Image: Cover of Gwenda-lin Grewal’s Fashion | Sense (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022)

The following text is excerpted from “Fashion Sense,” the first chapter of Gwenda-lin Grewal’s new book, Fashion | Sense: On Philosophy and Fashion (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022).

φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεῖ1

—Heraclitus, Fragment B123 DK

It is time to come out of the closet. This is not an academic book in the traditional sense. It is written by an academic who is interested in the question: is there an academic “look,” particularly for so-called philosophers? Is there a look that says, “I’m good at looking?” And is it the only look with which one can address the truth?

The question is partly motivated by another question: Why do most philosophers hate clothes—or rather, hate fashion? The majority rule seems to be to treat the outer surface with either ritual formality or complete derision, as if the less you comb your hair the closer you are to truth. For a philosopher in search of reality, any sort of keeping up appearances looks laced with madness. Those who appear interested in making fashion statements run the risk of being accused of wasting time on shallow things, and so, being slipshod thinkers. Smart people know you can’t judge a book by its cover. Things are not always what they seem. Caring about fashion for its own sake—or appearance for appearance’s sake—is surely the greatest of all sophistry. It is superficial, shallow, vain. But isn’t it strange to live a life of careful observation—you could say, a life that treats the world with kid gloves—and yet, to have no care for what you wear? Maybe it is simply that, in their longing not to be particular about being, philosophers hate putting themselves together. The very word “philosopher” is almost an insult—as if you could identify the person who is busy identifying everything else. Philosophers are anonymous, their appearances out of fashion.

But philosophers are not alone in fearing being seen with too many flounces and frills. Many people swear by fashion’s insignificance: it is too contrived, too arbitrary, too much a sign of vanity. Fashion is excess, for changeability alone does not condemn it, but a surplus of changeability beyond perceived necessity. Fashion flits about after shiny things, like a magpie or jackdaw adorning a nest. At the same time, it teeters perilously close to extremes, unsure if one more pleat won’t push it over the edge from tasteful to trendy. But this reveals another feature of fashion. Installed within its very compass is the “sense” that to appear too preoccupied with itself would be unfashionable. Fashion is about judgment. Its gavel comes down with bristly adjectives: looking “good,” looking “right,” even looking “just right.”

So strong is the impulse of sartorial morality that it is difficult in praising clothes not to use such adjectives as “right,” “good,” “correct,” “unimpeachable,” or “faultless,” which belong properly to the discussion of conduct, while in discussing moral shortcomings we tend very naturally to fall into the language of dress and speak of a person’s behaviour as being shabby, shoddy, threadbare, down at heel, botched, or slipshod. (Bell 1948: 14)

Fashion operates according to weather and essence. It speaks of seasons, occasions, essentials, and basics, as if the cogent wearer would be a master of contingency or a conqueror of fortune.3 Still, if the variety or number of clothes in excess is all we mean when we utter the word “fashion” in its profane sense, why do we persist in keeping our options open when we dress ourselves? Are philosophers, in their scorn for the endless permutations that fashion represents, resistant to freedom? Or is it the specific sort of freedom that fashion’s excessive options signify, over and against the tasteful refinement of the literary elite? Is fashion too vulgar, too demotic for the thoughtful? But again, fashion itself is compelled not to transgress certain unwritten limits. Firstly, everything cannot be worn at once. In the distinction between fast fashion and haute couture or runway and ready-to-wear lies the equivalent of those distinctions in philosophy between philosophy and political philosophy or metaphysics and physics.

Yet, what if, regardless of social or economic status, regardless of political or professional affiliation, regardless of cultural background, religion, or identity—what if something powerful lurks in the experience of taking off and putting on clothes? I do not yet mean to enter or exit Eden. I mean by “clothes” something that may well prove evanescent—something more or less like an awareness of our presence in some skin—signified, too, by body paint, piercings, tattoos, haircuts, or even simple gestures. The flourish of a pen fashions as does the tip of a finger pointing. When these flourishes—these clothes—touch us with even the slightest bit of excess, we are made aware of our “bodies” as a surface, and by extension, of the appearance of our “selves.” The self, understood as an appearance, like an ill-fitting word or split seam, comes along with an awareness of being in space and time. And so, I hesitate to say, fashion and philosophy enter the scene at the same moment. Clothes, insofar as they make us aware of our appearances, are requisite for the experience of self-examination. They are an alienated contact with the self, gained through the strange shell of fabricated “not-us” that gives birth to the Cartesian doubt that “we” are other than it. But the question of this book, which will remain in between the lines for some time, is how this experience of ourselves as contingently clothed, and so necessarily present, begins.

© Gwenda-lin Grewal, July 14, 2022, Fashion | Sense: On Philosophy and Fashion, Bloomsbury Academic.

Click here to read an interview about Fashion | Sense between Gwenda-lin Grewal and New School students Jack Condie, Nicholas Dagher, Noah Kupper, and Quinn Mason.

Gwenda-lin Grewal is the Onassis Lecturer in Ancient Greek Thought and Language at the New School for Social Research and author of Fashion | Sense (Bloomsbury, 2022).