Fashion is an aesthetic signifier of social hierarchies and belonging, but also an opening for emotional affects and connections between people. As clothes are used to mark out distinctions, they also open passages for emotional signaling and connection. On an abstract level, my branded shirt may signify an identification with certain values of the brand, but the shirt may also be used to draw attention to certain aspects of my emotional and affective self I want to open towards others. That is, the shirt may be used for emotional signification also: for seduction, flirting, celebration, or mourning. Dress opens an emotional window between people.
This double aspect of clothing, signifying qualities, but also its emotional and affective connection to the aspirations and desires of our “soul” is what makes fashion so powerful – but also makes us so vulnerable for attacks. Rather than risking upsetting the order, it is just so much safer escaping into jeans and t-shirt or formal office wear.
Using the word “violence” in the realm of everyday dress may sound a bit too strong as very few people get attacked and killed primarily because of their clothes (at least in a place like NYC). But if we start opening the interactions traced through dress practices, we may come to see more of it; a robber may select a victim by their expensive looking clothes, a police officer may stop-and-frisk a person in hoodie, a trans-person may get attacked because of not conforming to gendered outfits. These may be instances of violations of personal integrity, which most of us would agree could fit under the term violence.
But if we also think of fashion as an emotional window between people, how it opens a passage towards our feelings, aspirations and deeper personal lives, who we want to be seen as, who we wish to be with, and much more, then even “soft” attacks on our clothes may be seen as a form of violence. A nasty comment which on purpose attacks my aspirations can not only hurt me emotionally and mentally, but it may scar these aspirations beyond repair. Even if it happens only once it may still cause lasting emotional damage, even if the occasion may be something very banal. A child not having the right sports outfit on the first day of trying out a new sport (and meeting new peers) may effectively lock the door to this peer group and future sport practice. Someone being refused entry to a club at an important moment when one’s peers enter without problem may act as a social sorting, distancing the victim from the peers. In both cases, the even itself may only be first trigger and excuse for later gossip and taunts.
But more importantly, if the rejection happens over time, the impact may be devastating for the victim’s ability to test new emotional aspirations as he or she withdraws into “acceptable” uniforms.
The miniscule violence in rejections, gossip and taunts come out of certain social dynamics and formations. It is not only the wickedness of bullies which is to blame, but several layers of social interactions. But perhaps most importantly, the bullies do not feel they do anything “evil” or “amoral” – rather the opposite; they feel they “do the right thing” – they uphold the legitimate social order. In their actions, they help regulate the social relationships of the groups, doing a favor for the status of their peers (“what would other cool people think of us it we hang out with that loser?”). The peers are thankful for the ordering while they all think the victim always “deserves it” (and the victim may think so too). In this way, violence is always virtuous for the ones who commit it; they legitimize it in ways they feel they have the right to use violence. As Fiske and Rai argues in their work Virtuous Violence (2015), “the primary motives for violence are at the same time subjectively moral – people feel they must harm or kill others simply because it’s the right thing to do” (2015: 34)
To Fiske and Rai, the basis for violence is regulation of social relationships: who rules, or who is equal to whom, what is shared or what does someone owe another? All social relationships are regulated through cultural conventions, most often in informal ways: who has access to certain goods, who eats first, who has authority to act in what ways, who has access to what spaces, who picks up the trash, who’s responsibility is this or that? These types of interactions are regulated by peers in self-organized systems of control.
If we apply Fiske and Rai’s thinking to fashion, clothes signal many of these relations: I wear certain clothes to show unity with my working group, or to show that I am better than others, or to get access to this club, or to not draw attention to myself (or hide) in a certain social setting, or to move into proximity to other groups and through hierarchies ( such becoming the friend or mate of a prestigious person) or pretending being someone I am not. I can conform to the standards and play along, but if I break the norms, or I upset some of the standards or usurp the regulations, others may feel I “break the rules” and thus feel obliged to correct me – and this may be done in more of less violent ways. “Virtuous violence theory proposes that the perpetrator intends to harm or kill in order to constitute a social relationship to make it correspond with a prescriptive model of what the relationship ought to be – what it must be made to be.” (17)
In social relations, people act under certain “Preos” or cultural guidelines that specify how social relationships are to be regulated (a “cultural coordination device”). These guidelines are “socially transmitted prototypes, precedents, and principles that complete the mods, specifying how, when and with respect to whom the mods apply” (Fiske 2004: 4). [“mods” being “cognitively modular but modifiable modes of interacting” in Fiske 2004: 3] Preos is the cultural prescriptions of how to handle social relationships, or what we usually consider “morals” in general: “morality consists of intentions, motives, emotions, and judgments about realizing RMs according to cultural preos.” (Fiske & Rai 2015: 22)
Fiske and Rai presents Relational Models (RMs) which consists of four primary interactions: communal sharing (CS), authority ranking (AR), equality matching (EM), and market pricing (MP) [earlier developed by Fiske]
In communal sharing (CS) interactions, the victim may be seen as a possible contaminant to the in-group, thus hazing or rituals of harassment may be used (and excused) for the greater good of making sure the victim comes to share the values the group; “Unity is directed toward caring for and supporting the integrity of in-groups through a sense of collective responsibility and common fate.” (18) Dressing the same as the group becomes a signal for communal sharing, while dressing too much apart may require a response from the rest of the group to make sure the status quo is upheld. Similarly, to join the group, certain signals and commitments may have to be signalled, such as gang tattoos.
For authority ranking (AR), hierarchy is the prime concern, as “Hierarchy is directed toward creating and maintaining linear ranking in social groups.” (19) Hierarchies are not “inherently immoral, exploitive, or even undesirable. Nor do legitimate hierarchies emerge out of pure force or coercion. In many cultures, people perceive hierarchy as natural, inevitable, necessary, and legitimate” (19). The military may be a prime example, but also religious cults or organizations with clear chains or command or pecking orders, but also where superiors are supposed to provide and protect the subordinates, thus offering a reward for submission. “AR hierarchy motivates people to judge that superiors committing violence against subordinates is often acceptable and may even be praiseworthy if done to instruct or punish.” (19) The hierarchy itself is threatened if the distinctions and not upheld, thus people within the hierarchy all come to feel they “deserve their place,” and will defend the hierarchy and their place in it from both outside attacks as well as usurping practices within as members experience the asymmetrical relationships “as natural, good, legitimate, and even necessary.” (20) Authority ranking is engaged social status systems such as class or ethnic rankings (the social value of identities, what subcultures are “cool” and who are “nerds” or “losers”), and rankings such as the prestige and standing of brands (AR with respect to price, availability, knowledge etc). Within a group, as I gain status I am allowed to wear certain marks, or I can signal a long commitment to a cause within the group by wearing the right patch, and a false-flag signal is punished.
Equality matching (EM) is “manifest in activities such as turn taking, in-kind reciprocity, even distributions and randomization procedures such as coin flipping.” (20) Equality matching is a form of “democratization” as it aims to even out the playing field: “Equality is directed toward enforcing even balance and in-kind reciprocity in social relations. It requires equal treatment, equal voice, equal opportunity, equal chance, even shares, even contributions, turn taking, and lotteries (e.g., for conscription, for a dangerous assignment, for choosing ends of the field in sports or in a duel).” (20) It is a moral motivation towards reciprocity, and “accounts for the sense of obligation we feel both in inviting people to our home after they have invited us to theirs, and in seeking to hurt people in exactly the same way they have hurt us, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” (20)
Market pricing (MP) aims towards proportionality and is “directed toward calculating and acting in accord with ratios or rates among otherwise distinct goods to ensure that rewards or punishments for each party are proportional to their costs, contributions, effort, merit, or guilt.” (21) A punishment should be proportionate to its effects, but also, “in the framework of proportionality, it is morally correct to inflict harm or to kill if the benefits outweigh the costs.” (21) Market Pricing relationships are oriented to socially meaningful ratios or rates between prestigious signals and tokens, such as prices, wages, interest, or cost-benefit analyses, but also exchange between groups and interpersonal networks. Certain forms of prestige may be exchanged for status or bridging towards other groups, or gifts used as blackmailing (as a form of Potlatch), and failing to uphold these market standards (causing inflation, or allowing access or condoning unregulated behaviors) may be proportionally punished.
Relational models reveal how various forms of cultural norms and Preos make social groups self-organize the policing of their norms. But these models also help us understand the moral frameworks and interactions bullies act within as feel they “do the right thing” when rejecting or harassing a victim. Matched with the desires of not only fitting in, but also aspiring to be more than one is, or uniting emotionally with others, the regulations of sharing, equality hierarchy and proportionality seeps under the skin of the victim.
Indeed, if fashion in many ways has a tradition of threatening public “morals,” and is still considered “dangerous” in many cultures, it is because of its possible use as a tool to override Preos and challenge relational orders. Fashion offers the user a pathway to bypass gatekeepers, uniting groups across cultural boundaries, and seducing powerful individuals, deceiving others, while also join together individual aspirations and popularity with people in power. And the use of things and commodities in these regulations is a common trait (Komter 2001).
This is perhaps the “danger” of fashion, as it not only manifests class, loyalties, groups and hierarchies, but also offers an avenue to usurp the same categories. There may be many motivations why the rules and regulations must be upheld, but violences is an essential part of both controlling as well as rebelling against the order of Preos.
Fiske, Alan Page (2004) “Relational Models Theory 2.0,” in Haslam, Nick (ed) (2004) Relational Models Theory: A Contemporary Overview, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Fiske, Alan Page & Tage Shakti Rai (2015) “Violence is morally motivated to regulate social relationships” in Virtuous Violence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 17-34.
Komter, Aafke (2001) “Heirlooms, Nikes and Bribes: Towards a Sociology of Things”, Sociology,Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 59–75.
(see more: Relational Models Theory)