Notes on Fashion as Fetish

On the Magical Investment in the Power of Garments

IN HER AUTOBIOGRAPHY, ELSA Schiaparelli describes how she came to start out as a dress designer. One day an American friend visited her, wearing a sweater that was ‘different from any I had yet seen’. She describes it as follows: ‘The sweater my friend was wearing intrigued me. It was hand knitted and had what I might call a steady look […] This sweater […] was definitely ugly in colour and in shape and though it was a bit elastic it did not stretch like other sweaters.’1 With her friend, Schiaparelli visited the Armenian couple who had made the garment and they knitted one to Schiaparelli’s own design. This was to become her famous trompe l’oeil sweater, with a large white ‘bow’ knitted into the front.

Schiaparelli makes no attempt to analyse the appeal of a sweater that she describes as ugly, yet we can read into her remarks an implication that its ugliness was precisely the secret of its mysterious appeal. What this brief anecdote also hints at is the quality of mystery attached to clothing, a mystery that neither academic nor journalistic discourse on dress usually acknowledges: not surprisingly, since the purpose of theoretical work on dress is to analyse and that of journalism and related discourses largely to describe, or possibly to incite the reader to a desire for the garments on offer. Designers and artists, on the other hand, have occasionally hinted at the mystery of clothes, at what it is that makes a garment powerful, magical, transformative. Individual men and women, however, all know that one or two garments that come into their life have this quality, and will be worn and treasured until they are literally worn out.

A part of the mystery seems to have to do with the intimate relationship between garment and body. A number of nineteenth century writers refer to fashion’s mystery and in particular the paradoxical profundity of the relationship found within it between the eternal and the ephemeral. It was Baudelaire who most famously pronounced that the eternal of modernity is best expressed in the ephemeral.

Yohji Yamamoto makes a rather different observation in Wim Wender’s 1993 film, ‘A Notebook on Cities and Clothes’, although it is still within the context of the search for the true meaning of clothes. Yamamoto’s comments in a sense constitute a plea for functionalism from an anti-consumerist point of view, but they also go beyond functionalism. He is preoccupied with finding the ‘essence’ of the shirt, the shoulder, the jacket – as if there is some Platonic idea of these things. He then goes on to describe his ideal garment. This would be, for example, a thick coat for a person who really needs it in the depth of winter: in this way you wear the reality, “the coat is so beautiful because […] you cannot make a life without this coat, it looks like your friend or your family […] [and, even beyond that] when the clothes themselves are on the floor or hung on the wall you can recognise – this is John, or Tom, this is yourself.”2 Thus do one’s most ‘successful’ clothes become part of individual identity.

I once wrote of the way in which the absence of bodies from garments displayed in exhibitions made them somehow rather creepy, ghostly,3 and recently Joanne Entwistle4 and Paul Sweetman5 have explored the implications of the idea that garments are incomplete without the body they adorn. Schiaparelli made this point too: ‘A dress,’ she writes, ‘cannot just hang like a painting on the wall or like a book remain intact and live a long and sheltered life. A dress has no life of its own unless it is worn, and as soon as this happens another personality takes over from you [i.e. the designer] and animates it, or tries to, glorifies or destroys it, or makes it into a song of beauty. More often it becomes an indifferent object, or even a painful caricature of what you wanted it to be – a dream, an expression.’6

The idea that garment and body are intimately related constitutes part of the attempt to explore the inner meaning of clothes (often described as the cultural studies or culturalist tradition), an approach concerned with meanings and representations. Christopher Breward gives an account of this in his overview of methodology debates.7 This approach has sometimes been interpreted as a critique of the slightly different scholarly tradition, the costume historian’s ‘garment as object’ approach, however I should prefer to see these approaches as complementary and mutually supportive rather than as being in competition. Yet each of these approaches and all their variations still leave some unexplained residue about the fascination of fashion, and the following notes attempt to use the idea of fetish in relation to this mystery at which Schiaparelli hinted, an enduring mystery of the meaning of clothes.

The idea of the fetish has at least three distinct meanings, from three different traditions: anthropology, psychoanalysis and Marxism, concerned respectively with religious and cultural, sexual and commodity fetishisms. I am here interested primarily in anthropological fetishism.

In a series of articles William Pietz has excavated the origin and meanings of the term fetish. The idea of the fetish arose in what he describes as ‘a mercantile intercultural space created by the […] trade between cultures so radically different as to be mutually incomprehensible. It is proper to neither West African nor Christian European culture.’8 The term originates from the Portuguese and from the period when Portuguese Catholic traders were active on the West African coast. These brought notions both of witchcraft, superstition and idolatry to the objects and practices they encountered, although it also seems likely, or at least possible, that Africans incorporated certain aspects of Christian cult objects into their fetish objects, for example nails driven into wooden figures may have been imported from the crucifixion.

In the seventeenth century the Portuguese were ousted by the protestant Dutch, and for these the fetish and related phenomena represented a chaotic irrationalism that distorted developing mercantile ideas concerning rational behaviour as enlightened self interest and notions of value. (For the Dutch traders, the fetishes were also close to what they regarded as the Popish and idolatrous practices of Roman Catholicism.) To summarise Pietz’s very scholarly articles rather crudely, this complex cultural encounter eventually led to the Enlightenment view of the fetish as an example of false values and superstitious delusions, which blocked natural reason and misunderstood the causal origin of events of a material nature. And significantly, of course, as Lorraine Gamman and Merja Makinen have pointed out, the fetish emerges in the same period as the commodity form.9

The fetish was different from an idol in that it was a material object often worn on an individual’s body; in it was condensed some magical or religious power arising from the – possibly chance – circumstances in which it was first acquired. Pietz defines it as follows: Its ‘untranscended materiality is viewed as the locus of religious or psychic investment […] it arises in a singular event, fixing together otherwise heterogenous elements; the identity and power of the fetish consist in its enduring capacity to repeat the singular process of fixation and it has an active relation to the living body of an individual.’10

In the nineteenth century the idea of the fetish came to play a theoretical role in the widely divergent discourses of political economy and psychoanalysis. Karl Marx developed the concept of commodity fetishism to describe and explain the way in which, as in a religion, a human product acquires a life of its own. However, as Gamman and Makinen again point out, whereas in anthropological fetishism the fetish bestows power on the owner or wearer, in Marx the fetishisation of the commodity involves the disempowerment and alienation of the human actors.

Gamman and Makinen go on to argue that Thorstein Veblen took the concept of fetishism further in relating it not to production, as did Marx, but to consumption. Objects of consumption, including of course garments, take on a meaning far beyond their use value. For Gamman and Makinen articles of dress and designer labels are metonymic or make use of synechdoche, a form of substitution, but above all, they say, ‘what the different types of fetishism have in common [and they include its psycho-sexual dimension] is the process of disavowal […] objects in our culture take on meanings that connect them to, or stand in for, other meanings and associations: but the connection is lost or partially denied as a consequence of the fetishism. Through the use of the fetish the practitioner is able to contrive to believe the false while also knowing that it cannot be true.’11 For all these writers therefore, with the possible exception of Pietz, fetishism is a form of false consciousness: inanimate objects are endowed with a power they cannot objectively have.

Rather than merely condemning consumer fetishism, however, we might more profitably raise the question of why such forms of fetishism persist in a consumer society that is avowedly secular. A further question might be why garments specifically play such a central role.

At this point I need briefly to consider the strange role of religion within this Western consumer society. In this supposedly secular society, the major religions remain privileged, claiming respect from all for their core beliefs. Since the beliefs of the major religions are mutually incompatible, they presumably cannot all be true, but a process of disavowal occludes this. The very fact of belief seems virtuous and must not be challenged. Conversely it is popularly assumed that secularism and atheism signify nothingness, a vacuum, pure non belief, or else simple materialism in the sense of consumerism (i.e. not in Marx’s sense of materialism). The Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century were by no means necessarily atheists or even deists; there was an optimistic alliance for many between Christianity and nature’s laws. Their over-valuation of Reason and the degradation of emotion and mysticism, ‘enthusiasm’ as it was named, to simple unreason was challenged by the Romantic movement and in a sense by psychoanalysis, but no clear alternative to religion emerged out of the turmoil of the industrial revolution as a vehicle for the expression of thoughts and feelings that go beyond rationalism. One possible criticism of organised religions might indeed be that they attempt to elevate or assimilate dogma to reason.

Rather then than living in a secular society we live simultaneously in parallel universes in which traditional beliefs coexist both with secularism and with a whole mass of less organised beliefs and superstitions. As someone once famously said, when people cease to believe in a single religion, it is not that they believe nothing, it is rather that they will believe anything. Indeed it is perfectly possible to adhere to a traditional organised religion and also to cling to other superstitions and beliefs. Indeed in the realm of belief, as everywhere else, consumerism reigns, of which this is an aspect. As does also disavowal, since people can, for example, read their horoscopes avidly while knowing somewhere in the recesses of their brains that there is no evidential basis for supposing that there is any accuracy in such forecasts.

Disavowal therefore is a common process and at a conscious level we go about our lives with our conscious minds resembling Sigmund Freud’s description of dreams and the unconscious, where mutually incompatible events and beliefs can co-exist in perfect harmony.

Freud and Marx were committed to an enlightenment view whereby reason was – rightly – to be preferred over unreason. On the other hand there is some force in Max Weber’s pessimistic description of modernity as involving a waning of the magical – i.e. a real loss is involved. The Surrealists, to whom Schiaparelli was close, incorporating some of their ideas in her creations, were unusual in viewing positively the idea of the fetish and more generally of the irrational. For the Enlightenment, the fetish ‘[signalled] error, excess, difference and deviation’, it was in the words of Dawn Ades ‘one of the key phantoms of the dream of reason’.12 The Surrealists by contrast used fetishism ‘to intervene in the […] subversion of utilitarian and positivist values’ and to ‘change the hierarchies of the values of the real’.13 For them, the fetish and the fetishist escape the confines of the utilitarian everyday world into a poetic and different reality, and Surrealist art displayed a preoccupation with the human body and, though to a lesser extent, with clothing.

A contemporary example of clothes fetishism is the use by tennis players of items of clothing to bring them luck. The supreme woman star of the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, Billie Jean King, had a lucky dress, which she continued to wear for big matches long after it went out of fashion. The Serbian tennis pro Jelena Dokic, active in the early 2000s, apparently had to wash the same set of clothes every evening so that they could be worn again the following day. But the most startling example is the former Wimbledon champion, Goran Ivanišević. On his way to the title Ivanišević marshalled a dog’s breakfast of superstitions; The Guardian journalist, Ros Coward, commented in 2001 on the paradox of Ivanišević’s behaviour. He gave an awesome display of masculine power in his actual game, yet ‘was a walking mass of superstition and emotional anxiety’, crying and praying during matches and directly addressing a dead friend. He was, ‘in fact the antithesis of what our culture still expects from masculinity […] He alternated between displays of “feminine” emotion and outbreaks of [uninhibitedly childish] behaviour’. At the same time, in interviews off court the player took up an ironic stance to his own superstitions, talking of his split personality and the ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘emergency’ Gorans. Thus there was an acknowledged disavowal at the same time as a performance of total belief.

Ivanišević, did not so much have a lucky garment, it was rather that when he stripped off his shirt at the end of a match and flung it into the crowd, it would presumably become something of a fetish object for the lucky person who caught it. Other players do this too, but Ivanišević took the strip regime to unusual lengths, finally after his victory parade in Split in 2001 disrobing completely save for his underpants. The display of the triumphant body of the star had a kind of intense significance, almost amounting to a kind of fetishisation of his own body, for in displaying his muscular torso, Ivanišević did not merely acknowledge the applause of the crowd, instead his body seemed to become a symbol or totem of his power and triumph.

In his superstitious behaviour, Goran Ivanišević exposed a central feature of magical beliefs when focused on an object. The idea of ‘luck’ is intimately related to the idea of ‘chance’. A ‘lucky’ outcome imbues the object that is believed to have contributed to it with an element of fate, converting chance into its opposite. On the first occasion a particular tennis ball was struck to make a winning shot, or a garment worn in a match that was won, it had been chosen by chance, but retrospectively it is imbued with the fortunate outcome so that now the choice of that garment or tennis ball rather than any other seems to show the ‘hand of God’. It is in this way that a chance object becomes a fetish object – and fetish objects are, of course, highly magical.


Elizabeth Wilson is an author, researcher and pioneer of fashion academia.

Estelle Hanania is a photographer based in Paris, these images are from her series ‘Parking Lot Hydra’ from 2009.

This article was originally published in Vestoj On Magic.

  1. E Schiaparelli, Shocking Life – the Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli, V&A Museum, London, 2007. 

  2. W Wenders, ‘A Notebook on Cities and Clothes’, 79 minutes, Road Movies Filmproduktion Berlin, 1993. 

  3. E Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, Virago, London, 1985, p.1. 

  4. J Entwistle, ‘The Dressed Body’ in J Entwistle & E Wilson (eds), Body Dressing, Berg, Oxford, 2001. 

  5. P Sweetman, ‘Shop-window
    Dummies? Fashion, the Body and Emergent Socialities’ in J Entwistle & E Wilson (eds), Body Dressing, Berg, Oxford, 2001, p. 59-77. 

  6. E Schiaparelli, Shocking Life – the Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli, V&A Museum, London, 2007. 

  7. C Breward, ‘Cultures, Identities, Histories: Fashioning a Cultural Approach to Dress’, Fashion Theory, vol. 2, issue 4 Special Issue on Methodology, Berg, Oxford, 1998. 

  8. W Pietz, ‘The Problem of the Fetish’, Res, series of essays published 1985-88. 

  9. L Gamman & M Makinen, Female Fetishism – A New Look, Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, London, 1994. 

  10. W Pietz, ‘The Problem of the Fetish’, Res, series of essays published 1985-88. 

  11. L Gamman & M Makinen, Female Fetishism – A New Look, Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, London, 1994. 

  12. D Ades, ‘Surrealism, Male – Female’ in V Gille & J Mundy (eds), Surrealism – Desire Unbound, Princeton University Press, 2001, p.171. 

  13. Ibid.