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

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.

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 Parasite: Between Narcissist and Echoist

In its everyday use, narcissism is not all too good trait. The ego-centric and selfish person that lie, cheat, manipulate, and with his ot her emptiness becomes like a black hole that sucks the energy from peers and admirers, a trait Kristin Dombek has described in her The Selfishness of Others (2016). Their energy may seem charming at first, but it is because their energy is sucked from others. Narcissism is a form of vampirism, as Dombek point out, and at its worst it is a trait that turns to not only neglect others but actively hurting or even killing them.

When we look at artistic narcissists we often see creators, we think of the ego-centric original artist, the genius which radiates of expressive force. But following Dombek’s discussion, this energy always originates in theft and is sucked into the black hole that is the soul of the narcissist.

Psychologist Craig Malkin has popularized a scale of narcissism, as he follows a trail of psychologists who argue that a little bit of narcissism must exist in order to form a sense of self (Malkin 2015). In excess, the narcissist is harmful, both to self and others, but too little narcissism produces a condition which denies the self any form, a condition Malkin calls “echoism,”

“The less people feel special, the more self-effacing they become until, at last, they have so little sense of self they feel worthless and impotent. I call these people echoists” (Malkin 2015: 11)

But the scale is not a mark of essentialism – the time and context makes the self fluctuate along the continuum between narcissism and echoism. Some times we are in need of recognition and our peers support this temporal condition; they boost us before a job interview, or take care of us when we are sick, cuddling our egos they would not accept otherwise (2015: 12). Similarly, we may adjust to a new environment by tuning down the ego and try to blend in, or abate our level of social ambition. And as Malkin highlights, not all narcissists are expressively arrogant, but may be shy and withdrawn, yet still need others to see and recognize them in order to build their self-esteem. But like other traits echoism and narcissism have a tendency to turn into habits, depending on the circumstances and feedback, and can turn into more permanent features of the person.

As the level of narcissism grows in the subject, supported by the environment, the social dynamics of selfishness can grow perverted, turning into abusive demand of recognition and domination. In this way Dombek’s perspective resonates well with psychiatrist Marie-France Hirigoyen’s idea that a narcissist’s life “consists in searching for his reflection in the gaze of others,” a search that can take very abusive form (Hirigoyen 2005: 126). This becomes a perverted or reversed narcissism, as the abuser is not only self-centered, but also takes pleasure in domination and assault of others. The perverted narcissist grows the ego by humiliating others, undermining the victim’s self, and the abuse often escalates in cycles of isolation, rejection, invalidation, discreditation, in order to destroy the victim. This is the abusive narcissist, the “asymptomatic psychotics who find their equilibrium by discharging onto another person the pain they can’t feel and the internal conflicts they refuse to acknowledge. They do wrong, because they can’t exist any other way.” (Hirigoyen 2005: 143)

The rise of consumerism and social media may coincide with what Twenge has diagnosed as the “narcissism epidemic” (2009) where a focus on the self has turned up the volume of pop-existentialism into fully individualist projects of psycho-profit-maximizing subjects, feeling entitled to exclusive VIP treatment at every occasion.

But a question for a psychopolitical examination of fashion is the ambiguous relationship between echoism and narcissism and the continuous negotiation between the two poles in social relations. And perhaps paradoxically, both the echoist and narcissist can be seen as vampires as they both “steal” from their surrounding, or act as “parasites” in Michel Serres’ sense: they trade asymmetrically in social energy. The echoist copies others, “stealing looks” in the mimetic sense, while the narcissist lives on the attention of others, “stealing looks” in the sense of taking their attention. This is the magnetic energy of the narcissist, the celebrity we adore, the beautifully radiating ego “we cannot take our eyes of” – the charisma that makes us feel alive by adoring others.

It must come to this; fashion is always a form of parasitism. Fashion is always a “stolen look.”


Dombek, Kristin (2016) The Selfishness of Others, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Hirigoyen, Marie France (2005) Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity, New York: Helen Marx

Malkin, Craig (2015) Rethinking Narcissism, New York: Harper

Serres, Michel (2007) The parasite, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Twenge, Jean & Keith Campbell (2009) The narcissism epidemic: living in the age of entitlement, New York: Free Press

Status and Exclusion

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

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

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

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

Not everyone can sit at the Master’s table

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

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

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

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

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

Or worse.


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

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

The Status of the Bully

In the popular mind, bullies engage in harassing their peers to compensate for their low self-esteem. The bully is scorned by peers as much as feared, and most bystanders would just like the bullying to end.

But according to Juvonen & Graham’s research (2014) this is not true. Instead, bullies have very high self-esteem and are usually very popular: the bullies are the cool kids. Most bullying involves a combination of direct and indirect forms of undermining the victim’s social standing and self-esteem. Juvonen & Graham highlights,

“In contrast to direct confrontation (e.g., physical aggression, threats, name-calling), indirect tactics include spreading of rumors, backstabbing, and exclusion from the group. In other words, the indirect forms frequently involve relational manipulation (Crick & Grotpeter 1995). Whereas the direct forms of bullying often involve intimidating, humiliating, or belittling someone in front of an audience, the indirect forms are designed to damage the targets’ social reputation or deflate their social status while concealing the identity of the perpetrator (Bjorkqvist et al. 1992). That is, the bully is able to use the peer group as a vehicle for the attack (Xie et al. 2002) when relying on relationally indirect tactics.” (162f)

As Archer & Coyne (2005) has shown, indirect forms of relational aggression seems to become the norm amongst both boys and girls by middle adolescence, as physical aggression against their peers is less socially acceptable, but also as it requires considerably higher understanding of social relations than physical aggression.

Bullies may be cold and calculating, seek influence and want to be desired, but that does not make bullies a special asocial or rough types. Instead they are often the popular or “cool” kids in their social group.

“Not only do bullies strive to dominate, they also frequently have high social status. Beginning in elementary school, some aggressive children are considered to be popular (Rodkin et al. 2006). By early adolescence, peer-directed hostile behaviors are robustly associated with social prominence or high status (e.g., Adler&Adler 1998, Parkhurst&Hopmeyer 1998).These findings are consistent with ethological research demonstrating that aggression is a way to establish a dominant position within a group (e.g., Hinde 1974).” (164)

As Juvonen and Graham posits, there is a positive relation between aggression and high social status, which in turn means many aggressive youths have inflated perceptions of themselves (Cairns & Cairns 1994, Hymel et al. 1993). “For example, aggressive elementary school students overestimate their competencies not only in terms of their peer status but in terms of academic and athletic domains as well (Hymel et al. 1993).” (165) Similarly, the bullies experience elevated status as they engage in aggressive behavior, as most social feedback bullies receive affirm their behavior, and they thus think highly of themselves.

“Youths rarely challenge bullies by intervening when witnessing bullying incidents (e.g., O’Connell et al. 1999), although most condemn bullying behaviors (Boulton et al. 2002, Rigby&Johnson 2006). Moreover, when bullying incidents take place, some bystanders reinforce the bullies by smiling and laughing (Salmivalli et al. 1998). Although peers typically do not personally like those who bully others, they are still likely to side with the bully in part to protect their social status, reputation, and physical safety (Juvonen & Galvan 2008, Salmivalli 2010).[…] When peers do not challenge bullies’ aggressive behaviors, bullying is maintained and even reinforced by the peer collective. (165)

Applying Juvonen & Graham’s ideas (2014) to fashion may help reveal some central issues on the psychopolitics of everyday fashion. We may see how indirect or relational aggression in the social dynamics of bullying elevates the aggressor. It may also help us see also how fashion plays part in raising the popularity of the “cool” bully: he or she is “in” and the group surrounding the aggressor is most likely his or her peers (or “in-group”) – affirming the aesthetic domination of the bully by already having submitted to the sartorial codes of the group. The simple victim is the one who stands out as different, but even more provoking may be the ones who are on equal level, but refuse to submit, or the ones who seek access to the “in-group.” Here, the act of bullying may become something of rite of passage to come out “cool” on the other side: just think of the typical humiliating frat-rituals. The master-of-ceremonies (or grey-eminence behind the rituals) is often the “cool” kid waging to control access to the in-group.

It may be easy to think of bullying as something that “bad” people do, but not only do they feel good about themselves, the audience agrees to what they do too – often reinforcing the feeling of belonging to the right group. Clothes is one of the many ways to show belonging to the group, but also signaling the submission to the taste of the group, and indirectly, to the “cool” leader of the group.

Under the “shallowness” fashion can become a uniform that reinforces the affirmation of both group and obedience to the “cool” leader.


Adler PA & Adler P (1998) Peer Power: Preadolescent Culture and Identity. New Brunswick, NJ: RutgersUniv. Press

Archer J, & Coyne SM (2005) An integrated review of indirect, relational, and social aggression. Personal. Soc. Psychol. Rev. 9:212–30

Bjorkqvist K, Osterman K, Kaukiainen A (2000) Social intelligence − empathy = aggression? Aggress. Viol. Behav. 5:191–200

Bjorkqvist K, Osterman K, Lagerspetz KMJ (1994) Sex differences in covert aggression among adults. Aggress. Behav. 20:27–33

Boulton MJ, Trueman M, Flemington I (2002) Associations between secondary school pupils’ definitions of bullying, attitudes towards bullying, and tendencies to engage in bullying: age and sex differences. Educ. Stud. 28:353–70

Cairns RB & Cairns BD (1994) Lifelines and Risks: Pathways of Youth in Our Time. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Crick NR, Grotpeter JK (1995) Relational aggression, gender, and social-psychological adjustment. Child Dev. 66:710–22

Hinde RA (1974) Biological Bases of Human Social Behaviour. New York: McGraw-Hill

Hymel S, Bowker A, Woody E (1993) Aggressive versus withdrawn unpopular children: variations in peer and self-perceptions in multiple domains. Child Dev. 64:879–96

Juvonen J, Galvan A. (2008) Peer influence in involuntary social groups: lessons from research on bullying. In Understanding Peer Influence in Children and Adolescents, ed. MJ Prinstein, KA Dodge, pp. 225–44. New York: Guilford

Juvonen,Jaana & Sandra Graham (2014) “Bullying in Schools: The Power of Bullies and the Plight of Victims”, Annual Review of Psychology, 65:159–85

O’Connell P, Pepler D, Craig W. (1999) Peer involvement in bullying: insights and challenges for intervention. J. Adolesc. 22:437–52

Parkhurst JT, Hopmeyer A. (1998) Sociometric popularity and peer-perceived popularity: two distinct dimensions of peer status. J. Early Adolesc. 18:125–44

Rigby K, Johnson B. (2006) Expressed readiness of Australian schoolchildren to act as bystanders in support of children who are being bullied. Educ. Psychol. 26:425–40

Rodkin PC, Farmer TW, Pearl R, Acker RV. (2006) They’re cool: social status and peer group supports for aggressive boys and girls. Soc. Dev. 15:175–204

Salmivalli C, Lagerspetz K, Bjorkqvist K, Osterman K, Kaukiainen A. (1998) Bullying as a group process: participant roles and their relations to social status within the group. Aggress. Behav. 22:1–15

Salmivalli C. (2010) Bullying and the peer group: a review. Aggress. Viol. Behav. 15:112–20

Xie H, Swift DJ, Cairns BD, Cairns RB. (2002) Aggressive behaviors in social interaction and developmental adaptation: a narrative analysis of interpersonal conflicts during early adolescence. Soc. Dev. 11:205–24

The Emotional Vandalism of Fashion

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

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

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

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

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

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

A short note about envy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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