The Enigma of Fashiopolitics and Fashiopower

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.


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

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.

Violent affirmation and the pleasure of nativity

As mentioned in the previous note on Byung-Chul Han’s (2015) discussion on affirmation, it is important too notice the folding of oppression and desire – that oppression needs not to be negative and obstructing, but like a Möbius strip invert desire onto itself as topology of violence and self-aggression. As Han notices, the dynamic of achievement society is a “totalized state of normality” in the sense of a “state of positivity” (2015: 48). In this state, power lies not in the negativity of exclusion and inhibition, but in the “violence of and positivity, which expresses itself as the exhaustion and inclusion that characterize the society of achievement.” (48)

“Today violence issues more readily from the conformism of consensus than from the antagonism of dissent. In this sense-contra Habermas-one might speak of the violence of consensus.” (Han 2015: 48)

The same positivity is at the foundation of fashion “be different!” – “become yourself!” – “be an individual!” The consumer must continually work on the self, be more of oneself, train more, do more, shop more, look better, network more, be more “creative” in a way that aligns with the creative norms of achievement and produces more “followers” and “fans.” Life itself is an aesthetic project. Even if the subject/project stands free from top-down oppression, where “freedom and violence now coincide.” (49)

“the absence of external domination does not abolish the structure of compulsion. It makes freedom and compulsion coincide. The achievement-subject [“project”] gives itself over to freestanding compulsion in order to maximize performance.” (Han 2015: 49)

As Han points out, the possible freedom and liberation Hannah Arendt found in nativity, the possibilities for change inherent in the creative birth of the new, are now the very source of domination. Arendt’s “Vita Activa” is now the labor or bare life (17f). The heroic creativity which once was the breaking of bureaucratic and “unthinking” obedience is now the very means which harvest the hyperactive and hyperneurotic producing population. “Work itself is bare activity. The activity of bare laboring corresponds entirely to bare life.” (18) The creative birth of the new is now the new norm of creative labor.

“Ultimately, the dialectic of master and slave does not yield a society where everyone is free and capable of leisure, too. Rather, it leads to a society of work in which the master himself has become a laboring slave. In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside. The labor camp is defined by the fact that one is simultaneously prisoner and guard, victim and perpetuator. One exploits oneself. It means that exploitation is possible even without domination.” (Han 2015: 19)

Violence and nativity coincide and fold over like a Möbius strip. The human condition under the achievement society is to be forever creative, to always seek compulsive nativity as the labor of bare life.

Thus Han’s model is homologous with the compulsive violence in fashion where every aesthetic subject is a project, a project of creative self-becoming bound to the economy of fashion. One can only be oneself by becoming the commodity suggested by the system, and in continuous competition with one’s peers. In the pleasure of following one’s desires, the subject/project also shuts the doors to being the source of his or her own self-becoming. Continuous affirmation, desire, creation and achievement forces peers against each other and themselves, raising the bar and the speed of performing themselves over and over. New fashion, cheaper fashion, shorter seasons, faster cycles; all making itself more and more desirable as fashion can become “sustainable” (or “conscious” as H&M would call it). The more sustainable, the more efficient: we can all have the cake and eat it.

Be yourself so you can achieve more of being yourself, and you will get more narcissist followers seeing you being yourself in order to better be themselves.



Han, Byung-Chul (2015) The Burnout Society, Stanford: Stanford University Press

A short note on aestheticized domination

The domination fashion is helping enact is often hard to notice, especially for the one who enjoys the realm of dress. Indeed, like other forms of privilege, the aesthetic supremacy of the fashionable is invisible to the fashionable as the agent feels entitled to this higher position: the locked door to the VIP room is only experienced to the person rejected entry.

Paraphrasing Ozlem Sensoy & Robin DiAngelo (2012: 49), fashion seems like a natural expression of individualism and aesthetic meritocracy which features both “internalized domination” by those considered “in” as well as the “internalized oppression” of those considered “out.” Sensor & DiAngelo’s typology applied to fashion could be exemplified as;
— Rationalizing privilege as natural (“some people are just born beautiful”)
— Rationalizing privilege as earned (“I have worked hard for my success”)
— Perceiving you as the most qualified (“She only got that modeling job because she was plus sized”)
— Highlighting the normative rejection of minoritized groups with inclusion (“we are now more diverse” or “we also have plus size”)

On the other hand, “internalized oppression” makes people rationalize their inferior position (49f). Like in hegemony, this creates the consent of domination by the minoritized group (without force). Once again paraphrasing their examples;
— Believing the dominant group members deserve their position (usually by simply “being themselves”)
— Seeking the approval, looks and standards of the dominant group (looking like a “princess”)
— Behaving in ways that pleases the dominant group in hope of being included (following the “advise” of the bullies)
— Enduring micro-aggressions (“you should be happy to be with us”)
— Believing your rejection is because of your inadequacy, and not institutionalized domination (continuously being rejected by the bouncer because of the “wrong” clothes)

Yet the issue is not only how the cultural and structural aesthetic domination in fashion perpetuates relational judgment, rejection and violence – but what makes it pleasurable to do so. That is, that fashion thrives in exactly the dynamic belief of my aesthetic merit, that I feel I am “worth it” and others are not. What a fashion designer sells are devices which help enact this belief; I pay for my superiority and it makes me feel better about myself.

In reference to Byong-Chul Han’s (2015) ideas of the auto-exploitative self to whom nothing is impossible, my entrepreneurial self-worth in relation to fashion is based on that I feel I have achieved something – I have moved forward, upward; I have “become myself” just a bit more than the others. It inverts the negativity of the discipline and control societies into an affirmative “Yes, we can” where prohibition is replaced by “projects, initiatives, and motivation.” (9) Fast fashion, cheap and accessible makes the positive scheme of endless possibility open for continuous affirmation and the product that is the self. Fashion is no longer dictated from above as a “thou shalt” but instead offers itself as a promising possibility to achieve an enhanced sense of self-worth.

“The achievement-subject is faster and more productive ythan the obedience-subject. However, the Can does not revoke the Should, The obedience-subject remains disciplined.” (Han 2015: 9)

“Be yourself!” is the slogan of possibility and as a mode of production. When I fail I am either a loser who failed to become myself enough, or burned out of being myself too much. This is what Han (10) sees as “the systemic violence inhabiting achievement society, which provokes psychic infarctions.” The pressure to achieve is the new commandment of labor which leaves nothing but exploitation in every sphere of life, “voluntary, without external constraints. It is predator and prey at once.” (10) left is only creative fatigue and exhausted ability as “nothing is possible” has been replaced by “nothing is impossible” (11). Indeed, if I can buy a cheap copy of everything out there, and simply become anyone and everyone, why am I not more successful?

This is the compulsive freedom of fashion: it is accessible and affirmative everywhere. I am free to dress however I want, but it is this freedom under constraints which makes fashion such affirmative oppression. I am auto-exploitative because of the “feeling of freedom attends it.” (11) Fashion is freedom, accessible as an affirmation of identity, available to all – so you better play well. Why am I not more liked, more beautiful, more popular and adopted? It is all my own fault. I need a coach, stylist or brand manager to help me become myself better. “Depression is the sickness of a society that suffers from excessive positivity.” (11) Thus the “psychic indisposition of achievement society are pathological manifestations of such a paradoxical freedom.” (11)

Fashion plays a key role in the selling of the achieving self; look at me looking good. This is a subject which “expects the profits if enjoyment from work” (38) but which turns all parts of life into work. “In social networks, the function of ‘friends’ is primarily to heighten narcissism by granting attention, as consumers, to the ego exhibited as a commodity.” (43) Here, subjection is replaced by projection, and the self as subject is replaced by  self as project. (46)

“Projecting oneself into the ego ideal is interpreted as an act of freedom. But when the ego gets caught in an unattainable ego ideal, it gets crushed together. The gap between the real ego and the ego ideal then brings forth auto-aggression.”(46)

The violence of domination is inverted, now stemming from the competitive desires of the self-project, folding violence back onto itself. The auto-aggression of the self turns affirmation into self-hatred in the bassuolte competition between individuals who cannot live up to their ideal egos, it is a violence which does not stem from negativity or conflict but “derives from the positivity of consensus.” (46) Here, the “achievement-subject competes with itself; ot succumbs to the destructive compulsion to outdo itself over and over, to jump over its own show. The self-constraint, which poses as freedom, has deadly results.” (46)

If my fashionable self fails, I feel like a loser, and I am a loser under the regime of aesthetic self-affirmation. And there is nothing more unfashionable than a loser.



Han, Byong-Chul (2015) Burnout Society, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Sensoy, Ozlem & Robin DiAngelo (2012) Is Everyone Really Equal? New York: Teachers College Press.

The Plague of Stigma: Contamination & Drift

How we usually think of fashion is dependent on the signification of status associated with certain objects: certain brains and items signify attributes, values and belonging to groups. A Rolex watch may signify leadership or wealth, a new BMW technocratic excellence, the latest sneaker trend a knowledge and belonging to the current cultures of cool. The position are not fixed, and extremely few object are “classic” enough to stand again the shifting values and status “drifts” of time.

As mentioned earlier, this drift may come in many forms, and perhaps the two most apparent is the upward drift of subcultural style elements. Some classical elements of this situation is the “bubble up” of punk into higher classes (or an up-market brand like Westwood), or the popularity of couture street culture (the vehement passions of Vetements) harnessing the codes and expressions of the “dark matter” of other cultures (Sholette 2010). This is similar to the “bourgeoisement” of expressions and habits; haute culture embraces the “cool” of the other, and often with an ironic twist only reserved for those with the right attitude and status (looking like a “bum” or a “bag lady” works for a young, rich and attractive person.)

But as objects lose their status they do so not only because the material and symbolic status has changed because media is saturated by images and cheap copies have flooded the markets. The status is lost because the objects have become contaminated by impurity: they have not only become sick, but befouled by malevolent forces – the plague demons.

The opposite drift is the “prole drift” where expressions “trickle down” not only from the very top to the middle, but also further towards the bottom. Not only do malls move from the top of 5th Avenue and Oxford Street to become Wal-marts and strip malls, soft drinks which were once a mark of youthful cool it is now often the staple food of poverty with stigmas of obesity and urban food deserts. It is people who are being ridiculed for their dress, not the innocent symbol or style of clothing.

Advertising is about permeating a symbol or brand with emotion and symbolic status. Associating a brand with celebrities is the classic method. But symbols and brands can also be tainted by events in unwanted ways. An example can be Lacoste’s attempts to stop Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik from wearing their clothes to court.

The important part of this dynamic is that the symbols are not only material goods, but worn by bodies. A celebrity wearing a brand is an adored body imbuing status onto an item: the radiance of allure which shines from the celebrity now emits from the item. Like an icon, the wearer is now nearer the superhuman being of the model.

But the opposite also happens, yet we seldom discuss this fate in fashion; an item gets tainted by the body and deeds of a rejected and abject body. Yes, they style may “trickle down” (an aesthetic aphorism for people being rejected and considered impure). The impurity of the rejected body contaminates the item. The symbol now signals stigma more than status.

The same dynamic is at basis for bystander behavior in bullying: the social anxiety one may be tainted by helping the victim and not only lose one’s own status, but that one’s peers will also be dragged down by the target’s debasement. As Thornberg argues bystanders are led by a “fear of social contamination — a fear of becoming a victim by being associated with the actual victim.” (Thornberg 2013: 7) This is what Søndergaard (2012) calls “social exclusion anxiety” which makes bystanders prefer not to intervene, even as they see something they normally would think is wrong being done to others.

Emotions and stigma thus drifts between bodies, caught up in social status struggles, but we not only seek higher status but through modulating our values and behaviors we also seek to avoid being contaminated by those rejected. Fashion may look seductive and amazing as long as we shy away from the pollution. Is fashion really toxic to the social environment?


Sholette, Gregory (2010) Dark matter: Art and politics in the age of enterprise culture. London: PlutoPress

Søndergaard D-M (2012) “Bullying and social exclusion anxiety in schools.” British Journal of Sociology of Education, 33: pp.355–372.

Thornberg, Robert (2013/2015) “School Bullying as a Collective Action: Stigma Processes and Identity Struggling” Children & Society 29.4: 310-320.

Deviant Leverage and Fashion Regulation

Fashion is both a normative information of the Zeitgeist as well as an escape route from the same: a deviation from the norm that is fashion. Similar to Bateson’s definition of information as “a difference that makes a difference” (Bateson 1972). Fashion is “to look like everyone else, but before everyone else” to use Susanne Pagold’s (2000) words, that is, fashion breaks with the norm just the right amount to become what people desire as the new difference, the latest difference, the desirable deviation.

These times of social media and image culture suggests that “image is everything” and many studies in fashion highlights how the basic social psychologic instinct is that of differentiation. But as Blanton and Burkley posits, there is a basic paradox in how this difference is discussed in popular media, the messages clash drastically: there are highly contradictory forms of difference.

“Pages that focus on teen fashion, for instance, tend to assume that the driving identity concern for most teens is to be different, to find a unique identity. Interestingly, however; many of the other pages assume exactly the opposite. Pages that focus on adolescent health, for instance, tend to emphasize the pressures that teens feel to fit in, and these pages counsel teens with such slogans as, “it is okay to be different.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 94)

Even in times of aesthetic multitudes and overlapping cultures and subcultures, not all aesthetically deviance is good and acceptable, and definitely not imbued with high status. As Blanton and Burkley posits, much theory on social psychology has concerned how to fit into groups, or the basic standpoint has been to emphasize the individuals’ desires to conform to others and their actions, such as the work of Asch’s (1956) demonstration how “college students (and members of the general population) often are willing to answer questions incorrectly to avoid the disapproval of their peers.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 95) This has been set into contrast to the individual’s desire to stand out, especially during adolescence, such as in the works of Erik Erikson (1950) and Abraham Maslow (1968).

The idea has been that a healthy individual must be independent of the social environment, that is, the “humanistic principles assert that every person must realize his or her full potential by achieving a unique and authentic self that is not contingent on the approval of others.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 96) But in this tension between distinction and uniformity, the question of how much deviance is good or bad still remains unanswered, and is something Blanton and Burkley approaches in their Deviance Regulation Theory (DRT; Blanton & Christie 2003). “According to DRT, people do not choose actions so much out of a desire to feel more similar or more different, per se. Instead, they simply act out of a desire to have positive self-image.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 98f)

To Blanton & Burkley, deviant behaviors are twofold. Firstly they are “behaviors that cause one to stand out in relation to social norms.” and by this, they “generate stronger reactions from observers than nondeviant behaviors.” (99) Secondly, “certain behaviors are more meaningful than others,” that is, they “generate strong reactions from important reference others.” Firstly, the context and timing matters, and secondly, difference is sought to generate response with “reference others”; we seek the reaction of certain groups to leverage this response into status. From a distance we may be our norm, or the groups “behavioral base rate,” but individually, we are our difference: “in our own eyes and in others’ eyes, we are that which makes us different.” (100)

Blanton & Burkley (103) further suggest there are “ought norms”, norms that are the base-line or “default” rules of the group, the foundational rules, “not just desired by a reference group but also required by them of all group members if they wish to be ‘members in good standing.’” These ought rules, shape conformity, and “pressure will typically take the form of a ‘negative incentive system.’ This system reminds members of the negative consequences of deviating, not the positive consequences of conforming.” (104)

“In this type of environment, where there is conformity pressure on members to engage in risky behaviors, the power of the group is not its ability to reward those who go along with the norms of the group. The power of the group is in its ability to punish those who deviate.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 105)

There are also “ideal norms” and aspirational deviance were subjects can chose “between positive alternatives, between different sources of pride. These outcomes could only be framed in this way if the actors have internalized the positive opinions of important referent others; others who have reinforced accomplishments in these domains.” (105) This is a “positive incentive system” which “reminds members of the positive consequences of deviating, not the negative consequences of conforming.” (106) We admire those who are considered “worthy” and our shared positivity acts as an incentive to imitate their behavior.

“Whereas ought norms promote conformity toward a shared way of acting, ideal norms promote diversity and a multitude of actions. Thus, two people who internalize the values of the same reference groups generally would share all of the same definitions of morality and conform in their moral actions, but they may differ considerably in the sorts of achievements they value or choose to pursue.” (Blanton & Burkley 2008: 106)

Robert Stebbins (2011: 24) defines deviance as “behavior judged as violating one or more of the community’s moral norms,” that is, collective judgments which “emerge from the community’s definition of right and wrong behavior and activity in certain emotionally charged areas of everyday life.” These are in turn regulated through passive tolerance, or active forms of social regulation such as scorn or embracement. Stebbins differs between tolerable, intolerable, acceptable and positive deviance and posits how subject’s relationships to deviance is often ambigious, as “many people are ambivalent about one or more of the activities falling under the heading of tolerable deviance. They know they ought to refrain from engaging in them, yet they find it difficult to escape their magnetic pull.” (25) Indeed, as Stebbins highlights, leisure often pulls towards deviant activities;

“This is the type of deviance Becker (1963: 26) had in mind when he observed that “it is much more likely that most people experience deviant impulses frequently. At least in fantasy, people are much more deviant than they appear.” Little wonder that tolerable deviance is the classificatory home of most forms of deviant leisure” (Stebbins 2011: 25)

“To be fashionable is to ve acceptably deviant,” Stebbins argues, “Personal good taste keeps the fashionable individual safe, from going beyond acceptability to forms of dress regarded as serious aberrations. The latter is ‘outrageous’ fashion.” (27f) “One may bend rules to the extent that the individual appears to have control over them, but not to the point that s/he poses a threat to the social order” (Harman 1985: 2–3). Echoing Simmel’s discussion on the conflicting pulls between community and individuality, Stebbins points out,

“Increases in society’s individuality and creativity are encouraged. Still the existence of society as a collection of rule-governed individuals interested in the common goal of social order requires members to share basic conceptions about what it is that makes them a group. These two demands of conformity and deviation are contradictory.” (Stebbins 2011: 27)

Drawing from Harman’s study, Stebbins compares fashion to the use of slang, where,

“If a few members begin using the new word or phrase, its outrageousness declines, drifting toward fashionableness. If the trend continues, the new term becomes increasingly common in the group’s vocabulary, its use becoming a mark of membership there.[…] Members of the group who use such terms display an appropriate sense of being fashionable. Being in fashion through introduction and use of new slang is also a mark of the user’s distinctive identity.” (Stebbins 2011: 28)

As the example of introduction of slang shows, the moral norms and boundaries around deviance are not fixed but in a continuous flux or “drift.”

“Some forms of intolerable deviance may gradually become tolerable, as is presently evident to a greater or lesser degree for abortion, use of marijuana, and production and consumption of pornography. Meanwhile, tolerable forms may drift toward intolerability, which appears to be happening today for smoking and has already happened, in a way, for use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport.” (Stebbins 2011: 26)

This type of deviance drift thus overlaps well with Paul Fussell’s (1983) discussion on “proletarian drift” (or “prole drift”). This status drift of products and expressions denote “the tendency for originally upscale products and services to become popular with the working class” (Jaffe 2008). As Fussell points out, its is an unintentional sinking (or could one say “stinking”?) of status as the once upward moving classed are being “bumped down” and in “a process of class sinking” as everything becomes proletarianized. With the availability of mass production of status goods, with a reduction in price and quality, the proliferation of status objects undermines their value, as also argued of luxury fashion by Thomas (2007). Yet this does not mean norms and deviance disappears, no, deviance is still regulated as the status and values of deviance shifts and the previous transgressions lose their status (together with the people connected to these behaviors.)

As we have seen earlier, fashion has a long tradition of challenging moral and social norms, pushing the boundaries for what is considered acceptable or positive deviations, transgressing taboos and turning expressions of cultural rebellion and seduction into new signs of the times. Sumptuary laws tried in vain to control the social and moral norms around dress and its significations. The boundaries of deviance drift together with the norms and often switch places. This is not least noticeable today, in a culture saturated by seduction, porn and sugar powdered BDSM in the tradition of punk bondage in McLaren & Westwood’s store SEX, or the best selling EL James 50 Shades of Grey, where certain forms of sexualized violence is no longer considered deviant (together with the fashion expressions of the scene) – while simultaneously the norms around power are moved towards expressive consent. As highlighted by Byung-Chul Han (2017), the challenging and unknown “other” of Eros is erased to become a predictive sameness. “Post-fetish jewelry” of Zana Bayne is the mainstream, or a new wave of a recurrent theme (as noted in Steele’s classic Fetish: fashion, sex, and power.) Similarly, it has traditionally been the rich kids who can wear second-hand clothing with pride (not the poor kids who have to accept hand-me-downs), or wearing military outfits for leisure is not something soldiers normally do.

As the norms and boundaries of deviance drift, so does our desires. We are oriented by our desires, and how deviance pays off. As Blanton and Burkley (100) shows, if a subject “thinks she will gain from smoking, then she will be oriented towards smoking.” We are what makes us different, and if we play the game of deviance we know the rules and continually try to find leverage for new status. That is where fashion comes in: deviant leverage in the realm of dress.



Asch, S. E. (1956) “Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority.” Psychological Monographs, 70(9, Whole No. 416).

Bateson, Gregory (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York: Ballantine

Blanton, Hart & Christie, C. (2003) “Deviance regulation: A theory of action and identity.” Review of General Psychology, 7, 115-149.

Blanton, Hart & Melissa Burkley (2008) “Deviance Regulation Theory” in Mitchell Prinstein & Kenneth Dodge (eds) Understanding peer influence in children and adolescents, New York: Guilford Press

Erikson, Erik (1950) Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Fussell, Paul (1983) Class: a guide through the American status system, New York: Summit Books

Han, Byung-Chul (2017) The Agony of Eros, Cambridge: MIT Press

Harman, L. D. (1985) “Acceptable deviance as social control: the cases of fashion and slang,” Deviant Behavior, 6: 1–15.

Jaffe, Miles (2008) The Hamptons Dictionary: The Essential Guide to Class Warfare, New York: Disinformation Company

Maslow, Abraham (1968) Toward a psychology of being. Princeton: Van Nostrand.

Pagold, Suzanne (2000) De Långas Sammansvärjning. Stockholm: Bonniers

Stebbins, Robert (2011) “Tolerable, Acceptable and Positive Deviance” in Bryant (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Deviant Behavior, New York: Routledge, pp.24-30

Thomas, Dana (2007) Deluxe: how luxury lost its luster, New York: Penguin Press


Social regulation and the Preos of fashion violence

Fashion is an aesthetic signifier of social hierarchies and belonging, but also an opening for emotional affects and connections between people. As clothes are used to mark out distinctions, they also open passages for emotional signaling and connection. On an abstract level, my branded shirt may signify an identification with certain values of the brand, but the shirt may also be used to draw attention to certain aspects of my emotional and affective self I want to open towards others. That is, the shirt may be used for emotional signification also: for seduction, flirting, celebration, or mourning. Dress opens an emotional window between people.

This double aspect of clothing, signifying qualities, but also its emotional and affective connection to the aspirations and desires of our “soul” is what makes fashion so powerful – but also makes us so vulnerable for attacks. Rather than risking upsetting the order, it is just so much safer escaping into jeans and t-shirt or formal office wear.

Using the word “violence” in the realm of everyday dress may sound a bit too strong as very few people get attacked and killed primarily because of their clothes (at least in a place like NYC). But if we start opening the interactions traced through dress practices, we may come to see more of it; a robber may select a victim by their expensive looking clothes, a police officer may stop-and-frisk a person in hoodie, a trans-person may get attacked because of not conforming to gendered outfits. These may be instances of violations of personal integrity, which most of us would agree could fit under the term violence.

But if we also think of fashion as an emotional window between people, how it opens a passage towards our feelings, aspirations and deeper personal lives, who we want to be seen as, who we wish to be with, and much more, then even “soft” attacks on our clothes may be seen as a form of violence. A nasty comment which on purpose attacks my aspirations can not only hurt me emotionally and mentally, but it may scar these aspirations beyond repair. Even if it happens only once it may still cause lasting emotional damage, even if the occasion may be something very banal. A child not having the right sports outfit on the first day of trying out a new sport (and meeting new peers) may effectively lock the door to this peer group and future sport practice. Someone being refused entry to a club at an important moment when one’s peers enter without problem may act as a social sorting, distancing the victim from the peers. In both cases, the even itself may only be first trigger and excuse for later gossip and taunts.

But more importantly, if the rejection happens over time, the impact may be devastating for the victim’s ability to test new emotional aspirations as he or she withdraws into “acceptable” uniforms.

The miniscule violence in rejections, gossip and taunts come out of certain social dynamics and formations. It is not only the wickedness of bullies which is to blame, but several layers of social interactions. But perhaps most importantly, the bullies do not feel they do anything “evil” or “amoral” – rather the opposite; they feel they “do the right thing” – they uphold the legitimate social order. In their actions, they help regulate the social relationships of the groups, doing a favor for the status of their peers (“what would other cool people think of us it we hang out with that loser?”). The peers are thankful for the ordering while they all think the victim always “deserves it” (and the victim may think so too). In this way, violence is always virtuous for the ones who commit it; they legitimize it in ways they feel they have the right to use violence. As Fiske and Rai argues in their work Virtuous Violence (2015), “the primary motives for violence are at the same time subjectively moral – people feel they must harm or kill others simply because it’s the right thing to do” (2015: 34)

To Fiske and Rai, the basis for violence is regulation of social relationships: who rules, or who is equal to whom, what is shared or what does someone owe another? All social relationships are regulated through cultural conventions, most often in informal ways: who has access to certain goods, who eats first, who has authority to act in what ways, who has access to what spaces,  who picks up the trash, who’s responsibility is this or that? These types of interactions are regulated  by peers in self-organized systems of control.

If we apply Fiske and Rai’s thinking to fashion, clothes signal many of these relations: I wear certain clothes to show unity with my working group, or to show that I am better than others, or to get access to this club, or to not draw attention to myself (or hide) in a certain social setting, or to move into proximity to other groups and through hierarchies ( such becoming the friend or mate of a prestigious person) or pretending being someone I am not. I can conform to the standards and play along, but if I break the norms, or I upset some of the standards or usurp the regulations, others may feel I “break the rules” and thus feel obliged to correct me – and this may be done in more of less violent ways. “Virtuous violence theory proposes that the perpetrator intends to harm or kill in order to constitute a social relationship to make it correspond with a prescriptive model of what the relationship ought to be – what it must be made to be.” (17)

In social relations, people act under certain “Preos” or cultural guidelines that specify how social relationships are to be regulated (a “cultural coordination device”). These guidelines are “socially transmitted prototypes, precedents, and principles that complete the mods, specifying how, when and with respect to whom the mods apply” (Fiske 2004: 4). [“mods” being “cognitively modular but modifiable modes of interacting” in Fiske 2004: 3] Preos is the cultural prescriptions of how to handle social relationships, or what we usually consider “morals” in general: “morality consists of intentions, motives, emotions, and judgments about realizing RMs according to cultural preos.” (Fiske & Rai 2015: 22)

Fiske and Rai presents Relational Models (RMs) which consists of four primary interactions: communal sharing (CS), authority ranking (AR), equality matching (EM), and market pricing (MP) [earlier developed by Fiske]

In communal sharing (CS) interactions, the victim may be seen as a possible contaminant to the in-group, thus hazing or rituals of harassment may be used (and excused) for the greater good of making sure the victim comes to share the values the group; “Unity is directed toward caring for and supporting the integrity of in-groups through a sense of collective responsibility and common fate.” (18) Dressing the same as the group becomes a signal for communal sharing, while dressing too much apart may require a response from the rest of the group to make sure the status quo is upheld. Similarly, to join the group, certain signals and commitments may have to be signalled, such as gang tattoos.

For authority ranking (AR), hierarchy is the prime concern, as “Hierarchy is directed toward creating and maintaining linear ranking in social groups.” (19) Hierarchies are not “inherently immoral, exploitive, or even undesirable. Nor do legitimate hierarchies emerge out of pure force or coercion. In many cultures, people perceive hierarchy as natural, inevitable, necessary, and legitimate” (19). The military may be a prime example, but also religious cults or organizations with clear chains or command or pecking orders, but also where superiors are supposed to provide and protect the subordinates, thus offering a reward for submission. “AR hierarchy motivates people to judge that superiors committing violence against subordinates is often acceptable and may even be praiseworthy if done to instruct or punish.” (19) The hierarchy itself is threatened if the distinctions and not upheld, thus people within the hierarchy all come to feel they “deserve their place,” and will defend the hierarchy and their place in it from both outside attacks as well as usurping practices within as members experience the asymmetrical relationships “as natural, good, legitimate, and even necessary.” (20) Authority ranking is engaged social status systems such as class or ethnic rankings (the social value of identities, what subcultures are “cool” and who are “nerds” or “losers”), and rankings such as the prestige and standing of brands (AR with respect to price, availability, knowledge etc). Within a group, as I gain status I am allowed to wear certain marks, or I can signal a long commitment to a cause within the group by wearing the right patch, and a false-flag signal is punished.

Equality matching (EM) is “manifest in activities such as turn taking, in-kind reciprocity, even distributions and randomization procedures such as coin flipping.” (20) Equality matching is a form of “democratization” as it aims to even out the playing field: “Equality is directed toward enforcing even balance and in-kind reciprocity in social relations. It requires equal treatment, equal voice, equal opportunity, equal chance, even shares, even contributions, turn taking, and lotteries (e.g., for conscription, for a dangerous assignment, for choosing ends of the field in sports or in a duel).” (20) It is a moral motivation towards reciprocity, and “accounts for the sense of obligation we feel both in inviting people to our home after they have invited us to theirs, and in seeking to hurt people in exactly the same way they have hurt us, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” (20)

Market pricing (MP) aims towards proportionality and is “directed toward calculating and acting in accord with ratios or rates among otherwise distinct goods to ensure that rewards or punishments for each party are proportional to their costs, contributions, effort, merit, or guilt.” (21) A punishment should be proportionate to its effects, but also, “in the framework of proportionality, it is morally correct to inflict harm or to kill if the benefits outweigh the costs.” (21) Market Pricing relationships are oriented to socially meaningful ratios or rates between prestigious signals and tokens, such as prices, wages, interest, or cost-benefit analyses, but also exchange between groups and interpersonal networks. Certain forms of prestige may be exchanged for status or bridging towards other groups, or gifts used as blackmailing (as a form of Potlatch), and failing to uphold these market standards (causing inflation, or allowing access or condoning unregulated behaviors) may be proportionally punished.

Hierarchy of Being – Hierarchy of relations

Relational models reveal how various forms of cultural norms and Preos make social groups self-organize the policing of their norms. But these models also help us understand the moral frameworks and interactions bullies act within as feel they “do the right thing” when rejecting or harassing a victim. Matched with the desires of not only fitting in, but also aspiring to be more than one is, or uniting emotionally with others, the regulations of sharing, equality hierarchy and proportionality seeps under the skin of the victim.

Indeed, if fashion in many ways has a tradition of threatening public “morals,” and is still considered “dangerous” in many cultures, it is because of its possible use as a tool to override Preos and challenge relational orders. Fashion offers the user a pathway to bypass gatekeepers, uniting groups across cultural boundaries, and seducing powerful individuals, deceiving others, while also join together individual aspirations and popularity with people in power. And the use of things and commodities in these regulations is a common trait (Komter 2001).

This is perhaps the “danger” of fashion, as it not only manifests class, loyalties, groups and hierarchies, but also offers an avenue to usurp the same categories. There may be many motivations why the rules and regulations must be upheld, but violences is an essential part of both controlling as well as rebelling against the order of Preos.



Fiske, Alan Page (2004) “Relational Models Theory 2.0,” in Haslam, Nick (ed) (2004) Relational Models Theory: A Contemporary Overview, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Fiske, Alan Page & Tage Shakti Rai (2015) “Violence is morally motivated to regulate social relationships” in Virtuous Violence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 17-34.

Komter, Aafke (2001) “Heirlooms, Nikes and Bribes: Towards a Sociology of Things”, Sociology,Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 59–75.

(see more: Relational Models Theory)

The social stigma process of exclusion

With theories of interactionism, the focus on social relations is aimed at the processes which continuously reconstruct and guide social interactions. Norms and differences are made and remade, and people are dynamic beings who go in and out of relationships, associate in fluid and changing ways. Social psychologist Robert Thornberg (2013) has in a paper discussed the social stigma processes which keeps reproducing victimhood in school bullying. Essential to Thornberg (1), “children co-construct and participate in their own peer cultures by creatively appropriating and reconstructing information and norms from the adult world to address their own concerns (Corsaro, 2005; Wyness, 2006).” That is, identity is a social process, continuously renegotiated and readjusted, not a fixed essence. As Thornberg has pointed out elsewhere (2010) victims as often socially rejected and excluded, or considered “contagious” thought the socially construction of them as odd, different, deviant or people who do not “fit in,” and this constructed deviance from the norm is then used to justify bullying. Thornberg relates this to Goffman’s ideas of the production of “stigma” (1963), and uses this core concept for unpacking the consequences of labelling. It is the stigma in turn which makes bystanders turn against the victim, as “a negative reputation of the victim is constructed and spread further within the community. Even those who do not actively participate in bullying do not want to socialise with the victim because of social pressure (Hamarus and Kaikkonen, 2008).”(2)

As bulling is a social process, it is not dependent merely on bullies and victims, but on more collective dynamics within the in-groups, and thus bullying cannot be reduced to “individual characteristics of the bully and the victim, but indicated a group process that created, manifested and maintained normative orders that imposed what was ‘normal’ and not open to question among the peers (cf. Davies, 2011; Horton, 2011).”(4) The differentness of the victim is socially co-constructed and then used to explain and justify bullying as a “natural” consequence of the victim’s choices.

“For example, Anna in Grade 4 was socially represented by her classmates as a fat girl with odd clothes, and bullying was seen by many peers as a ‘natural’ consequence of her fat body and odd clothes or, as Frida in her class put it, ‘I know it sounds a bit cruel, but she actually has herself to blame. She wouldn’t be bullied if she just lost some weight and started to wear normal clothes’.”(4)

Indeed, in Thornberg’s article, the clothes of the victim is often used as an excuse for the bullying;

“Amina: ‘No, because she is making things this way by herself, kind of believing she can rule. Yeah, well she often wears weird clothes.’ Jennifer: ‘Not so fashionable.’ “(5)

As Thornberg posits, in the cases explored “children collectively dehumanised and blamed the victim in an effort to explain and justify their bullying towards the victim.”(6) In the process of creating the social norm of the group, the in-group members “socially compared themselves with the targeting child in a way that confirmed their ‘normality’ as well as their socially included position in the peer group, at the expense of the victim.” (6) For example, one of the in-group members claimed how much better she and her friends were than their victim;

“‘Frida, Johanna and me —we’re popular in the class. We’re kind of good-looking, and we wear brand clothes. Anna is kind of the opposite, and everyone think she’s strange’, a girl in Grade 4.” (6)

Thornberg highlights how the social process makes the victims internalize their victimhood and start identifying with their stigma,

“By name-calling and teasing, and by rumour spreading and creating a bad reputation, the bullies socially constructed the victims as people who were solely represented as and confined to negative labels. Therefore, the peer discourse of bullying created social expectations that trapped the victims in a self-fulfilling prophecy. They became nothing more than their bullying-induced labels for the classmates.” (6)

Not only do the peers withdraw from the victim, due to their stigma and the scare of being “contaminated” by their exclusion and loser-status, but the internalization also limits the victims’ opportunities to socialize with peers, develop social relations and have friends as they have been discredited as deviants. As a peer mentions; “We don’t hang around with her because we have to think about our own reputation (a girl in Grade 4),” and another, “Almost no one in the class would like to be with her… they don’t want others to think that they are like her… She’s a jerk with ugly clothes and that’s why people avoid her (a girl in Grade 5).” (7)

The victims thus gets stuck in a vicious cycle where they on one hand feel normal and like anyone else, but are socially stigmatized as “different” or losers. As Thornberg argues about a victim called Sandra,

“She repeatedly told herself that she was ‘normal’, but at the same time she was preoccupied with self-changing to be ‘normal’. The victims’ identities were not set in stone, but were rather a dynamic process, and in the never-ending work of interpretation, many victims seemed to move back and forth between the two types of identity: (a) the ‘deviant identity’ which refers to a self-image of being different or odd and not fitting in, linked with self-blaming and feelings of worthlessness, and (b) the ‘normal identity’ which refers to a self-image of being like everyone else linked with feelings of being valuable, and just as good as others.” (8)

The victim thus becomes the bullied and comes to identify as the different, rejected loser they have been stigmatized into being. The victim comes to doubt or question the normal (like-anyone-self) self-image to instead assume her bullies’ image of her.

Bur not only that, the borders to the “normal” are strictly surveilled and moved to make sure the victim cannot become one of the in-group. “Even in cases where there was a belief in the possibility of changing oneself, successful self-change was effectively prevented by the social life of the school class.” (9) In the example Thornberg lifts, “Anna changed her clothing to fit in.” But to no avail. “The problem was that the victims already played an involuntary role in an ongoing pattern of collective action.” (9) and the peers were already moving the boundaries of the norm away from the victim. “If victims tried to change something about themselves, it was never good enough (e.g. ‘It doesn’t matter if he wear his new Converse shoes, he’s still a nerd’, a boy in Grade 5). The performance of bullying did not accept having the victims play out of character, but persisted in the collective definition of their differentness.” (9)

In conclusion, the issue Thornberg brings to the table is that the perpetuators of bullying are not the only actors engaged in the act of bullying but it is a social dynamic enacted by bigger peer-groups. Thornberg cites Horton (2011: 274) who argues, “rather than categorising large numbers of school students as deviant, aggressive or evil-minded, it may be more useful to consider the social processes in which they are involved when bullying occurs”. This brings fashion into the stigma process, of who is considered “popular” or “in” versus who will never have the opportunity to become one of the group (and indeed, never “popular”). Not only does clothes and fashion play a role in this dynamic (as the whole group plays along in the definition of what is considered acceptable or not) – and as noted above, clothes act as a perfect canvas on which to project the difference and norm deviance.


Corsaro WA. 2005. The Sociology of Childhood, 2nd edn. Pine Forge Press: Thousand Oaks.

Davies B. 2011. “Bullies as guardians of the moral order: re-thinking the origins of bullying in schools.” Children & Society 25: 278–286.

Goffman E. 1963. Stigma. Simon & Schuster: New York.

Hamarus P, Kaikkonen P. 2008. “School bullying as a creator of pupil pressure.” Educational Research 50: 333–345.

Horton P. 2011. “School bullying and social and moral orders.” Children & Society 25: 268–277.

Thornberg R. 2010. “Schoolchildren’s social representations on bullying causes.” Psychology in the Schools 47: 311–327.

Thornberg, Robert (2013/2015) “School Bullying as a Collective Action: Stigma Processes and Identity Struggling” Children & Society 29.4: 310-320.

Wyness M. 2006. Childhood and Society: An Introduction to the Sociology of Childhood. Palgrave MacMillan: New York.

A short note on Sovereign Vanity

Vanity is one of the many paradoxes that cuts through fashion; that in order to be myself I need to take good care of what other’s think of me. Indeed, I feel myself better the more others see and acknowledge me. It is easy to think this is a matter of simply being liked, and have many friends that treat you kindly.

But no. In fashion, this attitude takes on other expressions. If we look at the models on the catwalk, the advertisements, or the characters of the gossip columns, it is another form of vanity that emerges; the immodest pride, sneer, despise and superiority. It is arrogance in its most attractive form. And we love it.

We may think a narcissist is vain, but as Simon Blackburn posits in Mirror Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love (2014), the narcissist does not care about the opinion of others, even though he may cherish their gaze. He does not seek the approval of his social world, but is self-absorbed. In the end of the Greek tale, Narcissus fades away, only hearing the echo of his self-love. To the narcissist there exists no society, Blackburn posits, and greed is good, “Because you’re worth it!” as the L’Oreal advert goes (Blackburn 2014: x). And Blackburn continues, the advert reveals something deeper about our fascination with narcissism and praise of vanity,

“if occasionally [the models] looked pleasantly human, at least as often they seem to project self-absorption, or arrogance and disdain. They bestow the kind of smile that might be a sneer. They pout and sulk. Their vanity and indifference goes with being above us all, and perhaps knowing that they can call up our adulation and worship at will. The personae in the advertisements are simply out of reach. They do not care what we think of them. Like Narcissus, they appear to live in a world of their own, enclosed in their own self-love. Unsurprisingly, the models calculated to inflame our desires lure us with youth and beauty, and it is relatively easy to see that those are desirable features. We envy those who are handsome or beautiful, graceful, well-proportioned, symmetrical, glowing with youth and health.” (Blackburn 2014: 44f)

The vain person, on the other hand, is dependent on the opinions of others, seeks approval, and lives in the eyes of others, not only oneself, like the narcissist.

This brings us to the paradox of vanity in fashion. We know we are dependent on others, and fashion is an interface which seeks the approval of others while it marks aspiration and distinction. Indeed, fashion is by its very nature social and heteronomous, yet we sneer at this dependency and fashion promotes its denial. This dynamic tension is at the heart of fashion – it promises independence in a realm which is explicitly contingent on the affirmation of our peers.

This tension is also something fashion media plays with,  and the icy expression of models plays its part, as Blackburn notices,

“[the model] need not smile at us-indeed, to promote this kind of illusion, she must not smile at us-because that would be a gesture of recognition and reciprocity, and the fantasy she is inducing is one in which there is no commerce with people like ourselves. By buying the produce, the promise whispers, we can transcend our everyday dependencies on one another and rise to join the royalty ans the gods, a higher place where we too can afford to ignore the herds below.” (Blackburn 2014: 46)

Fashion sells an asymmetry, a promise of aesthetic sovereignty: if I am popular and have status, I do not need to give anything back, yet others will adore me. This is a special form of social and aesthetic sovereignty, the sneering affirmation of the pedestal; you must recognize me, while I don’t need to recognize you.

But paradoxically, I would not think it simply a matter of domination or the thrill of feeling superior. Fashion is more complex than that, and it is more seductive than mere violence. Instead, this aesthetic sovereignty may resonate with Bataille’s production of sovereignty through the acts and rituals of expenditure which dissolves the self into a an intensity of unity. This may be the “oceanic” feeling of fashion: of being seen in a way that transcends boundaries, expanding the self (as discussed earlier).

The aesthetic sovereignty and vanity in fashion is not a property, but an ever-intensifying hunger for connection; impossible, unrealizable. It is the physical intensity of affirmative bodily pleasures, the ecstasy of existing in others. As Bataille writes, “Sovereignty is the object which eludes us all, which nobody has seized and which nobody can seize for this reason: we cannot possess it, like an object, but we are doomed to seek it.” (2012: 193f)



Bataille, George (2012) Literature and Evil, London: Penguin classics

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