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From Fashion: A Manifesto, which will be published next month by Notting Hill Editions.

Enough has been said about the many ways in which fashion harms the environment, not to mention the people who make the actual clothes. It’s perhaps more useful here to try to speak about a different form of harm: self-harm by means of fashion. In psychoanalysis, if you speak to people over time it often becomes apparent that their relationship with the things they wear isn’t easy. Perhaps they feel that everyone else is better dressed than them, or they overspend, or they get into relentless cycles of ordering and returning, or they wear their mother’s designer hand-me-downs and feel annoyed and resentful.

In my analytic practice I once worked with a woman who went on a massive spending spree the week before she made a serious suicide attempt. After coming out of the hospital, she returned some of the clothes, but kept a cashmere coat as a kind of memento. She saw the two activities—shopping and taking an overdose—as being closely linked, as if the shopping had been a milder form of self-harm; an attempt to stave off the later, more damaging one.

To understand this, we can turn to Jacques Lacan’s seminal 1949 essay on the “mirror stage.” At the risk of oversimplifying, a human infant is uncomfortable in its own skin, which is why it cries so much. A baby can’t control anything much, certainly not its own body, and just has to scream and hope for the best. Then, at around six months—once their nascent cognitive faculties are sufficiently up and running—they are suddenly able to grasp the notion that the thing they see reflected back in a mirror is them. Not only that, but these creatures that circle around them—their family or whoever—are separate from them. Even more amazingly, they themselves are one of these beings.

This is an incredibly exciting revelation for a baby. The image it sees in the mirror appears more advanced and more perfect than the messy reality it inhabits; the reflection is a promise of future mastery. There’s a moment of absolute jubilation . . . followed by a lifetime of disappointment caused by trying to live up to the promise of that moment. That’s the tragedy of the human condition, according to Lacan: constant alienation. The mirror image helps us to understand something about what we are, but it also condemns us to constantly fall short of our own expectations.

Fashion both exploits and alleviates this situation, because of its dual structure of enjoyment and suffering, pleasure and pain, irritation and relief. On the one hand, you have the side of fashion that actually helps us to enjoy inhabiting our bodies. Clothes can conceal the bits you feel ashamed of and accentuate the bits you’re proud of. They give us different shapes and colors to experiment with, offering a general defamiliarizing effect which can be an incredible relief, even if it’s only temporary.

But on the other hand, there’s this system called fashion that isn’t really about clothes in any practical sense, but about the endless replacement of clothes by other clothes. The system of constant, regular change means that there’s always a new thing out there to identify with—an image that invites us to inhabit it. We see this newly introduced style of clothing, and a person looking really good in it—really complete, possibly a bit self-satisfied—and think: “Wow, if I wore something like that I too might feel happy with myself.” It sounds idiotic, but of course it’s not—it’s just a re-dramatization of that fundamentally structuring infantile moment of excitement and recognition. You can put new clothes on and enjoy the satisfying alienation. You’re temporarily Other to yourself. Not for long, but just long enough to get a bit of relief. It’s a little Cinderella-like—especially when the magic eventually wears off.

Through new clothes, we are offered the promise of an immaculate, unbroken body which we invest in and inhabit, until its novelty wanes and our bodies begin to fragilize once again. Any fashion item, from the moment it appears, openly betrays a trace of its future unfashionableness. The freshest, most desirable garment has its fate written all over it. The “failed” clothes are then cast out and new ones brought in to fulfill the old ones’ promises. But perhaps the potentially endless disappointment of this scheme is redeemed by the secret pleasure with which the disastrous ex-fashion is discarded. What if waste was a delicious revenge against clothing for its failure to make us feel good about ourselves? Whereas the fashion system may at first seem to be attempting to control loss by always having something new with which to replace the discarded object, loss may in fact be controlling the system. Instead of being a byproduct, the debris of fashion may in fact be its primary driving force.

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March 2023

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