Giuppy d’Aura is a lecturer at Istituto Marangoni School of Fashion (UK). He completed a BA and an MA in Film Studies at Università Roma Tre, followed by a second MA in History of Fashion at London College of Fashion and is currently studying for an MSc in Psychology at Birkbeck University. He worked as head of research and author of the interviews in Luca Guadagnino's documentary "Ferragamo: shoemaker of Dreams" (2020), and his peer-reviewed publications focus on the relationships between fashion and art, fashion and modernity, and fashion trends.


In today’s political landscape, great focus is placed on what is commonly referred to as “identity politics.” This approach conflates two aspects that do not usually belong together: identity, which is deeply intimate, and politics, which has traditionally been a general, public matter. Clothes occupy the liminal space between the intimacy of an individual and their representation in society; for this reason, it is particularly interesting to see how fashion is intertwined in both identity and politics.

An increasingly abused platitude about fashion is that it amounts to “self-expression.” If proof is needed, try asking a group of young design students for their definition of fashion. Today, fashion is also used to convey political messages, some of which belong to the politics of identity and of the aforementioned Self. However, the more I have studied the domain of fashion, its meaning in society, and its nature, the less it appears to me to be an efficient tool to communicate both the Self and one’s political beliefs. What people are really defining when invoking self-expression is a certain use of garments rather than the very nature and function of fashion; for these reasons, both the concept of “self” and the communication potential of fashion call for further analysis. This contemporary attitude reveals liberal societies’ obsession with identity and individuality in its most extreme form: individualism. I find myself needing to question this narrative by investigating how the crumbling of 20th-century politics and the emerging of a postmodern sensibility have led to a re-consideration of dress and have given fashion a new, albeit unfulfillable task: representing certain intimate features of the wearer's personality. I also try to address two fundamental matters deeply rooted in the postmodern liberal discourse: I begin by defining the Self and understanding whether or not it is accessible to the individual, and then analyzing the communication potential of fashion tout-court. There seems to be a silent agreement that fashion expresses precise individual, political, and societal values, but can we trust this assumption?

Political shifts, identity politics, fashion

In today's public discourse, the narrative of the essentiality of the Self often overlaps with its opposite: social constructivism. Conservative author Douglas Murray has written about the paradox whereby a left-wing activist may describe transgender identity as an immutable and innate characteristic, and, simultaneously, being a cisgender woman as a social construct.[1] Identity is increasingly exploited by people and parties on both sides, and it is probably one of the most contentious and divisive topics within the public political discourse.

But how did the Self become such a critical political category today? Postmodern sensibilities played an essential role in radicalizing the concept of individuality. As claimed by Lyotard, [2] the disillusionment towards Master Narratives such as Marxism during the second half of the 20th century is at the very base of Postmodernism. This process is conventionally seen to have culminated in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, when it became clear that the Soviet experience—a Master Narrative still rooted in Modern values—had been deeply unsuccessful. It was also during the 1980s that the left wing started to reorganize itself around a new principle, shifting its discourse from the defense of the working class to the empowerment of identities and minorities. This is one of the elements that has, slowly but progressively, formed what we call today “identity politics.” In the spirit of postmodern morals, the diverse mass that constituted the working class and encompassed people of all sexes and races, splintered into identity groups—race, sexual orientation, gender, and so on. Class was no longer seen as the main bond for all the oppressed. From the point of view of the traditional Left, the irony of this is evident: if the dividing line stops being class, the opposition is no longer between rich and poor but between, let's say, Blacks and Whites, or straights and gays. And these identity groups should supposedly have the same needs and priorities, even if within those categories some individuals have far more financial possibilities than others. The large working-class mass stopped being the Left’s priority, and progressively disintegrated within its discourse. The Master Narratives that informed Modernity met the same fate. 

One is tempted to think that some left-wing politicians hoped that addressing many minorities could grant the same success as addressing one single, albeit vast, working class. However, in politics, the sum of fragmented clusters of voters is often smaller than expected. In other words, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. What the Left underestimated is that not all voters within a group have the same priorities; furthermore, different groups may have conflicting interests, and it is sometimes difficult to keep them together. How can a party in the West address the values of conservative Muslim immigrants and, at the same time, the liberal values of young women or gays? This synthesis is undoubtedly challenging to achieve.

The emphasis on individualism is the extreme outcome of the fragmentation of social classes; in other words, groups have been atomized, leaving individuals loosely connected. In our social-media-dominated society, every subject demands to be unique and uniquely successful. Every individual is the carrier of a personal truth, while the concept of a universal Truth has also melted into thin air for the sake of individual, fragmented 'lived experiences.' It is from this confusion and lack of structure that the incestuous marriage between capitalism and the relics of the Left originated. Fashion brands have done a fantastic job capitalizing on this quest for truth amongst their clients, who today tend to be wealthy, young, urban, and embracing of liberal values with all their contradictions. The marketing strategies adopted by the most successful brands rely on discourses that seem to resonate with the demographics mentioned above. Inclusivity, diversity, freedom, and sustainability take center stage, even if they often operate only at a communication level. Sustainability, for instance, is virtually incompatible with a business that encourages clients to buy one new collection every six months, and where brands are expected to be on a steady path of financial growth. Nevertheless, if fashion brands wish to succeed among the younger generations, they are required to address the supposed moral values of their target consumer. In capitalist society, morality is yet another commodity to sell. I believe it is precisely for this reason that the most successful maisons upholster their communication with the narrative of self-expression. The new frontier of capitalism today, as noted by Slavoj Zizek, is to sell to clients both the problem and—included in the price—its solution. [3] This is particularly visible in the case of fashion, where, by virtue of its price and exclusivity, class and social inequalities are rendered more visible; nevertheless, brands offer an image of diversity, empowerment of individuality, and, most ironically, inclusivity.

Alessio Bolzoni for “Many of Them” FW22

The historical dimension of fashion, changing politics, new subjectivities

Is expressing individuality a task that fashion is ontologically fit to fulfill? The answer is straightforward: no. As most readers will know, during the 19th century and well into the 20th, fashion was not consumed to convey individuality and difference but, on the contrary, clothes needed to communicate the social ambitions of a woman, her place in the social hierarchy, and her respectability. All this had to be done while treading a path paved by strict social and fashion norms. Uniqueness and creativity would have led women astray from the accepted trajectory of fashion. [4, 5] It is essential to specify the asymmetry between genders in regard to fashion consumption during the 19th century: while men’s style became increasingly simplified, women were encouraged to indulge in the consumption of fashionable clothes. [6]

Consuming clothes to signal one’s social ambitions and position has been the basis of the fashion business for many decades, and it is well represented in pop culture. For instance, in Bret Easton Ellis' masterpiece American Psycho, [7] where the author consistently uses the description of clothes to convey the status of their wearers, but never their intimacy. Another example is the compelling 1980s TV series Dynasty. The 1970s and 1980s were also the age of the “total look,” an idea allegedly brought into mass-produced clothes by the Italian stilista Walter Albini. With the total look, the aim of designers such as Albini, Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace, and Gianfranco Ferré, to name a few, was to propose a consistent and unified style for all the items of an outfit. Indeed, the total looks says more about the brand than it does about the wearer.

Our contemporary obsession with identity is partly the effect of the erosion of the hierarchical social order, which is a relatively recent (and Western) feature. Postmodernism, however, is a cluster of contradictions: on the one hand it takes the modern concept of individuality to the extreme, turning it into individualism; on the other, it splinters the Self and undermines the possibility of communicating it to the external world. As suggested above, the erosion of Master Narratives described by Lyotard has determined the birth of countless “Micro Narratives,” [8] virtually one for every individual. In political terms, the fall of Marxism and conservatism, as previously conceived, has determined the Self as the re-direction of the political discourse towards atomized discourses. If the Right became identitarian and often racist, the Left followed a similar path, focusing on identity politics and fragmenting the working class into races, sexual minorities, and gender politics. Both attitudes, however, are opposite reactions to the same stimuli. This, in time, has had important bearings in fashion as well: the era of total looks is today virtually nonexistent as designers rely heavily on styling, proposing very different and even clashing elements within the same look.

At this point, we should try to address the elephant in the room. What is the Self? Moreover, what is its relationship with fashion?

“Contemporary fashion consumers regard non-conformity as a way of expressing uniqueness; this, at closer inspection, appears to be another platitude.”

The Self

The Self can be described as the sum of an individual's beliefs about their personality attributes. However, when we approach it, it appears to be more complex. Everyone possesses at least two dimensions of the Self: a private, intimate Self, and a public Self, which is shaped by our position within a particular social group and in opposition to other groups. But there is also an external projection of one's ideal self, which does not necessarily coincide with who that person really is.

Sociologist Erving Goffman takes this idea of the multiplicity of selves to an extreme by questioning the very existence of a "true self": the individual, in his view, seems to be a cluster of front-stage and back-stage selves, all of which are equally fictional and situation-specific. [9]

The relationship between the presentation of the Self and clothes (not only fashion) was discussed by psychologist John Flügel in his pivotal work The Psychology of Clothes, [10] in which he discusses the contradictory nature of garments. Flügel points out that even the word that signifies the most intimate of human characteristics, “personality,” actually comes from persona, which in Latin means “mask,” namely another item to wear. For him, clothes serve three primary purposes: decoration, modesty, and protection. The original and most compelling reasons to get dressed, however, are the first two. Hence, according to Flügel, the dress serves two discordant masters at once: decoration, whose aim is to reveal, and modesty, whose aim is to conceal. The latter can be considered the opposite of getting dressed to express one's Self. The practice of modesty is typical of religious communities, workplaces, or conservative social groups; hence it represents an attempt to diminish the outer appearance of individuality. Modesty aims to bring individuals closer to their peers. As Flügel writes, “clothes resemble a perpetual blush upon the surface of humanity.” [11] The self, in the case of modesty, is not denied, but becomes a private, secret luxury that does not need to be flaunted.

The idea that one can express oneself through clothes rests upon a naïve view of the self, namely that we know who we are. It is, however, at least since Freud discovered the existence of the unconscious that this idea has become outdated. [12] Psychoanalysis proposed that the truth about our desires is found in our unconscious: a virtually inaccessible area of our minds. In their daily practice, psychoanalysts do pay more attention to their patients’ dreams, slips, free associations, and other gaps that function as cryptic gates to unconscious truth, than they do to what the patients ultimately say. Said very plainly, psychoanalysis has subverted Descartes’ famous principle “I think therefore I am,” and reversed the relationship between “think” and “am.” As French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan put it, "I think where I am not; therefore, I am where I do not think." For psychoanalysis practitioners, truth is not to be found in conscious and controlled expressions but in whatever escapes the lies and traps set by the conscious and deceitful will.

An objection to this may be that psychoanalysis rests upon theory and has limited empirical evidence. However, social psychologists have also raised similar doubts, which have been underpinned by empirical research. A recent study has demonstrated the discrepancy between Instagram users' online personas and their real individual characteristics. [13] This study revealed a twofold problem: on the one hand, Instagram users had an idea of themselves that was different from the one conveyed on their Instagram accounts. On the other, their followers could not consistently predict personality traits and self-attributes based on social media accounts. One problem was the “codifier” of the message, and the other was its “decoding.”

Similarly, a classic study by Timothy Wilson and colleagues [14] demonstrated that predicting one's mood is extremely difficult for people. The researchers asked a group of subjects to predict their mood against several variables, such as the weather and the amount of sleep received; these self-predictions turned out to be, for the most part, inaccurate. The researchers concluded that people have difficulties with this type of forecast because preconceived ideas often blind them. This research demonstrates that the perceptions of our Selves do not necessarily coincide with who we are. They also cement the idea that the intimate Self differs from the aspects of our identity that we project to the outside world. We can conclude that even what we convey through fashion is not necessarily who we are but how we would like to be perceived.

One of the problems with the Self in our society seems to be that it has become a disembodied, discursive, and therefore solipsistic entity. The first element to fall during postmodernity has been the physical nature of the body, the latest and most dangerous social negotiation at the base of our identities. This radicalization of individualism reduces the Self to a whim: I am not the product of social, psychological, and biological processes, but I convince myself that I am what I decide to be every day. I am what I wear. We dream of a shell that coincides with its content. Despite how many attempts individuals can make to deny the involuntary nature of the Self and the difficulties of knowing one's true self, nothing can erase its complex ontology.

Furthermore, contemporary fashion consumers regard non-conformity as a way of expressing uniqueness; this, at closer inspection, appears to be another platitude. Psychologists have studied the underpinning processes of conformity for over a century, and some aspects are still being unveiled. Particularly interesting are the processes of anti-conformity. In fashion terms, they exemplify what most contemporary die-hard fashionistas chase: being different from the norm and not obeying pre-imposed rules. Therein resides the contradiction: the urge to eschew conformity is itself a reaction to the rule, hence determined by it. Several studies have documented this, and, as psychologist Paul Nail [15] suggested, there is no real difference between conformity and nonconformity. The two may be seen as two complementary aspects of the same phenomenon. Conformity, Nail claims, is so pervasive in human behavior as to encompass its opposite. Following this view, non-conformists may simply be marching to the beat of a more distant drum.

A critical problem regarding fashion as a vehicle of self-expression is that we have to assume that the Self has a certain degree of stability and carries a kernel of truth about the subject. Some psychological theories confirm this view. Personality, for instance, is definable as a stable set of traits that can, to some degree, predict how an individual may react to certain situations. However, this definition of the Self jars with the very pattern of fashion consumption because fashion is a system deeply grounded on change, namely instability. If fashion does not change, it dies. On the other hand, if one's Self were to change as fast as fashion trends, it would splinter into a constellation of unstable and contradictory personality traits; it would approach psychosis.

Alessio Bolzoni for “Many of Them” FW22

Can fashion still communicate?

Once the Self has been discussed, it is time to problematize the extent to which fashion can communicate. The contemporary, liberal idea of fashion as the ultimate vehicle of self-expression contains an embarrassing irony. It presents the personal need to express oneself as a luxury, a preserve of the few who climb very high in the hierarchy of needs, and a privilege of the rich who can buy their freedom of expression in fashion stores. In the 21st century, capitalism has achieved an unprecedented and highly consequential goal, designing itself as the enhancer of freedom and liberation. However, what young liberal consumers fail to notice is that if consumption is the ultimate sign of one's intimate self-expression, then we need to view those who are excluded from fashion consumption as the new oppressed class. In the liberal view, consumption is not only a way to convey one's success and taste (or a way to shy away from them) but it acquires a mystical and transcendental property that goes beyond its modern scope.

The ability of clothes to communicate the Self has been questioned by scholars such as sociologist Joanne Finkelstein [16] and fashion theorist Llewellyn Negrin. In her book The Fashioned Self, [16] Finkelstein compared the contemporary emphasis on outer appearance to the physiognomic studies of the 19th century. Physiognomists like Dr. Lombroso and his followers proposed that one's character and criminal inclinations were predictable through physical characteristics and proportions. The idea that fashion can convey one's character (and values) reveals another profound contradiction in our society. On one hand, we discourage people from judging others by their appearance; on the other, we demand to be judged and understood according to how we present ourselves.

Fashion collections, and with them our wardrobes, have progressively become more casual over the last decade. The success of brands such as Off-White and Vetements is a testament to this idea. These brands have brought street garments onto contemporary catwalks, blurring the lines between ready-to-wear and streetwear. However, if you think these very innovative and profitable collections look like freedom of expression at its purest, think again. We may have been freed from the constraints of formal and business attire, but, as Negrin [17] suggests, today, people can wear whatever they want because nothing they wear carries a meaning anymore. If anything goes, nothing matters, and this is because any form of freedom can only operate within some constraints. To put it in semiological terms, if the signified today is detached from its signifier, how can any signifier be the carrier of a meaning? One and only one meaning seems to be the true prerogative of fashion, and that is fashion itself. Fashion signifies being up to date, being “cool,” and being part of an inner group constituted—like any social group—in opposition to another: the unfashionable. Thus, in today's world, if we care so much about sending messages, it is just because messages are the latest fashion trend and, just like in the past, the pendulum can shift away from this quest for “depth at all costs” when the wind of trends blows in another direction.

Effective communication requires three elements: a subject who speaks, one who listens, and a mutually intelligible code. Communication becomes impossible in a world where a common language does not connect enough individuals. If everyone wears anything with absolute freedom, without embracing any code with a value that is recognizable to others, then they are not communicating with anyone. Style is reduced to an individual language, a radical idiolect that only the wearer can understand. Expressing any idea—let alone yourself—in this situation becomes harder and harder. This inability of fashion to effectively communicate ideas has led Fred Davis to define fashion not as a code but as a 'quasi-code.' [18] In today's society, where tweets and Instagram posts are considered activism, we like to think that clothes can be an efficient vehicle for positive messages. This reveals more about our society than it does about fashion’s arguable power.

To conclude, I must argue that it is crucial to avoid a moralistic approach to the use of fashion. This article aims only at investigating the contradictions of contemporary fashion communication, and at undermining the pretenses of depth regarding a system that draws its value precisely from its glittery frivolity. What to do then? It would probably be worth reconsidering the apology of indifference implied by Gilles Lipovetsky in his acute The Empire of Fashion. [19] For Lipovetsky, fashion opens a new possibility for the democratization of society, not by virtue of its depth and political engagement but by its superficiality. In his view, the shallowness in human relations is not only good but also desirable. He claims that the more progress the ephemeral makes, the more stable democracies become, and this is because the less people care about one another, the better they will get along. Through fashion, we should be pushed to desire and prefer the realm of fantasy rather than the universe of confrontation. The frivolousness of fashion and its potential to hide and protect one's idea of the intimate Self is probably not wholly attuned with our postmodern life, which demands strong images, social media authenticity, and political involvement. Nevertheless, they still are essential underpinnings to its nature.

Notes: Politics of Self-Expression

[1] Douglas Murray,  The madness of crowds: Gender, race and identity. (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019)

[2] Jean-Francois Lyotard,. The postmodern condition. (Manchester: Manchester, 1994)

[3] Žižek Slavoj The fragile absolute, or, why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? (London: Verso, 2001)

[4] Kate Nelson Best, The history of fashion journalism.(London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), 51

[5] Judith Flanders, The Victorian house: Domestic life from childbirth to deathbed (Public Library Interlink, 2007), 256

[6] Giuppy d'Aura, "The Silence of Garments: Modernity and the conquest of elegance." Aisthema, International Journal 8, no. 1 (2021): 77-99.

[7] Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho: A Novel. (United Kingdom: Vintage Books, 1991)

[8] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The postmodern condition. (Manchester: Manchester, 1994)

[9] Erving Goffman, The presentation of Self in everyday life. (New York: Anchor Books, 1959)

[10] John Carl Flügel, The psychology of clothes (Madison: International Universities Press, 1950)

[11] John Carl Flügel, The psychology of clothes (Madison: International Universities Press, 1950), 21

[12] Sigmend Freud, and James Strachey. The interpretation of dreams. (London: Allen & Unwin, 1900)

[13] Elisabeth Harris, and Aurore C. Bardey. "Do Instagram profiles accurately portray personality? An investigation into idealised online self-presentation." Frontiers in Psychology 10 (2019): 871.

[14] Timothy D. Wilson,  Patricia S. Laser, and Julie I. Stone. "Judging the predictors of one's own mood: Accuracy and the use of shared theories." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 18, no. 6 (1982): 537-556

[15] Paul R. Nail, "Toward an integration of some models and theories of social response." Psychological Bulletin 100, no. 2 (1986): 190

[16] Joanne Finkelstein, The fashioned self. (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2013)

[17] Llewellyn Negrin,. In appearance and identity. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

[18] Fred Davis,. Fashion, culture, and identity. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)

[19] Gilles Lipovetsky,  Empire de L'éphémère.(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

Issue 12 ︎︎︎ Border Garments: Fashion, Feminisms, & Disobedience
Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement
Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016

Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement

Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016