Fashion as Confession, Global Fashion Conference Paper

confession

This week I am in London, preparing to head to Oxford (Mansfield College in Oxford) for the 1st Global Conference on Fashion. So in anticipation, I thought I’d share a portion of my paper for the conference. (Seeing as it’s global conference, it’s somewhat related to international dress…)

Monica has asked in the past for readers to share a little of their research, in the hopes that we could give one another feedback and encouragement, so maybe this will initiate a bit of sharing from some of you who have papers, thesis, or (heaven forbid) dissertations that you are working on.

My paper is entitled “Fashion as Confession: Revelation and Concealment in Personal Identity” and below is a brief excerpt:

Clothing is a means of hiding the self. Clothing is also a means of revealing the self. Through the sartorial choices we make regarding what to reveal and what to conceal through dress, we bring attention to ourselves as individuals. Many people understand this focus on the individual through clothing as simply a form of self-expression, but I wonder how it may also be similar to confession.

Although it might be inaccurate to argue that all fashion is explicitly or overtly confessional, it seems that there is a connection between the psychological needs filled by clothing and the role of confession in society. I think that looking at the concept of confession, as both an existential and psychological tool, can help point us to the fact that group inclusion and the seeking of membership must be the most fundamental driving force behind fashion.

Confession is simultaneously a self-proclamation and a self-concealment. But through these opposing actions, confession seeks to accomplish an acknowledgement, an affirmation, and forgiveness from a select audience. Fashion employs these same means to accomplish similar goals. Fashion utilizes the interplay of self-expression and self-concealment in order to provoke a response from a certain group of others.

What is the philosophical concept of confession? Confession appears most often in a religious context where one is called to “own up” to his/her guilt in an effort to be forgiven, and then redeemed. Confession can also be more loosely understood as taking responsibility, or claiming all aspects of oneself, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant.

But what are we confessing when we confess, generally speaking? A failure, a mistake, an incompleteness, a lack, a separation? For my purposes, I’d like to define confession as the public admission of something deeply personal and intimate, often revealed through a spectacular display (such as the rending of clothes and covering of oneself in ashes which accompanied many medieval religious confessions).

So, what does this concept of confession add to our notion of the self or to our understanding of fashion? Confession simultaneously constructs the self and deconstructs the self. It is both self-identifying and self-transforming. Initially, a confessor is seeking acknowledgement (of oneself, of one’s sin) by an other. Secondly, one who confesses is seeking affirmation (of oneself, of the authenticity of his/her sin). Finally, one is seeking forgiveness, or, as I’d like to understand it, transformation.

Indeed there are some ways in which confessions through dress are particularly obvious, such as the case where someone acknowledges a shift in his/her gender or sexual orientation by changing his/her style of clothing. Or perhaps a person wears a suit to work every day in order to “confess” that s/he is a business person. There is a sense, as well, in which all manner of uniforms are a particular kind of confessional dress, but this is really not what I am addressing. All these sorts of “outer layer” sartorial confessions may be interesting, but they really do not explore the existential reasons why we dress ourselves in certain ways.

Fashion explicitly seeks to accomplish the deeper goals of confession in the following ways. Through fashion, one gains acknowledgement as the other gazes at him/her and says: “I see you.” We seek this kind of acknowledgement when we dress in ways that make us stand out as individuals. Affirmation is accomplished as the other says: “I recognize you.” Affirmation is sought when we dress utilizing items that are signifiers to particular groups (as in the case of wearing noticeably trendy clothing). Finally, transformation (or forgiveness) is accomplished as the other says: “I accept you as a member of my group.” Therefore, the individual is transformed as s/he acquires the status of membership into a particular group.

It seems that this transformation, or forgiveness of guilt, is especially significant. It’s in this desire for forgiveness or transformation that fashion can be understood as a sort of confession – as a performative announcement of lack or a description of sin in which a plea for restoration is expressed. In this sense, not only is a person seeking recognition from others in the way that s/he dresses, but a fashioned confessor is looking to his audience for interpretation and evaluation – to offer an ultimate appraisal of his/her worth.

But where does the forgiveness come in? What is the source of the guilt? It seems possible that fashion allows some sort of selfish involvement with artifice. To what degree is our dressed or fashioned self an authentic self? Some might argue that the moment we begin to wear garments of clothing at all we lose all authenticity. (This is in fact a large part of the rhetoric behind nudist societies.) So then are we all, in a final fashion confession, admitting to playing roles, creating personas, and becoming the false social selves that fashion allows us to cultivate? Are we simply acknowledging the game of fashion, but in shame? Perhaps this what we are revealing in clothing – the very fact that we are acting. To wear clothing is to admit to playing a role. It is to admit to presenting a false appearance.

In light of this understanding of confession, as that form of self-accounting which reveals an innate lack (or irreconcilable duality), we may begin to see fashion as more self-revelatory. It’s often said that fashion conceals, as it presents the self as a masquerade, a duplicitous false façade, but I argue that it does exactly the opposite. Fashion is always revealing. But it reveals things we may not even know we had to say. Things we couldn’t even be aware of saying. Clothing reveals, with or without intention: one’s body; one’s materialism; one’s desire for relationship, group membership, and intimacy; and one’s innate duplicity.

One great example of the sort of confession I am speaking of is from the popular film/musical “Grease.” The climax of the story occurs when Sandy undergoes a complete transformation as she remakes herself into a cool sex kitten, complete with black leather pants, red lips, stilettos, and blown-out hair. At this point in the narrative, not only is Sandy accepted by the Pink Ladies, but she also shows Danny that she is willing to become a part of his “cool” world in order to win his affection.

grease

Even after Sandy’s transformation, the audience is left wondering: who is the real Sandy? Was she always the popular vixen, dripping with sex appeal, or is she still the innocent naïve girl, now just wearing different clothing? So the question of whether or not Sandy is essentially playing a role is a valid one.

hopelessly-devoted

Another reason this particular makeover is so relevant to my argument is that it has all the characteristics of a confession: as Sandy presents her made-over self in a very public way, she is seeking acknowledgement from the “cool” kids at school, and she ultimately undergoes a real transformation as she becomes accepted as one of the Pink Ladies. Finally, Sandy’s sartorial confession exclaims her desire for relationship – broadly, in her yearning to relate to the popular kids at school, but specifically as she longs for the love of Danny.

Through our choices in dress, we present a self that we hope will be included by a certain audience. We wear particular items of clothing that serve as social cues to alert others to our desire to be included. I see this tendency as a subtle confession of a desire to be accepted.

More fundamentally, though, this desire to be included in a certain group can be understood as an innate desire for intimacy. Although in contemporary society, we are told that we should stand alone, unique and powerful in our individuality, each of us yearns for a deep, intimate connection to others. I believe this urge for intimacy is explcitly expressed in clothing.

(General notes from the conference to follow shortly!!)

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1 Comment

  • Rachel September 25, 2009 09.48 am

    Love the last paragraph and I think you’re definitely on to something. Hope the conference is a great success!

     

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