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..)