The reading list for first-year students of fashion design at Kingston University includes The Fashioned Self by the anthropologist and sociologist Joanne Finkelstein. It is my fervent hope that none but those students whose interest in the subject is unshakable should ever chance to get their hands on a copy; the book’s arguments are presented with a devastatingly seductive logic and an authority that would persuade anyone else to abandon the profession without delay.
In the author’s words, It is the argument of this book that as long as we continue to value physical appearances, and sustain the enormous industries which trade on this value, namely, the consumer-orientated cosmetic, fashion and therapeutic industries, we authenticate a narrative of human character which is spurious.22 Finkelstein’s numerous objections to fashion and its industries are founded in her theory that the origins of our interest in appearances lie in the discredited field of physiognomy, with its claim that individual moral character and intellect can be revealed by physical characteristics.
She adheres to the view that fashion and ‘fashionability’ are devices whereby a complex modern society cynically regulates human exchange for economic motives, and argues that, by submitting ourselves to fashion with its claims to provide a means for self-expression, that we actually deny the self. The text returns several times to the idea that the manufactured or fashioned self invites appraisals which may be inaccurate, that fashion can be a disguise or pretence, that it can be ambiguous or even deceive.
This is presented as an undisputed indictment, even though the possibility of things not quite being what they appear is the very thing which appeals to those who delight in fashion. Like many who decry fashion, Finkelstein believes it to be a condition of capitalist societies.