SUBLIME: A Philosophy of Clothes

If you google philosophy and fashion, over 20 million possible connections come up. A cursory run through some of the pages reveals that the main theme – encompassed in numerous websites, blogs, adverts and publications – contains advice, ideas and suggestions for how we as individuals might develop and evolve a personal approach or philosophy to our dress. Words such as perception, appearance, self-esteem, style, are evoked to help illustrate how fashion is not just about image or clothes but acts as a mirror, an indicator both for who we are and the influences surrounding us. The consistent message is that if we can evolve a personal approach to our clothing and the way we wear it, we can express and communicate ourselves more clearly to others. As Quentin Bell (Art Historian and Virginia Woolf’s nephew) states:

“Our clothes are too much a part of us for most of us ever to be entirely indifferent to their condition: it is as though the fabric were indeed a natural extension of the body, or even the soul.”

As a former Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, he was fascinated by the symbolism of clothes. “On the subject of dress almost no one, for one or another reason, feels truly indifferent: if their own clothes do not concern them, somebody else’s do.”

Caroline Lucy Andrew. BA (Hons) Bespoke Tailoring
This power, this ability to reach us both internally and externally has preoccupied many academics, theorists and philosophers. French theorist Roland Barthes, in his seminal publication The Language of Fashion, explored fashion as a language. Using semiology as a basis Barthes investigates how:

“Clothing concerns all of the human person, all of the body, all the relationships of man to body as well as the relationships of the body to society.”

He suggests that dressing is a personal act where we as individuals adopt and put on the clothes that reflect the social group we are a part of, whilst the dress itself is the reserve, part of the collections of items that we draw from. For Barthes fashion can either be part of a dress object that has been developed by specialists – the designer, the more elitist top-down approach – or it can be created as part of the act of dressing: as individuals decide to adopt and adapt an item of clothing, creating a bottom up or the so called street fashion. The importance of developing your own philosophical message around fashion is that you don’t have to be bound by a designer or fashion journalist’s views. They might inspire or give insight but we no longer have to feel pressurised to wear an item of clothing no matter how unflattering or uncomfortable it might be.
Descartes’ great statement –

“I think therefore I am”

was contained in his Meditations – a philosophical treatise that was a re-thinking of previous Western philosophical thought. Appropriated by the American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger into the feminist and political challenge to existing stereotypes “I shop therefore I am”, she challenged us to evaluate our belief systems critically. At a time when we are again assessing our relationship with the world around us and the philosophical underpinning of our lives, the part that our clothes play in our interaction with the world’s physical resources, the people that made them and how we communicate these values to our peers and colleagues is coming under the spotlight. If as American media guru Marshall McLuhan put it the “The medium is the message” and if we accept Barthes argument that fashion and clothing is a language then we should more knowingly exploit this to develop our own language and philosophy around clothes.