Susan Vincent (University of York, UK). Being Scared of Fashion

The famous eighteenth-century London actor, David Garrick, added drama to his performance of Hamlet with a specially commissioned ‘fright wig’. At the moment he first saw the ghost of his dead father, the hair on this ingeniously constructed wig stood on end in horror: Garrick was performing fear. With the exception of this collaboration between Garrick and his hairdresser and wig-maker Perkins, however, the fashioning of fear leaves little trace in the record. Clothes that menace — ways of dressing that promise violence and communicate threat — are common. The visual tropes of horror, Hallowe’en dress ups, uniforms of violence, the masks of the Ku Klux Klan — all these help their wearers to instil fear in others and engender unease.

By contrast, the subjects of fear themselves seek to escape attention by blending in. Their safety lies in camouflaging any persecuted ‘difference’: stick with the herd, don’t stand out, look the same. Fashioning fear therefore seems to be an elusive, perhaps even non-existent, enterprise.

This paper instead turns to the way fashion has in the past itself been a source of fear. According to the normative values that ran from the Middle Ages, through Humanism, the Reformation, early modernity, and even into the age of Enlightenment, fashion was fundamentally immoral. Its biggest problem was that those who cared too much for it were guilty of pride, putting themselves and their looks before their spiritual welfare and worshipping before the false god of appearances. Quite simply, fashionable, ‘excessive’ dress sundered its wearers from God’s grace. The protean forms of changing trends also produced monstrous, unallowable bodies that threatened the truth of appearances, and confused the natural, God-given signs of gender and status. But the luring delights of such ways of dressing not only imperilled wearers, they also enticed beholders, tempting them along the same gaudy way to damnation. And finally, in overspending on their wardrobes, slaves to fashion squandered resources and repudiated the duties of Christian charity. For many in history, fashion was a beautifully bedecked path that led straight to hell.

To modernity, this seems vaguely ridiculous — just another example of the unknowable and slightly risible foreignness of the past. The last part of this paper, however, considers whether we too should fear fashion, for what we wear is both the product and driver of a global system of waste and exploitation. Fast fashion, throwaway garments, enforced labour, sweatshops, global pollution: fashion is an environmental and ethical disaster, a hell of our own making. Maybe early modernity was right to be scared.