Notes on Doubt

Drawing by Angelo Flaccavento

Believe it or not, I hate writing. I am constantly asking myself: am I good at it? Am I saying something truly interesting or is it all just crap? The doubt pesters me greatly. Despite my opinions often being bold and in your face, if not brutal and slashing – I like to think I’m a gentle slasher, though that gentleness does not necessarily come across – I’m always surprised when I get responses, and even more so when they’re positive. In my dreams, I sometimes imagine myself as a draughtsman, and probably should have pursued that career with more dedication, but I did not. A respectable white-collar position was always held highly in my immediate environment, and in the end I succumbed to the societal pressure and obliged. Fine art is not respectable, unless it comes with an academic degree. I am an art historian in fact. I managed to push fashion into that respectability anyway, and that is already an achievement. I can’t complain.

I still draw little kinky doodles every now and then, relying on pen, ink and paper to relieve myself from the dreadful stress of writing. Writing makes me anxious. Lengthy pieces, in particular, terrify me. I incline towards the fragment, the abridged note, the slashed phrase, the succinct sketch: anything that gives the impression of the unfinished, ephemeral composition. I think size matters, in reverse: small is beautiful. Do I feel small? Probably. When 2500 words was proposed for this piece, for instance, I gasped. How could I possibly reach that astronomic – to my standards – word count without repeating myself? Perhaps it’s just writer’s block, or the relentless white page in front of me.

What shall I say? I am never sure about that. Written words linger, and I would hate to be remembered as someone who wrote silly, unworthy things. Better nothing than something stupid. I admire writers who publish little and seldom, like my beloved Ennio Flaiano. Also, contrary to what I thoughtfully explain when asked about my writing process – writers are liars, that’s for sure – I usually form my opinions while and not before writing. I do have a point of view, of course, but I have only a vague idea in mind at the beginning of the article. I compose the draft jumbling notes here and there, then everything really settles down while I furiously edit. The operation can take minutes, in the case of daily fashion show reporting, hours or even days and weeks. The cutting and pasting and erasing and rewriting electrifies me, physically and mentally. That’s when the slasher awakens. Then the doubtful Flaccavento kicks in. Reading my stories in print makes me cringe: days, weeks, months have passed since submission, and I’m kicking myself I didn’t edit differently. That’s a constant turmoil for me: writing is kind of definitive, but as humans we are (to some degree at least) allowed to change opinions without sounding incoherent. I certainly do: suddenly and radically. Writing solidifies, thoughts fluctuate.

I’m digressing, I know. It’s on purpose, I promise: a peripatetic essay feels less fixed and definitive. On top of that, a few hundred words in, and the 2500 word goal seems much closer. Still I’m afraid I haven’t given much. Have I? Back to the facts. Despite my eternal questioning, and probably because I was told ‘you’d be brilliant at it’ when approached to write these notes, I had no hesitation and enthusiastically accepted, right away. After all, I have fashioned my professional approach, liberally adapting from René Descartes famous adage dubito ergo sum. I have a problem with smoke and mirrors and pre-packaged adulation; I’m allergic to set in stone opinions. As a critic, in fact, I tend to question everything, fame in particular, because fame makes onlookers prone to blind acceptance. I used to look suspiciously at popular people in high school. Ever since, I have practiced qualms on success scrupulously. Sometimes it’s a bit annoying. Sometimes I come across as immensely annoying – for designers more than for readers, probably. I am very annoying to myself, too. Still, I’m convinced that without doubt there won’t be any evolution or progress, as the only way forward is to question the status quo. Isn’t it?

One minute after accepting, I started questioning what I’d done. I asked myself: how can I write about doubt keeping a suitably sceptical tone? If doubt is the opposite of dogma, isn’t a written essay on it, however uncomfortably personal, at risk of appearing dogmatic? Non fa una piega we say in Italian – it makes perfect sense. So here I am now, after doubting my doubts, finally having started, 800 and some words after the first line; sometimes you just have to get going, or risk getting stuck in Zeno’s paradox: an arrow thrown does not move because it occupies a fixed space at any given moment in time. Oh well.

Marble-like certitude rules the fashion system, a hierarchical pyramid with one single tyrant – a small court, let’s concede – sitting at the top at any given time. There is no way to fix this structure, I believe, despite all the utopias and dystopias. Even the fiercely anti-elitist movement that is taking shape right now aspires, to my eyes at least, at creating just another tyranny, unremittingly based on morals: one in which the watchdogs and the whistleblowers are the non-self-questioning holders of truth, judging and condemning others. The mere idea frightens me: fashion is immoral, that’s for sure. As industry, of course, it can and should be responsible, but making everything revolve around morals makes me cringe. Fashion needs unbalance – of wealth, status, taste, concepts – in order to attract and propel its transitory truths and convince the elites, and after that the masses.

Because of its tyrannical nature, the fashion system, as any other system based essentially on power, is averse to doubt and self-interrogation. Which is probably why the recent pandemic has made everyone, even the bigwigs, look, and act, so nervous and vulnerable – Marc Jacobs’ make-up vaudeville, anyone? It put everyone on the same level of uncertainty, under ever-present social media scrutiny. Doubt is something, I’m sure – I sincerely hope so! – even the seemingly icy cold Anna Wintour practices in private, though certainly not in public. A person who doubts and admits so is someone who admits weakness. After all, the body of the king always needs to be healthy: the tyrant is never sick. The same is true for the tyrant’s mind. The tyrant knows better, and his or her certitude reinforces power. This applies to editors, designers, CEOs and all the self-centred denizens of this infinitely egotistical system. It is a certitude that is never under question, not even when the winds change, and this is why fashion tyrants fall with so much noise: they never see the end coming. Roman emperors, towards the end of the glorious days of Rome, were much alike. My own glorification of incertitude and questioning is a remedy to time that passes; it makes me more adaptable and sceptical. Or so I tell myself. In hindsight, however, I know that at one point I will be out of sync. Senescence is real: an older colleague tortures me with this, telling me that my ideas are getting passé already. She says my antipathy to certain aspects of contemporary fashion are just the result of not being able to understand the present-day. She makes me livid, furious, probably because deep down I know she’s right and one day, very soon, I’ll turn grumpy and start eulogising the good old days. I’ll do my best not to, but it won’t work.

Designers and houses talk in grandiose statements, with journalists often acting as mere trumpets for all the pre-packaged fanfare, pumping the designer’s ego up in a vicious circle of reciprocal mirroring. Jumping on the winner’s bandwagon gives us the sense of empowerment and self-worth we all depend on. The daily doubt I face, and I’m sure my colleagues do too, is this: am I relevant? Does my opinion hold any true meaning in the eyes of the reader? This might all sound a little too self-conscious but the fact is, this is a fundamental question. Relevance is certainly a status given by the system, sometimes rather arbitrarily, but it also gives worth to one’s efforts. If you are not relevant, your work might be thrown into the void, which basically means in the bin, and that would be extremely depressing. Then again, it might be rescued later on, and gain posthumous relevance – a little too late, frankly. This is extra tricky, because being relevant is closely dependent on fitting into the system, one way or another. As for me, I’d like – actually, I need – my opinions to count for the bigwigs and the very same designers I at times harshly criticise. I want to count for the anonymous reader, too, but that’s a different thing altogether. If I’m ignored by those in the know, the very same persons I try not to be too friendly with, I feel like I’m not part of the inner circle, and a destructive sense of insignificance starts to consume me. The goings, here, get pretty existential, for some rather superficial reasons probably. I hide it all quite carefully behind a very composed, I-don’t-really-care demeanour, but the truth is I crumble inside. Still, I don’t want to play the game by the rules of the system.

Gaining relevance, as a writer at least, is in fact an insidious road, as there is the relevance that comes from sticking to one’s guns, and the relevance, sometimes greater, that comes from accommodating the status quo. The same applies to designers, I’d say. This is where the whole thing gets extremely twisted, and doubt proliferates. The opposite forces of convention and rebellion work simultaneously in fashion. What’s shockingly new, immensely progressive, in one instant becomes conformism the next, and so on in an endless cycle of perpetual creation and destruction. Early champions of the new might face harsh criticism from the old guard – after all they were the vanguard once – only to soon become allies of the powers that be when tides change. Is this change of mind putting personal and professional integrity at risk? I sometimes think so, then mitigate the feeling by acknowledging that, by its very nature, fashion rejects loyalty. Or does it? A scene, religiously repeated at the end of every show, when first opinions are conjured up, is very telling. As the lights go up, attendees immediately turn to the powerful and respected to ask, ‘So what did you think?’ And, if opinions differ, they probably stay schtum for fear of being labelled ignorant, or tasteless. I vividly remember the heated debate outside the first – and, in my opinion, best – Gucci show by Alessandro Michele in January 2015. The emasculating vision of fey, eccentric masculinity incited anger, shock, resentment. It felt quite uneasy to digest, even though there were a lot of familiar tropes – in particular, Prada-isms – in it. I remember talking about the glorious Neapolitan tradition of the femminiello –  the man with a markedly feminine outlook who is woven into urban and popular culture. I meant it in a positive way, but a colleague attacked me as an old fart. It hurt.

Having the clarity and openness of your vision questioned is painfully diminishing, for personal doubt can feel enriching and empowering, while being doubted by others stings. Again, it makes you feel unworthy of your position, or, even worse, unworthy of being heard – irrelevant, that is. Taste, though a cultural construct, is a very intimate trait: no different from handwriting, or tone of voice. Having it questioned touches you deep down, hitting a nerve. It’s hard to translate this into words, but believe me when I say that it has a discombobulating effect. On me at least: my lack of certitude includes self-doubt and if personal doubt is matched with external doubt, well, it all explodes. Which, as I write, is making me realise why doubting someone else’s work in my writing might not be well received. We all depend on approval, and we all want to feel that we’re one of the good guys. It takes a lot of self-confidence to resist these attacks: a confidence I have rarely encountered in my life. But the fact is, taste is just as fickle as everything else in fashion, which is also what makes it so intensely exciting: there is no fixed paradigm. And yet, though it depends so much on change, fashion favours absolutes. It creates its own unshakeable myths and expels whomever does not fit.

Am I trying to fit in? I already do and despite my best efforts to fight the mainstream I’m perceived as part of the establishment, which is as frightening as it is satisfying. In the back of my head, there is always that little petty voice whispering: you have made it. Still, in my vain glorification of doubt, I like to think I don’t fit at all, which is probably the most deceitful of all my dubious convictions. I don’t identify as a fashion person –  a devoted follower of the new, someone blindly accepting of anything that is bestowed originality, someone who judges others on how aesthetically au courant they are – but in truth I am a fashion person. I love fashion. The system stirs up convoluted feelings, yes. I love fashion both as a professional pursuit, but also as the very personal one of putting clothes on. You love dressing, someone once told me, emphatically. Indeed, I do. I hate being perceived as vain – here we go, another self-destructive doubt – but hey, isn’t this whole industry built on vanity? Sometimes the paradox is that we, as fashion workers, aspire to an intellectual status of the higher kind – I certainly do – something that is totally dismissive of the very nature of our job. There is some kind of cognitive dissonance going on: one that can only be solved by embracing all our many glaring contradictions and paradoxes.

Here, I know, contrary to my professed nature, I’m probably turning a little pedantic, didactic even. As an acutely tormented person, in work and otherwise, I find the lack of certitude comforting, progressive. I’m always reminded that there might be another way, another view, another angle. I do that naturally, until I meet someone of absolute convictions who finds my relativist thinking annoying. I freeze, and mumble a bit more. I hate having to explain myself. The more I do it, the more I doubt my relativism. I guess we all need to get dirty if we want to live. Don’t we?

As I was trying to finish up these annotations, help unexpectedly arrived from an Instagram post on the M/M Paris feed evoking the great Milton Glaser, who had just passed away. The caption went: ‘Certainty is a closing of the mind. To create something new you must have doubt.’

I fully agree, with no hesitation whatsoever. Or perhaps I should start over?


Angelo Flaccavento is a fashion writer and curator who lives in Sicily.

This article was originally published in Vestoj ‘On Doubt,’ available for purchase here.