Fashion and the Psychopolitics of Social Media

Social media are platforms for turning the subject into a project. As Byung-Chul Han (2017) posits, they are arenas where we turn our lives into transparent endeavors which are broadcast to turn friendships into quantifiable data-processes. By broadcasting my actions into a competitive arena, where I am nothing if I do not do things, “the I is now subjugating itself to internal limitations and self-constraints, which are taking the form of compulsive achievement and optimization.” (2017: 1) All actions are valued within the constraints of the attention and achievement market, in continuous rivalry between “friends” and “followers” and freedom itself becomes an arena for exploitation; “freedom itself is bringing forth compulsion and constraint.” (2017: 1) Whereas the disciplinary imperative (“should”) is limited to commands and control, the new free achievement imperative (“can“) is a compulsion without limits.

“Being free means being free from constraint. But now freedom itself, which is supposed to be the opposite of constraint, is producing coercion. Psychic maladies such as depression and burnout express a profound crisis of freedom. They represent pathological signs that freedom is now switching over into manifold forms of compulsion.” (2017: 2)

As compulsive productivity seeps into the very notion and actions of freedom, we see a “totalization of labour” as the neoliberal and entrepreneurial subject can have no relationships which are “free of purpose.” (2017: 2) Friendship and freedom are simply new relationships to extract value from; to gain “followers,”  and “likes” from.

“Originally, being free meant being among friends. […] A real feeling of freedom occurs only in a fruitful relationship – when being with others brings happiness. But today’s neoliberal regime leads to utter isolation; as such, it does not really free us at all.” (2017: 2f)

Under the free competition of social media friendship, every isolated participant becomes a brand, and every worker an auto-exploitative entrepreneur of the productive self, as “even class struggle has transformed into an inner struggle against oneself.” (2017: 5) Here, Foucault’s notion of the disciplining “dispositif” inverts freedom into an addictive and restraining quest for optimization of achieved and documented events of freedom.

“It means turning everything inside out by force and transforming it into information. Under the immaterial mode of production that now prevails, more information and more communication mean more productivity, acceleration and growth. Information represents a positive value; inasmuch as it lacks interiority, it can circulate independently, free from any and all context.” (2017: 9)

We broadcast ourselves on as many channels and platforms as possible, on CVs, sites and portfolios, on groups and chats and continuously fear of missing out on all the freedom we have. Han continues,

“Every dispositive – every technology or technique of domination – brings forth characteristic devotional objects that are employed in order to subjugate. Such objects materialize ans stabilize dominion. Devotion and related words mean ‘submission’, or ‘obedience’.” (2017: 12)

The psychopolitics of neoliberalism that Han points to is the turning of social media and the quantifiable self into gamification and big data (60), which in turn becomes a new frontier of biopower, of psychopower. Not only does thus tuning of our affects influence and predict our actions and desires, but it allows “making the id into an ego to be exploited psychopolitically.” (2017: 64) The collective unconscious, or “collective psychogram” (21), is a market for egos put into productive mode. (65)

We must thus see how fashion today is part of a large economy of competitive affects and achievements. In order to exist, to become updates and data, we keep producing alluring broadcasts of ourselves and our actions that not only build our own brands as popular (or at least somewhat “interesting”) individuals. H&M is the Home Depot of the identity producing entrepreneur, offering tools and materials for building, attuning, and broadcasting an identity; an identity we inhabit.

But whereas Han primarily points to the controlling power of Capital (producing competing individual entrepreneur, stripped of interiority), the use of “freedom” in fashion must also be seen within a relationships of envy and rivalry. The psychopolitics of fashion are played out between peers competing to be “liked” and have “friends,” Indeed, the CV of today’s identity entrepreneur is dependent on social medial followers and buzz ( it is a key component to mention for example in book proposals and job applications). The small, local, competitions in popularity are thus acting in tandem with much larger forces, as fashion an beauty on the school playground is mirrored in the larger economy and modes of immaterial production. The gamified rivalries and tensions in school are training grounds for a future life consisting of continuous identity rivalries.

Rivalries are not only enacted between peers and friends (like in a Shakespeare drama), but across the whole economy of achievement. The psychopolitics of the competing lovers is everywhere amplified into Big Data.



Han, Byung-Chul (2017) Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and new technologies of power. London: Verso

Status and Exclusion

An easy way to define fashion is to use journalist Susanne Pagold’s phrase “Fashion is to dress like everyone else, but before everyone else.” Fashion is social and mimetic, and is also a matter of temporal exclusivity. To be among the first is fashion, it increases status, and with enough status one can become part of an elite. Fashion and elitism are not the same, but often intertwined.

But to look like everyone else is not exclusive status, even if many come after you. You must stay in the elite, and to follow the old French etymology, “elite” means to chose and be chosen: to be an elite is not a passive position, but it is an activity. True exclusivity within fashion is “to dress like the elite, but before the elite.”

So how does one increase status to become and stay within the elite, and especially and elite within everyday fashion?

If we would follow Pagold’s definition, status is simply to be liked by everyone else, and this has been a common view within sociology: a person with a lot of connections, at the center of a large network, has many friends and a lot of status. But as Robert Faris (2012) argues, this is only partly true. Yes, a popular and well-connected person may have a “connective status” but this does not make the person part of the elite. Instead, to earn status it is better to have “bridging status”, that is, being a person that has connections through social barriers and keeps these bridges open only to a selected few. Connectivity is ok, exclusivity is better; it is in bridging “whereby nodes efficiently connect otherwise distal regions of networks.” (Faris 2012: 1208).

Not everyone can sit at the Master’s table

To be inviting and friendly with everyone does you some good, your may get a lot of “weak ties”, but being selective, exclusive and manipulative gains you more status. To Faris, these selective processes explains how “seemingly rational, ordinary people routinely engage in harassment, bullying, gossip, manipulation, ridicule, cliquishness, and ostracism” and also explains why people are not always sociable but strive to uphold networks through “reptuational aggression” (2012: 1207)

The exclusive status positions are those that can “bridge structural holes” (Burt 2009), that bridge over social barriers without undermining the exclusivity between the groups, that is, without letting in “non-elites” (which could undermine the status of one or both groups). “Elite status is maintained through selectivity, not connectivity, and by denying rather than accumulating friendships.” (Faris 2012: 1211) And as Faris points to, the elite bridge-builder maintains social barriers by the effective use of repetitional aggression,

“rejecting supplicants may increase the attractiveness of the exclusionary group. This is not to say that connections are without benefit, only that the relative costs and benefits shift toward selectivity in such settings. Actors who are able to efficiently bridge much of the network without an excessive number of ties arguably enjoy the benefits of centrality without the costs.” (Faris 2012: 1211)

Rejecting the connection to others must be central practice in maintaining status. And with the “wrong” friends, one may risk the exclusivity of one’s network, and often peers will remind or enforce restrictions. As social hierarchies are fluid, there is a continuous need to uphold their barriers and order. Repetitional aggression helps in the selection process, and also in rejecting unwanted social competition (which does not bridge to other elites). Repetitional aggression includes “verbal abuse, insults, threats, harassment, ostracism, gossip, manipulation” and their plights can be “exacerbated when perpetuators are anonymous” (2012: 1212). The many ways of rejecting unwanted connections increases the attractiveness of the exclusionary group: it is always a matter of bridging with the “right” people.

Faris argument is easily applied to the status games of fashion. The “right” people are not the friendliest with the most connections, but those who are highly selective and often act as “gatekeepers” to other social groups. The “right” people are those with ties to other exclusive groups, the ones who hang out with the other “right” people, who look like they do so, and prove it by dressing in the right stuff (before others do). The “cool” people must be hard to get to, and must be picky. And if we cannot offer them something they do not already have, we are bound to be rejected.

Or worse.


Burt, Ronald (2009) Structural holes: The social structure of competition, Cambridge: Harvard university press

Faris, Robert (2012) “Aggression, exclusivity, and status attainment in interpersonal networks.” Social Forces 90(4), pp.1207-1235.

Short note on Fashion, Envy and Justice

“I deserve what she has” is the basis for envy. But such comparison is also the foundation for justice, Schoeck posits in his book Envy (Schoeck 1969). Yet, what one feels is deserved may of course not always translate into ethical arguments or a theory of justice, even if we have a tendency to blatantly justify even our most resentful emotions.

“I desire what she has” may be the basis for fashion, and this type of admiration (bordering on envy) is always also highly contested internally as this desire for someone else superiority subordinates the desiring subject. As I desire what someone else has, I simultaneously acknowledge I am myself not good enough.

Even if a “democratic” or fast and accessible fashion from H&M or Forever 21 is meant to be “for all” (as UNIQLO’s slogan goes) the cheap goods will still not rectify my sense of inferiority. It may even aggrevate my sense of resentment towards celebrities and peers who I feel to not deserve my desires.

The Fool Blindfolding Justice, 1494

As pointed out by Alicke and Zell (2008: 85) superiority based on effort and hard work seems more admirable than advantages based on birth, nepotism or sheer luck, but as those with earned ranking may seem more admirable than enviable, meritorious comparison also poses a threat to the inferior’s sense of competence as it suggests a lack of effort or simply put; inferiority. There is thus a delicate demarcation between admiration and envy.

However, admiration and envy is also tied to the dimensions of comparison, what types of “capital” that is exchanged for status, and who is the relative winner or loser. For example, financial wealth may not always translate to cultural capital, as in the nobility’s hereditary privilege and resentment of the “nouveau riche,” a conflict which fueled bourgeois support agains the old order in many rebellions, not least the American and French revolutions (Alicke and Zell 2008: 86).

However, the thin line between admiration and envy is also articulated by the way the superior expresses their advantage, where those who flaunt their advantages while wasting opportunities, wind up in disdain, while those who are perceived as generous are often praised.

“Assuming that envy is a precarious fusion of admiration and disdain, it is possible that neither of these extreme groups will arouse much of it. Instead, the strongest magnet for envy may be an upward target who possesses just enough of a flaw to warrant bad feelings, but not so much of it that they are simply disliked or pitied.” (Alicke and Zell 2008: 86)

One must also acknowledge the righteous anger stemming from deprivation and injustice, even if this may emerge from emotions of envy. An unjust system of distribution, as Leach points out, may be a principaled target of vexation (Leach 2008). Indeed, as Leach highlights, “envy without anger is not envy proper” (Leach 2008: 96). The anger is aimed as much on the blockage of one’s goals by another party of circumstance, as much as the fortunate parties, who are then often seen as responsible for depriving a felt entitlement. In contrast to Schoeck’s argument that much struggle for social justice is disguised envy, Leach highlights how righteous anger in envy is the driving force for social equity and a concern for others, and necessarily malicious ill will (2008: 104f) “That persons have opposing interests and seek to advantage their own conception of the good is not at all the same thing as their being moved by envy and jealousy, “ Rawls posits (1971: 540), but “this set of opposition gives rise to the circumstances of justice.”

Alicke, Mark & Ethan Zell (2008) “Social comparison and envy.” in Smith (ed) Envy: Theory and research, Oxford: Oxford University press, pp. 73-93

Leach, Colin (2008) “Envy, inferiority, and injustice: Three bases of anger about inequality.” in Smith (ed) Envy: Theory and research, Oxford: Oxford University press, pp. 94-116

Rawls, John (1971) A Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Belknap

Schoeck, Helmut (1969) Envy, Boston: Liberty Press

Fashion as self-expansion

When wearing a new special garment, and being seen and getting a compliment, what is that feeling about? The rush of dopamine, the feeling of “being on top of the world?” Or even just the feeling of “fitting in” – of becoming one with a scene or a group?

Partly such experiences may explain the kick the consumer gets from new purchase, or just in the preparation for a date. The feeling of expansion, of a new world being available to oneself. An entry ticket to a new world, or even that the garment is the very vehicle for such journey towards self-expansion.

The self-expansion model in psychology argues that the primary motivation for humans is to self expand, the desire to enhance our individual potential to affect or be affected. We may seek assets, goods and resources, but motivations for such goals become secondary concern, it is their instrumental use for self-expansion that explains their value because the “fundamental human motivation [is] to enhance potential self efficacy.”(Aron & Aron 1986) With skills and useful information, friendships and social status, power and popularity – all potentials for expanding the affectual sphere of influence.

A fundamental way to achieve self-expansion is with an inclusion of others in the self. A classic example may be a new romantic relationship where the newness and sense of development is the way the new company expands your world. New routines, new eyes and comments on everyday things, and a personal sense of growth, not only from affection, but from moving in novel ways through the everyday.

This is what the Self Expansion Model of Aron & Aron (1986) suggests; that interpersonal relationship goes beyond seeking to fulfill basic survival requirements to include motivation and cognition of self development and interpersonal love. With this emphases, they merge models of Western motivation (often individually focused) with Eastern views of self-development through interpersonal love. Or perhaps a Nietzschean “will to power” but in a more caring relationship.

In the theories of Aron and Aron a close relationship usually begins with a perceived overlap between two selfs: common interests, values and/or ideas, or a sense of one self becoming included into the other. But there is also a sense of augmentation, where the affects of the not only feeds into the ego, but opens new venues for it, making new resources and avenues available. This sense of growth leads to the belief that the two worlds are now connected, a new world is included in the self, which forms the foundational and powerful experience of the dyadic relationship. Expansion is the experience which also intersects with wider social emotions, such as social support, self esteem from admiration, and construction of in-group identity, and even a sense of belonging (a sense of having grown to “fit” into a place.)

With a partner of a long time, the self is more cognitively integrated than with a non-close other; affecting perception and cognitive structures, but also the sense of possibility. For example an individual may feel more competent, taking on new tasks, knowing that the partner can help facilitate the process or fill in with needed knowledge, “I can complete [this task] because my partner will tell me how” (Reimann & Aron 2009: 68).

Riemann and Aron (2009) expands the model to also include the use of brands a way to experience self-expansion. Expanding on the original self-expansion model, they argue the “inclusion of other in the self” (IOS) could be transferred into a brand context to become “inclusion of the brand in the self” (IBS) (Reimann & Aron 2009: 74). In Reimann and Aron’s findings, after a successful identification process with the brand, the subject start to make choices that reflect an inflection between brand and self, where the subject may start behaving in alignment with the characteristics associated with the brand, thus merging the interests of the subject with those of the brand.

It might be possible to say fashion is, like the brand on Reimann and Aron’s study, a vehicle for self-expansion and an opening to new sensibilities and affects. The quality of fashion is that of the timing to the zeitgeist which makes some garments “just right” at the moment, they are attractor points of the right kind of attention, the right kind of status alignments: they are vehicles to the right worlds we want our affects to expand into.

But, when we see others expand their cognitive world and self, while we remain enclosed in our own little habitual ponds, is that not the greatest source of envy? We see them grow, see their esteem expand and they radiate from confidence and success, and we all love to have them close. We love to imagine being their friends.

And similarly, could it be said that the self-expansion also could happen with a darker purpose: the self-expansion that happens as groups rally against the scapegoat or bully victim, or in the emotional vandalism when we try to downranking the status of our unacknowledged idol. The rush now comes from a type of expansion that is trespassing and intruding on the world of another, or at the cost of another. We feel entitled to something more, w e see “everyone else” get what “they deserve” – while we are left in resentment a,d we would just love to shame them, displace their status and rally bad affects to undermine our rivals (or the scapegoat). Perhaps that is also a form of self-expansion, at least an emotional one, emerging purely from our own sense of inferiority, but nevertheless ravishing in the destruction of another.


Aron, Arthur & Elaine Aron (1986) Love and the expansion of self: Understanding attraction and satisfaction. New York: Harper & Row

Aron, Arthur & Elaine Aron (1996) “Self and self expansion in relationships” in Garth Fletcher and Julie Fitness (eds.), Knowledge structures in close relationships: A social psychological approach, Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (pp. 325-344)

Aron, Arthur & Elaine Aron (1997) “Self-expansion motivation and including other in the self,” in Steve Duck (ed.), Handbook of personal relationships, Chichester, UK: Wiley (pp. 251–270)

Reimann, Martin & Arthur Aron (2009) “Self-expansion motivation and inclusion of brands in self.” in Deborah MacInnis, Whan Park & Joseph Priester (eds) Handbook of brand relationships, Armonk: M.E. Sharpe. (pp. 65-81)

Reimann, M., Castano, R., Zaichkowsky, J., & Bechara, A. (2012) “How we relate to brands: Psychological and neuropsychological insights into consumer-brand relationships.” Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22, 128-142.

Fashion, and the disease of desire

The essential dynamics of fashion are of rivalry. Identity is formed in relation to others and has little to do with some mystical “inner” qualities of self. And we all know thinness is a central component of fashion, to be thin is not only an aesthetic quality, but also regarded as a sign of “wellness” and self-control, that one “cares for oneself” making one’s health a project intertwined with personal branding, as it says: “I embody aesthetic sovereignty.”

In Rene Girard’s perspective on desire, expressed in his book Anorexia and Mimetic Desire (Michigan State Uni Press, 2013), “every desire springs from rivalry, every rivalry from desire” (vii), and he argues our understandings of bulimia and anorexia have thus far been misconceived as a sickness of the victim’s mind. Girard, on the other hand, interpret the condition as a “disease of desire” that needs to be freed from psychoanalytic interpretations, or as a form of “madness,” to instead understand the pathology as a result of rivalry and desire. Jean-Michel Oughourlian sums up Girard’s ideas as a rivalry

“with one’s body, one’s needs, in order to achieve self-control, domination over oneself. Anorexia is therefore both a personal challenge and a form of asceticism. But it is also a rivalry with others, a struggle for power: the anorexic very quickly becomes the center of family attention[…] Appeal to a recognized “authority,” the physician, formalizes the defeat and surrender of the anorexic’s parents and introduces her to another, more formidable rival. Anorexia therefore confers power, enabling a person who refuses to eat to triumph over her family. In this sense, it is a kind of terrorism: the anorexic takes herself hostage and bends everyone to her will.” (x-xi)

Stemming from a sense of powerlessness, anorexia gives back control, and is drawn into a competitive and mimetic desire with one’s equals, one’s peers, and from such grounding, into a scale of society. As a form of inverted Potlatch, the biggest loser is the biggest winner, and a conspicuous non-consumption goes hand in hand with the urge to make others consume, claiming he coveted position of the victim, while still regaining control over the condition.

“The compulsive dieters really want to be thin, and most of us are secretly aware of this because most of us also want to be thin. […] The capitalist system if clever enough, no doubt, to adjust to the rage for thinness and it invents all sorts of products supposedly capable of helping us in our battle against calories, but its own instinct runs the other way. It systematically favors consumption over abstinence, and it certainly did not invent our dieting hysteria.” (5f)

We revive New Years resolutions to become “mild bulimics” in order to feel in control again, and to “experience a psychological lift not unlike the exhilaration of the true anorexic.” (7)

Anorexia shares with fashion not only an ideal of thinness, but an idea of aesthetic self-control; that the subject has full control in forming the self according to an inner vision of what is considered desirable. Whereas fashion is the consumption, styling and shaping of the dressed self, anorexia is the sculpture of the body mannequin. As with a dedication to fashion, it centers on certain groups of people.

“Anorexia strikes the best and the brightest among our young women. The typical victim is well educated, talented, ambitious, eager for perfection. She is the super-achiever type and she knows she is playing by the rules suggested by the most powerful voices in our culture, including the medical profession.[…] She interprets all attempts to help her as envious conspiracies of people who would like to cheat her out of her painfully acquired victory, being unable to match it. She is proud to fulfill what is perhaps the one and only ideal still common in our entire society, slenderness.” (9)

As Girard suggests, most of us want to be slender, but few of us succeed in being anorexic. And like with fashion, the freedom of self-expression and self-formation comes at the price that their qualities are bound to rivalry. The anorexic’s “radical freedom is synonymous with her enslavement to the opinion of others.[…] To understand desire is to understand that its self-centeredness is indistinguishable from its other-centeredness.” (17)

“The stoics tell me that we should take refuge in ourselves, but our bulimic selves are uninhabitable, and that is what Augustine and Pascal discovered long ago. As long as we are not provided with a goal worthy of our emptiness we will copy the emptiness of others and constantly regenerate the hell from which we are trying to escape.” (17)

As with fashion, the anorexic condition balances a form of conspicuous expression of self, with a conspicuous non-consumption, to show that one stands above the simple consumerism of others. Just like ideals mixing cheap and expensive, luxury with poverty, “an ostentatious rejection of ostentation.”

“The message is: “I am beyond a certain type of consumption. I cultivate more esoteric pleasures than the crowd.” To abstain voluntarily from something, no matter what, is the ultimate demonstration that one is superior to that something and to those who covet it.” (22)

The real prestige and popularity that comes from fashion lies in the careful curation of superiority: to prove oneself above the desires of the pitiful “victims” of fashion. To have true style is to prove one stands above the merely imitative qualities of fashion: one is a true “self” by overcoming the desires of the self, that is, the desires to please others. And one does so only be becoming superior, as with an apparent indifference to wealth, the real purpose is always prestige. “We have identified the enemy and he is us.” (25)

As in styles like “norm core” or other hipster expressions, the ironic element is always a safety went for the coward. Behind a mask of indifference, the nervous self is ashamed of his or her envy of others. As Girard posits, “there is nothing worse than letting others see that you want to impress them” (51), and expressing such indifference is a tool by which we try to gain a putative proof of superiority.

It’s at the heart of fashion; at any cost, we want to be admired.

Nonviolent beauty

So can there be any nonviolent forms of fashion? Educator William Coperthwaite was not a supporter of fashion and a mode of consumption, but in his book A Handmade Life, (2007) he may give us a lead on what nonviolent forms of beauty could be;

“If we are ever to develop a nonviolent society, we must eliminate violence on our concept of beauty. A Louis XIV chair and a Shaker chair are not equally beautiful. One was created by a violent, tyrannical way of life, the other by a peaceful and cooperative community that made fair treatment of all people a basic precept—so that the person making the Shaker chair and the one using it received equal respect. […] Here’s a yardstick: That which deprives another cannot be beautiful. Nonviolent beauty–beauty contained in nonmaterial things, such as a way of life, learning, relationships with others–cannot be stolen and us unlikely to produce envy. These forms of beauty are among those unusual riches that impoverish no one, that can be given away and make everyone richer.” (Coperthwaite 2007: 26ff)

The Emotional Vandalism of Fashion

Envy is a form of emotional vandalism – an passion which makes us act in a destructive way, and where we do not actually address the issue at stake: that our rival has performed better than us (or at least seems to have done so in our eyes). But instead of raising our efforts to perform better, our envy triggers us to destroy what our rival has, and not even acquire the same for ourselves. Envy is a matter of relational harm and devastation more than inspiration to excel or to diversify and deepen our palette of what we appreciate.

One of the many traits of envy is that it is bound to emotions of inferiority and inauthenticity. Not only does envy surrender us to a level below our model or idol as we “look up” to them, but it also undermines our own sense of authenticity as we acknowledge that we desire to imitate our model. We treat our mimetic envy dishonestly, and we find ways to disqualify their influence on us; the model is “just lucky” or “not really worth it” or “a pleaser” – anything but an authentic person who deserves what he or she has. This makes envy also camouflage as something else, in irony, or customs, or in ideals such as “justice” and “peace” – also since we fear mostly the proximity of our superior peers. It is the proximity which hurts us, the feeling of “it could have been me.” We do not envy the Royals, but the upcomers, those who could have been us, as their success points to our failures of “keeping up.” We are ashamed of our envy, and we know it, so we must continuously hide it to ourselves.

It is this struggle to “keep up” that puts fashion, and especially its “democratic” version of cheap and accessible (or “fast”) fashion at center stage of contemporary envy and rivalry in dress. This form of envy highlights how we strive for equal shares, whatever the cost may be, not too unlike siblings fighting over the shares of attention from the parents. Yet with fashion we are supposed to be “independent” and “unique” while at the same time fully acknowledging our mimetic desires; who our heroes and celebrities are. This turns into a situation bound to become a double bind and schizophrenic battle within the self, entangled in guilt, shame and envy. We are continually told to be authentic and true to ourselves, yet we simultaneously know we desire to be someone else. And in the worst case, we know the best parts in us, what we are most proud of, are mere copies of our models.

The mimetic emulation of others may be a benevolent form of envy, a good emulation of traits we respect (as suggested earlier) – but in the realm of fashion, with its mimetic binge/purge behaviors, new styles and idols are emulated and rejected with both a social and environmental cost. And not only so; the very modus operandi of fashion is not one of the creative cultivations of capabilities (which we could use in other social realms) but mainly a mode of endless consumption. Few can trade their mimetic accomplishments towards other careers or revenues. Most of us end up bitter copies of that we aspire to be, in seasonal cycles of self-loathing and resentment – and in need of designers to sell us a worthy self-image.

So this is where consumers seek the help of fashion designers; to help us cope with the social coercion mechanisms which undermine the possibility to foster an aesthetic integrity (one’s sense of self “when nobody is watching”). Coercion happens not only in the negotiations between ingroups and outgroups, but in the social mechanics of rivalry, that we all compete for recognition, admiration and popularity. For some, the ends justify the means, and perpetrators of envious bullying or other violent behavior justify their actions with the use of fashion’s “shallowness”, which in turn covers for emotional cues such as disgust and hatred (which, as mentioned above, may turn out to be form a sour knot of envious self-resentment too).

But designers can sleep sound at night. There will be no end to fashion, just like there will be no end to envy – simply because most of us don’t want it to end. The emotional rush of recognition and admiration keeps the perpetuum mobile going in sequential patterns of resentful self-flagellation and mimetic flogging of our idols.

The child of Pride and Greed

Boardman Robinson (1915) The Father and Mother

In a famous drawing from 1915, a year into World War I, political cartoonist Boardman Robinson drew War as the child of Pride and Greed. The blood-stained struggle between states was fueled equally by an illusory dignity deprived from humility, as much as ambition of both increased honor and material gains. In its competitive, excluding and envious form, we may also wonder if Fashion also is the offspring of pride and greed, and in its aestheticized form, the handsome sibling of War. Of course we know fashion designers outfitting soldiers in sharp uniforms, from Boss to Armani, but just like violence is imbued with vanity, also vanity bears evidence of violence.

Especially when examining gossip columns and on-line discussion fora, the entanglement of fashion, pride and “snuffing others out” is more than apparent. War is of course far more violent than fashion, but in their relationship to pride and greed we may see something about the desires and pleasures of competition and in a specific enactment of victory: the vanity that radiates from humiliating the defeated.

For the Greek, rage, or “thymos”, is the force that propels the hero towards the higher deeds. Rage is the strength and accomplishment which is paired with vanity, glory, ambition and the ceaseless hunt for recognition. Rage propels the hero to make extraordinary achievements, to lift the human towards the divine, and the deed of the hero thus becomes epic, an endeavor that sings throughout history, just like the tales from Olympos. It is rage that pushes the champion towards victory. But it is also the vanity of rage that motivates Achilles to drag the body of slain Hector after his wagon, around the walls of Troy as their duel is finished. This is the boastful arrogance of revenge, the excitement of victory, and not least the rush of superiority in the moment of triumph.

Achilles drags Hector after his wagon

As Nietzsche has it in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887/1967: 67),
“To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human, principle to which even the apes might subscribe”. This is one of the many expressions of pride: the self-love that needs not excel, but that ravishes in the suffering of others.

The narcissist pleasure in the humiliation of others, can also turn pride into jealousy or envy. For example, the narcissist boost of the ego when we see the misery of another (i.e., schadenfreude) or by causing suffering on others (i.e., gloating). Whereas schadenfreude is a pleasure or self-satisfaction derived by someone from another person’s misfortune, gloating is more active, a boasting and expressive pride in the another person’s misery.

In Ninivaggi points to the destructive joy in envy and a wounded unconscious sense of inferiority,

“Unconscious envy is the primitive sensation and conflated feeling of privation, powerlessness, inferiority, and hostile distress coupled with the urge to rob and spoil in the face of advantages and their enjoyment existing elsewhere.[…] Envy is biting the breast that feeds.” (Ninivaggi 2010: 2)

The narcissist pride in “feeling special” is always bordering hubris, an exaggerated superiority and self-centeredness where the very normal trait of self-enhancement becomes blinding. In the effort to shame and emotionally destroy the other we embody an passionate wish to be invulnerable and why taking the other down, we gain a sense of superiority, even by not accomplishing anything except destruction. Such self-idolatry and sadistic contempt blossoms in emotional vandalism.

In Leach et al (2015) study on the pleasures of seeing the misfortune of others, they study the emotional response as people engage in schadenfreude and gloating, and they explicitly argue how gloating is the active engagement in amplifying the suffering of the misfortunate victim. As Leach et al (2015) argues, “Pleasure in actively and directly causing a rival’s adversity may be referred to as gloating, especially when it is experienced as an empowered state of superiority that is lorded over the defeated rival.” In its destructive joy, gloating creates a greater appraisal of the self as having power and status, even of no social status has been gained.

“In comparison to passive schadenfreude, the phenomenological experience of gloating should be embodied as a state of physical activation and arousal. Gloating should also be embodied as a greater state of physical elevation, as people should feel “10 feet tall” and “on top of the world” when they defeat a rival in this way. […] Thus, those experiencing gloating should also feel more triumphant (i.e., victorious, proud) and emboldened (i.e., bold, fearless) than those experiencing schadenfreude.” (Leach et al 2015)

As Achilles notes to Hector before their last battle, “Lions and men make no compacts, nor are wolves and lambs in sympathy: they are opposed, to the end.” (Bk XXII:247-366) But following Nietzsche, we must not think it is only the wolves which thrive in the suffering of the lambs, but the opposite too; the lambs gloat at the hunted wolf. And fashion is the sophisticated weapon of civilized war, the merger of pride and greed, and its pleasure is also gloating. As Leach et al highlights in their study, ordinary people, who would not consider themselves evil in any sense, indeed gloat in the harassment or humiliation of their adversary, a pleasure far beyond the quite satisfaction of schadenfreude. As Leach at al posits,

“schadenfreude is a modest, furtive, guilty pleasure that does little to empower those who experience it. Gloating is a very different pleasure. It is about a direct and active outperformance of another party who is then made to witness one’s pleasure at their defeat. Gloating is not only a greater experience of pleasure. In contrast to schadenfreude, gloating is experienced as a physical invigoration and elevation of the body.” (Leach et al 2015)

Fashion, the child of pride and greed.


Leach, Colin, Russell Spears, and Antony Manstead (2015) “Parsing (malicious) pleasures: schadenfreude and gloating at others’ adversity,” Frontiers in Psychology, 26 February 2015.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1887/1967) On the Genealogy of Morals, New York: Random House.

Ninivaggi, Frank (2010) Envy Theory: Perspectives on the Psychology of Envy, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield

The coldness of envy

If we are  to examine the position of Envy in the doctrine of the Deadly Sins, it turns out this sin is framed in an interesting context.

There are many ways to sort the sins and their various degrees of “evil” (just think of the Dante’s guided tour through purgatory and hell). But in some accounts, the deadly sins are ordered into three “warm” sins and three “cold” sins, while the seventh, acedia or Sloth, is neither hot nor cold (too lazy to care). The three “warm” sins are luxuria (Lust), gula (Gluttony), and ire (Wrath), and they, like the passions, arise from the body. They are strong emotional forces, lust-driven appetites or explosions unleashed like steam.

The three “cold” sins, on the other hand, arise from the obsessed mind, and they are avaritia (Covetousness/Greed), invidia (Envy), and superbia (Pride).

As noted by E.F. Schumacher in his text “The Roots of Violence” the deadly sins teach us how the violence that emerge out of the warm sins are passions which after their release quickly tend to find their limits, either from exhaustion or restrained by other emotions. The cold sins, on the other hand, as the violence that stems from the mind, are bound to transgress all bounds. As Schumacher posits,

“From this it may be deduced that a civilization which glorifies the mind at the expense of the heart is in constant danger of slipping into limitless violence; while a civilization which glorified the heart at the expense of the mind would be in danger of sporadic brutalities without rhyme or reason.” (Schumacher 1977)

Envy, Pride and Greed are sins of the calculating mind, more than the heart. They come from comparison and competition, from objective thought, and as such, Schumacher warns, they open “the door to unlimited violence because [they] eliminate the countervailing power of the heart.”

For our examination of violence and fashion, it could be interesting that envy, pride and greed are also the primary drives of fashion, are not warm passions, but cold calculations of the mind. When people say they have a “passion for fashion” we may think their passions come from the heart, but the passions aroused by fashion may instead be boundlessly sinister.


Schumacher, Ernst F. “The Roots of Violence”, Resurgence, Vol 7, No 6, Jan-Feb 1977)

A short note about envy

Fashion is a dreamworld, wrapped in desire. Desire is about seeking what one does not have, and it is reinforced by others desiring the same thing, making it competitive. Vanity is not fair, it is cruel.

Envy is a constituent component of desire. Envy is shameful, and like jealousy, hardly ever confessed, even to ourselves. The two emotional states are constituent to fashion, yet differ; envy is the pain caused by the desire for the superiority had by a rival, whereas jealousy is the agony caused by the fear of losing our own superiority.

To understand the desires of fashion, we must understand envy and jealous, the price we pay for comparing and competing with our peers.

“Beggars do not envy millionaires,” Bertrand Russell argued, “though of course they will envy other beggars who are more successful.” This means our envy is directed at those with whom we compare ourselves, not the distant elites but the peers who outdo us. It is the perceived equality and accessibility of the means of distinction which fans the flames of our envy, and with it comes an increasing shame.

Envy undermines every togetherness, and as it is repressed, it easily morph into resentment, projecting our inferiority onto a an innocent victim, or the one we feel does not even deserve our envy, a scapegoat. This person is blamed, persecuted, and according to Girard’s ideas, by necessity sacrificed.

Albrecht Dürer, Cain Killing Abel, (1511) woodcut, Rosenwald Collection

Envy (from Latin invidia) is an emotion which “occurs when a person lacks another’s superior quality, achievement, or possession and either desires it or wishes that the other lacked it” (Parrott, W. G.; Smith, R. H. (1993). “Distinguishing the experiences of envy and jealousy”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 64: 906–920.) According to Dutch research however, we must differ between malicious envy and benign envy, where the first is about destroying the person of envy (f.ex. Schadenfreude) and the second being motivated by him or her, trying to raise one’s effort and performance. (Van de Ven, Niels, Marcel Zeelenberg, and Rik Pieters. “Leveling up and down: the experiences of benign and malicious envy.” Emotion 9.3 (2009): 419.) Of the deadly sins in Catholicism, envy is one of the most profound. Envy is the motivation behind Cain’s murder of Abel, thus the prime example of desire, rivalry, inequality and violence, yet it also manifests Cain’s superiority by the curse of his strength, the “Mark of Cain.”

The story of Cain and Abel is the foundational myth of fashion. The scapegoat must pay for our repressed desires if we are not to be consumed by the violence of envy, as the tale of Cain and Abel advises us.

As the Chinese butler Lee expounds on the story of Cain and Abel in John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden”:

“The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt – and there is the story of mankind.”