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

Status and Exclusion

An easy way to define fashion is to use journalist Susanne Pagoda’s phrase “Fashion is to dress like everyone else, but before everyone else.” Fashion is social and mimetic, and is also a matter of temporal exclusivity. To be among the first is fashion, it increases status, and with enough status one can become part of an elite. Fashion and elitism are not the same, but often intertwined.

But to look like everyone else is not exclusive status, even if many come after you. You must stay in the elite, and to follow the old French etymology, “elite” means to chose and be chosen: to be an elite is not a passive position, but it is an activity. True exclusivity within fashion is “to dress like the elite, but before the elite.”

So how does one increase status to become and stay within the elite, and especially and elite within everyday fashion?

If we would follow Pagold’s definition, status is simply to be liked by everyone else, and this has been a common view within sociology: a person with a lot of connections, at the center of a large network, has many friends and a lot of status. But as Robert Faris (2012) argues, this is only partly true. Yes, a popular and well-connected person may have a “connective status” but this does not make the person part of the elite. Instead, to earn status it is better to have “bridging status”, that is, being a person that has connections through social barriers and keeps these bridges open only to a selected few. Connectivity is ok, exclusivity is better; it is in bridging “whereby nodes efficiently connect otherwise distal regions of networks.” (Faris 2012: 1208).

Not everyone can sit at the Master’s table

To be inviting and friendly with everyone does you some good, your may get a lot of “weak ties”, but being selective, exclusive and manipulative gains you more status. To Faris, these selective processes explains how “seemingly rational, ordinary people routinely engage in harassment, bullying, gossip, manipulation, ridicule, cliquishness, and ostracism” and also explains why people are not always sociable but strive to uphold networks through “reptuational aggression” (2012: 1207)

The exclusive status positions are those that can “bridge structural holes” (Burt 2009), that bridge over social barriers without undermining the exclusivity between the groups, that is, without letting in “non-elites” (which could undermine the status of one or both groups). “Elite status is maintained through selectivity, not connectivity, and by denying rather than accumulating friendships.” (Faris 2012: 1211) And as Faris points to, the elite bridge-builder maintains social barriers by the effective use of repetitional aggression,

“rejecting supplicants may increase the attractiveness of the exclusionary group. This is not to say that connections are without benefit, only that the relative costs and benefits shift toward selectivity in such settings. Actors who are able to efficiently bridge much of the network without an excessive number of ties arguably enjoy the benefits of centrality without the costs.” (Faris 2012: 1211)

Rejecting the connection to others must be central practice in maintaining status. And with the “wrong” friends, one may risk the exclusivity of one’s network, and often peers will remind or enforce restrictions. As social hierarchies are fluid, there is a continuous need to uphold their barriers and order. Repetitional aggression helps in the selection process, and also in rejecting unwanted social competition (which does not bridge to other elites). Repetitional aggression includes “verbal abuse, insults, threats, harassment, ostracism, gossip, manipulation” and their plights can be “exacerbated when perpetuators are anonymous” (2012: 1212). The many ways of rejecting unwanted connections increases the attractiveness of the exclusionary group: it is always a matter of bridging with the “right” people.

Faris argument is easily applied to the status games of fashion. The “right” people are not the friendliest with the most connections, but those who are highly selective and often act as “gatekeepers” to other social groups. The “right” people are those with ties to other exclusive groups, the ones who hang out with the other “right” people, who look like they do so, and prove it by dressing in the right stuff (before others do). The “cool” people must be hard to get to, and must be picky. And if we cannot offer them something they do not already have, we are bound to be rejected.

Or worse.


Burt, Ronald (2009) Structural holes: The social structure of competition, Cambridge: Harvard university press
Faris, Robert (2012) “Aggression, exclusivity, and status attainment in interpersonal networks.” Social Forces 90(4), pp.1207-1235.