Fabulousness - What the Doctor Ordered: Exploring the Intrapsychic Significance and Social Meanings of Fashion 


 
This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Psychoanalytic Social Work on April 26, 2020, available online: 
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15228878.2019.1702563
 

Excerpt: 


Abstract

Fashion is simultaneously intensely personal and very public. We can use fashion as an external ego support when our inner self-representation needs propping up. Yet, the moment we put on a particular outfit, that clothing becomes a cultural artifact. Looking through a self-psychology lens, this paper examines how clothing and fashion can be tools for promoting self-cohesion, while simultaneously exploring how the subjective experience of fashion is influenced by one’s larger societal context. Case material and excerpts from non-fiction writing allow for an examination of the felt experience of fashion and self-presentation. Fashion provides a wealth of opportunities for enlivening selfobject experiences, which may be sparked by the material, physical nature of clothes; the communicative function of fashion; or the imaginative act of self-styling. Drawing on Madison Moore’s concept of “fabulousness,” an embodied, queer aesthetic that uses fashion for both self-realization and resisting oppression, this paper concludes with a discussion of creativity and social change. Fashion is a tool not just for communicating the self, but for creating a self—often in deliberate resistance to destructive forces, whether those are social or interpersonal.

A personal connection to fashion

This paper, and my interest in the psychology of style, grew out of a realization that fashion was important to my own mental health. I include some reflections on the role of dress in my own life because this experience shapes my interpretation of the literature and my understanding of my clients’ experiences.

Even with my clinical training, I was totally unprepared for the toll that depression, trauma, and gender dysphoria would take on my body. Equally unexpected was the way fashion became a balm for my body’s intangible aches. Depression breeds a carelessness that leaves me negligent around sharp objects and thoughtless in traffic, believing that I don’t need to take care of this body. I could let it starve. I could let it drown in fatigue. Or in water, for that matter. It’s worthless, anyway.

I'd always liked fashion. My mom is a seamstress and, growing up, I had the rare opportunity to see my dream clothes made real. But as I got older, I let this interest fade. I became a busy social worker and had less energy to think about looks. When my days were consumed with the extremes of my clients’ emotions and oppressions, how was I supposed to find meaning in the fashion blogs I’d loved? I had a sneaking suspicion that maybe fashion was superficial after all.

Add to this my growing exposure to gendered violence. It’s not my job to dress a certain way to protect myself. But the fact remains that some people treat attractiveness, style, swagger as an invitation to help themselves to what's not on offer. When you've experienced any kind of sexual damage, it's easy to conclude that looking good is dangerous. This can wring the pleasure out of fashion. There’s less joy in creating eye-catching outfits when you suspect that every glance is malicious.

What was I supposed to do with these affronts to my personhood? Left with questions about how to cope and heal, I found myself discovering answers in fashion.    

How do I reclaim a body that’s been violated? With jewelry like body armour. Silver spike earrings. A leather choker. Link by burnished-brass link, a body chain winds its way down my torso and around my back. It holds in my strength. It keeps out those who would try to transgress – those who have succeeded before in transgressing – the boundaries of my body.

How do I clothe a body that doesn’t know whether it’s masculine or feminine or neither or why it even matters? I put on a slim-cut, pale-pink men’s suit and challenge the world to embrace my androgyny.

How do I manage these thoughts of knives slicing my skin, these intrusive metaphors for worthlessness? Even this plague of twisted images found relief in fashion, in the form of two knife-like black triangles tattooed up each forearm. Geometric proof that I can play with what haunts me and transform these specters into adornment. A graceful reminder to keep my skin intact, not to take its integrity for granted.  

Depression sapped my ability to appreciate beauty. I could still notice a nice day, still see the electric brilliance of a summer sky, but I couldn’t take any of it in. All this beauty remained outside of me. But, somehow, creating fabulous outfits could still bring me joy. The clip of a clasp. The tug on a cuff. The clatter of bangles. These could light a spark where few other things could. Maybe it’s because fashion goes the other way around: from the inside out. Taking a piece of my inner self and giving it outward expression.

When I was little, someone who shouldn’t have, left their sexual imprint on me. Fashion let me reassert ownership over my body and shape my imprint on the world. Fashion is about clothing, but it is also about being in space. How I pull the air around me. How these colors catch the light. How I claim a doorway as I walk through it. This is the boldest assertion I have: that this body is mine, and I get to carry it, to clothe it, to care for it in the way that I will. In direct defiance of those who harmed it.  

Don’t get me wrong, there are still days when I wear my Depression SweatsTM. But there’s a boldness in fashion that pulls me up when mental illness drags me down. Clenching my fists, I can feel the bite of my ring collection. These is fightin’ rings. Even if, sometimes, that fight is just to get through the day. As a dear friend exclaimed in the midst of a hair crisis, “It’s so hard being fabulous!” That it is. But it’s also deeply healing. The relief I found in fashion surprised me and encouraged me to attend more closely to the clinical significance of style.



Full Article: 


Abstract

Fashion is simultaneously intensely personal and very public. We can use fashion as an external ego support when our inner self-representation needs propping up. Yet, the moment we put on a particular outfit, that clothing becomes a cultural artifact. Looking through a self-psychology lens, this paper examines how clothing and fashion can be tools for promoting self-cohesion, while simultaneously exploring how the subjective experience of fashion is influenced by one’s larger societal context. Case material and excerpts from non-fiction writing allow for an examination of the felt experience of fashion and self-presentation. Fashion provides a wealth of opportunities for enlivening selfobject experiences, which may be sparked by the material, physical nature of clothes; the communicative function of fashion; or the imaginative act of self-styling. Drawing on Madison Moore’s concept of “fabulousness,” an embodied, queer aesthetic that uses fashion for both self-realization and resisting oppression, this paper concludes with a discussion of creativity and social change. Fashion is a tool not just for communicating the self, but for creating a self—often in deliberate resistance to destructive forces, whether those are social or interpersonal.

Introduction: fashion as personal and public

Fashion is simultaneously intensely personal and very public. Fashion can function as armor, as a joyful creative outlet, or a political statement. We can use fashion as an external ego support when our inner self-representation needs propping up. At the same time, getting dressed is something that we do mostly—not entirely, but mostly—when we’re going to be seen by others or out in public. The moment we put on a particular outfit, that clothing becomes a cultural artifact. A look sends certain messages. It becomes a canvas for society’s projections, open for comment, consumption, catcalls. And that cultural back-and-forth, the messages we try to send through fashion and the feedback we receive from the world, in turn affects our personal psychology all over again.

I refer to fashion here in a broad sense: clothing, jewelry, hairstyles, tattoos, and any adornment or body modification a person might undertake. Above all, I am interested in examining people’s felt experience with the act of self-styling. Self-styling is “a term often used in fashion discourse to describe how we dress for the social world” (Moore, 2018, p. 20). Looking through a self-psychology lens, this paper uses clinical case material and excerpts from memoir and non-fiction writing to examine how clothing and fashion can be tools for promoting self-cohesion, while simultaneously exploring how the subjective experience of fashion is influenced by one’s larger societal context.

The muddled concept of fashion

The word “fashion” means many things to many people and different disciplines have various ways of defining it. Some people use the words fashion and clothing interchangeably. Others, like sociologist Yuniya Kawamura (2005), are adamant that “fashion and dress/clothing are different concepts and entities which… should be studied separately” (p. 1). She points out that clothes are tangible, material items that are valued for their utility, while fashion is “a belief and an ideology” about what items of clothing are desirable (Kawamura, 2005, p. 88).

Sociological approaches

“Fashion can be studied either from the point of view of the individual as the early psychologists indicated, or from the point of view of the structure and function of society as a whole as many sociologists would do” (Kawamura, 2005, p. 75). Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen, author of The Theory of the Leisure Class, is much-discussed in the fashion literature for his exploration of how a leisure class is created and institutionalized through consumption. For Veblen, who was writing in 1899, fashion is largely about expressing wealth and social status; notably, he coined the term conspicuous consumption. Kawamura (2005) suggests that many classical fashion thinkers espouse a “trickle-down theory” in which “their basic premise is that the fashions are supposed to trickle down from the higher classes to the lower classes” (p. 19). Many discussions of fashion focus on the ways in which clothing in the Western world has been used as a marker for social differences and has functioned an exclusionary tool for maintaining social hierarchies and limiting movement between social classes (Crane, 2000; Kawamura, 2005). Other writers point out that clothing can be an “equalizing mechanism because imitation is one of the means… [for] suppressing caste, class and national barriers” (Kawamura, 2005, p. 25). Postmodern writers such as Baudrillard (1981) jump into the fray with arguments that fashion offers only an illusion of social change: “Fashion…masks a profound social inertia…the demand for real social mobility frolics and loses itself in fashion, in the sudden and often cyclical changes of objects, clothes and ideas” (p. 78).

Many of those who write about fashion do not seem to fully share Baudrillard’s cynicism, but rather lean toward Crane’s (2000) opinion that “[c]hanges in clothing and in the discourses surrounding clothing indicate shifts in the social relationships and tensions between different social groups that present themselves in different ways in public space” (p. 3). As social structures change, so do clothes. But are clothes only a reflection of societal shifts? Can fashion ever be a contributor to change? Dick Hebdige’s (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style touches on this topic. He views the style of British post-war youth subcultures—mods, glam rock, reggae, punk and others—as symbolic forms of resistance to dominant ideology, hegemony, and social normalization. However, he concludes that, as people find ways to commodify the elements of a given subculture, subcultural styles get absorbed into the mainstream and lose their subversive power (Hebdige, 1979). The question of fashion’s role in social change will be further discussed toward the end of this paper.

A consideration of the consumption and wearing of clothes often involves both implicating and ignoring the dark underbelly of fashion: the production of clothes. When it comes to “the material base of fashion, we enter a world that is undeniably and inescapably one of cruelty and exploitation” (Wilson, 2003, p. 66), which encompasses colonial expansion, slavery, and the ongoing exploitation of workers in garment factories. There is a certain dark paradox in writing about how the wearing of fashion can contribute to a sense of liveliness and wellbeing when the production of clothing is still rife with exploitative labor practices and environmental unsustainability. There is much to be said about the relationship between the production and consumption of fashion that goes beyond the scope of this paper.

Psychological approaches

And what of the individual, intrapsychic meanings of fashion? Fashion is a topic rarely discussed in the psychoanalytic literature. Clinician and historian Brett Kahr (2011) writes, “It surprises me how little attention psychotherapeutic workers have paid to the way in which our patients dress, at least in our published writings” (p. 362). A search through the Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing database turns up just four results with the word “fashion,” five with the word “clothing,” and seventeen with the word “clothes” in their titles. Edmund Bergler’s (1954) book, Fashion and the Unconscious, focuses on explicating “his chief theory: that clothes owe their origin and function to the castration complex” and that it “is the fear of the female body that leads men to insist that women be clothed” (Flugel, 1954, p. 588). This follows Freud’s comments that, “All women…are clothes fetishists…. Even the most intelligent women behave defenselessly against the demands of fashion. For them, clothes take the place of parts of the body” (Rose, 1988, p. 156). Out of the available articles, only some (e.g. Richards, 1996) feature an in-depth exploration of the experience of self-fashioning; the rest use clothing as a metaphor to discuss some other concept or mention the word in an idiomatic sense, e.g. “the emperor’s clothes.”

Psychoanalysis is not alone in overlooking or trivializing the importance of fashion; this has been the case in many disciplines (Kawamura, 2005; Wilson, 2003). “A major reason why fashion as a social phenomenon has been treated as futile is because the phenomenon is linked with outward appearance and women” (Kawamura, 2005, p. 9), leading to the narrative that fashion is a frivolity with which second-class citizens may amuse themselves. In reality, the history of women’s—and feminism’s—relationship to fashion is extremely complex, tied up with the objectification of feminine bodies for the sake of the male gaze, with the expression of male power through the adornment of wives and daughters, and with other social dynamics (Moore, 2018; Wilson, 2003). Some argue that feminism “has been as simplistic—and as moralistic—as most other theories in its denigration of fashion” (Wilson, 2003, p. 13). Feminism provides an entry point into one of the intrapsychic dynamics of fashion: ambivalence. Elizabeth Wilson, author of Adorned in Dreams (2003), explores ambivalence via a discussion of the two approaches to fashion that emerged within second-wave feminism: a rejection of fashion as a tool of the patriarchy, and an embracing of fashion as a popular pastime enjoyed by many women. “Is fashionable dress part of the oppression of women, or is it a form of adult play? Is it part of the empty consumerism, or is it a site of struggle symbolized in dress codes? Does it muffle the self, or create it?” (Wilson, 2003, p. 231). Many feminine people feel some version of this ambivalence—perhaps often just on the edge of awareness—in their everyday acts of dressing, buying clothes, etc. “High heels hurt and it’s stupid that this style is foisted on women, but I feel powerful and sexy when I wear them.” “I shouldn’t care that I’ve gained a little weight, but I do.” “I have more important things to do than spend time on my appearance, but when I make time to look my best, I feel really good.” These kinds of statements also generally link to deeper feelings about identity and worth, but the wording of such statements is strongly shaped by our sociocultural ambivalence about fashion.

Freudian analyst J.C. Flügel explores unconscious ambivalence toward clothes by arguing that fashion is “a self-renewing compromise between modesty and eroticism” (Wilson, 2003, p. 94). For Flügel, clothes are either phallic (hats, ties, buttons, most clothes), vaginal (shoes, veils, jewelry), or uterine symbols (warm cloaks) (Flügel, 1929). He writes that the unconscious motives underlying dress are either “tendencies to display (whose foundations are in most cases phallic) and the tendencies to modesty (which can most easily ally themselves with unconscious uterine symbolism)” (Flügel, 1929, p. 214). Having written an oft-cited book and multiple articles about clothing, Flügel was certainly not dismissive of dress, yet his focus on psychosexual thinking and gender essentialism can make it difficult to integrate his ideas into more modern, or post-modern, conceptions of fashion.

Fashion and self-cohesion

“What are the boundaries of the self?” asks suicidologist John Terry Maltsberger (1993, p. 149). “Most of us include our bodies in the images of ourselves, defining self as skin and what is within it. Others extend their boundaries to include clothing or adornments” (Maltsberger, 1993, p. 149). Not only clinicians but some fashion scholars have also emphasized fashion’s demarcating role. For Elizabeth Wilson (2003), dress “not only links that body to the social world, but also more clearly separates the two. Dress is the frontier between the self and the not-self” (p. 3). The constant back and forth of social and intrapsychic currents make fashion particularly rich with meaning. Sociologist René König sees fashion as “a mirror held up to fix the shaky boundaries of the psychological self. It glazes the shifty identity, freezing it into the certainty of image” (Wilson, 2003, p. 58). If we accept that dress has a role to play in the construction of a cohesive self, how does it do so?

“Many psychopathological phenomena illustrate disturbed relationships between the body and the rest of the self…. [People who] suffer from body-self disturbances…cannot muster a subjective sense of personal cohesion” (Maltsberger, 1993, pp. 149-151). Self-psychology is particularly attentive to the topic of cohesion, aiming for people “to feel more seen, more real, and more internally substantial” (Mitchell & Black, 1995, p. 161). In that way, self-psychology offers a helpful entry point to examine how fashion contributes to the project of self-cohesion. After reviewing the concept of selfobject experiences, I will use two clinical vignettes and excerpts from memoir to discuss how fashion can meet selfobject needs and follow that with an exploration of creativity, one of Kohut’s transformations of narcissism.

Particularly relevant to this discussion are Kohut’s ideas of selfobjects and the three main types of selfobject needs: mirroring, ego ideals, and twinship. The concept of a selfobject has changed over time, evolving as self-psychology evolves. In Kohut’s original usage, a selfobject is “defined concretely as a person supplying a necessary but absent function” (Lichtenberg, 1991, p. 456). They’re “called selfobjects because they stand not as objects to be related to in and of themselves but as objects that function to give the self what it needs to become… energetic and cohesive” (Flanagan, 2008, p. 168). In this understanding of the term, a selfobject is another individual, and the subject relates to that selfobject individual as a “depersonalized” person whose importance lies primarily in providing the subject with ego functions that the subject has not yet internalized (Lichtenberg, 1991).

As self-psychology has broadened to incorporate more ideas from infant research and relational psychoanalytic theory, some theorists have proposed a broader understanding of selfobjects. Lichtenberg (1991) neatly sums up the conceptual dilemma when he wonders “whether defining a selfobject as a person and servicing (supplying functions) is optimal or whether selfobject should be considered as a quality of affective experience with associated symbolic representation” (p. 457). In the latter conceptualization, emphasis shifts away from a person who is a selfobject to a focus on “selfobject experiences,” which are affective states that can be sparked by any number of things (Lichtenberg, 1991). Lichtenberg (1991) offers these definitions: a selfobject experience “designates an affective state of vitality and invigoration, of needs being met, and of intactness of self” (p. 478) and selfobject “as a term designates that which triggers a selfobject experience… [such as] affectively attuned caregivers, specific objects (food, toy, blanket), and self-activity” (p. 478).

Despite different views on what constitutes a selfobject and whether meaning resides primarily in the external object or in the intrapsychic, affective experience, both schools of thought seem relatively consistent in their understanding of the benefits of a positive selfobject experience: “developing a much more cohesive, resilient, robust sense of self, capable of enduring disappointments, adjusting to the realities of life, and finding vitalizing pleasure in personal experience” (Mitchell & Black, 1995). Likewise, the importance of Kohut’s three main selfobject needs remains central. The first selfobject need is to be mirrored, or to have our inner self affirmed and approved (Flanagan, 2008). Second are idealizing experiences, in which we can identify with an ego-ideal—a powerful, calming other—in order to take on those qualities ourselves (Flanagan, 2008). Third is twinship, or a feeling of essential likeness and similarity (Flanagan, 2008). In Phyllis Greenacre’s words, when selfobjects function well, we feel “gently and reassuringly solidified” (as cited in Flanagan, 2008, p. 168). Fashion is a fertile ground for selfobject experiences, which can be triggered by any aspect of fashion, from a physical item of clothing itself, to the nonverbal communications sent and received through dress, or in the creative act of self-styling.

A personal connection to fashion  

This paper, and my interest in the psychology of style, grew out of a realization that fashion was important to my own mental health. I include some reflections on the role of dress in my own life because this experience shapes my interpretation of the literature and my understanding of my clients’ experiences.

Even with my clinical training, I was totally unprepared for the toll that depression, trauma, and gender dysphoria would take on my body. Equally unexpected was the way fashion became a balm for my body’s intangible aches. Depression breeds a carelessness that leaves me negligent around sharp objects and thoughtless in traffic, believing that I don’t need to take care of this body. I could let it starve. I could let it drown in fatigue. Or in water, for that matter. It’s worthless, anyway.

I'd always liked fashion. My mom is a seamstress and, growing up, I had the rare opportunity to see my dream clothes made real. But as I got older, I let this interest fade. I became a busy social worker and had less energy to think about looks. When my days were consumed with the extremes of my clients’ emotions and oppressions, how was I supposed to find meaning in the fashion blogs I’d loved? I had a sneaking suspicion that maybe fashion was superficial after all.

Add to this my growing exposure to gendered violence. It’s not my job to dress a certain way to protect myself. But the fact remains that some people treat attractiveness, style, swagger as an invitation to help themselves to what's not on offer. When you've experienced any kind of sexual damage, it's easy to conclude that looking good is dangerous. This can wring the pleasure out of fashion. There’s less joy in creating eye-catching outfits when you suspect that every glance is malicious.

What was I supposed to do with these affronts to my personhood? Left with questions about how to cope and heal, I found myself discovering answers in fashion.    

How do I reclaim a body that’s been violated? With jewelry like body armour. Silver spike earrings. A leather choker. Link by burnished-brass link, a body chain winds its way down my torso and around my back. It holds in my strength. It keeps out those who would try to transgress – those who have succeeded before in transgressing – the boundaries of my body.

How do I clothe a body that doesn’t know whether it’s masculine or feminine or neither or why it even matters? I put on a slim-cut, pale-pink men’s suit and challenge the world to embrace my androgyny.

How do I manage these thoughts of knives slicing my skin, these intrusive metaphors for worthlessness? Even this plague of twisted images found relief in fashion, in the form of two knife-like black triangles tattooed up each forearm. Geometric proof that I can play with what haunts me and transform these specters into adornment. A graceful reminder to keep my skin intact, not to take its integrity for granted.  

Depression sapped my ability to appreciate beauty. I could still notice a nice day, still see the electric brilliance of a summer sky, but I couldn’t take any of it in. All this beauty remained outside of me. But, somehow, creating fabulous outfits could still bring me joy. The clip of a clasp. The tug on a cuff. The clatter of bangles. These could light a spark where few other things could. Maybe it’s because fashion goes the other way around: from the inside out. Taking a piece of my inner self and giving it outward expression.

When I was little, someone who shouldn’t have, left their sexual imprint on me. Fashion let me reassert ownership over my body and shape my imprint on the world. Fashion is about clothing, but it is also about being in space. How I pull the air around me. How these colors catch the light. How I claim a doorway as I walk through it. This is the boldest assertion I have: that this body is mine, and I get to carry it, to clothe it, to care for it in the way that I will. In direct defiance of those who harmed it.  

Don’t get me wrong, there are still days when I wear my Depression SweatsTM. But there’s a boldness in fashion that pulls me up when mental illness drags me down. Clenching my fists, I can feel the bite of my ring collection. These is fightin’ rings. Even if, sometimes, that fight is just to get through the day. As a dear friend exclaimed in the midst of a hair crisis, “It’s so hard being fabulous!” That it is. But it’s also deeply healing. The relief I found in fashion surprised me and encouraged me to attend more closely to the clinical significance of style.

The materials of fashion

“Fashion as a belief is manifested through clothing” (Kawamura, 2005, p. 1) and, as such, it is necessary to consider the role that material items play in our personal, felt experiences of fashion. If we allow Lichtenberg’s (1991) view that “the triggering selfobject may be many, many ‘things’—a satisfying feeding, a shared look, a hand that plays pat-a-cake, a mobile that captures attention” and so on (p. 474), then it follows that the material items of fashion can spark selfobject experiences in and of themselves.  
It is often taken for granted that women dress for men and that women’s fashion is meant to eroticize feminine bodies for men’s pleasure; and both of these things can be true at times (Wilson, 2003). However, Wilson (2003) refers to the work of women’s activist Beatrice Faust to refute the image of women as mere passive wearers of subordinating fashions. Faust writes, “High heels and corsets provide intense kinesthetic stimulation for women…These frivolous accessories are not just visual stimuli for men; they are also tactile stimuli for women” (as cited in Wilson, 2003, p. 99). Wilson (2003) feels that this is likely a minority view among feminists, and I agree when it comes to constricting styles such as corsets. However, Faust’s view is important because it points out that, even where prevailing patriarchal notions shape what is “in fashion” and marketed to women, on a day-to-day level, individuals still have agency in the way they relate to the material items they put on their bodies. There is much meaning—and much potential for self-cohesion—in the way we relate to the materials of fashion.

The things we put on our bodies can confirm our innate sense of aliveness and strength, the way that certain jewelry allows me to feel protected, powerful, or in touch with my body when I’m at risk of dissociating. If I idealize a certain look, it is the physicality of that look, the feel of the clothes on my body, the silhouette an outfit creates, the sound of a pair of power heels, that help me absorb the qualities of that ideal—strong, vivid, whole.

In considering the material items of fashion, I think about Mira, an African-American, middle-school girl who I see for therapy in a school setting. In the nine months we’ve worked together, she has spent several full sessions, and many other moments, talking about hairstyles and the pains and pleasures of caring for her curls. Would she ever be allowed to get this elaborate, brightly colored style she saw online? But what would be practical in the summer at camp, and how should she do it for back-to-school next fall? Her indecision isn’t pained, it’s full of a joyful sense of potential and of celebration of self. Sometimes she only wants me to witness her thought process, sometimes she solicits my opinions, other times she teases me (a white person) for not knowing all the ins and outs of Black haircare. The material aspects of hairstyling are important “selfobject triggers” (Lichtenberg, 1991) for Mira. These details from our sessions come to mind: watching her periodically swish her head to savor the novel feeling of long braids after she’s just gotten hair extensions; the jumble of haircare products—lovingly described to me—that she must take on overnight stays; the playful, tactile act of rearranging and positioning her current hair to simulate an aspirational style, testing out what it might feel like.

Her pleasure in possessing and interacting with these physical objects is evident, but I believe it’s more than just pleasure. In it, I see a sense of boundless possibility that Mira cannot always feel in other areas of life. There is a sense of ownership and autonomy—“I want to look like this, I will care for my hair just so”—that engenders a feeling of strength. There is a vitality of affect (Lichtenberg, 1991) that suggests that these material items help her feel grounded in herself, in the embodied experience of being Mira.  

The meanings attached to hair and the rituals involved in haircare vary across race, culture, and class. Yet, for all of us, grooming inevitably carries associations to our preverbal experiences of nurturance. As we internalize the tasks of cleaning and dressing ourselves, these tasks—and the material items associated with them—retain a heightened valence left over from early rituals of parental caregiving. When Mira plays with her hair in session, I catch an echo of a young child’s desire to be admired by an adoring parent. When she endows her hair products with a sense of life-and-death importance, I catch myself imagining the early life experiences that make haircare feel so fundamental to her sense of wellness.

Fashion has so often been denigrated because it is superficial, preoccupied with surfaces, “has no content, works as an external decoration, and carries no intellectual elements” (Kawamura, 2005, p. 9). However, I emphasize the materiality of fashion because, in my experience, “serious” discussions of fashion can sometimes swing too far the other way, becoming too intellectualized and forgetting that surface and shine and the joys of sensory stimuli help solidify our sense of self as well.

Fashion as communication: between self, other, and society

Refashioning my sense of self in the wake of trauma didn’t take place in a vacuum filled with pretty things. What I needed from fashion was more than material items alone could offer. Shaping my image was a way to make requests of those around me—requests that they see me for who I am, appeals for connection without transgression, a desire to be accepted even if I challenge gender norms. Yet, as in any interaction, these bids for mirroring, twinship, and ego ideals are not always returned in ways that are validating. Self-psychology is a two-person psychology and it gives us a framework for considering what happens when we step out into the world wearing whatever we’re wearing. There is an inherent vulnerability in using fashion for self-expression. As a two-way communicator between the self and society, fashion opens us up to judgement, categorization, and, in the worst cases, harassment and violence based on our self-presentation. When a family member dismisses my gender-nonconformity as petty and attention-seeking, there are psychic consequences. And, there’s an inner renegotiation: is authenticity worth it? Maybe next time I’ll wear a dress instead of a suit, so I can fade into the background. There is a constant weighing of risk and reward.

For many of us, it is not a stretch to claim that fashion is a form of nonverbal communication: “That the clothes we wear make a statement is itself a statement that in this age of heightened self-consciousness has virtually become a cliché” (Davis, 2007, p. 148). Yet, fashion theorists do not simply take this for granted. Digging into the academic literature on fashion communication, one finds numerous avenues for considering the communicative function of fashion. Most common seems to be a semiotic approach, which focuses on the negotiation of meanings rather than the receiving of messages, where “the production of meanings is the result of negotiation between senders, readers, their cultural experiences and texts” (Barnard, 2002, p. 32.) This approach acknowledges the fact that “the clothing-fashion code is highly context dependent” (Davis, 2007, p. 151). Fashion communicates on several levels. The level in which I am most interested is that of our felt experience. How does it feel to wear certain clothes? What is it like when we try to communicate something via fashion and it is well, or poorly, received? How about when we’re not consciously trying to communicate anything, but we’re barraged by responses, whether verbal or nonverbal? How might these interactions impact sense of self?

In Michelle Obama’s (2018) memoir, Becoming, she discusses some of her experience with fashion, providing us with an opportunity to explore some of these questions:

Sometime during Barack’s campaign, people began paying attention to my clothes…. It seemed that my clothes mattered more to people than anything I had to say…. I knew a little about fashion, but not a lot. As a working mother, I’d really been too busy to put much thought into what I wore.… It was a thin line to walk. I was supposed to stand out without overshadowing others, to blend in but not fade away. As a black woman, too, I knew I’d be criticized if I was perceived as being showy and high-end, and I’d also be criticized if I was too casual.… For me, my choices were simply a way to use my curious relationship with the public gaze to boost a diverse set of up-and-[coming designers]….

Optics governed more or less everything in the political world, and I factored this into every outfit. It required time, thought, and money—more money than I’d spent on clothing ever before.… I sighed sometimes, watching Barack pull the same dark suit out of his closet and head off to work without even needing a comb.… I never expected to be someone who hired others to maintain my image, and at first the idea was discomfiting. But I quickly found out a truth that no one talks about: Today, virtually every woman in public life—politicians, celebrities, you name it—has [professional stylists]. It’s all but a requirement, a built-in fee for our societal double standard.

In contrast to my own experience, Michelle Obama makes it clear that her relationship to fashion as First Lady was not a completely enlivening one. Fashion was a burden that required money, time, and emotional labor. It was a minefield of sexism and racism, where she felt continually policed. What does this excerpt tell us about the ways in which the self-psychological process can be derailed?

Mirroring, ideally, would be a process of being seen and admired for one’s own sake. However, instead of feeling that her clothing could augment her self-expression, Mrs. Obama felt that people didn’t look beyond her style and muted her words. Everything she wore was picked apart by the media and “trigger[ed] a slew of opinions and instant feedback” (Obama, 2018). In commodifying her image, the media fragmented it, failing to see her as a whole, multi-faceted person. The process of mirroring falls apart when it becomes less about being seen and more about being consumed and instrumentalized. Furthermore, Mrs. Obama was held responsible for her own objectification: “Talking heads complained early on in the second term about Mrs. Obama’s allowing the clothes conversation to dominate the substance conversation” (Friedman, 2017). In drawing a false dichotomy between clothes conversations and substance conversations, the media is perpetuating the familiar narrative that fashion is “a kind of conspiracy to distract women from the real affairs of society, namely economics and politics,” (Wilson, 1985, as cited in Kawamura, 2005, p. 11) and simultaneously using this narrative to gatekeep Mrs. Obama’s participation in “substantive” conversations. These experiences can hardly lend themselves to a sense of self-cohesion. As culture critic Madison Moore (2018) writes, “More people should realize how dehumanizing it is to feel pressure to [alter your appearance and] renounce yourself just so you can… be taken seriously” (p. 106). Indeed, the media in this example could be viewed as negative or pathogenic selfobject, “when the selfobject is experienced as responding faultily with corresponding loss of the patient’s self-cohesion and feeling of wellbeing’” (Wolf, 1990, as cited in Lichtenberg, 1991, p. 462).

We can’t infer too much about Michelle Obama’s personal experiences of seeking ego-ideals and twinship, although clearly being the first Black first lady was an entirely singular experience. However, her memoir sheds light on one of the ways in which the process of idealization can get stymied. Idealization lets us identify with another in order to solidify our own sense of self. At best, this is an expansive, creative process that allows us to “see strength and wonder…in others, in order to merge with their growth-enhancing qualities” (Flanagan, 2008, p. 172). Yet, when this process is overwhelming or intrusive, “there is not space or peace enough for [a lively self to develop] because the person is always being crowded with demands and stimulation from the outside” (Flanagan, 2008, p. 179).  

Idealization goes awry when it ceases to allow for imaginative self-creation and demands adherence to rigid ideals. The New York Times praises Mrs. Obama for eschewing the traditional, staid first lady “uniform” and defining her own style “as a way to frame her own independence and points of difference” from her husband (Friedman, 2017). Yet, Mrs. Obama points out that she was, in fact, hemmed in on every side by intense scrutiny, respectability politics, and many layers of societal expectations. According to her stylist, Meredith Koop, each costume choice required them to “anticipate every avenue of attack and every possible outcome” (Friedman, 2018). Culture critic Jenna Wortham adds that, with her clothing, Mrs. Obama was “picking up the mantle of another kind of work: undoing all the decades and centuries of racial stereotyping that people have about…Black women” (Wortham, Morris, & Pathak, 2019). In being idealized, Mrs. Obama’s appearance was expected to do so much work on so many levels. Admirers perceived her style as creative, diverse, and joyful and perhaps there were aspects of fashion that she experienced as such. However, her memoir suggests that much of her process of self-fashioning was driven by pressure to meet others’ needs and expectations, leaving little room for fashion to be self-actualizing, creative, and imaginative. Surely many women in prominent positions feel some degree of stifling scrutiny, but the intersecting demands of gender and race left Mrs. Obama with, as she put it, an even thinner line to walk.

Beyond communication: clothing as creation

Flanagan (2008) reminds us that the most essential selfobject need is not “to be seen or have an ideal person to merge with or have alter ego experiences, the need is actually to be created, be made” (p. 168, emphasis in original). Fashion is a tool not just for communicating the self, but for creating a self—often in deliberate resistance to destructive forces, whether those are social or interpersonal.

In Wilson’s (2003) words, dress is “one means whereby an always fragmentary self is glued together into the semblance of a unified identity (p. 11). Alok Vaid-Menon, a transfeminine performance artist, talks about their relationship with fashion and style thus: “What I’ve had to do is give birth to myself because my family was bad at that and my culture was bad at that. They didn’t give birth to me. They gave birth to an illusion of what they wanted me to be: a nice, good, Hindu upper-caste boy” (as cited in Moore, 2018, p. 55). Playing with colors, textures, silhouettes, etc. in order to create a look that projects (and possibly introjects) a particular image can be an intensely creative and enlivening act—“style as asserting personhood” (Moore, 2018, p. 47). For Kohut (1977), a “deeply absorbing creative endeavor” can become “the mode by which the self will from now on attempt to ensure its cohesion, to maintain its balance, and to achieve its fulfilment” (p. 38). He described creativity as one of the “transformations of narcissism” (Kohut, 1966). Creativity, in his view, is an aspect of narcissism that does not reflect pathology but rather encourages the “emergence of realistic ambitions and mature ideals” (Jacoby, 1981, p. 23) and may contribute to an increased ability to connect with others and have a positive impact beyond oneself (Kohut, 1966).

For Mira, the young woman described above, there is a deeply creative element in her imaginative hair fantasies and her real hairstyles. Mira lives with her grandmother, her biological mother having lost custody due to substance abuse and neglect during Mira’s early childhood. Mira is outgoing, social, and easily excels in her schoolwork. Many months into our work, I heard second-hand from a teacher that Mira had used her grandmother’s money to buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of hair products online and, as punishment, her grandmother cut off Mira’s hair while she was sleeping. The school was considering filing a report with child protective services. I didn’t know what had actually happened and what was hearsay; I hoped to hear about it from Mira herself. When I saw her next, she’d been given permission to wear a hat—normally prohibited at school. We only met briefly, as a school event cut our session short. She didn’t volunteer anything about the incident until she was leaving my office, when, from the hall, she yelled back in at me, “By the way, I cut my hair.”

The following week, we had a full session and I was determined to talk about the hair incident. I had already learned that Mira almost never talks directly about weighty topics in therapy. Our work generally takes the form of banter, teasing, and a lot of laughter as we jump from topic to topic guided by Mira’s constant, exuberant disruptions, tangents, and changes of subject. Often, we chat while watching YouTube videos, playing games, drawing, or looking at the creative videos and photos that Mira makes of herself, her friends, and her cat. At the time of this session, Mira’s art class had been working for several weeks on self-portrait drawings. They were almost due, and she wasn’t quite done, so she brought her drawing with her to the session. She asked if I wanted to help and showed me how to join her in blending the graphite, so the finished version would have a smooth look free of pencil lines. While we worked on the drawing, I said, “Last week, you said you cut your hair.”

“Yeah. It’s short now,” and she moved her hat back so I could see part of it. We kept drawing and she thought aloud about what color she should make the background of the portrait.

“I heard from Ms. R that it wasn’t you who cut it, it was your grandmother.”

“Well, yeah, that’s what I meant… If I do red fading into black for the background, do you think that would work? Someone else did a blue background and it looked really good.” We talk for a little about the drawing before I try again.

“You didn’t want her to cut it, she cut it at night?”

“She said she would take me to a barber shop to get it cleaned up. I’ve never been to a barber shop. Your hair is buzzed, right?”

“Around the edges, yeah.”

“What does it feel like when they use the buzzer on short hair, does it hurt?”

“No, it doesn’t hurt. It just kind of…buzzes. It feels kind of good. It sounds really hard that she cut your hair.”

“Wait, if I erase this line, and make this part darker, that looks better right? And then there’s this little light part, a little reflection on my nose. Yeah, that looks good.”

“It looks really good. I know we don’t always talk about serious things here, but I wanted to make sure we got a chance to talk about this if you wanted to. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk about things when something hard happens.”

“She cut it, what’s the point of talking about it. It’s done.”

I could keep pushing all I wanted, invading the session with my need to talk, but Mira structured the session just the way she needed, and she didn’t really need talk. As usual, our interaction had moments of fun and spontaneity, and there was a warm coziness as we worked on this drawing together. But there was also an incredible heaviness to it. Her self-portrait was beautifully drawn from a photograph taken earlier that year which featured her longer hair up on top of her head in a puff. I slowly became more conscious that she had set up the paper between us, facing her, so that she was working on the image of her face on the lower half of the paper and I was working on the top part of the picture that featured her hair. I sat there, carefully using the blending tool to blend the self-portrait’s hair, painfully aware that Mira herself no longer had this hair, that she needed me to share that heaviness with her, and perhaps momentarily hold it for her so she could put it aside for a while.

Mira’s hair had been a symbolic reserve of creative, enlivening energy. Despite having suffered what was likely a narcissistic injury of giant—I could invoke Samson and say biblical—proportions, she was able to find another way to use creativity to preserve a sense of cohesion and to connect with me. By inviting me to work on that drawing, she invited me to interact with a version of her that still had long hair, and she asked me to sit with its loss. She created for us an interaction in which various selfobject needs were present. Perhaps she felt mirrored in our artistic process, feeling herself seen both as she was then and as she wants to be. She cautiously tested out a feeling of twinship by talking about our now shared pixie haircuts. Her autonomy had been removed when her hair was cut, but when drawing her self-portrait, she still maintained creative control over her look.

Fabulousness: a creative tool for social change

The project of using fashion to help create and solidify the self is intertwined with the similar, but larger scale, project of using fashion to create social change. Laura Melano Flanagan (2008) writes, “Society, when it is oppressive, can be seen as a selfobject that has tremendous power to destroy and that often contributes to lack of self-cohesion” (p. 182). At its most destructive, society not only neglects or derails selfobject needs, it systematically acts against them. Twinship is actively undermined when those outside the mainstream are labeled as Other. “Too much time without a feeling of twinship can make people feel like they are unraveling and losing touch with themselves” (Flanagan, 2008). Mirroring is thwarted when people of marginalized identities are underrepresented in the media and overlooked by public policy. Fashion scholar Minh-Ha T. Pham speaks to this damage:

[The] tendency to dismiss practices of sartorial display and extravagance as mere vanity risks ignoring the lived experiences of minoritized people for whom the right to be seen on their own terms and the right to take pleasure in their bodies and self-images has never been a given. (As cited in Moore, 2018, p. 83)

It is an open question for some fashion theorists whether fashion only reflects societal shifts or whether it can be a contributor to change. After I’d begun reflecting on my own experience with the healing power of “fabulousness,”  I came across a book called Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric, in which the author, Madison Moore, explores the idea of “fabulousness” as a queer aesthetic and political statement. Moore’s book is a mixture of memoir and theory. It draws heavily on his own experience, describing fabulousness as an extravagant visual style practiced often, though not only, by queer people of color. For Moore, the answer seems to be a solid yes—fashion can be a way to work toward social change:

When you are brown, queer, and marginalized, fabulousness is not simply about being beautiful and opulent but about seizing visual space on your own terms as an act of resistance, right now and in real time, even if that visibility is risky business. If no one gives you the space you need to thrive, make your own. (Moore, 2018, pp. 73-74)

In Moore’s discussions of extravagant style there are echoes of camp, a more widely recognized aesthetic phenomenon, but what differentiates fabulousness from camp is its political urgency (Moore, 2018). Fabulousness is never just art for art’s sake, it is art created in states of duress, under threat of disenfranchisement and violence (Moore, 2018). “It emerges not from…designer labels but from life-long periods of struggle, depression, self-loathing, and injury” (Moore, 2018, p. 56). Fabulousness illustrates one way of using creativity to maintain intrapsychic self-cohesion and to create social change.

Fabulousness steps beyond fashion as a binary form of communication between self and society, steps outside of the two-way dynamic of dresser and done-to. It sidesteps norms that, as Moore (2018) says, “never had me in mind in the first place” (p. 22). Fabulousness does not—because it cannot—rely on society to respond in an affirming way. “What fabulousness allows us to do is to create reservoirs of confidence and hope and love for ourselves because [queer people of color] don’t get that from…anywhere [else]” (Alok Vaid-Menon, 2018 as cited in Moore, 2018, p. 50). The vitalizing force of fabulousness comes not from society’s validation and affirmation, but from two other sources, both related to creativity. First, from its over-the-top, joyful sense of using fashion for self-creation: a pink suit that enlivens me in a deadening environment, or Mira’s fantasies of elaborate, bright-colored hairstyles that help her to repair narcissistic injuries. It comes from enthusiastically making oneself in defiance of social norms: “Our world constantly reminds me that I shouldn’t exist, so I dress the way I do to scream that I am here” (Moore, 2018, p. 10). And, second, fabulousness is vitalizing in its political urgency. By “visually and physically demand space, attention, and [announcing] oneself through the creative labor of self-expression” (Moore, 2018, p. 91), fabulous people are simultaneously asking for, imagining, and contributing to the creation of “a world where it will be safe to just be me” (Moore, 2018, p. 22).



Acknowledgements

Thank you to Shannon Mackey, Brianna Suslovic, Diana Chien, Tracey Hurd, and Eamon Anderson for their generous edits and feedback.

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