When looking at one’s self from the mirror, the perspective that one is given is that of someone looking from the outside. However, unlike when looking at another person, the reaction that one might have is the thought “that is me?” Notice the inflection that denotes a question as represented by particular punctuation. The ‘?’ signifies more than just a mere question.
A signifier is a sign’s physical form (think of a word printed on paper) and is distinct from its meaning, or the signified. For example, the word “duck” printed on paper is a sign that causes us to think of our own mental representation, or concept, of what a duck is. Of course, the signified doesn’t have to necessarily correspond to things in the world. (I dare you to not think of a pink elephant!)
The image we see when we look at ourselves in the mirror, i.e., from the outside, is a kind of signifier. Reflecting on what it feels like to look at one’s self in the mirror and ask “that is me?” makes it apparent that what we see in the mirror signifies something that seems to differ from the way we feel inside. It can be a kind of idealization of who we are–an ideal self. (Note that “ideal” does not necessarily mean morally perfect, or desirable. It is more accurate to say that it acts more as a model to organize one’s self around, whether for good or bad.)
It was previously explained that through language, or a set of signifiers, children progress from the instinctually driven phase of the semiotic to the goal-directed and intentional phase of the symbolic, which Lacan called the mirror stage, as it is the achievement of symbolic thought, of mental representation, that ushers in the awareness of one’s self.
Thus, the image we see looking back at us does not match what we feel from the inside. We feel a kind of incongruence–an incongruence between the signifier and the signified, the object and its concept, the real and the ideal. Where does this felt sense come from?
To answer that question, we need to think about what motivates us. An intuitive notion of motivation is that we act for reasons. After all, it seems like our actions are goal-directed as opposed to being random or driven by instinct. For the longest time, philosophers have debated about the kinds of reasons that have the force to drive action. Some believe that this force comes from inner desires. David Hume famously expressed that reason is the “slave of the passions”, meaning that reason does not sit in the driver’s seat of action. Rather, it serves as a guide.
Those who thought that reason was, or ought to be, in the drivers seat of rational decision making asserted that reasons must be external. Therefore, being rational requires doing certain things, regardless of whether or not we want to do them. However, folks who advocated this view failed to explain how these kinds of reasons can have any kind of influence on action whatsoever if being motivated to do something isn’t a requirement for doing it. What’s worse, how on Earth could moral realism–the belief that at least somethings are morally required, morally permissible, or morally impermissible all the time, everywhere, and for everyone–be feasible?
Immanuel Kant addressed this issue by arguing that being sensitive and responsive to moral reasons is built into the structure of the mind. In other words, part of what it means to be a person is to be able to recognize, be motivated by, and act on moral reasons. Lacan’s position was that the formation of the psyche, or mind, begins before the child is even born, and through the constant signification of norms and values, the self emerges.
Like Kant, Simon Critchleyargued that moral values are critical to the kinds of things we are, and the morality we structure ourselves around produces a sense of a coherent self. Thus, to be human is to be value driven. For Critchley, the kind of thing that we are is a moral subject that is both generating morality from within and is at the same time being created by it in a kind of feedback loop. Why? Because if a moral demand is to be placed on a subject, that subject must already exist in order to recognize and approve of the demand, and those demands must come form other subjects who are also created by and create said values simultaneously. Stated differently, we are constituted by the values we create via our actions which include our words, gestures and expressions–one of those expressions being the way we dress.
Therefore, fashion is a way of embodying our values. It is important for the realization of our sense of self in the pursuit of our ideal selves. Given the conclusion, it would also stand to reason that a part of caring for one’s self is caring for one’s own presentation.