Abject Attraction

The Grotesque in Fashion

FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY IS OFTEN criticised for presenting visually disturbing images as eye candy, and, as Caroline Evans has pointed out in Fashion at the Edge, undercurrents of violence or pornography has regularly been seen in both fashion advertising and editorials since the 1990s. In her book Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection, philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva explains how matter such as dead bodies, food, vomit, blood, skin and bones are able to both disturb the order of the norm, while simultaneously enabling complex feelings of violent pleasure.

Kristeva uses the term ‘abject’ to describe something that is neither object nor subject. Being an in-between state it exists in a pre-symbolic order, triggering human reactions filled with confusion about the distinction between the self and the other. A potent example of this is the reaction we encounter when faced with the human cadaver; as Kristeva points out a subject without life becomes an object, something that triggers trauma by reminding us of our own mortality. Other less extreme though highly unsettling examples apt to create similar reactions are all types of bodily fluids, human or animal, such as blood, vomit or urine.1

The abject has been explored in films like Peter Greenaway’s ‘The Cook, the Thief, the Wife and her Lover’ from 1989, Liliana Cavani’s ‘The Night Porter’ from 1974 and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Salò’ or the ‘120 Days of Sodom’ from 1975, all of which have since inspired innumerable fashion editorials. One of the arguably most poignant examples of how the abject has been used in fashion imagery is the editorial ‘Salò’ published in the September 2001 issue of Dazed & Confused. Taking its cue from Pasolini’s film, the fashion story created by photographer Norbert Schoerner and stylist Katy England and art directed by Alexander McQueen seemingly has little to do with fashion as commonly represented in mainstream magazines, focusing instead on the abject and the relationship between domination and repression.

It could be argued that these images deal with power because they challenge social and moral boundaries, but also because they are, to borrow a term made famous by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, associated with ‘jouissance’. According to Lacan jouissance is what we encounter when we attempt to go beyond what Freudians call ‘the pleasure principle’, the drive to attain pleasure and avoid pain. Jouissance is then the transgression of this pleasure principle, a futile attempt to arrive at increased pleasure that instead results in pain or trauma. For instance, pleasure is what we get when we eat when we’re hungry. Jouissance on the other hand would be compulsive eating, or eating that doesn’t cease though it causes both pain and discomfort. Though not knowingly aware of it and most likely not consciously desiring it, we nevertheless strive for the convoluted emotions evoked by the moment of jouissance. These sensations embody a painful attraction, similar to what Kristeva describes as a ‘blind passion’.2

As Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle maintained that we are irrationally drawn to trauma (repetition compulsion) and Lacan argued that jouissance continuously compels us to violate the prohibitions imposed on our pleasure, Kristeva similarly argues that, despite the close connection to repulsion, we are constantly and repetitively drawn to the abject. According to Freud humans are simultaneously driven by both life and death instincts, and consequently Kristeva’s abject is experienced through both irrational pleasure and unremitting disgust. With their highlighting of the grotesque and evocation of glamour, the images from ‘Salò’ in Dazed & Confused could be said to induce a similar response. Young and nubile body parts, stylish corsets and Chanel shoes are mixed with insinuations of vomit, zoophilia and suicide – this might just be the most fashionable the abject will ever get.


Merel van der Toorn is an Amsterdam-based writer.

  1. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press, New York, 1982. 

  2. Ibid.