiety in schools.” British Journal of Sociology of Education, 33: pp.355–372.

Thornberg, Robert (2013/2015) “School Bullying as a Collective Action: Stigma Processes and Identity Struggling” Children & Society 29.4: 310-320.

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