A short note on aestheticized domination

The domination fashion is helping enact is often hard to notice, especially for the one who enjoys the realm of dress. Indeed, like other forms of privilege, the aesthetic supremacy of the fashionable is invisible to the fashionable as the agent feels entitled to this higher position: the locked door to the VIP room is only experienced to the person rejected entry.

Paraphrasing Ozlem Sensoy & Robin DiAngelo (2012: 49), fashion seems like a natural expression of individualism and aesthetic meritocracy which features both “internalized domination” by those considered “in” as well as the “internalized oppression” of those considered “out.” Sensor & DiAngelo’s typology applied to fashion could be exemplified as;
— Rationalizing privilege as natural (“some people are just born beautiful”)
— Rationalizing privilege as earned (“I have worked hard for my success”)
— Perceiving you as the most qualified (“She only got that modeling job because she was plus sized”)
— Highlighting the normative rejection of minoritized groups with inclusion (“we are now more diverse” or “we also have plus size”)

On the other hand, “internalized oppression” makes people rationalize their inferior position (49f). Like in hegemony, this creates the consent of domination by the minoritized group (without force). Once again paraphrasing their examples;
— Believing the dominant group members deserve their position (usually by simply “being themselves”)
— Seeking the approval, looks and standards of the dominant group (looking like a “princess”)
— Behaving in ways that pleases the dominant group in hope of being included (following the “advise” of the bullies)
— Enduring micro-aggressions (“you should be happy to be with us”)
— Believing your rejection is because of your inadequacy, and not institutionalized domination (continuously being rejected by the bouncer because of the “wrong” clothes)

Yet the issue is not only how the cultural and structural aesthetic domination in fashion perpetuates relational judgment, rejection and violence – but what makes it pleasurable to do so. That is, that fashion thrives in exactly the dynamic belief of my aesthetic merit, that I feel I am “worth it” and others are not. What a fashion designer sells are devices which help enact this belief; I pay for my superiority and it makes me feel better about myself.

In reference to Byong-Chul Han’s (2015) ideas of the auto-exploitative self to whom nothing is impossible, my entrepreneurial self-worth in relation to fashion is based on that I feel I have achieved something – I have moved forward, upward; I have “become myself” just a bit more than the others. It inverts the negativity of the discipline and control societies into an affirmative “Yes, we can” where prohibition is replaced by “projects, initiatives, and motivation.” (9) Fast fashion, cheap and accessible makes the positive scheme of endless possibility open for continuous affirmation and the product that is the self. Fashion is no longer dictated from above as a “thou shalt” but instead offers itself as a promising possibility to achieve an enhanced sense of self-worth.

“The achievement-subject is faster and more productive ythan the obedience-subject. However, the Can does not revoke the Should, The obedience-subject remains disciplined.” (Han 2015: 9)

“Be yourself!” is the slogan of possibility and as a mode of production. When I fail I am either a loser who failed to become myself enough, or burned out of being myself too much. This is what Han (10) sees as “the systemic violence inhabiting achievement society, which provokes psychic infarctions.” The pressure to achieve is the new commandment of labor which leaves nothing but exploitation in every sphere of life, “voluntary, without external constraints. It is predator and prey at once.” (10) left is only creative fatigue and exhausted ability as “nothing is possible” has been replaced by “nothing is impossible” (11). Indeed, if I can buy a cheap copy of everything out there, and simply become anyone and everyone, why am I not more successful?

This is the compulsive freedom of fashion: it is accessible and affirmative everywhere. I am free to dress however I want, but it is this freedom under constraints which makes fashion such affirmative oppression. I am auto-exploitative because of the “feeling of freedom attends it.” (11) Fashion is freedom, accessible as an affirmation of identity, available to all – so you better play well. Why am I not more liked, more beautiful, more popular and adopted? It is all my own fault. I need a coach, stylist or brand manager to help me become myself better. “Depression is the sickness of a society that suffers from excessive positivity.” (11) Thus the “psychic indisposition of achievement society are pathological manifestations of such a paradoxical freedom.” (11)

Fashion plays a key role in the selling of the achieving self; look at me looking good. This is a subject which “expects the profits if enjoyment from work” (38) but which turns all parts of life into work. “In social networks, the function of ‘friends’ is primarily to heighten narcissism by granting attention, as consumers, to the ego exhibited as a commodity.” (43) Here, subjection is replaced by projection, and the self as subject is replaced by  self as project. (46)

“Projecting oneself into the ego ideal is interpreted as an act of freedom. But when the ego gets caught in an unattainable ego ideal, it gets crushed together. The gap between the real ego and the ego ideal then brings forth auto-aggression.”(46)

The violence of domination is inverted, now stemming from the competitive desires of the self-project, folding violence back onto itself. The auto-aggression of the self turns affirmation into self-hatred in the bassuolte competition between individuals who cannot live up to their ideal egos, it is a violence which does not stem from negativity or conflict but “derives from the positivity of consensus.” (46) Here, the “achievement-subject competes with itself; ot succumbs to the destructive compulsion to outdo itself over and over, to jump over its own show. The self-constraint, which poses as freedom, has deadly results.” (46)

If my fashionable self fails, I feel like a loser, and I am a loser under the regime of aesthetic self-affirmation. And there is nothing more unfashionable than a loser.



Han, Byong-Chul (2015) Burnout Society, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Sensoy, Ozlem & Robin DiAngelo (2012) Is Everyone Really Equal? New York: Teachers College Press.

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