fear of fashion – the eternal moral panic

The Prodigal Daughter 1789

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.

corset deformation

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.

Daily Mirror the Filth and the Fury

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.

8 thoughts on “fear of fashion – the eternal moral panic”

  1. Interesting read! Excellent food for thought, especially this idea that fashion is self-correcting. The last sentence raised an eyebrow though. Fashion may not threaten human destruction to the same extent as some other industries, but we cannot let it off the hook by separating horrific disasters like the Bangladesh factories and the widespread waste and destruction of the earth’s resources from the “fun” side of style and expression once it’s in the hands of consumers. It’s all part of a system, and that system as a whole is Not self-correcting.

  2. Hi Sarah,

    Excellent point, thanks!

    I think what I’m trying to get across here is that in the case of moral panics, it’s not fashion that’s the ‘problem’. You can’t let “it” off the hook – people are the problem. Fashion is just the natural aggregration of individual overlapping ideas of what high status looks like. Change the way a group of people think about status, and you’ll stand a chance of changing the fashion (media coverage notwithstanding). So if you want to attempt to correct fashion (good luck, again historical record of victims is significant) perhaps that’s one way to go about it?

  3. The statement 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” seems to say a lot about fashion in most people’s lives. Outside the fashion world, New York and other population centers the rest of the world, just doesn’t care. Likely because it is simply too expensive to be accessible. Too elitist to be approachable. It simply does not filter down to the people in the flyover states or in countries that may be struggling with more basic needs. Wearing a corset to feign having an hour glass figure is something most simply can’t relate to when they do not have enough to eat. It doesn’t appeal to women who don’t look like the wispy little girls who earn fantastic amounts of money who model these fashions or the women of color who never see themselves in the presentation.

  4. Danielle, your response immediately brought to mind this great article: http://www.fashionising.com/clothing/b–curated-wardrobe-6616.html. It’s old, but I still read it now and then because I think the ideas in it speak to your point about changing the way people think about status in a way that just so happens to inspire a turn away from fast fashion (thereby affecting factors that allow factory disasters to happen so readily). I like the fact that this article doesn’t emphasize the ethical benefits of consciously curating a wardrobe, but rather frames it as a matter of status and taste. As you say, that’s probably the smarter way to affect greater change. Nobody wants to be told to change their style for the sake of helping others, but tell them it’s unfashionable to have too many clothes, and they’ll pay attention, lol.

  5. Lisa – thanks for your comment! One of the things I love about being back in Canada is having people around me who really don’t give a toss about the fashion industry at all. They’re better at seeing the absurdities of the industry than I am as outsiders and that perspective is a healthier one than being surrounded by fashion 24/7. It’s a good reminder that fashion is a slightly freakish preoccupation, but also that it’s a big world out there and fashion is just one part of something larger.

    Sarah – thanks for the link! Yes the problem isn’t convincing people with decent moral compasses to make the right choice, they’re already conscious – it’s cleverly co-opting the superficial fashion consumer who wouldn’t really be bothered to make the better choice.

    There’s the tabloid version on xojane (virtually unreadable, but more populist) http://www.xojane.com/clothes/fast-fashion

    The fast fashion case doesn’t really fit with this post because the moral panic is justified by an actual problem, rather than just being a lot of fuss over a superficial conflation of mildly “antisocial” behaviour with a particular style. So perhaps a seed for another post. Thank you for wonderful comments!

  6. Fashion not only reflects collective thought but also suggests beyond the visual form. If thoughts become things and things become forms,shapes, colours,clothes etc. Then it has the ability to shift your perception.
    So while its responsibility gives it so much power, its strength is in distracting!

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