Fashion is the devil in the mirror. Fashion is a signal of antisocial behaviour – the sins of vanity and excess, deviance, raising fears of false appearances. Fashion in ancient woodcuts is demonized.
Throughout history, there are always small groups of fashion extremists and individual eccentrics who take fashion well into the moral panic zone, occasionally even risking their lives for it. We consume a lot of breathless media outrage about these outsiders, even as we forget that the vast majority of ordinary people just aren’t fashion nuts and just don’t find freakish fashion victimhood appealing enough to be corrupted by it. As Valerie Steele argued in her book, our perception of corsetry through illustration and other propaganda is (surprise!) revealed to be vastly exaggerated when the physical evidence is examined.
Since medieval times, women’s predilection for fashion has been cast as a form of moral and physical weakness. And in a way, it is. Historically prevented from competing fairly in the arena of work or sport or ideas, the most accessible competitive edge for most women was (and often still is) their appearances. The adoption of forms of fashion, occasionally to extremes, is a social stepping stone for the disenfranchised.
Fashionable moral panics directed at women are always concerned with authenticity and purity – the cultural majority is obsessed with the biological implications of women who appear more fertile than they in fact are, or who allow fashion to interfere with their apparent fertility. These days, female-focused fashion moral panics are concerned with plastic surgery, age- and sex-appropriate dressing, and dieting. Whether it’s a woodcut or a tabloid, the essential message from the mainstream is a biological directive, not a rational one: “don’t misrepresent or impair your ability to carry on the human race.”
Ever since youth culture emerged in the mid 20th century, the establishment’s moral policing is often directed at youth. Fashion is often the scapegoat, the shorthand, simply because it’s a visible phenomenon and that’s all most people have time for. The fashionable moral panic of the time, is a symbol if its time. These days, it’s hoodies.
Youth often choose their fashions to deliberately provoke panic. As this documentary points out, the demonization of deviant youth culture only serves to make it more attractive. The media moral panics directed at youth are particularly poignant because in the struggle for control of the media, youth always lose the battle but win, insidiously and inevitably, by eventually becoming the media. The corruption of culture is the evolution of culture.
Participating in mainstream outrage is a waste of time when the panic is focused on a superficial image rather than an actual problem. Fashion is a self-correcting phenomenon – as it reaches the extreme limits of physical possibility, or approaches mainstream ubiquity, it loses its power and the trend will turn on a dime. Sumptuary laws across time and cultures have failed again and again to control fashionable excess as effectively as fashionable excess curbs itself. As for causing human extinction or destroying civilization, fashion has been an utter failure.