The following dialogue is an excerpt from a chapter titled ‘Fashionietzsche’ from the forthcoming novel, tentatively titled Pretty. The dialogue is centred around a writer and academic, Jonathan, who has been asked to write for a celebratory volume on Martin Margiela. Jonathan is not interested in participating. Timo, a fashion consultant, attempts to change his mind.
JONATHAN: I can’t do this. I can’t write anything about Margiela and his ‘deconstructed fashion’ right now.
TIMO: Oh dear.
JONATHAN: I’m not sure we should be distracted by the earth-shattering cultural phenomena of wearing a sweater made of old socks or boots with split toes while our planet seems to be going to hell.
TIMO: You’re the priest of ressentiment.
JONATHAN: Oh God no, no! I hate Nietzsche.
TIMO: Your talk of morality, that’s what it sounds like to me. I’m wondering what prompted this reaction. I’ve heard the argument or some variation many times before, but never from you.
According to this moral model, fashion can be indicted on at least two counts. First of all, fashion is completely useless and superfluous. Clothing is a necessity, true, but fashionable clothing is based on such pointless and superficial details that it betrays its very function — to mask and protect — so to spend any time or money on such vain and senseless minutia is an unnecessary indulgent expense.
Secondly, fashion speaks to only a limited number of human beings: those who can afford the garments and fit into them. Fashion refuses those who can’t fit into or afford the clothing. It also excludes those who don’t pay attention.
When you say that it’s morally suspect to work in fashion at this time, given the current state of the world, I hear this system of profit and loss, debit, and credit. The books don’t balance. If we spend so much on this, there won’t be enough for that. As if there is only so much time, money, and energy in the world, and to spend it on fashion means that there’s not enough to spend on other more immediate concerns, like housing, food, water. . .
JONATHAN: Social justice, climate mitigation. . .
TIMO: It doesn’t add up in a way that seems particularly indulgent, wasteful, and well, sinful. Ressentiment contra couture.
JONATHAN: So now I’m the priest of some puritan banking morality?
TIMO: All morality is puritan banking morality. Nietzsche believes ressentiment comes in two forms, or from two sources. There’s the ressentiment that comes from the masses — from the slaves, as he calls them. For Nietzsche, morality is a creation of the weak when faced with desires they can’t obtain.
Fashion, to whatever extent the slaves are aware, generates the same kind of animosity, mistrust, and hostility that all cultural work — with the possible exceptions of professional sports and popular music — seems to engender.
Priest morality, on the other hand, is more insidious in a way because it’s more subterranean. The masters, the noble, are strong and have a will to power that allows them to satisfy their desires, including desires of self-knowledge. The weak or impotent slaves, on the other hand, don’t possess this will and so create rules and regulations to inhibit or constrain the masters. The noble being says Yes! Yes! to life, to appetite, to sex, beauty, knowledge, and experience. Herd morality, on the other hand, says No! No! No! And not only a personal or internal No, but a social or cultural No. A No directed at others. Thou shall not!
JONATHAN: Will to power? I’m not sure I like that. It sounds like a licence for white men to do whatever they want.
TIMO: The idea is that there should be no external restraint, no inhibition that comes from outside, from others, from the weak, the stupid, and the afraid. Anyway, it’s this No to fashion’s Yes that troubles. And it’s a No not from the slaves because that should be expected, but a No from people who should know better. Here’s my question: what is it that makes fashion immoral to the writer, the intellectual, and even to the artist? To you, in other words. Is there a buried wound, some primordial and profound affront, that has stuck in the craw of writers and artists and created an unforgiving and all-encompassing moral judgement against fashion as a discipline, an art-form, and, yes, an industry?
JONATHAN: Sexism… Fashion is women’s work. It’s not serious, not worth thinking about.
TIMO: I can’t see that. This is the 2020s. And much of the No to fashion comes from women, and from, dare I say it, feminists. The No I’m talking about is more fundamental than the No of feminism. The No I’m talking about is negative on many different levels.
One of the most basic problems of priestly ressentiment is that it says No to the self as well as No to the other. The No quickly becomes internalised, and from that becomes universal. Let me see if I can make this clear. We know that slaves are no good at generating stories. They can vaguely dream of a change of circumstance where the slave is now king, but the king/slave plotline remains fundamentally unchanged.
In the slave ressentiment, the only things negated are the relative positions of the slaves and masters: the story of slavery remains the same. But the priest is more cunning than the slave, and so his ressentiment — his negation — is more complex.
First of all, there’s a negation of value. Here you are, Jonathan, in your more or less solid middle-class life, comfortable but not too comfortable, a mild success in that you have a healthy nuclear family, can teach and study what you want, but not such a success that you don’t feel either the tinge of professional failure or the financial squeeze of upcoming college tuition and rising prices. Into this mild existential ambivalence fashion grants a glimpse into another life, a life of glamour and decadence, of physical beauty and metaphysical irresponsibility, a glossy sun-drenched life of freedom, youth, and sex.
And so you, the priest of ressentiment, say to yourself, I would love to be beautiful, rich, live in fashion, and go to sexy fashion parties. But, alas, my life has worked itself out so that these things I desire are not likely to happen. In truth, I realise there’s not one thing I can actually do in this world so that I could actually, in this world, attend one of those beautiful, sexy fashion parties. So you construct a fictional narrative where values are inverted. The unreachable objects of your original desires are narrated as worthless, insignificant, and even immoral or evil. You never wanted any of these fashion glamour parties in the first place. They are superficial, indulgent, self-absorbed, and finally, immoral.
JONATHAN: Not sure I’ve done that.
TIMO: It’s not only you. Your story taps into elemental narratives already created by other priests of ressentiment: a theology that applies the paradigmatic model of internal and external to human beings, who now have an inside and an outside, with the internal privileged as trustworthy and profound, and the external as superficial and deceptive. There is even an economic component of this model, which insists that talents ascribed to one are balanced by a corresponding lack in the other: one can possess either beauty or brains, but not both. You fool yourself and others by saying that true beauty, true experience, is internal and/or private. It is in writing obscure but ‘important’ books, giving to others, advancing the community, and sacrificing for your family. One insists that fashion does nothing to solidify the community — quite the opposite — and that it does not express any internal truth that reinforces universal truths that elevate the concepts of family, work, land, and equality to supreme values. And because fashion doesn’t do that, fashion is immoral.
JONATHAN: Now what? Or rather so what?
TIMO: Ressentiment is not a condition, ideology, or attitude one should cultivate. It’s a condition to avoid.
TIMO: Ressentiment is not imaginative; it’s passive and negative. Moral judgments are negative admonitions for others — thou shall not — and they don’t offer any creative alternatives. ‘The priest of ressentiment, his soul squints.’
JONATHAN: Is that you or Nietzsche?
TIMO: Nietzsche. Ressentiment is based on feelings of loss and inadequacy. It is emotion without action. And since there’s no action, there’s no goal other than negation. It’s a story of the perpetual No, the incessant inhibition of desire. It’s first and finally a bad story.
Wait a sec, wait. Lemme show you something on my phone.
There. Do you see this?
JONATHAN: What is it?
TIMO: The model’s name is Winnie Harlow. The designer is Iris Van Herpen. Do you find this dress beautiful?
JONATHAN: Actually I do. But I don’t see how any woman could wear it out, with all their floaty appendages, drifting headdresses, and weightless flounces.
TIMO: What about this one?
JONATHAN: That’s even better. Gorgeous. Is that lace?
TIMO: No, it’s some computer design high-tech material. There’s beauty here, you would agree?
JONATHAN: It’s absolutely stunning.
TIMO: All of her clothing is haute couture, bespoke, made to order. Wealthy women go to Amsterdam to get dresses made for them. Actors. Often brides. Without the wealth and power you find immoral, these dresses would not exist. Without the system, the industry of large money and a certain expensive taste, these garments would not exist or would exist only as croquis on paper or a computer hard drive. Or in Van Herpen’s head.
Since our metaphors are financial, let’s ask in these terms: is it worth it?
JONATHAN: How can I answer that?
TIMO: All that money, is it worth it?
JONATHAN: I have no idea how much money we are talking about.
TIMO: You need a figure? $20,000? $200,000? $10,000? $5,000? What is the cutoff? At what price point does the beautiful move to the obscene?
JONATHAN: That’s not fair.
TIMO: But these are beautiful, right? We are happy they are in the world. And the system that produced them, does it have a right to exist? Could we say it exists outside of morality? Beyond good and evil, as it were.
JONATHAN: You think Van Herpen has a will to power then?
TIMO: A will to beauty. ‘We possess art lest we perish from the truth.’
Let me suggest we substitute ethics for morality. Would that interest you?
TIMO: Let me suggest that while fashion might not be moral. It is ethical.
JONATHAN: I don’t know how you can possibly say this. Look at how fashion operates. It rigorously excludes what the current trend defines as being outside its incredibly narrow definition of beauty. And do we really want to detail the endless abuses of labour endemic to the industry? Do we really need to mention the sweatshops, at home and abroad, the abused child workers, the slave-waged workforce? What, pray tell, are the ethics of the Rana Plaza?
And to go down the chain a bit, how can the extensive environmental damage fashion wrecks upon the earth be defined in any possible way as ethical? What are the ethics of producing a tremendous amount of greenhouse gases? Of polluting our oceans and streams with toxic dyes? All to produce, as H&M suggest, 52 micro-seasons of clothes per year. You’re not going to convince me that fashion is ethical. Nope. No way.
TIMO: I see you’ve done your homework. But I’m not talking about fast fashion. I’m not talking about the means of production. I’m talking about fashion’s aesthetics, if you will, its ontology. Which I think is ethical.
JONATHAN: You need to define your terms.
TIMO: If morality is how others see you and determine your behaviour, then ethics is about how you see the other as other. Do we try to make the other the same? Or do we genuinely respect the otherness of the other? If we can move from Nietzsche to Levinas, a rather quick move, I admit, we see that it is our ethical responsibility to let the other be. . . other. Which is extremely difficult. It requires — get ready for this — love.
JONATHAN: I have no idea what this has to do with fashion.
TIMO: Fashion’s beauty, its peculiar beauty, if you will, is its omnivorous inclusivity. Put simply, there is no object which cannot be made fashionable. Just as there are no wrong notes in jazz, only notes at the wrong places, there is no detail that cannot be made fashionable or beautiful. I’m not talking about the past, nor am I necessarily talking about the current trend of ugly fashion, which really tests my theory. Look at this picture of Bella Hadid. See those grey herringbone hotpants, with red Adidas sneakers and black knee socks. And the faux poison green rabbit fur stole around her neck, over the cropped flow blue semi-sheer top. Taken in twos or threes, the combination clashes. But taken together, voilà, you have beauty. Cher used to do this. They called her tacky, but she was ahead of her time.
JONATHAN: Both Bella and Cher would look good in anything.
TIMO: It’s not exclusive to them. The weird girl look is like those in Harajuku. In Harajuku there are no rules: you wear what you want, what makes you feel comfortable and fresh, whether that’s Lolita, Decora or whatever. Look at this picture. Or this. Those are traditional Japanese wooden sandals with white ankle socks, a short plaid school-girl skirt, an oversized Tool tee shirt and a thick black belt, with purple streaked hair and lots and lots of bangles. The details themselves are, well, at the most, suspect. But the combination is magical.
JONATHAN: Looks like she just put on whatever in her closet she could reach.
TIMO: There are some happy accidents, no doubt. But also work, trial and error, and revision.
JONATHAN: They’re all skinny and young. And I’m not sure they’re beautiful. They are interesting. Fashionable, whatever that means.
TIMO: How about these guys?
JONATHAN: Who are they?
TIMO: Les Sapeurs. From the Congo. Not young, not always skinny, and not white.
JONATHAN: They’re striking, for sure. I like the banana yellow suit with the herd of goats in the background. The flamingo suit with the dark blue vest against the rusted-out truck. That is indeed striking, I’ll give you that.
TIMO: How about this? Can you see the beauty in this?
JONATHAN: A large man in drag. Not sure about the beauty here.
TIMO: That’s Leigh Bowery.
JONATHAN: He looks like a scary clown. Like a serial killer.
TIMO: How about here?
JONATHAN: That’s kind of cool. I like the flowers and the sequins. Still looks frightening.
TIMO: Just as no detail that is necessarily excluded from beauty, no human face or figure that cannot be made beautiful.
JONATHAN: That’s a big leap.
TIMO: All of these photos I’ve shown you, from Van Herpen to the Harajuku looks to Les Sapeurs to Leigh Bowery, all are photos of others, yes, of the other? Not much in common.
TIMO: You’ve no desire to change or alter any of these looks, do you? Or to become the figure you’re looking at?
JONATHAN: No, I don’t want to be Leigh Bowery. Or the Harajuku girls.
TIMO: Fashion is the other composing itself to be seen. Fashion is the other preparing itself for an ethical relationship. And to see the other’s face in its beauty, and to respect the other as other, to let the other be. . . that’s close to love.
TIMO: If fashion prepares the other to be seen, fashion also prepares the self to see. If I’m interested in how I look, if I pay attention, then what do I do before I leave the house?
JONATHAN: No clue.
TIMO: I look in the mirror. I try to see if the details of my look fit together to create a whole. The point is that I see. I’ve learned how to look.
Fashion prepares one to see, prepares one to be able to see the other. Without that practice, without the cultivated ability to carefully, actively look, we simply pass each other in the night. Fashion paves the groundwork for a possible relationship between the self and the other. That’s how it’s ethical.
JONATHAN: I still can’t buy it. You’re still building your ethics, your aesthetics, on the broken backs of children in sweatshops. It requires tremendous forgetting and a corrupt willful blindness to see fashion as ethical.
TIMO: I can see I’m not going to change your mind. Let’s have a drink, shall we?
Jeffrey DeShell is an author and a Professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He lives in upstate New York and Boulder, Colorado.