Intimate vs. Heroic Vanity in Fashion

It is easy to think of fashion as “shallow” (it is something on our skin and we take it on and off and change often) and also part of our “vanity” the excessive need for affirming our attractiveness. The vanity part of fashion is interesting since it is per definition a social phenomenon, the vain person needs an audience and needs others to be better or more attractive than. But there are many strategies for being vain, many ways to gain appreciation and affirmation, one can seek love and intimacy through vanity, as much as the pleasure of conquest.

Perhaps we can think of at least two forms of vanity, and let’s call them “intimate” and “heroic” vanity to set them apart.

The heroic vanity is the vanity of glory (Latin; gloria – “boasting”) – it is the vanity of conquest, strength, daring, aggression, domination. It is the vanity of rage that makes Achilles drag Hector’s body after his chariot; the vanity that takes pride in humiliating and belittling others. If appreciation can be harvested, this is what the heroic vanity does, it consumes it, sucks it up: it is in no form reciprocal or returned to the audience (as opposed to charisma which make the audience see and hear themselves in their idol)

The heroic vanity is a traditional masculine form of vanity and connected to the collectively reinforced experience of “manhood.” It is a vanity which is deeply aware of hierarchies of power and the behavior which produces and possibly undermines “manhood.” The exposure of manly ideals of strength, productivity, independence and courage are essential as these are the properties that produce the manly “deed.”

The heroic vanity is frail however, as it can easily be undermined by reliance and dependence on others, and its worst enemy is ridicule as it effectively tears down the authority of the deed. As the heroic vanity is socialized in groups of peers, there is a continuous battle over being the Alfa-hero in the group, “daring” others to test boundaries and engage in behaviors that distinguish the group from others (competition, posturing, violence, etc).

This produces a deep fear of ridicule and anything which may threaten the currency of “manhood,” but also more indirect sources of weakness, such as being taken advantage of or being exposed and rejected (or worse, both at the same time!) Male vanity is boasting while also paranoid and hypervigilant, screening peers and surroundings for threats.

The heroic type of vanity has traditionally been socialized as a masculine gender role, but it also reproduces inexpressible loneliness for many men through a cultured denial of an emotional education to men. To expose a need for intimacy or closeness is a form of surrender. Even to admit a “deeper” emotional life is a competition with peers, where excess and having the best or most “profound” sentiment is a diving competition into the abyss of the suffering soul, which still leaves no chinks in the armor, even as the hero sinks like a stone.

In this heroic vanity, conquest and domination is high in currency, and it would be shameful and a sign of weakness to admit one needs intimacy. Even acknowledging love is more a form of transaction (who called first) than a surrender to emotions or the possibility of being rejected. However, it is not shameful to admit you need sex — so sexual heroism is something one can boast of (which makes impotence the most frightening fate for the hero, on both a biological and metaphorical level).

The opposite of the heroic vanity is intimate vanity. The intimate vanity is a need for affection, for closeness and it by essence reveals frailty and weakness. It is a vanity in need for care and by such, it is an acknowledgement of impotence and powerlessness. It is a cry for for support from a position of dependence. A vanity in need of a breast or shoulder to cry on. A need for an uncompromised affection, a hunger for love. By essence it is the deep need and dependence of the newborn baby.

The masculine hero is not scared of vanity, but of intimacy, a form of affection that is weak and intimacy is a form of surrender. Intimacy is an affection that may reveal something deeper (perhaps the uncultured abyss that is the emotional life of the hero).

Could we say a common dress practice amongst men is a form of heroic vanity: the suit, the jeans and hoodie, perhaps also the hipster and normcore – ironic posturing as they may be. It is a vanity that may seek modest recognition, but never risking revealing anything intimate about their aspirations. At its best, it is a conquering style, a style drawing some attention, but never for its daring in expressing more than affirming social norms.

The intimate vanity is more revealing, more at risk. It tests reactions and tries to care for others. Can there be such fashion?

(is fashion per definition alexithymic? Alexithymia is the inability to identify and describe emotions in the self. The core characteristics of alexithymia are marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating..)

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