From The Archive: Themes in Fashion Theory: Fashion and Narcissus

Originally posted by Lucy Collins in January 2010, this article explores how fashion mirrors society’s narcissism and conformity.

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Legend has it that a vanity-stricken youth named Narcissus fell so in love with his own image that he drowned himself in a pond while bending down to kiss his reflection. The story of Narcissus (which developed into the modern day affliction known as narcissism) has taken on various different connotations in contemporary culture. But the tale of Narcissus has several different important connections to fashion.

Fashion has often been dismissed as the realm of the vain and the superficial. Those who concern themselves with clothing, it’s been said, must just love the sight of themselves so much that they feel the need to constantly “dress up.” A classic image comes to mind of a woman preening before a mirror, draped herself with jewels, reveling in admiration at her own image. Indeed, the mirrored reflection that Narcissus so adored is a part of the process of getting dressed, but to what degree? Is fashion inconsequential because it has to do with how one looks in a mirror, or how one looks to others?

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The actual question of reflection, or mirroring and imitation, is incredibly pertinent to fashion. It’s true that in fashion there exists a simultaneous desire for differentiation and uniformity. Mirroring and imitation gets at the heart of uniformity. Isn’t it the case that there are times when we want to imitate someone’s outfit so accurately that we notice every single detail — even down to the kind of buttons on her garment?

But what do we get when we mirror others through fashion? What does imitation really give us? Is it just the satisfaction of knowing we can now be official members of a certain sartorial group? Or is it because we are using those around us as mirrors to reflect ourselves back to us?

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Another often overlooked component of the Narcissus tale is the nymph Echo, who so loved Narcissus, who loved himself, that all she could do was echo what he said. It seems to me that our cultural narcissistic epidemic (see The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement) has now lead to a case of the echoes.

A lot of what is happening in fashion today is simply endless repetition – infinite echoes of what has already been done. Ironic that in the midst of such narcissism, there is actually such conformity. Somehow our extreme individualism has morphed into a bunch of identical copy cats. Because our individuality is never strictly our own.

Although excessive imitation in fashion may point to some larger psychological concerns in a society, it’s also the case that fashion only becomes symbolic and/or meaningful when there are enough shared “syntax,” if you will, for a language of clothing to really develop.

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