Riding ensemble belonging to Eleanor Hewitt ca. 1896. Image credit: Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of the Princess Viggo in accordance with the wishes of the Misses Hewitt, 1931
Fashion and philosophy have a fraught history. For philosophy, fashion has come to represent surface appearances—a far cry from the inner truth of objects that philosophy sets its sights on. New School Onassis Lecturer in Ancient Greek Thought and Language Gwenda-lin Grewal has a different view. She argues in her new book Fashion | Sense (Bloomsbury 2022) that the pair share an intricate history. Grewal sat down with four students from her class on the subject, Jack Condie, Nicholas Dagher, Noah Kupper, and Quinn Mason, for a Public Seminar conversation about the book.
Public Seminar [PS]: You start the book by saying that it isn’t an academic work in “the traditional sense” and continue in a poetic and ironic style, as if you were writing Rousseau’s essay to the Academy or taking on the Dandy’s “elegant fuck you.” Is this a fair assessment of your work?
Gwenda-lin Grewal [GG]: I suppose the book is a kind of fuck you to the Academy. But it is also, in the same style as Rousseau, an elevation of the Academy as the place within which it is supposed to be acceptable to critique oneself and one’s thinking. You could say there are two levels to it. The first is I’m arguing that fashion is inescapable, just as the poetic is inescapable. Academics typically think that you can’t judge a book by its cover, which presumes that you can actually get inside. And of course, every inquiry has to presume an interior beyond what’s apparent. But this quest for the inside is itself a certain fashion, and so you can’t escape fashion, especially when you think you can escape it. The poetic intrudes without you even realizing it. The other level is that, having recognized this, you can play with the poetic–amp it up, embellish a fashion that’s already inescapable and already working on you.So, this is a playful critique of the Academy done from within the Academy, and the Academy always stands in this tenuous position: on the one hand, outside and, on the other hand, it always runs the risk of becoming its own inside, which threatens the outsiders that are included within it. And that’s what the book is meant to provoke: thoughtfulness surrounding the fact that the Academy is really never supposed to be an “in crowd,” and yet this is the motion that it always goes towards—towards excluding people.
PS: Music, poetry, and fashion find themselves running together a lot in the book. Do you consider yourself a philosopher or are you a composer, designer, or poet perhaps?
GG: I would say that the word “philosopher” is a kind of outfit. It is an oxymoron to call oneself a philosopher. To be a philosopher is to be an amateur; it’s not to be a professional. To give it a title takes philosophy to a level that it can never reach unless it ceases to be what it is—namely, the activity of someone who is perpetually going back to the beginning and wondering about things from a perspective of the absolute non-expert.
About music: argument itself seems to have a musicality to it—it has rhythm and melodic progression—and that runs alongside the spirit of fashion. Why do you wear certain things? They seem to call out to you with an allure that speaks on the same level as music. To the ordinary academic, that sounds like rhetoric, and so it’s much better to play that down and make things seem like they’re absolutely rational, like they don’t hit the ear in a certain way and have a certain sound that makes you want to think them. Because that would be seduction rather than carefully reasoned argument. But can you have rational argument that frees itself from music without creating a new kind of avant-garde music that, even though it ceases to call itself music, still has a kind of musicality to it—still has an attraction that makes people want to sing songs in that way in order to be heard in a certain way? It looks like fashion is always interfering, and so philosophy never achieves a position where it can say what it’s doing without posing.
PS: Fashion in your mind doesn’t have a concrete beginning. Our desire to posit one seems to be connected to the wish to be naked, free of artifice and somehow completely ourselves. What is it that motivates your distrust of origin stories?
GG: Time is what motivates my distrust—because wherever there is time, there is death. If only you could pull yourself out of time and style yourself in the perfect outfit that would find itself at home in every situation, just as a theory that would find itself at home with every case study so that nothing would be an exception. Maybe academics are more comfortable saying “time is a problem” because it sounds more serious than “fashion is a problem.” But I think that fashion, in its most basic sense, has everything to do with change, and so with time. It makes you think at one moment you need to look a certain way, and then at another moment it tells you, no, actually you should look another way. It’s not hard to see that lots of things work that way—politics, for example. Fashion is a kind of playful version of politics. But also, thinking. The longing for something timeless seems to be what enables thinking. If there wasn’t a perpetual uneasiness or uncertainty in thinking, everything would already be sorted out. Then, there would be no fun and no fashion. The distrust and pleasure of thinking are unfortunately wedded, and the longing to pry them apart is an old longing—as old as human beings. This is the same as this longing to be free of fashion.
PS: Absolute nudity appears to be an obstacle for any philosophical or scientific inquiry. The phenomena that we seek to explain are always clothed in an exteriority prompting us to go deeper. Why is it that fashion is so crucial for us in our quest for truth?
GG: Fashion seems to be equivalent to the inescapability of perspective. It would be great if you could come at a question from a wayless way, but then it wouldn’t present itself as a question, because the whole point of a question is that there’s something missing, something that makes you wonder, and so you can’t quite see the fashion in which you’re coming at it, which is why you ask the question. The phenomena are always “clothed” because phainomena, “the things which appear,” cannot show themselves as the way things are. But what is so interesting about that is that we know about appearances. Talk about something that philosophy has missed: the fact that fashion is known as fashion is amazing. It’s like saying that you know that there is more to things than meets the eye—that you can think about covering, and so the possibility of uncovering. Phenomenology is on that wavelength, but so is the very ordinary phenomenon of fashion. Fashion generates questions of appearance versus reality, of immersion in time, of mortality. It is one of the ordinary ways in which philosophy shows itself to everyone, not just to high-falutin “philosophers.”
PS: How do you understand the relationship between fashion and autonomy?
GG: What’s so damning about the way that academics view fashion is that it demeans the very ordinary experience of expressing yourself through clothes. The act of going shopping for something new can give you a feeling of openness about your identity. Academics say in various ways that this experience is fake, and so deny the relevance of choosing your clothing and being the person that you’ve “composed.” But if it were the case that clothes were nothing and you could get past them, then I think the world would be a different place; maybe it would be a better place. But the reality is that appearance is something that cannot be gotten past; appearance is the way that things always come at you. The experience of your autonomy remains connected to this experience of yourself as an appearance, because when you experience yourself as an appearance you also experience yourself as something more. I think fashion and autonomy are linked in that way. Fashion is always threatening to undermine autonomy but also always presenting you with the opportunity of taking it back. That is what’s lost when you say fashion is just for shallow people, it’s only about appearances, or that it doesn’t have anything to do with reality. I think quite the opposite—fashion has everything to do with reality and everything to do with the experience of your own reality.
PS: Baldness and a full head of hair are both considered fashionable, but the middle—incomplete —stage of balding is considered unfashionable. Can you say more about the ways that our bodies change in time and their relationship to the fashionable?
GG: “Balding” is a metaphor for the loss of something that you can’t control. Fashion can do one of two things in the face of this loss; it can say decay is bad and then try to fix you in a state of eternal youth, which you would think would be like Benjamin Button, where you get younger and younger until you’re an infant. But it’s not that, it is just getting younger until you’re at an ageless point, which is not quite middle-aged, but just before middle-aged, where you’re at your peak, right before you start to decay. Fashion can work on you in that way. But it can also take something that was previously thought to be a conventional sign of decay and turn it into a sign of control over decay—like Nicole Richie dying her hair silver. So, instead of “letting” your hair turn grey, you “turn” it grey; instead “letting” your head go bald, you shave it all off. There’s also something called “grandmacore,” where you take on grandma’s style: big grandma glasses, the knit grandma cardigan, and then you bake a lot and make cookies and warm drinks that a grandma might serve—and that’s grandma, made cool and fashionable. So, the moment you label incompleteness as undesirable, fashion can take it and say, actually that’s super cool, we all want to look incomplete. It’s like ripped jeans.
PS: What do attempts to collapse the physical and digital—for example, trying to imitate digital filters in real life with plastic surgery, or the rise of the metaverse—mean for fashioning oneself in the future?
GG: Well, now you can buy virtual fashion. That is, not an outfit in the real world but a digital Prada dress for your avatar to make yourself look cool on screen. This is the sign of a freaky thing—that social media pretends to give you complete control over the way that you appear. You seem to occupy a meta position, where everyone is your puppet, and you play god with your avatar. You can make yourself say, “I went to this place” and, “This is what I think about it,” and constantly edit your life. But this comes with the danger of a detachment from the world through your reflection on it—a danger that is latent in philosophy, too. You can pull yourself back from the world so much that you cease to remember what it feels like to occupy it. You forget ordinary desires; you forget all the things that are really relevant to the experience of the world. But I think there is something about the physicality of clothing that stops you from going insane—it tethers you to something. Because if you totally define yourself through an evanescent object, you can lose track of reality. That’s why I hate Zoom.
PS: You reference James Baldwin’s concept of “the uniform” as the capacity “to pass among others by being perceived to be one of them.” However, some people cannot wear certain clothing due to a variety of different circumstances. Is fashion always discriminatory of people who are unable to fit its definitions?
GG: Another thing that people don’t like about fashion is that it seems to perpetuate prejudices and stereotypes even when it tries not to. What does fashion work on the basis of? Models. What are models? Not reality. Models are the things that particular people can’t ever be. And so, fashion creates a divide between how things are presented by corporations, runway shows, and magazine ads, and what’s really possible. But, to undermine stereotypes and prejudices, you have to have them. So what fashion also presents you with is the possibility of upending its modeling.
If you really want to be a designer that speaks to a variety of people, you must keep changing, keep undermining the very thing you put out there. Otherwise you will alienate all the people who don’t fit the pattern. Thinking works that way too—if you believe your own ideas too much, they become a pattern, and you end up looking like a trope, or a spokesperson for a certain way of thinking. The thing to do is to always undermine the things you thought you were certain about. This is why there is no such thing as a philosopher, because theories about the world inevitably fail, because things are never the way that a model presents them—certainly not appearances. Fashion, then, is always discriminatory, but in a fickle way, because it can always change its views.
PS: There is an explicit link you draw between pregnancy, thinking, and politics. You mention the program of eugenics in the Republic as an attempt to control births as well as thoughts. Do you see any connection between this and the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade?
GG: Is the wish to control birth, no matter the outcome, a tyrannical wish to control the things that come to be in the world? In the Republic, the thought is that if you could control sex and poetry, then theoretically you’d be able to control babies and thoughts. To connect this to fashion, if, from the get-go, the closet is empty and you fill it with only a certain type of brand from whatever city—for example, just Athenian clothes and only certain lines from Homer—then you could theoretically control the variety of patterns that get generated and worn. But that only works if the closet is empty in a positive sense, in the sense of being blank. Blank is like nudity. The problem of the city, however, is that nothingness eludes the imagination as something positive. You never know what you’re going to get from a birth. You can’t control it. When one puts it in that way, the Supreme Court looks foolish because: what do you mean control birth by law? That’s nuts—as if we understand the cosmic mechanisms of what makes things come to be and pass away! To me, this just proves that the majority of them didn’t read Antigone. In the famous “Ode to Man,” the chorus sings that the one thing humans can’t control is generation. If only they could, then tyrants would have a field day and supreme courts could do whatever they wanted with conception. This is the very danger of the Academy, too—that it comes to think that “conception” can be controlled, that “babies” can be delivered in a certain way without being dressed, delivering them sort of nudely. Fashion, however, now looking more like philosophy, is prone to question its own babies, which makes it appear more thoughtful than the polis and the Academy.
Click here to read an excerpt from Fashion | Sense, courtesy of Gwenda-lin Grewal and Bloomsbury Academic.
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) and Thinking of Death in Plato’s Euthydemus (Oxford University Press, 2022).
Jack Condie is an MA student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research
Nicholas Dagher is pursuing an MA in philosophy at the New School and is interested in the relationship between philosophy and psychoanalysis.
Noah Kupper is an MA student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research.
Quinn Mason is an MA student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research.