Why think about philosophy and fashion together and why do it now? Why is it immediately odd to even consider such a project? There are a great many reasons, but one of the most profound is the traditional prejudice in philosophy against the body, or against thinking the body and the material world as the origin of all philosophical activity. This prejudice has a misogynist flavor, or a feminist one, depending on which side of the fence one stands. However, the knife cuts both ways. In the present day and age the study of fashion at the academic level is well-established (see Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Social Theory, Wiley, 2015), yet no fashion studies scholar ever includes philosophy in the list of disciplines that she draws from in her analysis. This is not to say that none are cited or employed, but more so that when a fashion studies scholar is listing the fields from which her interdisciplinary work derives, philosophy is curiously left out. This puts me in a funny situation because I am a philosopher who cares about fashion and finds it of deep philosophical importance, now more than ever. I say this because both fashion and philosophy, when thought together, have a great capacity to speak to and perhaps even positively effect the deep ecological and socio-economic situation(s) that we now find ourselves in vis-à-vis a variety of global ethical crises including, but not limited to, global warming, exploitation of (mostly female) labor in non-western countries (precipitated by the model of slave labor in the west), and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in the United States and Europe. Thinking philosophy and fashion together inevitably leads us to a critique of power and inequality (within a broader aesthetic discourse) and to issues of human dignity in relation to the ordering/manipulation of space and time.
The task of philosophy, or the method, as it were, is to ask the right kinds of questions. So to embark on a philosophy of fashion is to first pose a number of questions, some of which are embedded in the theses or claims that I have roughly sketched above. First of all, why should fashion matter to philosophy? I have answered, briefly, because of the body — because the body is first and foremost the origin and site wherefrom philosophy springs. But here we reach a very tough knot. What is a philosopher’s body? This is a very important question. In a documentary titled Derrida (2002) in response to the question, “What philosopher would you choose to be your mother?” Jacques Derrida responds:
It is impossible for me to have any philosopher as a mother. My mother couldn’t be a philosopher. A philosopher couldn’t be my mother. That’s a very important point. Because the figure of the philosopher is for me always a masculine figure. This is one of the reasons I undertook the deconstruction of philosophy — all the deconstruction of phallogocentrism is the deconstruction of what one calls philosophy, which since its inception has been linked to a paternal figure. So a philosopher is a father, not a mother. So the philosopher that would be my mother would be a post-deconstructive philosopher, that is, myself or my son. My mother as a philosopher would be my granddaughter, for example. An inheritor. A woman philosopher who would reaffirm the deconstruction. And consequently, would be a woman who thinks. Not a philosopher. I always distinguish thinking from philosophy. A thinking mother — it’s what I both love and try to give birth to.
It is crucial that here Derrida describes the philosopher as being always a masculine figure. This gendered difference (or differánce in Derrida’s sense), is the site of the disjunction of thinking philosophically about fashion. Philosophy, as paternal, as white and hegemonic and phallogocentric, prides itself on looking beyond appearances, into being (or Being), while fashion is especially and particularly concerned with appearances, and is predominantly thought of as wholly feminine. And thus any project on philosophy and fashion is necessarily a project about sexual and gendered differánce as the source of this disjunction.
In an essay titled “Dressing Up Dressing Down: The Philosophic Fear of Fashion” (Hypatia, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1990) Karen Hanson makes a similar point to the one I am after. She begins: “There is, to all appearances, a philosophic hostility to fashionable dress.” She shows how this hostility is linked to philosophy’s professed concern for what is essential, its inquiry into essences. She interprets this as responsible for an eschewal of all that is deemed “inessential,” i.e., to do with appearances and the body, gender and desire. “Philosophy’s drive to get past what it takes to be the inessential has usually been linked with a denial or devaluation of what it has typically associated with the woman.” And what has been typically associated with the woman is this notion of change for the sake of change, i.e., irrational change or irrational desire, passivity as a pleasure of being looked at and gazed upon, and relatedly, with an intense (and radically misinterpreted) narcissism. These sets of problems sync up with age-old pernicious dualisms: soul/body, active/passive, masculine/feminine. What is called for here too, is a deconstruction of these dualisms through a sustained meditation on fashion. Hanson is careful to warn us, however, that the answer is not for those who desire a deeper interpretation of the significance of fashion to look to philosophy for support, i.e., for (male- or female-identified) feminists to reify the significance of a delight in fashion with hegemonic philosophical modes of inquiry. Rather, she insists that “feminism could rather teach philosophy some lessons.” What are these lessons? In Hanson’s words the key lesson is for “philosophy — with the help of feminism — … [to] be brought to terms with our embodiment.” And the pay-off, she suggests, will be for philosophy to “learn how to participate happily, deriving appropriate if ephemeral satisfactions, in fashion’s fickle embrace.”
Hanson and Derrida are therefore great places to start because both call for a deconstruction of traditional philosophy. I would like to take their claims further by marrying them, if you will, in a sustained critique of both fashion and philosophy as peculiar and related systems of sexual differánce. This entails initially linking up Derrida’s thoughts on sexual differánce and deconstruction explicitly with fashion. This is important because it will force us to situate both fashion and philosophy as historically conditioned and situated bodily practices (Entwistle makes this point). This also allows us to perform a philosophy of fashion, as Hanson suggests philosophy ought to do, with the help of what might be considered “feminist” principles. Indeed, in a sense this queerly arranged marriage will stand as proof of a transformed philosophical attitude towards fashionable dress. However, it is crucial to consider whether or not philosophy remains philosophy after such a radical deconstruction of its oldest prejudices and biases. The key to maintaining philosophical face here will hinge upon the claim that Derrida is wrong to suggest that philosophy is always already a masculine tradition, i.e., that there cannot be female philosophers, only “thinking mothers.” I mean he could have simply answered “Diotima” or “Virginia Woolf” or “Simone de Beauvoir.” In order to make this point, one would have to turn to the history of philosophy.
I believe that it is crucial to bring to light important ways that philosophy has thought about fashion and dress, especially in relation to the structuring of production and consumption and social ordering based both upon sexual/gendered distinctions and upon considerations of how time and space are/might be/have been structured. I anchor the bases for these claims in a quasi-Freudian explanation of original bisexuality. Or rather I believe that being is essentially multiply-sexed and -gendered and that this has been evident in the philosophic tradition since at least the time of Plato. Nevertheless it has taken a good two thousand years for us to be able to begin to understand how forces that are constitutively comingled and dynamic have been categorically separated out, isolated, and reified, not only through the philosophic tradition of thought but also through the fashion system of dress practices. Such reification also entails a similarly arbitrary and concrete conception of time and space (which can really be evidenced in fashion’s manipulation/ordering of time along decades and its rapid multiplication of “fashion weeks”).
What these reifications both in fashion and philosophical practices amount to is the global problem of what the philosopher and psychoanalyst (and interpreter of Derrida) Alan Bass calls “concreteness.” Concreteness is a resistance to plastic or imaginative thinking that reifies existing structures and patterns of thought and action. What is peculiar about both fashion and philosophy is that, on the one hand, they are both plagued by this concreteness, and on the other, both provide examples of the kind of ingenuity required to break out of it. This is one of the main upshots of thinking the two together. And we should not see this as so radically divergent from a reimagining and recasting of sexual differánce. In fact, we cannot perform the one without also performing the other.
In order to perform this philosophy of fashion or deconstruction of philosophy through fashion, one should take seriously fashion theorist Susan Kaiser’s injunction to “mix metaphors in ways that enable critical and creative understandings of the pleasures and power relations associated with how we dress or style our appearances in everyday life” (Fashion and Cultural Studies, Berg, 2011). Two particularly useful metaphors are those of text and textile. Indeed, texts and textiles are, in Derrida’s words, “la meme tissue.” The story of cloth is as old as the story of the text — there are piercings, interlacings, transactions, transpositions, finite and infinite crossings, goings under and over, stains, rips, tears, holes, seams, and on and on. This is at the cellular level. And let us never forget that our skin is the largest organ on our bodies and that we clothe it in texts and textiles from beginning to end. Imbricated in this weaving is the transposition, the warp and the weft, of the binary oppositions that perform the fabric of being and time — masculine/feminine, active/passive, thinking/acting, rational/irrational, natural/artificial. Texts and textiles, writing and weaving, create bodies, social fabrics, identities, cultures, and positions of dominance and subjugation. If we are to create or bring about new, more ethical, more historically conscious, social and political ways of being with one another in the world, we must consider the writing of new texts as consubstantial with the weaving of new fabrics. And since so much waste has already been generated in both realms, a reappropriation, not just a recycling, of old texts, textiles, and techniques is absolutely necessary.