The Courage and Cowardice of Fashion

Is it the courageous or the cowards who follow fashion? Is spending money on the latest drop of cool stuff (which everyone is talking about already) a path towards status bravery, or it is it the slope of sissies?

The fashion industry teaches us to admire fashionistas who are “ahead of the curve,” yet most often they simply wear what they are told, or items already filtered through the aesthetic control systems of the industry. We admire them simply because they can access desirable stuff. We celebrate them as heroes even though they simply follow orders and do what they are told.

They are “worth it” – and most of us are not. Are they worthy because they are brave and dare to be “unique” in their style? Yet we treat them as aesthetic heroes. The media sings their praise, like Homer did to Achilles, praising their heroic passions for excelling over the dead horde of common cowards. We treat them as heroic and thus their deeds are sung to the gods, and their honor is more worthy than the obedient duty of the slaves who follow mass fashion. But are they more brave? What does their heroism consist of?

As Patterson (1982) famously argues, the relation between social life and death, or between freedom and slavery, has traditionally been distinguished through the categories of courage and cowardice. The citizen, the honorable man, is supposed to be a person who stands up by his word and deeds, and thus social standing equates to courage. The duel measures the worth of honor. The scale cannot be challenge to a dual, as he or she has no honor, and thus no worth.

The style of icons in fashion stands above the masses because of their “courage” to challenge norms. Yet we must ask; the icons of fashion, are they courageous? The models and stars of the Met gala, with the staff of stylists and assets to support their expensive habits, are they stars of style because of the aesthetic heroism, the risks they take? If courage is to stand up to something that is frightening and challenging, is it courageous to dress in expensive clothes made by a big name designer?

The famous slogan of L’Oreal “because I’m worth it!” captures the essence of fashion and the contemporary consumerist spirit, Blackburn (2014) suggests. Even if L’Oreal does not suggest only the courageous can use their beauty products, the wording suggests some people are simply not worth it. The don’t deserve it. The are lower, they have no esteem, and should obviously not have it (as Blackburn also posits, that is why the model can have such arrogant attitude when she makes the statement in the advertising).

Yet the question of “worth” in the realm of fashion is a central one. The aesthetic meritocracy cements this mechanism. Or, it is the mechanism that covers up the mechanic dynamics of exclusion. Heroes are worth more because their deeds must have been so great they are heroes. Otherwise they would not be heroes, not unlike how rich people are rich because of their deeds and merits.

David Graeber suggests we have made a mistake thinking that we can find the elementary structures of domination in the relationship between master and slave (as Hegel would have it). Instead Graeber (2015) suggests we should study bullying to unpack the social dynamics of domination and “how we have come to create institutions that encourage such behavior and that suggest cruel people are in some ways admirable”. This is no dialectic, as Hegel would have it, but instead a “three-way relation of aggressor, victim, and witness, one in which both contending parties are appealing for recognition (validation, sympathy, etc.) from someone else.”

Thus the elementary structure of human domination can be found at the school yard, and it is here we must start to unpack “why we accept societies being ranked and ordered by violence and domination to begin with.”

We are continuously reminded by people in power (teachers too) that without domination and order chaos threatens around the corner. Without clear hierarchies the “killer ape” of the primordial alpha male will return to the law of the jungle. Just look at Lord of the Flies! But as Graeber argues,

“In fact, books like Lord of the Flies are better read as meditations on the kind of calculated techniques of terror and intimidation that British public schools employed to shape upper-class children into officials capable of running an empire. These techniques did not emerge in the absence of authority; they were techniques designed to create a certain sort of cold-blooded, calculating adult male authority to begin with.” (Graeber 2015)

Institutions are organized around the structure of bullying, the threat an extension of the authority of the structure. An institution like a school is not entirely benign, but it is arranged to uphold its order through facilitating certain social dynamics to flourish; it supplies bullies with the necessary audience needed to suppress their victims.

“Lonely, private persecution is relatively rare. Much of bullying is about humiliation, and the effects cannot really be produced without someone to witness them. Sometimes, onlookers actively abet the bully, laughing, goading, or joining in. More often, the audience is passively acquiescent.” (Graeber 2015)

This is what Graeber identifies as the “triangular dynamic among bully, victim, and audience”. This is “the deep structure of bullying” which stigmatizes its victims and celebrates the perpetuators not only at the school yard, but also throughout other social spheres. And it is the boundary that holds the victim from running away that forms the arena. In some cases victims are forces to stay (school or prison) but perhaps more interestingly, some places hold people prisoner to hope. Victims will endure suffering and bullying if the potential price at the end is prestigious enough, or there are shared social commitments strong enough where the stigma of running away comes at a high price. Dropping out of the military training will make you a “chicken” or a “sissy.” Complaining about the structural violence will makes you a “snowflake” or reporting abuse from a supervisor will make you a weak “snitch.” Students and interns endure cruelty at the work place wit the hope to getting place at the final show or a permanent position at the company. The model will endure harassment in the hope of getting a contract. The deep structure of the bullying is the same.

One must ask what the deep structure of fashion is and how it relates to the “worth” of those we consider “fashionable” – is it because they are more “courageous?” How courageous is it being an elevated stylist of editor or bullying teacher?



Blackburn, Simon (2014) Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Graeber, David (2015) “The Bully’s Pulpit” The Baffler, No. 28 (July 2015) []

Patterson, Orlando (1982) Slavery and social death. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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