The Being of Fashion

By Pavel Veraza Tonda

The ontology of fashion is the philosophical inquiry into what fashion is as such. In this text, we will explore what it entails to elaborate on this question.

The ontological question, “What is fashion?” or “What is the being of fashion?” is not posed from the standpoint of a particular science (anthropology, sociology, economics, etc.), which would investigate what fashion is in a specific empirical context. Instead, all particular sciences or common-sense discourses about fashion start from the ontological assumption of what it is. Therefore, its explicit or ontological problematization operates at a fundamental level for any discourse or behavior related to it. Ontology ceases to overlook or assume it and turns it into an explicit question. The task of the ontology of fashion is to delve into the conditions of possibility of the fashion phenomenon, its constitution of being, and to understand how it unfolds historically.

The question of the sense of the being of fashion was touched upon by Baudelaire in “The Painter of Modern Life” and later by Simmel in his “Philosophy of Fashion”, which laid the foundations for modern sociology on the topic. However, it is in Heidegger’s “Being and Time” and the preceding lectures where we find the elements for the systematic elaboration of its ontological structures, although some aspects of the contemporary structure of fashion are addressed in his later works. Additionally, texts like Benjamin’s “The Arcades Project” or Adorno-Horkheimer’s “The Culture Industry” provide elements to critically characterize the way fashion exists in the era of capitalism.

Next, we will clarify the matter from the fundamental ontology, leaving the elaboration of historical ontology for another occasion, although we will begin to introduce it.

Why does something like fashion make sense or become understandable for human existence? Its condition of possibility is that we are always with others, and only by returning from our being with them can we find ourselves, identify ourselves, and even isolate ourselves in solitude. Isolation is only a deficient or privative form, always derived from being with others, even if it means rejecting them. However, this being with others is always presupposed in a regular, vague manner, where we always start with an understanding of what is considered valid and current as a pattern to comprehend ourselves, others, and the world. For example, we assume how “one speaks” to speak, how “one behaves in society” to behave in society; we assume the validity of this anonymous “one” that dictates how to live, which is nothing other than the way “others” govern our lives, offering a leveling pattern of what the average existence should fulfill. Another name for this is fashion.

On the one hand, fashion requires the emergence of an exemplary figure that sets the pattern, a role model to follow. This element concentrates the most intense appearance of the phenomenon. This explains why the public always demands current idols and grants them fetish power, that is, the power of something natural with supernatural properties. If it doesn’t find available idols, it creates them, and if they are exhausted, it discards and replaces them. On the other hand, fashion requires the means of disseminating its meaning for its validity to reach the mass of participants it governs. This explains the false appearance that the media generate fashion. Finally, fashion requires a public that adopts it, its witnesses, or “victims”, who are the co-creators of the phenomenon, often without realizing it. Fashion lives either of its acceptance or its rejection.

From a historical perspective, it is worth noting that with modernity, the global public-media tends to not allow anyone to escape its dominance, and in our society, this intensifies more and more, as seen by all classic theorists of fashion (Simmel, Lukács, Benjamin, Adorno, Barthes, Debord, Lipovetsky, Han, Rosa). They all agree that our daily lives are increasingly marked by its accelerated rhythm and cycles of obsolescence.

The ontological question in historical terms would be: What does the Zeitgeist or spirit of an era consist of? To answer this, one would have to investigate how the validity of fashion idols is configured and combined, how its meaning is disseminated, and what the structure of its codes is. In other words, how production works, how it is mediated and diffused, and how the public operates according to what becomes fashionable in an era.

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    agosto 15, 2023

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