Intimate vs. Heroic Vanity in Fashion

It is easy to think of fashion as “shallow” (it is something on our skin and we take it on and off and change often) and also part of our “vanity” the excessive need for affirming our attractiveness. The vanity part of fashion is interesting since it is per definition a social phenomenon, the vain person needs an audience and needs others to be better or more attractive than. But there are many strategies for being vain, many ways to gain appreciation and affirmation, one can seek love and intimacy through vanity, as much as the pleasure of conquest.

Perhaps we can think of at least two forms of vanity, and let’s call them “intimate” and “heroic” vanity to set them apart.

The heroic vanity is the vanity of glory (Latin; gloria – “boasting”) – it is the vanity of conquest, strength, daring, aggression, domination. It is the vanity of rage that makes Achilles drag Hector’s body after his chariot; the vanity that takes pride in humiliating and belittling others. If appreciation can be harvested, this is what the heroic vanity does, it consumes it, sucks it up: it is in no form reciprocal or returned to the audience (as opposed to charisma which make the audience see and hear themselves in their idol)

The heroic vanity is a traditional masculine form of vanity and connected to the collectively reinforced experience of “manhood.” It is a vanity which is deeply aware of hierarchies of power and the behavior which produces and possibly undermines “manhood.” The exposure of manly ideals of strength, productivity, independence and courage are essential as these are the properties that produce the manly “deed.”

The heroic vanity is frail however, as it can easily be undermined by reliance and dependence on others, and its worst enemy is ridicule as it effectively tears down the authority of the deed. As the heroic vanity is socialized in groups of peers, there is a continuous battle over being the Alfa-hero in the group, “daring” others to test boundaries and engage in behaviors that distinguish the group from others (competition, posturing, violence, etc).

This produces a deep fear of ridicule and anything which may threaten the currency of “manhood,” but also more indirect sources of weakness, such as being taken advantage of or being exposed and rejected (or worse, both at the same time!) Male vanity is boasting while also paranoid and hypervigilant, screening peers and surroundings for threats.

The heroic type of vanity has traditionally been socialized as a masculine gender role, but it also reproduces inexpressible loneliness for many men through a cultured denial of an emotional education to men. To expose a need for intimacy or closeness is a form of surrender. Even to admit a “deeper” emotional life is a competition with peers, where excess and having the best or most “profound” sentiment is a diving competition into the abyss of the suffering soul, which still leaves no chinks in the armor, even as the hero sinks like a stone.

In this heroic vanity, conquest and domination is high in currency, and it would be shameful and a sign of weakness to admit one needs intimacy. Even acknowledging love is more a form of transaction (who called first) than a surrender to emotions or the possibility of being rejected. However, it is not shameful to admit you need sex — so sexual heroism is something one can boast of (which makes impotence the most frightening fate for the hero, on both a biological and metaphorical level).

The opposite of the heroic vanity is intimate vanity. The intimate vanity is a need for affection, for closeness and it by essence reveals frailty and weakness. It is a vanity in need for care and by such, it is an acknowledgement of impotence and powerlessness. It is a cry for for support from a position of dependence. A vanity in need of a breast or shoulder to cry on. A need for an uncompromised affection, a hunger for love. By essence it is the deep need and dependence of the newborn baby.

The masculine hero is not scared of vanity, but of intimacy, a form of affection that is weak and intimacy is a form of surrender. Intimacy is an affection that may reveal something deeper (perhaps the uncultured abyss that is the emotional life of the hero).

Could we say a common dress practice amongst men is a form of heroic vanity: the suit, the jeans and hoodie, perhaps also the hipster and normcore – ironic posturing as they may be. It is a vanity that may seek modest recognition, but never risking revealing anything intimate about their aspirations. At its best, it is a conquering style, a style drawing some attention, but never for its daring in expressing more than affirming social norms.

The intimate vanity is more revealing, more at risk. It tests reactions and tries to care for others. Can there be such fashion?

(is fashion per definition alexithymic? Alexithymia is the inability to identify and describe emotions in the self. The core characteristics of alexithymia are marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating..)

The Parasite: Between Narcissist and Echoist

In its everyday use, narcissism is not all too good trait. The ego-centric and selfish person that lie, cheat, manipulate, and with his ot her emptiness becomes like a black hole that sucks the energy from peers and admirers, a trait Kristin Dombek has described in her The Selfishness of Others (2016). Their energy may seem charming at first, but it is because their energy is sucked from others. Narcissism is a form of vampirism, as Dombek point out, and at its worst it is a trait that turns to not only neglect others but actively hurting or even killing them.

When we look at artistic narcissists we often see creators, we think of the ego-centric original artist, the genius which radiates of expressive force. But following Dombek’s discussion, this energy always originates in theft and is sucked into the black hole that is the soul of the narcissist.

Psychologist Craig Malkin has popularized a scale of narcissism, as he follows a trail of psychologists who argue that a little bit of narcissism must exist in order to form a sense of self (Malkin 2015). In excess, the narcissist is harmful, both to self and others, but too little narcissism produces a condition which denies the self any form, a condition Malkin calls “echoism,”

“The less people feel special, the more self-effacing they become until, at last, they have so little sense of self they feel worthless and impotent. I call these people echoists” (Malkin 2015: 11)

But the scale is not a mark of essentialism – the time and context makes the self fluctuate along the continuum between narcissism and echoism. Some times we are in need of recognition and our peers support this temporal condition; they boost us before a job interview, or take care of us when we are sick, cuddling our egos they would not accept otherwise (2015: 12). Similarly, we may adjust to a new environment by tuning down the ego and try to blend in, or abate our level of social ambition. And as Malkin highlights, not all narcissists are expressively arrogant, but may be shy and withdrawn, yet still need others to see and recognize them in order to build their self-esteem. But like other traits echoism and narcissism have a tendency to turn into habits, depending on the circumstances and feedback, and can turn into more permanent features of the person.

As the level of narcissism grows in the subject, supported by the environment, the social dynamics of selfishness can grow perverted, turning into abusive demand of recognition and domination. In this way Dombek’s perspective resonates well with psychiatrist Marie-France Hirigoyen’s idea that a narcissist’s life “consists in searching for his reflection in the gaze of others,” a search that can take very abusive form (Hirigoyen 2005: 126). This becomes a perverted or reversed narcissism, as the abuser is not only self-centered, but also takes pleasure in domination and assault of others. The perverted narcissist grows the ego by humiliating others, undermining the victim’s self, and the abuse often escalates in cycles of isolation, rejection, invalidation, discreditation, in order to destroy the victim. This is the abusive narcissist, the “asymptomatic psychotics who find their equilibrium by discharging onto another person the pain they can’t feel and the internal conflicts they refuse to acknowledge. They do wrong, because they can’t exist any other way.” (Hirigoyen 2005: 143)

The rise of consumerism and social media may coincide with what Twenge has diagnosed as the “narcissism epidemic” (2009) where a focus on the self has turned up the volume of pop-existentialism into fully individualist projects of psycho-profit-maximizing subjects, feeling entitled to exclusive VIP treatment at every occasion.

But a question for a psychopolitical examination of fashion is the ambiguous relationship between echoism and narcissism and the continuous negotiation between the two poles in social relations. And perhaps paradoxically, both the echoist and narcissist can be seen as vampires as they both “steal” from their surrounding, or act as “parasites” in Michel Serres’ sense: they trade asymmetrically in social energy. The echoist copies others, “stealing looks” in the mimetic sense, while the narcissist lives on the attention of others, “stealing looks” in the sense of taking their attention. This is the magnetic energy of the narcissist, the celebrity we adore, the beautifully radiating ego “we cannot take our eyes of” – the charisma that makes us feel alive by adoring others.

It must come to this; fashion is always a form of parasitism. Fashion is always a “stolen look.”


Dombek, Kristin (2016) The Selfishness of Others, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Hirigoyen, Marie France (2005) Stalking the Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity, New York: Helen Marx

Malkin, Craig (2015) Rethinking Narcissism, New York: Harper

Serres, Michel (2007) The parasite, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Twenge, Jean & Keith Campbell (2009) The narcissism epidemic: living in the age of entitlement, New York: Free Press

A short note on Sovereign Vanity

Vanity is one of the many paradoxes that cuts through fashion; that in order to be myself I need to take good care of what other’s think of me. Indeed, I feel myself better the more others see and acknowledge me. It is easy to think this is a matter of simply being liked, and have many friends that treat you kindly.

But no. In fashion, this attitude takes on other expressions. If we look at the models on the catwalk, the advertisements, or the characters of the gossip columns, it is another form of vanity that emerges; the immodest pride, sneer, despise and superiority. It is arrogance in its most attractive form. And we love it.

We may think a narcissist is vain, but as Simon Blackburn posits in Mirror Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love (2014), the narcissist does not care about the opinion of others, even though he may cherish their gaze. He does not seek the approval of his social world, but is self-absorbed. In the end of the Greek tale, Narcissus fades away, only hearing the echo of his self-love. To the narcissist there exists no society, Blackburn posits, and greed is good, “Because you’re worth it!” as the L’Oreal advert goes (Blackburn 2014: x). And Blackburn continues, the advert reveals something deeper about our fascination with narcissism and praise of vanity,

“if occasionally [the models] looked pleasantly human, at least as often they seem to project self-absorption, or arrogance and disdain. They bestow the kind of smile that might be a sneer. They pout and sulk. Their vanity and indifference goes with being above us all, and perhaps knowing that they can call up our adulation and worship at will. The personae in the advertisements are simply out of reach. They do not care what we think of them. Like Narcissus, they appear to live in a world of their own, enclosed in their own self-love. Unsurprisingly, the models calculated to inflame our desires lure us with youth and beauty, and it is relatively easy to see that those are desirable features. We envy those who are handsome or beautiful, graceful, well-proportioned, symmetrical, glowing with youth and health.” (Blackburn 2014: 44f)

The vain person, on the other hand, is dependent on the opinions of others, seeks approval, and lives in the eyes of others, not only oneself, like the narcissist.

This brings us to the paradox of vanity in fashion. We know we are dependent on others, and fashion is an interface which seeks the approval of others while it marks aspiration and distinction. Indeed, fashion is by its very nature social and heteronomous, yet we sneer at this dependency and fashion promotes its denial. This dynamic tension is at the heart of fashion – it promises independence in a realm which is explicitly contingent on the affirmation of our peers.

This tension is also something fashion media plays with,  and the icy expression of models plays its part, as Blackburn notices,

“[the model] need not smile at us-indeed, to promote this kind of illusion, she must not smile at us-because that would be a gesture of recognition and reciprocity, and the fantasy she is inducing is one in which there is no commerce with people like ourselves. By buying the produce, the promise whispers, we can transcend our everyday dependencies on one another and rise to join the royalty ans the gods, a higher place where we too can afford to ignore the herds below.” (Blackburn 2014: 46)

Fashion sells an asymmetry, a promise of aesthetic sovereignty: if I am popular and have status, I do not need to give anything back, yet others will adore me. This is a special form of social and aesthetic sovereignty, the sneering affirmation of the pedestal; you must recognize me, while I don’t need to recognize you.

But paradoxically, I would not think it simply a matter of domination or the thrill of feeling superior. Fashion is more complex than that, and it is more seductive than mere violence. Instead, this aesthetic sovereignty may resonate with Bataille’s production of sovereignty through the acts and rituals of expenditure which dissolves the self into a an intensity of unity. This may be the “oceanic” feeling of fashion: of being seen in a way that transcends boundaries, expanding the self (as discussed earlier).

The aesthetic sovereignty and vanity in fashion is not a property, but an ever-intensifying hunger for connection; impossible, unrealizable. It is the physical intensity of affirmative bodily pleasures, the ecstasy of existing in others. As Bataille writes, “Sovereignty is the object which eludes us all, which nobody has seized and which nobody can seize for this reason: we cannot possess it, like an object, but we are doomed to seek it.” (2012: 193f)



Bataille, George (2012) Literature and Evil, London: Penguin classics

Blackburn, Simon (2014) Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Fashion as self-expansion

When wearing a new special garment, and being seen and getting a compliment, what is that feeling about? The rush of dopamine, the feeling of “being on top of the world?” Or even just the feeling of “fitting in” – of becoming one with a scene or a group?

Partly such experiences may explain the kick the consumer gets from new purchase, or just in the preparation for a date. The feeling of expansion, of a new world being available to oneself. An entry ticket to a new world, or even that the garment is the very vehicle for such journey towards self-expansion.

The self-expansion model in psychology argues that the primary motivation for humans is to self expand, the desire to enhance our individual potential to affect or be affected. We may seek assets, goods and resources, but motivations for such goals become secondary concern, it is their instrumental use for self-expansion that explains their value because the “fundamental human motivation [is] to enhance potential self efficacy.”(Aron & Aron 1986) With skills and useful information, friendships and social status, power and popularity – all potentials for expanding the affectual sphere of influence.

A fundamental way to achieve self-expansion is with an inclusion of others in the self. A classic example may be a new romantic relationship where the newness and sense of development is the way the new company expands your world. New routines, new eyes and comments on everyday things, and a personal sense of growth, not only from affection, but from moving in novel ways through the everyday.

This is what the Self Expansion Model of Aron & Aron (1986) suggests; that interpersonal relationship goes beyond seeking to fulfill basic survival requirements to include motivation and cognition of self development and interpersonal love. With this emphases, they merge models of Western motivation (often individually focused) with Eastern views of self-development through interpersonal love. Or perhaps a Nietzschean “will to power” but in a more caring relationship.

In the theories of Aron and Aron a close relationship usually begins with a perceived overlap between two selfs: common interests, values and/or ideas, or a sense of one self becoming included into the other. But there is also a sense of augmentation, where the affects of the not only feeds into the ego, but opens new venues for it, making new resources and avenues available. This sense of growth leads to the belief that the two worlds are now connected, a new world is included in the self, which forms the foundational and powerful experience of the dyadic relationship. Expansion is the experience which also intersects with wider social emotions, such as social support, self esteem from admiration, and construction of in-group identity, and even a sense of belonging (a sense of having grown to “fit” into a place.)

With a partner of a long time, the self is more cognitively integrated than with a non-close other; affecting perception and cognitive structures, but also the sense of possibility. For example an individual may feel more competent, taking on new tasks, knowing that the partner can help facilitate the process or fill in with needed knowledge, “I can complete [this task] because my partner will tell me how” (Reimann & Aron 2009: 68).

Riemann and Aron (2009) expands the model to also include the use of brands a way to experience self-expansion. Expanding on the original self-expansion model, they argue the “inclusion of other in the self” (IOS) could be transferred into a brand context to become “inclusion of the brand in the self” (IBS) (Reimann & Aron 2009: 74). In Reimann and Aron’s findings, after a successful identification process with the brand, the subject start to make choices that reflect an inflection between brand and self, where the subject may start behaving in alignment with the characteristics associated with the brand, thus merging the interests of the subject with those of the brand.

It might be possible to say fashion is, like the brand on Reimann and Aron’s study, a vehicle for self-expansion and an opening to new sensibilities and affects. The quality of fashion is that of the timing to the zeitgeist which makes some garments “just right” at the moment, they are attractor points of the right kind of attention, the right kind of status alignments: they are vehicles to the right worlds we want our affects to expand into.

But, when we see others expand their cognitive world and self, while we remain enclosed in our own little habitual ponds, is that not the greatest source of envy? We see them grow, see their esteem expand and they radiate from confidence and success, and we all love to have them close. We love to imagine being their friends.

And similarly, could it be said that the self-expansion also could happen with a darker purpose: the self-expansion that happens as groups rally against the scapegoat or bully victim, or in the emotional vandalism when we try to downranking the status of our unacknowledged idol. The rush now comes from a type of expansion that is trespassing and intruding on the world of another, or at the cost of another. We feel entitled to something more, w e see “everyone else” get what “they deserve” – while we are left in resentment a,d we would just love to shame them, displace their status and rally bad affects to undermine our rivals (or the scapegoat). Perhaps that is also a form of self-expansion, at least an emotional one, emerging purely from our own sense of inferiority, but nevertheless ravishing in the destruction of another.


Aron, Arthur & Elaine Aron (1986) Love and the expansion of self: Understanding attraction and satisfaction. New York: Harper & Row

Aron, Arthur & Elaine Aron (1996) “Self and self expansion in relationships” in Garth Fletcher and Julie Fitness (eds.), Knowledge structures in close relationships: A social psychological approach, Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (pp. 325-344)

Aron, Arthur & Elaine Aron (1997) “Self-expansion motivation and including other in the self,” in Steve Duck (ed.), Handbook of personal relationships, Chichester, UK: Wiley (pp. 251–270)

Reimann, Martin & Arthur Aron (2009) “Self-expansion motivation and inclusion of brands in self.” in Deborah MacInnis, Whan Park & Joseph Priester (eds) Handbook of brand relationships, Armonk: M.E. Sharpe. (pp. 65-81)

Reimann, M., Castano, R., Zaichkowsky, J., & Bechara, A. (2012) “How we relate to brands: Psychological and neuropsychological insights into consumer-brand relationships.” Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22, 128-142.

Fashion, and the disease of desire

The essential dynamics of fashion are of rivalry. Identity is formed in relation to others and has little to do with some mystical “inner” qualities of self. And we all know thinness is a central component of fashion, to be thin is not only an aesthetic quality, but also regarded as a sign of “wellness” and self-control, that one “cares for oneself” making one’s health a project intertwined with personal branding, as it says: “I embody aesthetic sovereignty.”

In Rene Girard’s perspective on desire, expressed in his book Anorexia and Mimetic Desire (Michigan State Uni Press, 2013), “every desire springs from rivalry, every rivalry from desire” (vii), and he argues our understandings of bulimia and anorexia have thus far been misconceived as a sickness of the victim’s mind. Girard, on the other hand, interpret the condition as a “disease of desire” that needs to be freed from psychoanalytic interpretations, or as a form of “madness,” to instead understand the pathology as a result of rivalry and desire. Jean-Michel Oughourlian sums up Girard’s ideas as a rivalry

“with one’s body, one’s needs, in order to achieve self-control, domination over oneself. Anorexia is therefore both a personal challenge and a form of asceticism. But it is also a rivalry with others, a struggle for power: the anorexic very quickly becomes the center of family attention[…] Appeal to a recognized “authority,” the physician, formalizes the defeat and surrender of the anorexic’s parents and introduces her to another, more formidable rival. Anorexia therefore confers power, enabling a person who refuses to eat to triumph over her family. In this sense, it is a kind of terrorism: the anorexic takes herself hostage and bends everyone to her will.” (x-xi)

Stemming from a sense of powerlessness, anorexia gives back control, and is drawn into a competitive and mimetic desire with one’s equals, one’s peers, and from such grounding, into a scale of society. As a form of inverted Potlatch, the biggest loser is the biggest winner, and a conspicuous non-consumption goes hand in hand with the urge to make others consume, claiming he coveted position of the victim, while still regaining control over the condition.

“The compulsive dieters really want to be thin, and most of us are secretly aware of this because most of us also want to be thin. […] The capitalist system if clever enough, no doubt, to adjust to the rage for thinness and it invents all sorts of products supposedly capable of helping us in our battle against calories, but its own instinct runs the other way. It systematically favors consumption over abstinence, and it certainly did not invent our dieting hysteria.” (5f)

We revive New Years resolutions to become “mild bulimics” in order to feel in control again, and to “experience a psychological lift not unlike the exhilaration of the true anorexic.” (7)

Anorexia shares with fashion not only an ideal of thinness, but an idea of aesthetic self-control; that the subject has full control in forming the self according to an inner vision of what is considered desirable. Whereas fashion is the consumption, styling and shaping of the dressed self, anorexia is the sculpture of the body mannequin. As with a dedication to fashion, it centers on certain groups of people.

“Anorexia strikes the best and the brightest among our young women. The typical victim is well educated, talented, ambitious, eager for perfection. She is the super-achiever type and she knows she is playing by the rules suggested by the most powerful voices in our culture, including the medical profession.[…] She interprets all attempts to help her as envious conspiracies of people who would like to cheat her out of her painfully acquired victory, being unable to match it. She is proud to fulfill what is perhaps the one and only ideal still common in our entire society, slenderness.” (9)

As Girard suggests, most of us want to be slender, but few of us succeed in being anorexic. And like with fashion, the freedom of self-expression and self-formation comes at the price that their qualities are bound to rivalry. The anorexic’s “radical freedom is synonymous with her enslavement to the opinion of others.[…] To understand desire is to understand that its self-centeredness is indistinguishable from its other-centeredness.” (17)

“The stoics tell me that we should take refuge in ourselves, but our bulimic selves are uninhabitable, and that is what Augustine and Pascal discovered long ago. As long as we are not provided with a goal worthy of our emptiness we will copy the emptiness of others and constantly regenerate the hell from which we are trying to escape.” (17)

As with fashion, the anorexic condition balances a form of conspicuous expression of self, with a conspicuous non-consumption, to show that one stands above the simple consumerism of others. Just like ideals mixing cheap and expensive, luxury with poverty, “an ostentatious rejection of ostentation.”

“The message is: “I am beyond a certain type of consumption. I cultivate more esoteric pleasures than the crowd.” To abstain voluntarily from something, no matter what, is the ultimate demonstration that one is superior to that something and to those who covet it.” (22)

The real prestige and popularity that comes from fashion lies in the careful curation of superiority: to prove oneself above the desires of the pitiful “victims” of fashion. To have true style is to prove one stands above the merely imitative qualities of fashion: one is a true “self” by overcoming the desires of the self, that is, the desires to please others. And one does so only be becoming superior, as with an apparent indifference to wealth, the real purpose is always prestige. “We have identified the enemy and he is us.” (25)

As in styles like “norm core” or other hipster expressions, the ironic element is always a safety went for the coward. Behind a mask of indifference, the nervous self is ashamed of his or her envy of others. As Girard posits, “there is nothing worse than letting others see that you want to impress them” (51), and expressing such indifference is a tool by which we try to gain a putative proof of superiority.

It’s at the heart of fashion; at any cost, we want to be admired.