"La moda" by Georg Simmel
This semester I found out that philosophy and fashion had more in common than I thought.
I attended an aesthetic philosophy class and curiosity did not kill the cat (It’s me, I’m the cat, lol) but indeed helped her find a few fashion-philosophy titles to read.
Among the titles that my professor suggested to me, one caught my attention: “La moda” by the German phenomenologist and sociologist Georg Simmel. So today I’d like to share a few thoughts with you.
Written in 1910, a time of big social, political and economic changes in Europe, it is considered the one and only short essay of the time that covers the topic of fashion with such a precise eye.
Despite a few considerations that today are not so lovely to read, such as class distinctions and poor consideration of those who are not rich and so do not participate in the fashion dictations, things that sure did not pass unnoticed by me, I think this little book still has a lot to tell us, to help us reflect on the social and personal meaning of fashion nowadays.
The main statement of the book is that fashion holds in itself two main forces, both individual and social: the need to distinct us from others, in order to affirm our individuality, but also the need to fit in, to identify with people that are like us and stick with them, with some sort of external representations of who we are as a group.
So, think about the ’60s to ’90s subcultures, such as punks or hippies or grunge kids, but also our loved-hated ’80s Italian “paninari”: people needed to make a statement with their appearance, to express their values and lifestyles through the way they presented themselves, and they needed to do that both for an internal need of expression but also to pair with the ones that were like them.
This is not so different from all the aesthetics that are spreading todays on socials: We dress like this therefor we are like that! and so here we come with the dark-academia look, the cottage-core, the emo-kid and so on, shaping not just our looks but also our behaviour.
I found this point particularly interesting for one reason: you can’t save yourself from the fashion world. Simmel writes:
“Those who consciously dress against the fashion rules do reach individualization in a negative way: if being in fashion means imitating its example, being out of it intentionally means imitating just as much, but with an opposite intention, and that indicates just how much the power of fashion tendencies is able to influence us both in a positive or negative way.”
For Simmel, those who go against fashion, considering it unimportant, are in fact into it as much as the ones that follow the trends: we all need to be in a social group to survive and find ourselves, and following fashion or not is one of the main ways to do so, as it is a social phenomenon of great importance.
Another main point is that fashion is superficial: fashion does not need to be useful. Simmel says that fashion is extravaganza, a pure form of superficial expression of creativity that is good for the eyes and the pleasure of something we enjoy with no practical usefulness. In a way, with all the due differences that I will not list here, that’s what Kant said in the “Critic of Judgment”: beauty is what we like and enjoy for its sake, immediately, not because it’s useful, not because there’s an idea and structure behind it.
After all this years listening to people against fashion telling us that “It has no meaning, it has no purpose”, thanks God people as eminent as philosophers told us that the beauty of fashion lies in the pieces themselves!
Sure, I don’t totally agree with this statement: fashion is political, at least for me, so I think it is important to highlight the meanings and creativity that lie under it; but I also think that in a world that is sometimes too heavy (raise your hand if you are a philosophy student or lover too!), fashion is what keeps us grounded to the simple yet immense mundane pleasures!
Again, fashion is extravaganza, but in another way: fashion is expressing who you are, fashion is creativity at its best, fashion is a mean of release of our inner selves, especially when we are deprived of this possibility in other fields.
Simmel mostly refers to women, and youngsters, in these passages, because, while grown white wealthy men took advantage of the social changes, women remained constrained into the private role of the mother and wife, with no change to cultivate their passions and intellect:
“In XIV and XV centuries, Germany saw a huge development of individuality expression. Personal freedoms broke the collectivism of the medieval times. But inside of this development, women did not find a place, deprived of their freedom of movement and expression. They paid their selves back by dressing with the most extravagant and overgrown fashion pieces they could imagine. […]
Youngsters demonstrate with their behavior (including fashion) an unexpected, sudden extravaganza, interest…”
As much as it is cruel to think of how many people are still today deprived of their freedom, and as naïve as it seems to think that fashion is the way to help them liberate themselves, I think that it is true that fashion remains a democratic way for everyone to find their inner self while growing and experimenting, to find who they are through life, and so these words struck me for their simple poeticism.
Sure, and we go back to the previous point, fashion shows its being political here too : fashion is a form of expression for those in need to speak, but it is also a powerful tool for the ones in power to become allies with the oppressed.
Last but not least, fashion is hectic: Simmel underlines how fast fashion changes, how fast high-fashion is swallowed in mass fashion (yes fast fashion, Simmel was talking about you ante-litteram!), how fast a trend dies to give place to another.
With the eyes of today I asked myself: is it sustainable, for people and the planet? Is it right to judge fast-fashion or is it too easy to talk when you can afford an alternative and still be in the fashion game?
I don’t know, therefor I’m going to leave all these questions here, open for us together to try and find an answer.
I hope that, if you read this short but dense book, be it on the tram or maybe on a lazy Sunday, the duvet too comfortable to leave, you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. Till the next book, have a nice read!
[ picture credits are: https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu ]