Fashioning Death

Gwenda-lin Grewal examines the parallels between philosophy and fashion.

Fashioning Death

THE WORD “FASHION” tends to send a chill down one’s spine. I don’t just mean for intellectuals, but in general. Fashion drums up thoughts of vanity, consumerism, superficiality, femininity, sophistry, charlatanism. Certainly, when you hear the word “fashion,” you don’t think “philosophy.”

But there’s a parallel to be made between the two — so much so that you might begin to think they’re the same thing. Like fashion, philosophy doesn’t exactly have a great reputation. It gets a bad rap for being an idle business, twiddling its thumbs in the ivory tower, thinking rather than doing, even thinking so much that it begins to think about nothing. Aristophanes pictured Socrates as an airhead: Socrates floated into the clouds in a basket, peddling vagaries and treading on air. He was also supposedly very ugly — so ugly, in fact, that when the clouds looked at him, they took on the shapes of monsters and animals. In other words, in order to see Socrates’s ugliness, you couldn’t even look directly at his face. The clouds had to tell you with beautiful images just how hideous he was.

In this regard, my recent book Fashion | Sense: On Philosophy and Fashion is about as unfashionable as it gets. It has no pictures, and I should be clear from the beginning that my interest is not in that lame subfield called “philosophy of fashion,” but rather in a parallel between philosophy and fashion. In the 19th century, Thomas Carlyle wrote a satire entitled Sartor Resartus, or “The Tailor Re-tailored,” in which an unnamed magazine editor, who is a kind of metaphorical tailor, wonders why there has not yet been a “philosophy of clothes.” The joke is that philosophy, in peeling back the surface to get to the bottom of things, has missed the surface entirely. Every layer that it peels off reveals more surfaces to peel, and not just philosophers but also scientists have missed that it is clothing all the way down.

Fashion, in this way, rivals — even mocks — philosophy, as if to dare it to prove that its inquiry is not in the end merely a superficial shroud for its own ignorance. If only there could be a theory for every example, just as there is an outfit for every occasion! If only the truth could be hit upon like the chance harmony of a good hair day! Philosophy has missed something in its sidelining of fashion — that conspicuous nothing, that egregious idling, that poetic power in which the search for truth also has a share.

Philosophy usually pretends that it doesn’t know fashion. It isn’t into covering up or adorning but, rather, stripping and laying bare. To look at the truth, you must look at it truthfully, which is to say, you must be wearing a look that is pared down to its most nude or neutral fashion. You must strip off your rose-colored glasses and all that, or at least acknowledge that you’re wearing them. You must be at leisure, too, so you aren’t swayed in one fashion more than another — precisely the kind of seduction that fashion — and fiction, for that matter — is so good at.

The trouble is just that this neutral look has its own allure. The Cynics were the original hipsters, deliberately dressing down in shabby chic garb. Diogenes Laërtius tells a story about Socrates seeing Antisthenes reveal a hole in his jacket. “I see your love of reputation in the tear in your cloak,” Socrates remarks slyly. Antisthenes’s threadbare habit is designed to make us think he’s giving it to us straight. But isn’t this the very height of a lie? Or is it that you can only tell the truth by disguise?

In the early 1990s, both Valerie Steele and Karen Hanson published articles in the United States about the fear of fashion in academia. In Steele’s article, “The F-Word,” she writes that clothes are “a taboo subject, a forbidden realm of pleasure. Many of the very same professors who censoriously dismiss the pleasures of dress may well lavish time and money on couture cuisine, stereos, Volvos, computer gadgetry, skis, travel, and wine. But not clothes.”

“Clothes” here really means “fashion,” and fashion is on the naughty list for the same reason that poetic phrases must be exiled: they are easily equated with decadence. Decadence, less fashionably known as “decay,” comes from the Latin decidens, “falling down” — indulging in the fatal fruit of your inevitable decline. It is as if, by appearing to care about fashion, intellectuals think they might be suddenly doused in sins of shallowness — or worse, deceit — even though to really believe that would be to give appearance the power of reality. Perhaps the fear is a tacit admission that nothing convinces us — least of all truth — unless we are in some way charmed by it. But academics try to stay out of charm’s way. If only truth didn’t have a reflection! If only the fashion of our inquiry could be so appropriately tailored to what is that it (and we) would cease to appear. Then we could see everything plainly, without being hoodwinked by bias, imagination, or the mantle of our own impending death.

Death — there’s a word that may not spring to mind when you’re getting dressed in the morning. Although we do have a phrase: “I wouldn’t be caught dead in it.” Presumably, this means that we wouldn’t be buried in it — or rather, we wouldn’t want to face the threat that what we’re wearing will become an eternal memorial to our existence. Fashioning ourselves finds us reckoning with change. By and large, the rumors about fashion’s fickleness come from its apparent immersion in constant motion. It’s probably for this reason that sometimes the word “style” replaces fashion. Style sounds less wayward and more serious. But fashion itself often glosses its own trendiness with words such as “basics,” “necessities,” “must-haves,” “essentials.” Even in its multifarious alterations, the aim of fashion seems to be to rise above its own whimsy — to strike a prelapsarian pose of perfectly necessitated contingency.

That fashion wishes to arrive in style, not just with randomness but with natural suitability, comes out in phrases like “maybe she’s born with it” and “how becoming,” as if a state of coming to be were equivalent to a state of being. Fashion promises to deliver you from time in this way — to resurface the true “you” from behind the skin’s wrinkles or mortality’s fabric. “That’s so you,” we say of clothing, as if we had just beheld the synthesis of how we are seen with how we are. Is there a point in our lives, and in our clothes, where our inevitable disappearance becomes complete emergence?

Although clothing can never be us, nature is ever the model. Its vibe is “I woke up like this.” “I am this way by pure chance, not by design.” It is highly unfashionable to look too composed. This was once signified by effortless elegance, but now it comes out in casual clothes, like normcore, athleisure, carefully worn sneakers and stylishly washed sweatpants, bedhead, and even fashion that markets itself as “conscious” of its own faults. This is fashion that apologizes for appearing as fashion at all. “Don’t judge me,” plain clothes seem to say, as if they were neutral, unbiased observations.

Athleisure takes this up a notch by suspending its wearers in an in-between state. Gym clothes are not-yet clothes. They fix you in the moment of passing from one outfit to another. Done correctly, athleisure is like those sculptures for which Polyclitus was famous, displaying the body caught off-duty, in a moment of pure transition, leisurewear ironically called “performance wear.” Why wear your gym clothes 24-7? Because you are not defined by the lie that there is anything other than flux. Here, in Heraclitean athleisure, a moment turns static and time falls away.

Does fashion, especially fashion that pretends to be no fashion, in some way signify our longing to control fate, to fancy death? Fashion progresses, however ironically, toward the perfect age and the perfect outfit — even, in fashion photography, the perfect shot of the perfect look: this is a glimpse into the mythical state where fashion was once effortlessly absent or present without our having before noticed it. Nonbelievers in fashion thus find themselves coveting the same reality as those who worship it.

It is no surprise then that, despite their cries to the contrary, intellectuals are obsessed with their images. Rejection lies around the corner for those with untucked bibliographies, with inspired rather than straitjacketed prose — how quickly the magic of inquiry is lost when you have to worry about looking smart. “Looking smart,” in all its double entendre, is the nerdy version of looking like a model. A model refers to both a stereotype and an idol, an entity that defies the norm while setting the norm. Our envy and hatred of such types seem to arise from their being able to slide through the world on reputation alone, without the struggle that ordinary nonmodels have to encounter when their looks don’t match up with their beings.

How great would it be to be two-dimensional — to be perceived as what you are without the horror of being potentially misunderstood? If you didn’t have an inside, or if your inside were on the outside, this would mean being visible not as a mere appearance but rather as a complete reality. Ah, to be weightless — without gravity, depth, or the need for clarification! I have often wished to be thoughtless for similar reasons. Fashion now begins to eclipse the very words I am using to express it. What are these strange fibers of reflection with which I lace together a corset of understanding? I bury in revelatory cloth that aspect of my words that seems always to deviate from my grasp. Yet fashion is in the grasp itself, and the wish to be either outside of it or wholly immersed in it can only be consummated by death or infinite life.

The ancient Greek word kosmos, or “order” (really, “beautiful order”), comes to refer to both “dress” and “universe.” It gives us the derivatives “cosmos” and “cosmetics,” in a single stroke encompassing that which adorns a whole and the whole itself, the accident of the fringe and the necessity of the order. That the two coexist in one word might seem absurd. But consider what Aristotle says in the Poetics: the most amazing things that happen by chance seem as if they happen by design. And the design of chance? Well, this is the knack of great designers and writers — the skill of getting things just right. “Just right” means necessarily by accident, tailor-made to caprice, the sprezzatura of “I meant to do that” and “It wasn’t me.”

If we could experience reality, would it be the random button (notion?) that suddenly illuminates the cosmic outfit? Would it be the tousle of the hair that changes the perception of a glance? The silent stitch that, though in the background, alters the draping, the mood, and the course of events? This is the extra ruffle that trims the balance, the punctuation mark that knots the reader’s spell. But such things are only metaphors for what is incalculable — what we can never control.

Do we meet in fashion the fantastical arbitrariness of our own existence? Fashion moves by wit, and we see through it as through second thoughts. Fashion draws us in with its tone, its cadence, with a pattern that unfolds in motion — which is to say, in time. The rhythm of fashion shows its influence not so much in clothes, but in the process of wearing them; not so much in words, but in how words wend their way. Fashion is the air of certainty with which someone delivers an argument, the snoot of erudition that makes another feel foolish, the turn of phrase that solidifies conviction, the tilt of the hat, the point of a hot poker. In these airs, our experience is invisibly perfumed. Rhetorical frivolity and desperate ornament, amusing gestures that confess something terrifyingly concealed, the understated wink. It’s all gone in the blink of an eye — and it is precisely this that makes every outfit, like every word, unfathomably deep.


Gwenda-lin Grewal is the Onassis Lecturer in Ancient Greek Thought and Language at the New School for Social Research.

LARB Contributor

Gwenda-lin Grewal is the Onassis Lecturer in Ancient Greek Thought and Language at the New School for Social Research. Her published works include Fashion | Sense: On Philosophy and Fashion (Bloomsbury, 2022); Thinking of Death in Plato’s Euthydemus: A Close Reading and New Translation (Oxford University Press, 2022); an edited volume of essays, Poetic (Mis)quotations in Plato (Center for Hellenic Studies, 2022); and English translations of Plato’s Phaedo (Center for Hellenic Studies, 2018) and Cratylus (New Alexandria, forthcoming). She is the recipient of the Blegen Research Fellowship at Vassar College and an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at Yale University.


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