Loving, Sharing, Giving

A New Theory for the Fashion System

Peter Marlow, The First Day of the Harrods Sale, 1978.

Have you observed people on a shopping spree during the Black Friday Sale? Or watched the aspiring fashion journalist, played by Isla Fisher, in Confessions of a Shopaholic kick and scream while she runs to buy a cashmere coat on sale at an upscale department store in New York? Or visited the website of a fashion retailer like Missguided, which prides itself in being ‘not just fast fashion, we’re rapid fashion’?1 If so, it seems likely that you agree with sustainable fashion designer Nathalie Vleeschouwer that ‘shopping is often seen as a hunt. People have the instinct to buy a lot.’2

The idea of the fashion consumer as an egocentric creature who competes with others for the best deals and the most fashionable status and who lacks the moral compass to take into account the labour conditions of the people who make most of the clothes on the fashion market, let alone care about the catastrophic impact of clothing production on the wellbeing of our planet is a self-evident train of thought, because it harks back to deeply entrenched ideas on human nature – that at heart people act like wolves.

Of course Vleeschouwer refers not to her own customers when she describes the nature of fashion consumers. As scholar Minh-Ha T. Pham has explained, Vleeschouwer like other people who step into the discourse of sustainable fashion, scapegoats the often young, female consumer of a lower socio-economic background for feeding the fast fashion monster with an ever-growing need to buy more clothes.3 This is how the so-called competitive, rugged and acquisitive instinct of the majority of fashion consumers forms the backdrop against which the moral superiority of fair fashion consumers (and fashion professionals) can shine.

In this essay I offer an exploratory account of the diverse philosophical theories that paved the way for us to accept the current negative view of human nature in thinking through the power of fashion. In addition, I briefly touch on the sociohistorical background of the Western fashion system in the rise of capitalism and industrialisation to explain why the dim account of humanity has caught on in diverse fashion discourses. Today we tend to regard fashion almost exclusively as a status mechanism in which people compete for diverse sets of capital – be it possessions, social status or social relations – turning the people you engage with into tools to use for your own advantage.



The dispirited view of human nature is very much en vogue in fashion discourse. Philosopher Roman Krznaric points to four thinkers whose theories have shaped this dominant cultural framework of looking at who we are as people.4 In the mid-seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan noted that mankind is inherently selfish and violent. Therefore people should be constrained by an authoritarian ruler. In the eighteenth century Adam Smith added in The Wealth of Nations that society benefits from individuals who follow their own interests. This theory of self-interest still forms the foundation of much of our economic thought. In 1859 Charles Darwin published his theory that competition and not cooperation steered our evolutionary history. Especially when social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer claimed Darwin’s theory, the belief in an acquisitive human nature was reinforced by their insistence on the wealthy not having to feel guilty as having it all was the result of their natural predisposition to be the fittest. Finally, Freud’s ideas on humans’ aggressive nature in Civilisation and its Discontents gained prominence as psychology as a discipline and psychodynamic theory as a framework were on the rise in the first half of the twentieth century.

But perhaps the ultimate proof of the grand negative theory of human nature came after World War II when American psychologist Stanley Milgram published the results of his so-called learner experiments in Obedience to Authority. The experiment showed that sixty-five percent of all participants in Milgram’s original study were willing to hand out deadly electroshocks to students who failed to answer correctly, simply because the participants obeyed an external authority (the experiment-leader).5 Milgram cleverly made use of Hannah Arendt’s report on the trail of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in which she famously wrote that the actions of Eichmann could be understood by the idea ‘the banality of evil.’6 Milgram translated this idea as ‘any man can do what Eichmann did when following authority’ which led him to the statement that ‘if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town.’7 Hereby Milgram convinced the general public that, in the words of journalist Ruther Bregman, ‘civilisation is just a thin layer’8 that, once scraped off, shows mankind in all its cruelty, competitiveness, self-centredness and tendency to obey authority.



Concepts like competitiveness, egotism, status and obedience to authority lie at the heart of the current organisation of the fashion system. Fashion is often considered a game of winners and losers, of haves and have nots. Even at the concept-level fashion hinges on this power structure, as I have argued elsewhere.9 Time plays a pivotal role in the conceptualisation of fashion, as fashion delineates who is advanced or ‘with the times’ and who is backward or old-fashioned. In this way the philosophical notion of fashion and especially its translation into the structure of the fashion system illustrates our tendency to create what psychologist Niobe Way has called, ‘hierarchies of humanness’ or ‘ideologies, […] aligned with those of capitalism and White supremacy, in which the needs of some (e.g., the employers, the rich, and White people) are considered more important than the needs of others (e.g., workers, the poor, and people of colour).’10

The idea of who we are as humans functions as the justification of a social structure of our own making, i.e., capitalism, that caused and causes grave injustices to the people deemed backwards or old-fashioned.11 In her seminal book Adorned in Dreams, Elizabeth Wilson noted that ‘[f]ashion speaks capitalism.’12 Raised in the same family these sibling-concepts share both a set of extrinsic-oriented values centred on the competition for social status and possessions and the justificatory theory of this value set in the ideology of the ruthless nature of humankind.



Philosopher Erich Fromm notes in his book To Have or to Be? that industrialisation in the late eighteenth century is characterised by the rise of a ‘having mode’ or an identity made up of the status conveyed by possessions. Born in and out of industrialisation, fashion too has a ‘having-mode’ with extrinsic values (i.e., popularity and beauty ideals) and materialism at its core. Fromm adds that people with a having-mode are led by fear of losing their possessions and, I would add, shame when they actually do so or when they cannot obtain the possessions needed to claim the identity of the winning team. The fear and shame that accompany the having mode results in anti-social behaviour. ‘In the having mode, one’s happiness lies in the superiority over others, […] in one’s capacity to conquer, rob, kill.’ ((E Fromm, To Have or to Be. New York: Harper & Row. p. 66, 1976.))

The superiority and inferiority of fashion also implies loneliness. The saying that ‘in fashion success is all about who you know’ points at our alienating understanding of the notion of (social) capital. The human connections you make in the race for different kind of resources or capital that put you ahead in the fashion game are connections to the social position of people, not to actual human beings.

Perhaps no literary story better illustrates the shame and loneliness that result from the having mode of the current fashion system than the short story The New Dress by Virginia Woolf. The leading character, Mabel Waring, is invited to a party by Clarissa Dalloway. Mabel has a dress made for the occasion, but quickly realises once she enters the party that her dress (and therefore she) does not fit in, made abundantly clear by the fashionable Rose Shaw.

Mabel has her first serious suspicion that something was wrong when she took her cloak off and Mrs. Barnet, […] confirmed the suspicion – that it was not right, not quite right, which growing stronger as she went upstairs and springing at her, with conviction as she greeted Clarissa Dalloway, she went straight to the far end of the room, to a shaded corner where a looking-glass hung and looked. No! It was not RIGHT. […] But she dared not look in the glass. She could not face the whole horror — the pale yellow, idiotically old-fashioned silk dress […]. ‘But, my dear, it’s perfectly charming!’ Rose Shaw said, looking her up and down with that little satirical pucker of the lips which she expected – Rose herself being dressed in the height of fashion, precisely like everybody else, always.13

With her new dress Mabel sought to connect and belong. Yet our current understanding of fashion as a phenomenon crammed between fitting in and standing out, between aligning yourself with a group yet always seeking a hint of individuality, leaves no room for true belonging and ultimately leaves people dressed up in their finest clothes feeling lonely at the party.



But what if humans were not just born to compete and strive for their own advancement? What if humans were also innately good, born ready for care, attachment and commitment and meant to live their lives in close connection to others in small and large groups? This theory of human nature is currently available in the social sciences. Better even, in contrast to the exclusively egocentric conception of human nature, this theory is grounded in a vast and immense body of experimental results from evolutionary sciences, neuroscience, anthropology and developmental and motivational psychology and is perhaps best summarised by the title of the book by American psychologist Dacher Keltner: humans are Born to be Good.14 The studies combine into a new scientific domain called ‘the science of human connection’15 proving that humans thrive on a sense of belonging, true connection to others, prosocial behaviour like empathy and that above all, the few exceptions aside,16 people are oriented towards the good.

The list of studies that highlight this positive, cooperative and loving account of human nature is far too long to mention. I will limit myself to work from the diverse scientific backgrounds that I find particularly convincing. First, contradicting the age-old Hobbesian idea of men as inherently egoistic is Sarah Blaffer-Hrdy’s study Mothers and Others. Blaffer-Hrdy argues that our survival as a species is grounded in our social capacities which particularly come to the fore in our abilities of child-rearing often done collectively by a diverse set of parents. Evolution selected for these social and emotional skills which is why ‘the ability to identify with others and vicariously experience their suffering is not simply learned, it is part of us.’17 Primatologist Frans de Waal has studied social behaviour of primates for decades and concludes that empathy and cooperation is part of our human nature, so much so that he believes that ‘you have to indoctrinate empathy out of humans to obtain extreme capitalist ideas.’18 Developmental psychologists have proven that children aged fourteen months seek to help a person in need19 and that young children have strong desires to share without expecting any rewards.20 From motivational psychology comes soaring evidence that people with an extrinsic or materialistic value pattern experience lower wellbeing.21 Finally, recent discussions of Milgram’s conclusions have pointed at the motivation of people to participate and to obey authority; they wanted to help science evolve and therefore wanted to do good.22

Looking at the way people relate to fashion and dress through this lens, I believe that through dress, people can seek genuine connections to others and wish to experience a true sense of belonging, not possible perhaps if we define fashion exclusively as ‘fitting in.’ Moreover, in line with philosopher Hartmut Rosa’s plea for resonating with the objects that surround you through entering in a long relationship with these objects, I believe people seek to feel like they belong in their clothes, so their clothes do not feel alien to them. Slowing down the speed of the current fashion system is the sine qua non condition to create such belonging.23

Yet there is no denying that most fashion consumers and producers from both the fast and high-end angle behave in a competitive manner. Rosa’s manifesto for slowing down and living in resonance or non-alienation with the people and objects that surround us is a far cry from current fashion reality. Yet the current state of affairs in fashion behaviour does not illustrate the self-centred nature of humans. Rather it is our man-made theory of who we are and what we do as humans that has caused people to behave like predators when they enter the consumption sphere or when they design and produce fashionable clothes.

Our theories of human nature and social life organise our social structures which in turn shape human behaviour. Psychologists Maarten Vansteenkiste and Bart Soenens argue that individual values have societal impact. People with a dominant extrinsic value set experience the world as a battlefield and view immigration, for instance, as a threat to their social position.24 This opens the door to discrimination and prejudice.25 Hence, the way people see the world, actually changes the world. And since the social structures lying at the heart of the fashion system helped create the having mode, only a fundamental change in this social structure will change the mindset and behaviour of fashion practitioners.

Drawing on the idea of anthropologist Clifford Geertz that men are ‘incomplete animals’ by which he meant that it is part of who we are as humans to have a nature that is shaped by the institutions and structures we inhabit,26 I believe that a new theory of human nature will change the way we look at people producing and consuming fashionable clothing, which will, in turn, change how we build the fashion system of the future and consequently will change how people behave as consumers and producers.



Since the Industrial period and its having-mode, we believe that people engaging in fashion easily close their eyes to, lock their hearts for or knowingly assist in the moral trespasses of the fashion industry, simply because ‘this is what people do.’ Yet if we listen to the empirically-sound theory of human nature gaining prominence in the social sciences, this is not what people want, not even the young girls who flaunt tote bags saying ‘I heart Primark’ and tell you that they are not to be blamed for buying six fashion items on their fifty euro clothing budget. This is what the fashion system has constructed happiness to look like.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz notes that ‘changing [social] structures is far more difficult than changing how people think about themselves […] or how they think about others […]. And because social structures deal with large groups and not with individuals, it may have profound consequences if these structures represent an ideology.’27 If we seek fundamental change to the architecture of the current fashion system, we have to change the structuring and justificatory theories on which the system is built. Let us choose a caring and loving theory of human nature as a framework to redesign the fashion system. Or as novelist Arundhati Roy said, ‘We must redefine the meaning of modernity, we must redefine the meaning of happiness.’ In fashion too happiness lies in what Erich Fromm called ‘the being mode. It lies in loving, sharing, giving.’28


Dr Aurélie Van de Peer lectures at the Master Fashion Strategy at ArtEZ University of the Arts and is a postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University.  

This article was originally published in Vestoj On Capital, available for purchase here.



  1. https://www.missguided.co.uk/ accessed July 8 2019. 

  2. C Deckers, De hoge tol van de absurde overproductie in de modewereld: Wat een klerezooi. Charlie Magazine, autumn issue 5, 2017. 

  3. M-H T. Pham, The High Cost of High Fashion. The Jacobin, June 13, 2017. Accessed July 9 2019 at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/06/fast-fashion-labor-prada-gucci-abuse-designer

  4. R Krznaric, Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution. Rider Books, 2014. 

  5. S Milgram, Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper Collins, 1974. 

  6. The New York Times published an essay that explains how Arendt’s concept of ‘the banality of evil’ has often been misinterpreted, as by S Milgram & R Berkowitz, Misreading ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’. July 7, 2013. Accessed June 28 2019 at  https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/misreading-hannah-arendts-eichmann-in-jerusalem/?_r=1

  7. Quote in Discovery Channel’s Curiosity: How Evil Are You? See also: M. Harris, It’s time to stop doing any more Milgram experiments. Aeon, 7 October, 2014. Accessed July 5 2019 at https://aeon.co/essays/is-it-time-to-stop-doing-any-more-milgram-experiments

  8. R Bregman, De wetenschap leert nu: beschaving is een veel dikkere laag dan gedacht. De Correspondent, 21 January, 2017. Accessed July 2 2019 at https://decorrespondent.nl/6013/de-wetenschap-leert-nu-beschaving-is-een-veel-dikkere-laag-dan-gedacht/231169785-1890c417

  9. A Van de Peer The Production of the Fashion Present in the Politics of Time. Fashion Theory 18(3), 2014. 

  10. N Way, A Ali, C Gilligan and P Noguera, The Crisis of Connection: Roots, Consequences and Solutions. New York: New York University Press, p.4, 2018. 

  11. Psychologist Barry Schwartz (2015), primatologist Frans de Waal (2010) and philosopher Roman Krznaric (2014) for instance support this idea. B Schwartz, Why We Work. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015; F De Waal, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. New York: Penguin Random Books, 2010. 

  12. E Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. London: I.B. Tauris. p. 14, 2003 [1985] 

  13. V Woolf, The New Dress. A Story. The Forum. Mei, pp. 704-716 (704-705), 1927. 

  14. D Keltner, Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009. 

  15. N Way et al. (2018). 

  16. The exceptions to this orientation towards the good are discussed, among others, by S Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. New York: Basic Books, 2011. 

  17. S Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, p.4, 2009. 

  18. F De Waal quoted in Knrzaric (2014) p.54. See also De Waal (2010). 

  19. F Warnecke and M Tomasello, Altruistic Helping in Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees. Science 311, (5765) (mrt.) p.1301-3, 2006; F Warneke, Helping and Cooperation at 14 Months of Age. Infancy II, (3): p.271-94, 2007. 

  20. M Tomasello and C Dweck, Why We Cooperate. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. 

  21. For instance: H. Dittmar, Compulsive buying – a growing concern? An examination of gender, Age, and endorsement of materialistic values as predictors. British Journal of Psychology, 96, 467-491, 2005; T Kasser, The High Price of Materialism. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002. 

  22. See for instance: C Romm, Rethinking one of psychology’s most famous experiments. The Atlantic. January 2015. Accessed at July 1 2019 at https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/01/rethinking-one-of-psychologys-most-infamous-experiments/384913/

  23. H Rosa, Alienation and Acceleration. Suhrkamp Verlag, 2013. 

  24. B Duriez, M Vansteenkiste and B Soenens, The social costs of extrinsic relative to intrinsic goal pursuits: Their relation with social dominance and racist and ethnic prejudice. Journal of Personality, 75, p.757-782, 2007. 

  25. B Duriez, J Meeuws and M Vansteenkiste, Why are some people more susceptible to ingroup treat than others? The importance of a relative extrinsic to intrinsic value orientation. Journal of Research in Personality. 46, p.164-172, 2012. 

  26. C Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973. 

  27. B Schwartz, Why We Work. New York: Simon & Schuster, p.92, 2015. 

  28. E Fromm, To Have or to Be. New York: Harper & Row. p.66, 1976.