Philosophy of Fashion (… of Self-Fashioning)


This reading group studied self-fashioning, the deliberate attempt to be and seem some way.  It considered, therefore, a key element of the Socratic goal of philosophy: coming to understand, critique, and reform oneself in an ineluctably political context. Fashion in one respect is simply “faddishness” legitimated by social and financial capital. But in another respect it systematizes and allows expression of a personage—a mode of life.  Fashion then looks not at appearances, but at the practical consequences of self-understanding, and so becomes less a matter of aesthetics than of the metaphysics of the self and social theory.


Our Reading

Tobi Tobias, Obsessed by Dress (Beacon, 2000)

Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus

Carol S. Gould, “Glamour as an Aesthetic Property of Persons,” JAAC 63:3 (2005), 237-247

Alexander Nehamas, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault (California, 1998)

Henry James, “The Real Thing”

————, The Ambassadors

Oscar Wilde, Picture of Dorian Grey

Arthur Danto, “The Naked Truth,” in Aesthetics and Ethics, Levinson, ed. (Cambridge, 1998)

Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” A Susan Sontag Reader (Vintage, 1982)

Edmund Burke, Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures on Aesthetics, Parts I-II (pp 1-18)

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Harvard, 1984)

Paul Fussell, Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)

Lars Svendsen, Fashion: A Philosophy (Reaktion, 2006)



Representative Questions

Š      The Greeks, so it seems, equated personal beauty with moral goodness: they accepted exceptions only with an explanation for how, e.g., some certain ugly person could have ended up virtuous.  What would justify their making this inference from one order of value, apparently, to another?

Š      What norms justifiably constrain how we may appear?

Š      What must one do to present oneself as oneself, rather than as someone one is not?  In other words, what efforts, attitudes, or social conditions are prerequisites for “being authentic”?

Š      Are clothes part of the body/self/individual?  What does it mean to be a “cyborg”?

Š      What tension exists among the desires to wear clothing as an aesthetic object, to dress to look good, and to be treated with respect as an autonomous moral being?

Š      What human faculties allow the deployment of fashion?  Rationality?  Sensuality?  Self-regard?

Š      Does the fashion-practice coherently combine aesthetic quality, novelty, utility, and tradition?

Š      On what grounds could we say, “Everyone should be fashion-conscious”?

Š      To what contributions to human flourishing can we generalize and say freedom of sartorial expression contributes?  In other words, how do required dress-codes limit well-being?

Š      In what ways does lifestyle-marketing question the shift between oikonomia and economy?