“Fashion is like sex.” This is how Alessandro Michele, designer and figurehead for Gucci, unpacks the brand’s recent collection, titled “Gucci Orgasmique.” To assure that title is not merely a shallow provocation to our southern sensibilities, Michele further posits how fashion “is like an orgasm. It can be so fast, but it can be so deep.”
Tying fashion to sex is nothing new. Indeed, there is a whole tradition of psychoanalysts since Freud who has never shied away from seeing through clothes and reading sex through dress. Freud famously saw castration anxiety in high heels, and John Flugel recognized how dress is the meandering compromise between exhibitionism and sexual desires versus social prohibitions in The Psychology of Clothes (1930). Edmund Bergler saw Western desires of dress after Freud’s models in Fashion and the Unconscious (1953), and more recently Alison Bancroft calls upon Lacan to unpack Haute Couture in Fashion and Psychoanalysis (2012). The list can go on. As fashion scholar Valerie Steele points out, it seems that both psychoanalysts and fashion designers have an insatiable hunger to fetishize dress, which makes sexual subcultures keep being remixed into each new cycle of fashion.
This brings us back to Michele’s explanation of the Gucci collection. It is already widely known that fashion can be fast. Indeed, the whole current model of fashion builds on streamlined production and distribution, quick satisfaction and disposal. Few consumers hook up with their garments long enough for uninvited moths to come visit the subconscious of our wardrobes. No customer today has any time to wait. Loyalty and patience are not rewarded.
But it is the second part of Michele’s statement that can seem confusing: in what way can fashion be “deep?” What are the depths that fashion probes into? Fashion scholar Elizabeth Wilson posits that, “Clothes without a wearer, whether on a second hand stall, or in a glass case, or merely a lover’s garment strewn on the floor, can affect us unpleasantly, as if a snake has shed its skin.” Hand-me-downs or vintage clothes, or lost garments, sometimes found on the street, could be great examples of Freud’s notion of the uncanny; anonymous, alienated, and tainted by a creeping sense of unpleasantness. There is an undecipherable depth in these skins that can sometimes make us cringe; it is as if life has run out of them. It is bodies, desire and sex that animates, that is, breathes life, into clothes and make them into fashion. Once that breath of desire is gone, it seems only sentimentality and habit have enough power to keep garments paying the high emotional rent of staying in the wardrobe’s front row.
To people with intellectual ambitions, fashion has traditionally been a subject to politely dismiss. Even in the everyday, fashion is construed as shallow, and this connotation comes almost by default. Perhaps this stems no less from our own experiences with Fashion, including the changes in styles across seasons, but perhaps even more so through the continuous situation of dressing, undressing, changing skin, buying and discarding clothes. If it seems to be lacking an essence or any permanence, how could it not be shallow? But as Oscar Wilde famously argues, “it is only shallow people who do not judge by the surface. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible”
Michele’s use of sex as metaphor for Gucci’s collection may also appear straightforward, as in today’s visual culture erotic appeal is everywhere. Movies, advertising, and seemingly all fashion media are saturated by desire and images of sellable evocations of allure. Similarly, everywhere we look, there is Fashion, and often in explicit connection to sexualized imaginaries. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, most of us know as little about sex and desire as we know about fashion — as even today, these are topics loaded with shame and awkwardness. As we avert discussion of our desires, we also fail to open up to discuss fashion. Acknowledging that one pays attention to fashion may simultaneously undermine one’s own sense of authenticity: “Am I entitled to desire?” “Are my desires too much, or perhaps not enough?” “What do my desires say to others about who I am?” “Am I not good enough”? What do I really desire? Why do I care about what so-and-so thinks about my clothing? Yet, particularly for those whose desires are often excluded, and marginalized, within the mainstream — those who have the burden and privilege to know that “normal” is never achievable — explicit engagement with the pleasures of fashion, as Madison Moore (2018) illuminates in his book Fabulous, can be a strategy and expression of self-love and resistance.
It is not uncommon to hear people say they have a “passion for fashion.” There is more than a rhyme going on in this statement. It points to how there is a deep emotional embodiment activated in dress. By essence a passion, such as an orgasm, is fast, but also, as Michele remind us, passions are also deep. When fashion works at its best, it can help fuel a rush of emotion in us. Being affirmed and being seen with the right eyes of desire can be such feeling of elevation of euphoria, but the same look, but from the wrong person, can also be uncanny and threatening. Similarly, a positive comment about a choice of clothes can feel like the best part of a day, yet a “wardrobe malfunction” can ruin a whole day, or more.
So when our parents remind their children not to judge people by their looks, while at the same time making sure they dress “appropriately,” it is the start of a paradox of dressing that follows us throughout life. On the one hand we claim we don’t care much about clothes, but on the other hand we, with sudden certainty, make sure we would never wear that. Even if most traditional rites of passage have had their importance toned down throughout modernity, they still often evoke some level of anxiety amongst users with their often vague protocols yet high social expectations, such as dress at weddings, funerals and official ceremonies. It is thus no coincidence clothes are also used for peer regulation, marking transgression through the play with humiliation, such as ridiculing a friend with outrageous dress at stag-parties or frat ceremonies. These rituals often also create long traditions of chain-humiliation: if I was subjected to such ritual of shaming, my experience will be devalued if I do not continue the tradition and shame the next in line, perhaps with even more ridicule. The power of such dress ceremonies comes from the paradoxical revelation that dress resonates with the depths of our experience, even if we may tell ourselves it does not. The aim of this series of essays on the theme of Fashion, Emotion and Self at Public Seminar is to open a discussion across the fields of fashion and psychology, grounding an understanding of fashion in everyday emotional life. While it is fruitful to think of fashion as a symbolic tool for communication, with garments representing and signaling various positions and identities, what we seek is to unpack the emotional depths that echo throughout practices of dress. While fashion may at some times animate our lives, it also expose our vulnerability. We appreciate contributions to this series at Public Seminar, to help us explore the lacunae that opens up between fashion, emotion and self.
Otto von Busch is Associate professor of Integrated Design, School of Design Strategies.
Lisa Rubin is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the New School.