Years ago I was dressing for my first job interview as a lecturer. I glanced at my reflection in the mirror, scrutinising the tight skirt, three-inch heels and tucked-in silk blouse once owned by my grandmother (all-black because my eye was trained to see only dark hues in philosophy departments). Speaking aloud, I told myself to ‘be like Jo March,’ and the mental image of a beloved literary heroine from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women soothed my raging nerves.
As a near-teenager, during what was probably the last winter being read to was acceptable for a prepubescent girl, my grandmother recanted for me the adventures of the four March sisters. Little Women was also the last book that my grandmother ever read to me, as only a few weeks later she passed away, making Jo March, the sister with literary aspirations, the symbol of an intellectual ambition my grandmother sought to pass on.
In the novel, Jo pursues her literary calling by pitching a story to the editor Mr Dashwood. Jo prepares to make a good first impression at Mr Dashwood’s office and considers her dress because ‘[s]he had a womanly instinct that clothes possess an influence more powerful over many than the worth of character or the magic of manners.’1 All bodily adornments hold the power to signal fitting-in while standing out at the same time, I reminded myself when dressing that day. So I put on bright pink lipstick to contrast with the black outfit and stepped out the door.
I remember close to nothing of what was said during the interview, none of the critical questions asked or my hopefully poignant answers given. Yet I recall how the lining of the pencil skirt left an imprint on my hips or how the heels sounded when I moved my body on the chair. Also, I wonder why the scene from Little Women came to the forefront of my consciousness when dressing for the interview? As a young woman about to enter a competitive working environment, the notion that ‘the right’ clothes could be utilised to acquire a social position was cognitively reassuring. But certainly it was also the memory of the intimacy felt when my grandmother read about clothing that comforted me. When I looked in the mirror, sensing the softness of the blouse she once wore and thinking of the scene she read to me, I used these experiences to feel my grandmother’s calming presence.
Hence, clothes function in a two-fold, contradictory manner: both cognitive and affective, both alienating and intimate. The heels, skirt and blouse were objects of scrutiny by which I judged my body, its appearance and its suitability for the upcoming social situation through the eyes of others. Yet my outfit was also the token that brought me back to a time and place where being read to about the power of clothes revealed a strength that lingers in the very fabric, especially in the softness of the blouse: the capacity to be affected by clothes, to sense an intimate connection with the objects and people that surround you. Intimacy, according to the psychologist Paul Verhaeghe, literally means ‘the most towards the inside. We let someone in (internus), in our nest (interior), and possibly even in ourselves (intimus).’2 Touching the blouse was thus an intimate act by which I desired to carry my grandmother with me.
TOUCHING THE LIVING WITH THE DEAD
In the essay ‘Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things,’ literary scholar Peter Stallybrass illustrates the affective potency of clothes. When giving a paper on a conference, Stallybrass is overcome by grief for his deceased friend Allon White. The author wears his friend’s favourite jacket ‘made of a rather simple, shiny black cotton-and-polyester weave’3 to the presentation. He writes:
[as I] began to read, I was inhabited by his presence, taken over. If I wore the jacket, Allon wore me. He was there in the wrinkles of the elbow, wrinkles which in the technical jargon of sewing are called ‘memory’; he was there in the stains at the very bottom of the jacket; he was there in the smell of the armpits.4
Stallybrass argues that a garment ‘receives us: receives our smell, our sweat, our shape even. And when our parents, our friends, our lovers die, the clothes in their closets still hang there, holding their gestures, both reassuring and terrifying, touching the living with the dead.’5
Interestingly, he notes that feeling his friend near his bodily horizon through the touch of the jacket is the source of both anxiety and pleasure. To understand this antithetical emotional condition, psychologist Paul Verhaeghe refers to the idea of ‘flow,’ a pleasurable state in which individuals disappear in what they are doing, as they are taken over by their actions.6 The pleasure derives from losing control over the self, which at the same time is also the source of anxiety. Crucial to the idea of flow is the-body-in-action. ‘Flow’ was first introduced by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his observation of artists who were so consumed by their work that they forgot the world around them. Whereas artists might disappear into the embodied act of making art, Stallybrass, and other people who have experienced the bodily sensation of clothing, disappear into the embodied act of wearing. The ability of clothes to generate intimacy in the sense of letting someone in, letting oneself be affected, thus bears on the intricate relation of clothes with the human body. ‘Intimacy has to do with proximity,’7 Verhaeghe writes. The sensual nature of clothes is rooted in the literal closeness of dress to the body.
Dress can help us fulfil a basic psychological need that all humans require to thrive8; a sense of emotional connectivity or durable bonding to others that allows us to learn how to live in closer connection to ourselves, and to the world around us. But if dress has the double ability to generate both distanced and intimate encounters, why have we come to understand clothes almost exclusively as a means for distinction?
IDENTITY, MIND-BODY AND ACCELERATION
When Jo March thought about her outfit, she referred to its ability to signal a (desired) social status. Clothes can fool Mr Dashwood into believing Jo is a future writer, a social position not yet hers. The idea of fashion-as-disguise gained prominence in the 18th century, when a new social class, the bourgeoisie, became increasingly socially mobile and used fashionable dress to materialise societal aspirations.9 Dressing became a strategy people used to impress others in a competitive public world where clothes were seen as tools for (aspirational) identity construction.
Today the view of fashion-as-identity domi-nates media discourse, academic writing and the literary imagination to the extent that little attention is given to the sensual side of clothes. ‘[T]he mind-body dualism which shapes the description of our relationship with clothes as mainly intellectual’10 supports the pervasiveness of fashion as a status symbol. Through the cognitive act of judging your outfit in the mirror, you look at yourself from a distance, but forget to sense how these clothes actually feel on your body and how this, in turn, impacts your experience of the self.
When Verhaeghe writes that ‘a newly formed couple lacks the time to talk. A couple that has been together for years, can enjoy the silence; intimacy is there,’11 he hints at the third condition for the dominance of fashion-as-identity to take hold of how we consider the power of clothes. If longevity is a necessary condition for intimacy to occur, as Verhaeghe argues, an undercurrent of our detached way to look at and deal with clothes can be found in the current speed of all segments of the fashion industry. Sociologist Hartmut Rosa notes that the acceleration of modern societies led to a dominant mode of interaction with things that close to never allow us to feel like objects belong to us, like they permeate the self.12 Most of us own a lot of clothes but never take the time or are allowed the time to make these things our own. Three entangled lines of reasoning are thus key to understanding the current distanced experience of dress: the modern idea of fashion-as-identity, the mind-body dualism and the speed of modern societies.
Vintage clothing is on the rise in contemporary fashion culture. In line with the idea of fashion as a status symbol, fashion scholars often analyse secondhand clothing as a tool to shape your personal and group identity as ‘a performance of taste, knowingness, and discernment, acted out for an audience of those in the know.’13 In a study of the motivations for wearing vintage fashion, one vintage lover allows us a glimpse of an affective interpretation of her clothing choices when she mentions vintage accessories: ‘when I wear them, I always think of the family members who previously owned them. It’s a way of feeling connected for me.’14 Such emotional perspective is rare in studies of vintage fashion.
Because ‘[i]ntimacy becomes very difficult when everyone else is a potential judge,’15 the dominant view of clothes as a resource to represent ourselves in a competitive world blinds us to the intricate relation clothes have with the body, and ultimately to the way clothes hold the potential to open up an affective horizon of experience where people sense the capacity of dress as an intimate encounter between the self, object and the other.
With both not-newly-produced and slower dressing practices gaining in popularity, the desire to be affected by dress is seeping into the cracks of the fashion system. Yet clothing wearers and makers have to be given a framework to articulate in words what many of us have felt as the tactile and intimate potential of garments.16 This makes me wonder how Jo March sensed her dress when walking into that editor’s office. If many years later while touching the wrinkles of the skirt she wore that day, she would remember her younger self and her accomplishment.
- Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, Roberts Brothers, Boston, 1868, p. 482.
- Paul Verhaeghe, Intimiteit, de Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2018, p. 293.
- Peter Stallybrass, ‘Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things,’ The Yale Review, vol. 81, no.2, 1993, p. 36.
- Verhaeghe, Intimiteit, p. 148.
- Ibid., p. 165.
- Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, ‘Self-Determination Theory and Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development and Well-Being’, American Psychologist, vol. 55, no. 1, 2000, pp. 68–78.
- See Valerie Steele, ‘Fashion, Fetish, Fantasy’, in Efrat Tseëlon (ed.) Masquerade and Identities: Essays on Gender, Sexuality, and Marginality, Routledge, London, 2001.
- Lucia Ruggerone, ‘The Feeling of Being Dressed: Affect Studies and the Clothed Body’, Fashion Theory, vol. 5, no. 21, 2017, p. 1.
- Verhaeghe, Intimiteit, p. 304.
- See Hartmut Rosa, Alienation and Acceleration, Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin, 2013.
- Nicky Gregson, Kate Brooks and Louise Crewe, ‘Bjorn Again? Rethinking 70s revivalism through the reappreciation of 70s clothing’, Fashion Theory, vol. 5, no. 1, 2001, pp. 3–28.
- Marilyn Delong, Barbara Heinemann and Kathryn Reiley, ‘Hooked on Vintage!’, Fashion Theory, vol. 9, no. 1, 2005, p. 37.
- Verhaeghe, Intimiteit, p. 218.
- In the field of fashion studies you can find this view on the power of clothes in, among others: Ruggerone, ibid.; Ruggerone and R. Stauss, ‘The Deceptive Mirror: The Dressed Body Beyond Reflection’, Fashion Theory, 2020; Anneke Smelik, ‘New materialism: A theoretical framework for fashion in the age of technological innovation,’ International Journal of Fashion Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, 2018, pp. 33–54; and Daniëlle Bruggeman, Dissolving the Ego of Fashion, ArtEZ Press, Arnhem, 2018.