Issue three: On Fashion and Shame

In Goya’s sketch For being born somewhere else we see a man wearing a sanbenito and a coroza hat, the garments of shame during the Spanish Inquisition; he is turned away from us, covering his face with his hands. His body language is not so dissimilar from what our impulse would tell us to do, were we in his shoes. Shame is personal, but also universal: we blush, cast our eyes down, lower our heads and seek to hide from prying eyes. Whereas guilt causes us to feel regret about something we have done, in shame our very selves are up for painful judgment. Shame allows us to see ourselves in the eyes of others, and here its link to dress is at its most potent.

For us this journey began with Adam and Eve, banished from the Garden of Eden by a wrathful God – the beginning of consciousness, shame and also clothing. Our exploration of ‘fashion and shame’ originates with the symbolic birth of mankind; from it we have attempted to delve into this multifaceted and complex subject matter in as many different ways as we have found interpretations of the theme. In all ages clothes have been used as a marker of shame. In seventeenth century England and Scotland the branks, an iron muzzle with a bridle, often spiked and pressing down on the wearer’s tongue, was a common device used for punishment and public humiliation. We can read about the dunce cap in the 1840 novel The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens and a decade later Nathaniel Hawthorne gives a moving account of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, a woman in seventeenth century Puritan Boston, forced to wear the symbol of her crime stitched on her chest. We have seen the yellow Star of David and the pink triangle come and go as well as the striped and arrowed prison uniform, and not long ago we got used to spotting the orange Abu Ghraib jumpsuit on the backs of those detained at the Baghdad Correctional Facility. These are just a few examples we have come across; the list of garments associated with our shame is long and diverse.

Our topic is, however, not restricted to clothing and accessories created to specifically shame their wearer. The clothes we wear in our everyday life are also full of shaming potential; garments meant to protect and provide confidence often fall short and leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed. Imagine, for example, the embarrassment of being turned away at a fashion show in all your finery or of turning up at an important event and finding that someone else is wearing the same dress as you. Or go back to that time when you left the bathroom at your lover’s house, it was the first dinner with the parents, and your flies were undone. Or recall the moment that you, surrounded by friends, got out of the water only to discover that your new bathing suit had become completely transparent. Or maybe you remember when your favourite white trousers decided to turn on you and proclaim to the world that today you got your period. Fashion and clothing has this effect on us. It renders us self-conscious of our fashionable selves, or lack thereof, and the feeling of shame can surface all too easily when we see ourselves through the gaze of others. Fashion prompts us to judge ourselves and those around us. It forces us to face up to the shame of not belonging, the shame imposed on others for not dressing the part, the shame of not being able to participate in fashion because of a body type deemed ‘wrong’ or a wallet deemed too meagre.

The system and industry born to cater to our desires is as paradoxical as it is complex and few are the areas so often shamed by outsiders. Child labour, overproduction and consumption, narrow ideals of beauty and environmental damage are just a few of the sore points that concern those of us who love fashion. Yes, fashion is indeed a system that is easily condemned. Superficial, fickle, frivolous and indulgent – there are few invectives that have yet to be hurled at fashion. Conscientious fashion lovers have no doubt asked themselves many times over whether fashion as we know it could survive without the material abundance we have become accustomed to or the ideals we have created that at all times egg us on in our quest to always be better, brighter versions of ourselves. Fashion seems to revel in being the rebel – it is a zone where even the most level-headed among us allow ourselves to be bad, irrational and slightly wayward. Perhaps we need this area as a zone to break out of an otherwise strictly conditioned existence. Through fashion we can be guilty of inconsistencies and misdemeanours and permit our better selves a momentary rest. Fashion is an area where we are allowed to hang our heads in collective shame, where it often feels good to be bad. When Adam and Eve fell from grace they sewed their fig leaves before they did anything else – the shame of their nakedness had to be removed. As the children of Adam and Eve, we too have a lot to hide. Our lumps and bumps, both moral and physical, are our constant cause of shame, but, as Jean-Paul Sartre suggests in the quote on this issue’s bookmark, it is in this shame that we can unveil the most intimate aspects of our beings.

Texts by

Dr Niall Richardson, Dr Mathilda Tham, Lisa Ehlin, Anja Aronowsky Cronberg, Dr Ane Lynge-Jorlén, James Laver, Donatien Grau, Anna Arabindan-Kesson, Marya Hornbacher, Dr Joanne Entwistle, Dr Brenda R. Weber, Hannah Smith-Drelich, Professor Reina Lewis

Flash Fiction by

Will Wiles, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Adam Biles, Madelaine Levy, Erin Byrne, Louisa May Alcott

Images by

Christian Coinbergh, Annika von Hausswolff, Scott King, Julie Roberts, Emma Löfström, Camille Vivier, Tim Rollins & K.O.S, Columbine Goldsmith, Anuschka Blommers & Niels Schumm, Willem Andersson, Carlotta Manaigo, Laurindo Feliciano, Max Farago, Jen Davis, David Dunan, Thomas Engel Hart, Matthias Vriens-McGrath, Jessica Craig-Martin, Jason Evans, Marilyn Minter, Anthony Cotsifas, Julia Hetta, Rick Castro, Tova Mozad, Lisa Rovner, Mason Poole

Design by

Erik Hartin