The Philosophy and Psychology of Fashion (Part 1)

The “mirror stage” is a period in our development when we can (figuratively or literally) look at ourselves in the mirror and realize that the person staring back at us is us. It is when our awareness of ourselves, our sense of self, emerges and remains with us–typically for the rest of our lives. However, this mirror stage doesn’t begin until around 18-24 months of age, so what was life like before?

Jacques Lacan  (1901-1981) was one of the great psychoanalysts who popularized the idea of the mirror stage. Before the mirror stage, the ego (or self) has not yet emerged, so the child is not able to see herself as an individual separate from the rest of the world. She is, in a sense, one and whole with the world around her. But then, as the child acquires language, she begins to use symbols to communicate her needs and desires.

Developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) pointed out that the language that is initially directed externally to elicit action from more competent others in order to satisfy the child’s needs begins to turn inward when those others are not always readily available, and so an internally directed, private speech develops. Through private speech, she begins to talk to herself in a way that helps her develop symbolic thought–mental representations–not merely of things in the world, but also of herself.

It is at this point that the ego and the id begin their dance with one another in her psyche. The ego promises a sense of a more unified subjectivity while the id continues to exist in the shadows, striving to drive the child to act through raw instinct.

For Lacan, our true selves lie beneath what our egos project to ourselves and to the world. We may consider our stream of consciousness to flow in an organized and fluid manner, but when we really take the time to just observe, the stream of consciousness is a tangled, disorderly mess of loosely connected (and sometimes conflicting) thoughts, feelings, and impulses. What contributes to the concealment of this chaos is viewing ourselves from the outside.

What we see in the mirror, for example, doesn’t always give us a picture of the way we feel ourselves to be from the inside. One of the ways we use to convey to the world our sense of our inner selves is through our dress. Fashion can be seen as a mode of being, an expression of who we are on the inside for the whole world to see. Of course, not everyone is going to be true to themselves in their expression. Sometimes people conform to cultural ideals that don’t necessarily ring true to who they are inside. And sometimes Society, through norms and expectations, will regulate what is and what isn’t acceptable expression.

Lacan referred to the realm we exist in as subjects as the symbolic. Before the child acquires language, she is continuous with the world but as she transitions into the symbolic realm, she becomes separated and cut off from it. The instincts and drives that once directed her movements become repressed. The distinction that emerges is what Lacan called the small other and the big other. The world at large is the big other while the self is the small other constituted by the norms, values, customs, etc. of the big other. Later, the child begins to recognize her primary caretaker as another small other much like, yet separate from, herself. In a sense, the child is not only cut off from the rest of the world, but also from other people.

If Lacan is right, then our sense of self is merely imaginary or inauthentic, and we are hopelessly alone in the universe. We can try to reach out to others with our outward expressions, but we can never communicate to others what truly lies beneath. Thus, fashion is a vain attempt at communicating an authentic self to others.

Fellow psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva (1941) believes there is a way to overcome the symbolic and its repression. Think of the time before an infant can put together complete sentences, or even words. She attempts to mobilize and vocalize, but the noises, e.g., the “goos” and the “gagas”, are unintelligible and her movements are chaotically instinctual, i.e., they are before meaning, before intention. Once the child enters the realm of the symbolic, she is in a world of meanings and those mobile patterns become goal oriented. Kristeva acknowledges Lacan’s notion of the symbolic, but she posits another of her own she calls the semiotic.

The semiotic is essentially the expression of that authentic mode of being that Lacan denied was truly expressible. It is a kind of pre-meaning that makes it possible to communicate an authentic self to the rest of the world, and she believes that it was expressed at its best through poetry and other forms of artistic expression. For the sake of argument, we will consider fashion such a form of artistic expression.

If Kristeva is correct, fashion and other forms of presentation are actually very important for reaching out to the world and establishing meaningful connections with others, though there are a couple of major problems with her ideas.

The first problem concerns the idea that there is a self that is imaginary and a “real” essence that it conceals. Kristeva, like Lacan, appears to want to have her cake and eat it, too. If it is the case that one enters and remains in the realm of the symbolic (meaning), then one’s only access to what is real is mediated through the filter of these “imaginary” representations. Also, what sense does it make to speak of repressed drives if we are always experiencing and talking about them from from the position of being repressed individuals? How does it make sense to say with any certainty that there is both a real and and an imaginary self when the only self we have access to is the imaginary one?

The semiotic necessarily depends on the symbolic for its function. After all, there is no pre-meaning, or meaning making, without there being a meaning in the first place. These criticisms were articulated by Judith Butler (1956) in her works Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter. For Butler, there is no “real” apart from the “imaginary”, there is no semiotic without the symbolic, and the norms of the big other do not just repress drives, they also generate them.

In conclusion, it is in fact possible to use fashion and other modes of expression to communicate to and bond with others. It has value and contributes to the richness of our culture and the functioning of our societies. Exactly how it can do this isn’t fully understood, but a lot of work has been done that is beginning to paint a beautiful picture for us.


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