A paradox in the politics of fashion is the tension between freedom and conformity; we use the same word for fashion both when it breaks free from the convention of the time, as well as that very same convention. As highlighted in Susanne Pagold’s (2000: 8) definition of fashion as “to dress like everyone else, but before everyone else”, the difference between conformity and difference is minimal, yet still the crucial element at the heart of fashion.
The tricky part of unpacking fashion is that the same term is used for two distinct counter-movements. Fashion is a phenomenon that tends to exceed or transgress a boundary, the (feral) natality which breaks out of domestication and seriality. We put the label of “fashion” on both natality (the difference) as well as the seriality or conformity of the latest range of commodities. Or to put it differently, fashion has two powers; there is a power of fashion, an energy of excess and disruption, while simultaneously a power over looks, a serial conformity and system of repetition and commodities.
Interestingly, Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito’s discussion on biopolitics in his book Bios (2008) highlights a similar situation when it comes to biopolitics, what he calls the “enigma of biopolitics.” So what is biopolitics for Esposito?
“If we want to remain with the Greek (and in particular Aristotelian) lexicon, biopolitics refers, if anything, to the dimension of zoe, which is to say life in its simple biological capacity [tenuta], more than it does to bios, understood as “qualified life” or “form of life,” or at least to the line of conjugation along which bios is exposed to zoe, naturalizing bios as well.” (Esposito 2013: 351)
If we think of “bare fashion” as a parallel to zoe or “bare life” – a minimal life devoid of meaning, control or rights – the bare minimum of fashion is a fashion devoid of meaning, control or difference. And perhaps more importantly; it is a fashion without passion.
When Esposito discusses Foucault’s term biopolitics he highlights the paradox of biopolitics; “does it concern a governing of or over life?” (352) Esposito uses a lexical bifurcation to grapple with this (yet highlights that the terms are used indifferently at times). Biopolitics is meant a “politics in the name of life” and biopower is a “life subjected to the command of politics.” (352)
Perhaps we can make a similar bifurcation when unpacking fashiopolitics? Fashiopolitics is the negotiation and conflict in the name of fashion, while fashiopower is the subjection to the commands of conformity (even if this conformity is the latest “difference.”) Very simplified fashiopolitics connotes a horizontal and social conflict, enacted between peers, (through affects and emotional status play; in greed, envy, shame, etc), while fashiopower connotes the commands and protocols of conformity, the more systemic and vertical enactment of boundaries and with a backing of some force.
To put it differently, fashiopolitics concerns the conflicts around social passions, the everyday clashing desires of imitation, mimetic rivalry and social combat, while fashiopower is systemic or industrial amplification of these passions into positional struggles over symbols and goods, and where these goods are used to enact and entrench social domination. Thus the “power” of fashiopower is the systemic enactment of hierarchical boundaries, yet simultaneously also the obedience of subjects who “gives away” their power to popular peers (in hope of some exchange of inclusion).
Yet, still the paradox remerges; there is something feral and beast-like in fashion; an energy that breaks free from within, overflows of affirmation, an uncontrolled natality which usurps social conventions and the safe conformity of culture; a passion of the new which a user can ride on – and this energy is a form of power, or it can be translated into social and affective power. This is the promise of fashion as a “difference that makes a difference,” a passion/emotion/movement. It is a power which breaks out of power. A promethean form of vanity. Luciferian.
The enigma remains. Better terms are needed.
Esposito, Roberto (2008) Bíos: biopolitics and philosophy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Esposito, Roberto (2013) “The enigma of biopolitics” (from Bios), in Timothy Campbell & Adam Sitze (eds) Biopolitics : a reader, Durham: Duke University Press.
Pagold, Suzanne (2000) De Långas Sammansvärjning. Stockholm: Bonniers.