This is the final segment of a four-part series by Jon Richmond on fashion and philosophy. Jon is currently the Economics teacher at Western School of Technology and Environmental Science. Parts One, Two and Three can be found here, here and here.
Two men sit on stage back-to-back. Both have well-groomed beards, wear dark-rimmed glasses, and all black outfits. A spotlight shines on them and they rise slowly in tandem. As the men slowly stand, Euro-industrial-techno music starts to play. They walk out of the spotlight into the darkness. A soft light fades in illuminating the stage. Tall, short-haired models who look like porcelain dolls, dressed in a variety of all-black haute-couture dresses, walk on stage to different locations. Each model and her outfit is fixed into position by the two turlenecked men. After thirteen minutes of models walking on stage and being put into position, the stage is a landscape reminiscent of a snow-covered forest. Satisfied with their canvas, the men meet in the center of the stage, face each other, clasp their hands together, bow, and exit stage left.
Welcome to the world of fashion? For the unstylish, or even for the only-casual follower of fashion, the performance by Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, better known by their label name, Viktor and Rolf, plays like a scene from the fashion spoof Zoolander. In a Wall Street Journal interview, Christina Binkley, asked the provocative duo the question that most of us on the outside of fashion want to know: “Why is fashion so weird? What are they thinking?”
“We use fashion as a means of expression,” responded Rolf, “We’ve taken that to an extreme – almost therapy.” His partner Viktor added, “We’ve noticed that sometimes we can challenge people too much. Runway shows are changing. Theatricality is not appreciated.” The fashion of Viktor and Rolf is rooted in the essence of play, play as an ends in itself, or as Viktor suggests, play “because we can.” It would be easy to dismiss the pair, or perhaps fashion in general, as nothing more than superficial poppycock; yet, maybe our quickness to satirize them or write them off reveals how overly serious our culture has become. For the 20th century Dutch philosopher and cultural historian Johan Huizinga, the lack of play in culture is problematic. A turn toward the serious and away from pure play, including fashion — and signified by our too-serious takes on fashion — is not a sign of an ascending culture, argues Huizinga, but rather denotes one in decline.
Huizinga’s central project is a philosophical inquiry to the Nature and significance of play as a cultural phenomenon. Play, according to Huizinga, cannot be chalked up to economics, psychology, or science. Play is not utility, wish-fulfillment, or the brain’s release of serotonin – play is a thing in itself. What exactly is play then and how is fashion play? First, play is not “ordinary” or “real” life – play is fantasy. Fashion, “dressing up,” is an escape from the real and a chance to be free. Huizinga contends, “the disguised or masked individual ‘plays’ another part, another being. He is another being” (13). Second, play is distinct in “both as to locality and duration”; stadiums and ballparks for the jocks, and catwalks for thin pasty supermodels. But play is not random or disorganized; bound by rules, play creates order, “is order” (10.) Today, those who violate the rules of fashion often find themselves a target of Joan Rivers or on an unflattering “worst-dressed list.” Lastly, play is for the sake of play; it is fun and is not connected with material interest or the utility of profit; play is art. Not all fashion, such as the catwalk theatrics of Viktor and Rolf, is crafted for the sales rack – art does come before profits. In Viktor and Rolf’s shows, in all the exotic, odd, outlandish outfits of high fashion, we can see how fashion, or at least the essence of fashion, can be classified as play. If fashion is play, then fashion must be, should be, for its own sake.
Fashion as play still exists in contemporary culture, but it is more of an illusion. Now, fashion evokes the spirit of play, but is really a means to sell products. For example, the new Acura commercial, titled “Let the Race Begin”, reflects, at least a surface level, a play element in culture. Shot from above, the camera circles a large modern stadium. Well-dressed fans cheer wildly as the mechanical horses rear up behind a starting gate. The race begins and the mechanized horses battle for position. From the back of the pack a non-mechanized horse challenges, transforms into a black 2014 Acura, and then surpasses the other trotters. A voice-over declares, “Acura, performance that changes the game.” Although Acura uses the stadium and horse race to suggest play, the pure play-quality is absent. The function of the race is business. The “game,” once played for the sake of sport, is now an advertisement for a luxury car. As Huizinga argues, “Commercial competition does not, of course, belong to the immemorial sacred play-forms” (200). In contemporary civilization, play is no longer a free and meaningful activity, carried out for its own sake, removed from the requirements of economic life. Fashion “play” is reduced to an image that is consumed, retweeted, or “liked” on Facebook.
The problem inherent in the Acura commercial – and in our disdain for true play – arises because, as Huizinga argues, culture develops in the form of play. For Adam Smith and Karl Marx, economics is the driving force of culture; for Schopenhauer and Nietzsche it is the will to power; and for Huizinga culture is rooted in the soil of play. Not only is play the primary driver of culture, but culture flourishes because of it. Huizinga is not the first to take this position. Immanuel Kant said, “Collectively, the more civilized men are, the more they are actors” (37). Playing, distinct from the “ordinary” and “real,” is anchored in fantasy, and unintentionally elevates culture. Fashion is fantasy, but a productive fantasy. Fashion as play is purely superficial, all surface, but enjoyed as a social and aesthetic fiction. A rising civilization is a fashionable civilization. For example, Huizinga suggests that as the periwig of the 17th and 18th century became the fashion of the day, “it rapidly lost all pretence of counterfeiting a natural chevelure and became a true element of style… we are dealing with a work of art” (184). Initially, any man of culture and status was expected to have one, but then, once adopted by the masses, the wig became pure play. The periwig started as an imitation of the real, but by the end of the 18th century resided in the realm of the ridiculous, or as Huizinga suggests, “as one of the most remarkable instances of the play-factor in culture” (185).
But today, the periwig is no longer a signifier of play. Recently in Hong Kong, the wig has become a contentious symbol of status. Hong Kong’s lawyers — solicitors, who work directly with clients, are in a battle against barristers, who represent those clients in court – a battle to wear the hair. Traditionally, the barristers own the right to don the hairpieces and are adamantly against sharing the privilege with the solicitors. In an extremely telling statement about the decline of the wig as a form of play, a barrister sympathetic to the plight of the solicitors said, “The wig makes you look more serious. It looks more professional” (Chen and Morrow). No longer worn as an ornament or for pure play, the wig is embroiled in a court battle of position and professionalism. Lost as an art form, the wig does not civilize men, rather, it makes them antagonistic.
Fashion is play, but is no longer played “because we can.” In contemporary culture, play is reduced to a commercial; it ceases to be art. Civilization sells fashion rather than playing with it. Huizinga warns, “The play-element is very prominent here, but it has no longer fecund of true culture. Only a civilization on the wane produces an art like this” (176). We satirize fashionistas like Viktor and Rolf, and are blinded to their art – even if their dresses look like Swiss cheese. Fashion is no longer rooted in play and enjoyed as a social or aesthetic fiction which raises civilization; instead fashion divides and isolates, and in the case of the wig, fashion becomes litigious. Huizinga concludes that the play-element in culture has been on the wane for quite some time. Why should we care? Perhaps he romanticizes the past. After all, something like play, like fashion is artificial, meaningless in the “real” world. Huizinga says, “The human mind can only disengage itself from the magic circle of play by turning towards the ultimate” (212). Put that way, what choice do we have, but to play?
Binkley, Christina. “Why Is Fashion So Extreme? Ask Viktor & Rolf.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 16 Apr. 2013. Web. 30 Apr. 2014.
Chen, Te-Ping, and Allison Morrow. “Wigged Out: Hong Kong’s Lawyers Bristle Over Horsehair Headpieces.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 30 Apr. 2013. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.
Cutting Edge Group. “Let the Race Begin by Acura.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 18 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
Fashion Channel. “”Viktor & Rolf Haute Couture Autumn Winter 2013-2014 Paris by Fashion Channel” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 18 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-element in Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1955. Print.
Kant, Immanuel, Victor Lyle Dowdell, and Hans H. Rudnick. “On the Admissible Moral Perception.” Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1996. 37. Web. 25 Apr. 30.
Over the next few weeks, Jon Richmond will be contributing a four-part segment on fashion and philosophy. Jon is currently the Economics teacher at Western School of Technology and Environmental Science. Part One and Two can be found here and here.
A special thanks to Drew Daudelin for helping me get this essay out of my head and on to paper.
In the pre-dawn dark, half asleep, Fred the Baker leaves for work and mutters, “It’s time to make the donuts.” He returns home late in the evening, half asleep, and mutters, “It’s time to make the donuts.” Dunkin Donuts’ advertising campaign featuring Fred the Baker and his famous quip is one of the most memorable advertising campaigns of the 1980s and 90s. Fred the Baker reminded caffeine and pastry lovers of the freshness of Dunkin Donuts’ wares, but the commercial also resonated with many on a different level. Fred the Baker’s famous phrase symbolized the daily grind of work.
Economic reality requires work. There is the mortgage, food to put on the table, clothes for dress, and of course, over-priced coffee and donuts. In addition to the basic necessities, work affords fashion and luxury. David Hume argues when men pursue the finer things—things we might call “fashion”—they are “kept in perpetual occupation, and enjoy, as their reward, the occupation itself, as well as those pleasures which are the fruit of their labour.” The desire for luxury, according to Hume, incentivizes work and makes work not only bearable, but potentially enjoyable. He goes further, and suggests that culture thrives when we pursue the fashionable and luxurious. For Hume, making donuts is an exercise in refinement.
Hume’s view on work and luxury is pleasing to the imagination and our sentiments, but for Max Scheler, the early-20th century German philosopher, Hume’s observation is misguided. Fashion, for Scheler, is rooted in vanity and the pursuit of it creates a cultural spirit of competition and rivalry. Hume believes the value of work lies in its utility – what it can get us. Scheler sees this as a value reversal which places utility over the value of the person. Work as utility, as a means to an end, becomes valuable only in so far as how much more wealth it can generate. Writing in the shadow of ruin following World War I, Scheler argues the crisis of modernity lies in the ethos of capitalism and socialism. Those two systems privilege utility, work, and economy over the individual. But Scheler places utility at the bottom of his value hierarchy and the person at the top. Scheler contends work has a “meaning far beyond its immediate object and his individual intention”, but “in modern man this meaning and the higher dedication of work have gone astray.” Scheler believes the current trend in fashion, utility as the dominant cultural value, blinds us to the higher values such as spirituality, community, art, philosophy, and love.
Writing almost a hundred years later, Frithjof Bergmann, a philosophy professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan, finds post-Cold War man in a similar state of discontent. Operating within the reductive mindsets of capitalism and socialism, “political ideas always held out promises, gorgeous rewards, wonderful possibilities, but for the mass of women and men they mostly meant only that they would one more time become foot-soldiers for a cause… They once again became cannon fodder” (Bergmann). Like Scheler, Bergmann believes that the dominant ethos of capitalism and socialism have failed to elevate man; instead they have smashed his spirit. To keep up with the Kardashians, we work more hours and make less money, yet are more anxious and fearful, and “no longer feel” (Bergmann). According to Bergmann, many in our culture see work as a “mild disease”, something that will end on Friday. Utility as the dominant value has cultivated a “value blindness.” He tells us, “In our frenzy to produce “economic growth” we sacrifice everything… we burn our furniture, old family photos, picture frames. We throw all of that into the fire to keep the steam in the economic kettle hot. That is what we do; we burn our violins.” As Scheler predicted, culture has been blind to the higher values. Culture — playing violins — matters very little when the goals of society are production, efficiency, and greater gross domestic product.
Both Scheler’s and Bergmann’s central project is to find whether an alternative to capitalism and socialism is possible. At the heart of both their visions is the centrality of a return to community and the desirability of chosen work – fashionable work. Fashionable work is part of our essence: not just a utilitarian object — more inner than outer; more authentic than superficial. It is the opposite of the daily grind, the opposite of a mild disease; it is an expression of interests and desires and self –actualization. How does Scheler then reconcile fashion within his value hierarchy? The transformation begins with the ‘estate.’ The spirit of the estate, which consists of communities consisting of craftsmen, intellectuals, and likeminded locals, is “characterized by the love of work” (Scheler). Compared to the competitive spirits of capitalism or socialism where production is a means to an end, in the estate value rests in the production process and quality rather than the profit the good can generate. Think of the emergence of craft beers, custom cars, and the farm-to-table restaurants. The markets for these goods generate wealth and rewards. The industries are developed when entrepreneurs match their interests – in alcoholic drinks and environmentalism – to their needs for a paycheck. At the same time, this indie-rock-style attitude that drinking a craft beer or eating free range broccoli signifies that we are fashionable. Compared to drinking watered-down, mass produced swill or genetically altered, hormone injected chicken, goods produced in “the estate” are derived from the passions of the individuals who produced them, and yet, despite their idiosyncratic origins, they appeal widely. Ironically, the estate creates the fashionable, whereas in the current system, we produce useless toys, trinkets and other conspicuous merchandise.
Scheler doesn’t advocate that one should live a peasant’s existence, or that bettering oneself is undesirable; rather, he contends in the estate, the spirit of rivalry is absent. Rivalry is vanity, and results in a culture driven by envy and hatred; the estate is driven by the spirit of love and community. Moreover, compared to the systems of capitalism and socialism, where the endless competition to accumulate creates volatility, the estate is stable. Each individual acts in regard to their own unique calling, but also acts in behalf of their community. The estate’s foundation is community, based on “honour and a conscience.” Honorable work is also fashionable. Greeny granola-crunchy work or high quality craftsmanship, for instance, signify sustainability and meet community standards. The oil tycoon receives the environmentalists’ scorn; the craft brewmaster receives the beer lover’s jubilation; the Wall Street power broker is met with suspicion; Orange County Choppers is met with celebrity.
In the early 1980s, Bergmann saw similar tensions between industry and community as workers in the car factories lost their jobs to automation and foreign competition. The idea of New Work was born in an attempt to help the workers. The goal of New Work is simple and ambitious: “make work that people seriously want to do, work that gives people strength and meaning and the conviction of a truly lived life” (Bergmann) In addition to the communities of craftsmen and intellectuals found in Scheler’s estates, Bergmann’s New Work includes computer geeks dressed in hoodies and sandals. Think the corporate offices of Google and Apple. Here, employees pursue their visions of “better worlds” and find fulfillment and social value, while still pulling a fat paycheck. Working in these places is fashionable compared to the soulless cubicle (or to the poor grinding Chinese workers in the soulless Foxconn factories making the IPhone). Google employees believe in the power of information to change the world; that connectivity and a super-community are good. And for Apple employees, they attribute the fashionable to sleek design and all-in-one convenience.
Similar to Scheler’s estate, Bergmann’s New Work is a movement towards a self-making stable economy by harnessing the available technologies, such as fabricators (3D printers), global villages, miniaturization, and modular factories. Relocating to what Bergmann calls “halls” or “centers”, industrial production in prison-style factories is transformed to community production. Switching to halls or centers, and then employing the latest technologies to produce food, furniture, clothes, and other basic necessities, individuals would spend less time at their traditional income-earning jobs and use the extra time to do self-chosen work.
Bergmann is not delusional about the economic realities of work. There is much that cannot be self-made, such as travel, concert tickets, designer coffee and donuts, and of course we will have to pay taxes, but with self-making there will be more time for chosen work (Bergmann). In this self-chosen type of work, individuals have time to embrace their Dionysian creativity and find the passion of a truly lived life. Creativity becomes a springboard for the fashionable; production becomes simple but elegant; pornography becomes Shakespeare; and the slavery of work becomes emancipation.
It would be a fair assumption that many would quickly scoff at Scheler’s and Bergmann’s visions. They would say, “Making donuts is just part of life. If you want the high-end goods you must work for them. Their ideas are for philosophers and eager graduate students.” Perhaps this is a legitimate point, or maybe they are just victims of ressentiment, or reductive mindsets, or content with an unexamined life. But Scheler and Bergmann might reply by suggesting that the pursuits of higher values such as spirituality, art, philosophy, love, are facilitators for fashion, and Scheler’s vision of the estate and Bergmann’s New Work appear to be gaining traction. The plethora of television shows that focus on custom cars, innovative cuisines, home improvement, suggest a new trend in fashion. And not just on television, but in real experiences: farmer markets, boutique cupcake bakeries, Tesla startups, carbon offset trading, high-art tattoo parlors, and hipster optometrists. Perhaps, in another hundred years work will no longer be an exercise in futility, and burning violins will not be necessary to enjoy the finer things.
Bergmann, Frithjof. “A 2020 We Could Attain.” New Economy. New Culture. New Work. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
Bergmann, Frithjof. “The Briefest Possible Summary.” New Economy. New Culture. New Work. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
Hume, David. “Of Refinement in the Arts.” N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Feb. 2013.
Scheler, Max. “Christian Love and the Twentieth Century.” N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.
Over the next few weeks, Jon Richmond will be contributing a four-part segment on fashion and philosophy. Jon is currently the Economics teacher at Western School of Technology and Environmental Science. Part One can be found here.
Attempting to make the 86th Academy Awards less smug and boring, Ellen DeGeneres took what now has been dubbed the “best selfie ever.” Ellen’s selfie, which included Hollywood powerhouses Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Spacey, Meryl Streep, and Bradley Cooper, temporarily crashed Twitter because of the amount of traffic from her picture. With 1.7 million retweets in less than an hour, the selfie shattered the previous record for the most-retweeted tweet previously held by President Barack Obama (only a measly 778, 000 retweets for the leader of the free world) (Lansky). The popularity of Ellen’s selfie and the Academy Awards in general suggest our imaginations are captivated by fantasy, celebrity, and fashion. David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, would not be surprised by the American obsession with fashion and the famous. He tells us we prefer drinking “champagne or burgundy to small beer or porter”, and more importantly, there is nothing wrong with this preference for elevated tastes. For Hume, celebrity and fashion, i.e. the superficial, is something to be celebrated, rather than moralized and shunned. If he were alive today, he might not be walking the red carpet, but he would certainly be welcome at the Academy Awards after-parties.
Whereas Hume rejoices in the fashionable, Saint Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Italian theologian-philosopher, finds fashion to be problematic. For Aquinas, fashion is rooted in vanity, which is a rejection of humility – the “daughters of vainglory” have no master. Vanity exposes the darkness of the human spirit and leads the proud on a path to nowhere. Aquinas would not likely be invited or attend any of the Academy Awards parties, yet his message resonates in one of 2013’s less-celebrated, but often-discussed films, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring.
Based on the true tale of celebrity-obsessed Hollywood Hills teenagers who burglarized the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, and other stars, The Bling Ring offers up a slice of fashion’s dark side. Following the first line uttered on screen, “Let’s go shopping,” candy-pop-techno-infused music plays as images of luxury brands – Louboutin and Prada shoes, Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Burberry bags, and Rolex watches – flash across the screen. Seeking the delicious goods, the outlaws, like kids in a candy store, raid the closets of the celebrities they worship. On their blue Facebook pages, the club-hopping teens post selfies where they wear the hot merchandise and wave wads of stolen cash. From the opening montage, the images of the high-end stuff and the gang of outlaws who wear it both titillate and nauseate. But Coppola’s film does not attempt to reaffirm normative social values or serve as a cautionary tale that crime doesn’t pay; instead, her film presents a dark worldview where fashion and celebrity are king, and vanity has corrupted the souls of youth culture.
Aquinas claims humans manifest their own excellence both directly and indirectly. The direct manifestation of vanity is the belief that one is superior to others. He tells us, “human beings can indeed manifest their own excellence… by real deeds that are a source of astonishment, and then there is audacity of novelties.” Put another way, fashion creates inequality, and being “in fashion”, “having stuff”, makes you better than your neighbor — think MTV’s “Cribs” and the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” The members of the ring are from relatively wealthy backgrounds and live in some of California’s most spoiled neighborhoods – Calabasas, Agoura Hills, and Thousand Oaks. Like their victims, the crooks drive luxury cars, wear the latest fashions, have access to designer drugs, and frequent the trendy clubs where they receive bottled table service. The proximity to their idols gives them a sense of entitlement; they don’t just burglarize their victims’ houses, they loiter in them. For the members of the ring, they are stealing what they believe already belongs to them (Scott).
Aquinas tells us “imaginary deeds” or false presentation of one’s self is another way humans directly manifest their vanity. In one scene, ring member Nicki, played by Emma Watson, gives a press conference in front of the courthouse where she stands trial. Wearing designer sunglasses, the frenzied paparazzi snap photos, she pontificates her mission: “I’m a firm believer in karma. I think this situation was attracted to my life as a huge learning lesson for me. To grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I want to lead a huge charity organization. I want to lead a country one day, for all I know.” Nicki, finally getting the fame she so desperately craves, is totally convinced of who she thinks she is; however, the rest of us don’t know whether to laugh at her pseudo-celebrity or feel sorry for her. Another member of the ring, Mark (Israel Broussard), tells a reporter, “I thought I was ugly… I never saw myself as an ‘A-list’ type of guy.” The merchandise and the notoriety Mark acquires for being part of the gang make him popular and gain him entrance to the roped VIP sections of the clubs. Stealing clothes from the celebrities he idolizes allows Mark to craft his identity – an identity anchored in fantasy and thievery, but expressed in luxury and accepted as reality.
If we can not directly show that we are superior to others, then, according to Aquinas, the vain manifest their own excellence by striving to show they are not inferior to others. The ring burglarized Paris Hilton’s house, not once, but five separate times. Hilton was the ring’s first victim, and the raiders picked her because they figured she was dumb (she did leave the key under the mat — twice), and dumb people deserve to be victimized by intellectual superiors (Sacks). Aquinas would claim regarding one’s intellect as superior is an indirect manifestation of vanity because it diminishes the other. Moreover, the repeated robbing of Hilton raises the question of whether the gang was “more interested in stealing her things or pretending they were her friends” (Sales). If the latter is true, warped as it may seem, suggests the raiders not only believed they were smarter than Hilton, but also her peer.
Another way humans indirectly manifest their vanity, Aquinas claims is, “they do this as regards their words, and then there is contention when they do not wish to be outdone by others in argument.” And indeed it is to Nicki who Coppola gives the last word. In the final scene, Nicki describes her stint in prison during a TMZ style interview. The interviewer asks Nicki about Lindsay Lohan, who is jailed in the cell next door (probably for one of her DWIs or probation violations). When asked how Lindsay looked, Nicki replies, “She got to keep her extensions in. A lot of the girls were talking, “Oh, I had to take my weave out” or whatever. But she was in orange like all of us.” Nicki’s statement diminishes, or at least attempts to diminish, Lindsay’s celebrity – she is just like us. But Nicki isn’t finished. Shamelessly, she looks square into the camera and plugs her story, “I mean when I get to tell my side of this story, people are gonna know the truth…But, you know…Anyway…, you can follow everything about me and my journey at nickimooreforever.com.” Unlike Lindsay, Nicki is “innocent,” and her fans following her on her website makes Nicki as much of as celebrity as her jailed diva neighbor.
The Bling Ring, a fashion-noir if you will, presents a dark worldview, yet does not offer any solutions. Coppola stated, “I wanted to show a slice of that world. But I tried not to be judgmental and leave it open for the audience to decide how they feel about that” (Baron). Does then The Bling Ring negate Hume’s and confirm Aquinas’s take on celebrity and fashion? Not necessarily. Most likely, Hume would not hesitate to agree with Aquinas that the thievery and numerous character defects of the Bling Ring are disturbing; however, he would not condemn the pleasing sentiments that the real stars of the film – the high-end stuff – provides. Aquinas might suggest that The Bling Ring is another product which highlights a godless world, where the empty souls of the MTV youth are exploited by a culture of celebrity and fashion. On the other hand, Hume might argue that Aquinas is a killjoy, and Coppola’s delve into the dark side of bling is nothing more than an invitation to pleasure in an imaginary and extremely superficial experience.
Aquinas, Thomas. “Do We Appropriately Assign Disobedience, Boasting, Hypocrisy, Contention, Obstinacy, Discord, and Audacity for Novelties as the Daughters of Vainglory.” N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.
Baron, Zach. “Stealing Fame.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 08 June 2013. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.
The Bling Ring. Dir. Sofis Coppola. By Sofia Coppola and Nancy J. Sales. Perf. Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson. American Zoetrope, 2013. Streaming.
Hume, David. “Of Refinement in the Arts.” N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Feb. 2013.
Lansky, Sam. “Oscars 2014: This Is the Most Retweeted Tweet Ever Read More: Oscars 2014: Ellen’s Record-Breaking Tweet Selfie With Meryl, Julia.” Time Magazine, 2 Mar. 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.
Sacks, Rebecca. “Q&A: Nancy Jo Sales Dishes on the Bling Ring.” Vanity Fair. N.p., 5 Feb. 2010. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.
Sales, Nancy J. “The Suspects Wore Louboutins.” Vanity Fair. N.p., Mar. 2010. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.
Scott, A. O. “Gatsby, and Other Luxury Consumers.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 May 2013. Web. 3 Mar. 2014.
Over the next few weeks, Jon Richmond will be contributing a four-part segment on fashion and philosophy. Jon is currently the Economics teacher at Western School of Technology and Environmental Science.
He has a gray scruffy beard and hoop earrings. He often wears brightly colored pants – think a fusion of Easter eggs and early 90’s Benetton – and he rolls his sleeves up to expose his tattooed forearms; one of his tattoos is of a well-endowed lady – think sailor trash. He is not a rock star, an actor, or one of those “creative” types (well, maybe a little). He is a high school English teacher. Some call him hip, or stylish; some of his peers razz his salmon trousers. But is his style really appropriate for teaching, or does his style diminish his professionalism and credibility? I teach next to him, should I say something?
Recently, dress codes haven’t been applied only to students. Public school districts in Kansas, New York, and Arizona are cracking down on teacher attire and strictly defining “business casual” (Abuttaleb). In West Virginia, battles between school boards and teacher unions over teacher dress codes have gotten downright contentious (Owens). Teachers unions are up in arms in their fight to protect teachers’ rights to wear blue jeans, shorts, and spandex to work. And who would have thought that West Virginia would be on the frontlines in the battle over teacher fashion? However, most school districts do not have formal dress codes; rather they recommend loosely defined standards of “professional” dress.
Adam Smith, known today almost exclusively as the first modern economist whose theories are taught to every Econ 101 student, was also a fashionista of his time. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith offers insight as to why we prefer the superficiality of fashion and why we are averse to the unhip. Furthermore, Smith would suggest that formal dress codes are unnecessary because standards of fashion originate in a mutual sympathy of sentiments. Smith’s theory of moral sentiments can shed light on what anchors standards of professional attire; however, his theories present problems in a postmodern culture characterized as hyper-individualistic.
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith offers an investigation into what constitutes moral standards for the individual and society, and yes, that includes what is fashionable. At the heart of his philosophical inquiry, is the idea that part of our Nature is an innate desire for what Smith called a “mutual sympathy” of sentiments. For Smith, “sympathy” is not pity or compassion; rather, sympathy means harmony or accordance with any emotion (Otteson). He contends that a human being finds contentment in seeing his own sentiments echoed in others. Smith tells us, “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” (Smith 9). Smith rejects the Hobbesian view that human nature is “nasty, brutish, and short” and purposes that man is not in a constant state of war against all; rather, he desires to find harmony with his fellow man. We find pleasure when our tastes are shared by others, and on the opposite side of the same coin, we find pleasure when we agree on what is considered distasteful. This is essential to understanding why Smith believes we desire the fashionable. He claims the structure of our imagination favors the positive effects of objects and averts the negative. Our desire to avoid disagreeable sentiments, and not offend the bond we share with others, guides us to pursue the fashionable over the drab.
The desire for the mutual sympathy of sentiments leads people to moderate their behavior, and others, who also desire the same mutual sympathy of sentiments, are led to moderate their behavior. Smith believes children grow into moral agents through repeated social experiences and develop what he called the perspective of the “impartial spectator” from which we learn to judge our own behavior (Otteson). From the perspective of the impartial spectator, we adopt an outside perspective. In other words, we develop the ability to put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes. Through repeated experiences, individuals are trained to moderate their sentiments to mutually acceptable levels which encourage interdependence and the creation of like-minded communities. The mutual seeking-out of sympathy of sentiments and the development of the perspective of the impartial spectator, for Smith, results in an unintended social order, an unconscious system of standards, which would include standards of workplace fashion.
If we desire mutual sympathy of sentiments, then this would be true with workplace attire: there is such a thing as dressing inappropriately. Teachers who would dress too casually or provocatively would break the sympathetic bonds that for Smith are essential to moderating our behavior. This suggests that teachers will dress professionally, to varying degrees, so they do not offend their colleagues or students. To be fashionable, including work fashion is one way to receive affirmation by others; to be unfashionable is to be denied that affirmation. This sounds extremely superficial – and it is – but Smith would claim we desire the superficial. Fashion is all surface, judging books by their covers are part of our Nature. What we wear is immediately judged by others, and the structure of our imagination prefers the immediate positive effects of objects. Teachers who dress inappropriately create an immediate negative sentiment and will be “by nature the objects of our aversion” (Smith 35). According to Smith, offending the sympathy of sentiments should be avoided, and when our less becoming sentiments are not moderated, we are held in contempt by the entire community. Therefore, teachers, from the perspective of the impartial spectator, not wanting to offend the sympathy of others would not purposefully and continuously dress inappropriately. This explains the preponderance of fifty shades of khaki trousers among male teachers and skirts and sweaters among female teachers. No teacher would want to be the topic of discussion in the faculty dining room or student cafeteria, right?
Smith provides an interesting self-regulating model for professional fashion standards, but it is not without its flaws. The desire for mutual sympathy of sentiments is an interesting element of human nature, but ignores or fails to realize other motivating desires — his model is too simplistic. His theory rests too heavily on the idea of mutual sympathy of sentiments. The desire for mutual sympathy of sentiments is sine qua non for Smith’s inquiry into human nature, but holds more weight in Smith’s time of the Enlightenment than it does in twenty-first century postmodern culture. Smith’s theory assumes people’s interests, tastes, experiences, and environments change slowly enough to allow long-standing standards and protocols of acceptable behavior to arise (Otteson). Smith’s supposition is anchored in tradition, but postmodern culture is in a state of perpetual flux, where long-standing standards are ambiguous or nonexistent, or targets of outright derision.
Further complicating Smith’s view of appropriate dress is the hyper-individualism found in postmodern culture. For Smith, tradition and communal norms played a large role in the construction of identity; however in postmodern culture “there is no longer one collective meaning in life…instead, all of us are referred to our own individual self-realization projects” (Svendsen 138). Fashion and style choice are essential to personal identity which adds significance to what one wears. Free from the “shackles of tradition”, Svendsen tells us, “individuals increasingly have to construct a self-identity using the means that the individual has at his disposal,” and what means do most have access to? Fashion. (Svendsen 140). What a teacher wears ought to signify that he/she is professional and credible; yet, isn’t the role of the teacher to get students to think for themselves? Should an English teacher teaching Thoreau to a group of angst-filled students instruct them to be a nonconformist, except when it comes to selling-out for your job? This philosophical quandary is not so easily resolved in the fractured postmodern world. Author Eve Michaels contends, “what we have in this country is “total fashion anarchy,” largely because of quests for individuality and lack of tradition (qtd in Pica). Ms. Michael’s comment suggests that postmodern culture has confused what is appropriate wear for teachers, who are stuck between professional attire and dress that expresses their individuality.
Of course this doesn’t mean anything goes when it comes to teacher garb. Even though professional teacher dress is harder to define because of transient social standards, what to wear is not completely relative. Smith’s view on human nature and the desire for mutual sympathy is still enough of a constant to “anchor a “middle-way” objectivism” (Otteson). Considering most school districts have not implemented formal dress codes for teachers, Smith’s model of human social behavior, despite its oversimplifications and the grip of postmodern hyper-individualism, still provides powerful insight into how the desire for mutual sympathy of sentiments creates unintended social order and lots of tan pants. Perhaps, the recent interest in what constitutes appropriate dress for teachers is not an overreach of the school districts; rather, it reveals some individuals have violated the desire of mutual sympathy of sentiments, and the subtle pressures of peers will eventually correct this.
Now, is our English teacher out of line with his grizzly gray beard, hoop earrings, Easter egg pants, and girly tattoos? What would Adam Smith say? Smith would suggest that he has committed no transgression against our sympathy of sentiments. The immediate effects of his fashion are agreeable to our sympathies; his style gives him street cred in the classroom and provides gentle jeering in the faculty room.
Pica, Rae. “A Dress Code for Teachers? Or Anything Goes?” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 11 Jan. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014.
Otteson, James R. “Adam Smith: Moral Philosopher.” : The Freeman : Foundation for Economic Education. N.p., 1 Sept. 2000. Web. 9 Feb. 2014.
Owens, Eric. “West Va. Teachers Union Insists on Constitutional Right to Wear Spandex, Short Skirts.” The Daily Caller. N.p., 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2014.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 9+. Print.
Svendsen, Lars. Fashion: A Philosophy. London: Reaktion, 2006. Print.
It’s been 4 years since the “infrared” Air Jordan 6 has been released via the “Infrared” pack. On Black Friday, all of that will change.
These shoes are immaculate. OMG, they look sooooo much better than the versions that released 4 years ago. Jordan Brand has upped the quality and has returned the 3M perforations present on the OG Air Jordan 6s that released in 1991. Expect crazy lines when these release Black Friday for $185.
-Victor Olalekan (Follow on Twitter @tobi5486)
Usher has a penchant for golden shoes. It’s become a trademark of his. Usher’s gold Air Jordan 3’s are some of the dopest shoes I’ve ever seen.
These are Hypebeast Approved
His gold Air Jordan 9s were crazy, too.
These are Hypebeast Approved
Recently, Usher revealed his newest custom Air Jordans, this time choosing the beloved Air Jordan 11.
Usher took the patent leather that’s usually a staple on Air Jordan 11s and replaced the entire upper with gold foil material. The laces have been given the classy gold touch, as well, with a white midsole and icy sole completing Usher’s latest work of art. So, out of the three, which shoes would I pick?
Usher’s gold 3s make my mouth water. My goodness, they are absolutely immense. These shoes may never release to the public, but if they do, expect lines and eBay resale prices of $1,000+. What will Usher do next? I don’t know but I’ll be waiting.
-Victor Olalekan (Follow on Twitter @tobi5486)
Fresh off LeBron’s decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Nike will be releasing the “Sprite” colorway of the Nike LeBron XI Lows. For those who are unaware, LeBron is sponsored by Sprite and the Coca-Cola company, appearing in numerous ads for Sprite, such as this, over the years.
This that “singe the hair off your nutsack” heat. The shoe is complete with Flywire technology and a 360 Air Max unit for overall comfort. These are definite head turners and are perfect with shorts for the hot summer weather. See if you can cop a pair for a cool $175.
These shoes are Hypebeast Approved.
-Victor Olalekan (Follow on Twitter @tobi5486)