Fashion, Flirting, and Biosocial Growth
“Everybody’s got the fever,
That is something you all know,
Fever isn’t such a new thing,
Fever started long ago.”
Elvis Presley, “Fever”
It may seem obvious that the best way to challenge today’s accelerated and unfettered consumerism is with frugality and calls for more lasting experiences—for example, through ‘slow fashion’. However, this ascetic response of austerity and self-denial seems at odds with the more passionate connections of dress and desire. It seems reasonable to aim for lasting and emotionally durable designs. Yet as with our passions and love in general, making emotions last is no easy thing. Or rather, it seems almost natural that suffering can be lasting and chronic, however unwanted (such as depressions), yet euphoria and bliss can only exist as ephemeral waves of elation. By definition, passions appear unsustainable and unquenchable.
Perhaps we must approach fashion differently if we are to make it sustainable. Our first question must be what it is we want to sustain in the current phenomenon of fashion. What do we want to sustain? Or to perhaps put it more poignantly: what do we want to save in fashion, since we have to give up the current model of consumerism in order to sustain life on our planet?
Some ascetics would argue that we technically don’t need fashion to survive. Fashion is, after all, a problem of aesthetic abundance. To even spend time thinking of fashion is a form of luxury and excess. But at the same time, our culture is saturated by unnecessary and unsustainable practices—not least the arts, which is drowning in its own wastefulness. The whole aesthetic sensorium of life itself seems dependent on squandering, from the continuous production of flowers and beauty in the realm of nature, to the human fabrication of new paintings and novels. I myself often revel in the needless multiplication of new love songs, these ceaseless loops of desires, passions, heartaches, and longing, which seem to just feed entire radio stations with endlessly emotive hits.
With the help of love songs, I think we can approach one of the central paradoxes of fashion: every age needs its new looks, just like every generation needs its new love songs. Yes, classics have their place, and may even form the back bone of an aesthetic canon, but every passion is framed in its time, in its emotional Zeitgeist, attuned to the sensual landscape of the moment. We may fall in love to the soundtrack of classics, or at the opera, but our passions more likely burst their dams to the tunes of a certain moment. Indeed, if we look back at the pinnacles of our life’s passions, they may be swathed in the soundtracks of those special moments: love songs are accompanying interfaces to our most intimate moments, like radio waves connecting hearts in ways that language often fails. The love song is a space we enter together, where our desires meet, play, and excite our shared dreams. They are soundtracks to our sizzling passions.
And even if some of our most intimate moments in life may be sparsely clad, or perhaps enveloped in bedsheets rather than winter jackets, our passionate bodies are most often draped in clothes that in some way answer to the fashion of the time. These garments are, in a sense, also soundtracks to our passions. To understand fashion as an emotional phenomenon of deep interpersonal connection, we should perhaps not only look to mood boards and fashion magazines but turn the search towards our own bodies, desires, and emotional journeys. We must start to understand fashion from the emotive agency of the body, from the draped soundtracks of our burning desires.
Not unlike the passions of an emerging love affair, or the stirring emotions of the shared love song, when fashion works best, we feel it in our bodies. It may be a sense of excitement, allure, or arousal. Fashion is a passion, a sensibility of aesthetic desire, an ephemeral wave of pleasurable anticipation rushing through the body. It is sexually charged, but not necessarily in a narrow, genital sense. Fashion can trigger our erotic imagination, a stirring dream world, but as with sexual fantasies, this may include a wide variety of relationships, events, and scenarios that are not always explicit, nor speak to our more rational side. When fashion works on us, it changes our posture. We feel seen and on top of things. We expand emotionally, socially, and bodily, opening up our sensibilities to the world. We feel a plasmatic pulse of energy streaming along the spine and through our limbs. The eye contact, the affirmative comments and looks; it’s like a kick, and once you have experienced it, you cannot get enough. Yes, at its best, fashion is that thrill of appreciation and adoration and a surge of inflammable aliveness sweeping like a wave of pleasure through the body. In a way, it is the fever.
But like passions, our desires can be betrayed, our passions answered by silence, or even ridicule. Thus, when fashion does not work, we also feel it in our bodies. We feel the anxiety, humiliation, and shame that emanates from what is jokingly called a ‘wardrobe malfunction’. We may not pay attention to it a run-of-the-mill occasion or when we have no witnesses around, but like a numb limb or broken tool, we first recognize it in the moment of failure, we realize the agonizing effects of the clothed wound. The anxiety makes us cringe, our posture changes, we feel wounded, contract into a ball and try to escape from sight like a suffering animal. We may rationally know that looks do not matter, but the experience of social pain in a humiliating situation may be just too much to bear. Fashion connects not merely to our identity but to the emotional grounding of the body, the very core of our biological being. We desire the pleasures of an answered love, but we fear the exposure and pain of ridicule.
We are born free, but we are constantly held in chain stores. Through the dynamics of dressed pleasure and pain, most of us come to desire our velvet chains of safe conformity. Exposing our passions too publicly feels unsafe and we become anxious when putting our appearance at risk. Whereas some garments come to feel like a safe haven from unwanted attention and comments, other garments help us take social risks, to engage and move socially and emotionally. Such garments help us reach out and touch our social surrounding. On such occasions, we may feel more alive than usual, as people respond to our appearance, and we can feel the touch of their perception, their eyes on us. However, the same looks may feel uncomfortable when it happens in the wrong setting or from an unwanted source. In some instances, it may even be an attention tainted by fear.
In order to unpack these clashing desires of fashion, we could approach it from a biosocial perspective, where the emotions of the body are tightly coupled to the affective dynamics of the social realm. The biosocial perspective on fashion in this essay primarily emerges from the works of psychoanalyst, political theorist, biologist, and natural scientist Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957). Reich’s ideas offer a twofold approach to fashion that helps capture two central dynamics in the emotional experience of everyday fashion. On the one hand, it helps see how the emotions of fashion are moving the body as a biosocial energy, how we feel fashion as an allure and pleasure (or promise of pleasure). On the other hand, because of its anchoring in the body, we may also become anxious of the emotions evoked by fashion, to fear the judgments and responses of others, which in turn draw us towards authorities. Even if Reich’s original ideas do not touch on fashion specifically, his analytical framework combines embodiment and psychology with sociological and political theory, thus coupling politics and emotions. In order to enrich Reich’s perspective, other theorists will also become relevant as fashion is unpacked as a biosocial phenomenon, straddled between the embodied sensations of pleasure and pain, arousal and anxiety, allure and predation.
Reich began as a physician and psychoanalyst and was considered one of Sigmund Freud’s most talented but controversial students. Reich was immediately captured by Freud’s ideas of the libido as a “motor force of sexual life,” an “electrical field,” a “quantitative energy,” and “something which is capable of increase, decrease, displacement and discharge, and which extends itself over the memory traces of an idea like an electric charge over the surface of the body” (Freud 577). Yet Reich draws his own conclusions around this sexual energy of the body to open new vistas of thought and practice in the biosocial realm. Firmly grounding his theory in biology, Reich explores whether the libido is no metaphor but in fact a material form of bioelectrical current, streaming through the body in a process he called ‘energetic functionalism’. This focus on the biology of the body makes Reich one of the early innovators of psychosomatic therapy, connecting the body to its social environment, in its cultural, sexual, and socio-economic context and conditions, thus merging the biosocial realm with political theory.
Reich develops the idea of the streaming of the libido to describe a biosocial “sexual economy”, or “energy household” of the organism, in which energy is excited and flows through the body or is regulated by contracted muscles or inhibitions. He comes to call this bioelectrical energy ‘orgone’, primarily because Reich sees this energy capable of charging organic, non-conducting (insulating) substances (The Function of the Orgasm 340f). Similarly, it is specifically the movement and direction of energy, its streaming and pulsating tendencies, that makes Reich see these flows as the fundamental drivers of emotion and health.
In a healthy person’s body, the energy flows and pulsates freely. But some people are “armored”, with inadequate circulation of energy. The flow of emotion is held back. This ‘armouring’ results in muscles binding the energy, making it stagnate. The binding corresponds between body and mind: a rigid body ties to a strict character. Such character is not only prone to neurotic disorders but also to fear of spontaneity, life, and freedom. Under a regime of authoritarian family and repressive social institutions, this fear of one’s own life energy makes people irrational and draws them to authorities and leaders. Armoured people are uncomfortable with the streaming sensations of the energy throughout their bodies, as it evokes a loss of control. They fear what others may think of them. Similarly, they also feel uncomfortable together with more spontaneous and free-minded spirits, who are looked upon as a threatening other, someone who threatens the order of things. To Reich, it is this fear of what others may think that is the foundation of the dilemma that, “man is born free, yet he goes through life a slave” (An Introduction to Orgonomy 467; original emphasis). The judgment of others and the avoidance of emotional self-knowledge keeps people fearful of the emotions streaming through their animal bodies. Trapped in their bodies while living in their heads, fear of life and spontaneity ensnares them to their habits. The only way to mitigate the trap of this “emotional plague” is to challenge the everyday repressive anxieties and find therapy that unlocks the muscular binding of the plasmatic energy of the body.
From a Reichian perspective, the human animal shares its basic functional characteristics with very simple organisms. Even if humans live and experience much of their life through the lens of culture, the basis of our being is highly organic and animalistic. Consequently, as organic beings, we share the same biological functions as our primitive relatives. We are basically jellyfish, pulsating with organic life, from the single cell all the way up to the complexity of our whole bodies. Rhythms of plasmatic excitation resonate throughout our bodies, from the heartbeat and pumping of blood, to breathing and digestion, sleep, metabolic and menstruation cycles, all the way to the cycle of a lifetime itself. The organic life of the protoplasm is the “morphological forerunner” and is echoed in the function of the human autonomous nervous system (The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety 56). The autonomous nervous system “merely carries on, in an organized manner, a function which already exists in principle in animals without nervous systems; i.e., the function of plasma movement, hydration and dehydration, contraction and expansion, tension and relaxation” (The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety 58; original emphasis). At the basis of these plasmatic movement in the protoplasm, Reich traces the foundations of emotion. As Reich points out, “literally defined, the word ‘emotion’ means ‘moving outwards’ or ‘pushing out’” (An Introduction to Orgonomy 137).
Emotional sensation also echoes through the protoplasm, as in the “inner stirrings” of music (An Introduction to Orgonomy 140) or the frissons of excitation, and is, as such, beyond words or rational communication. But an important component of Reich’s perspective is how the emotions of the body expand outwards into the world, beyond the boundaries of the organism. Emotions are plasmatic pressures in the organism. Reich points out how many languages reflect this, for example in the German word Ausdruck and the English equivalent ‘expression’ (outward-pressure), as the language of the living organism; “the living organism expresses itself in movements; we therefore speak of ‘expressive movements.’ Expressive movement is an inherent characteristic of the protoplasm.” (An Introduction to Orgonomy 141; original emphasis) If we think of fashion as an ‘ex-pression’, it is felt as an emotional pressure, a stirring of the plasmatic core of our being.
The plasmatic motility does not happen in isolation but is coupled with other organisms. Emotional movements of organisms affect each other, their sensorium membranes touch and relay plasmatic movements between each other, like waves throughout the social plasma. The protoplasmic movement, or ‘ex-pressure’, expands into the sensorium of another organism that thus transfers the wave to the next. An example can be the sensing of danger: “the panic reaction in the animal kingdom is based on an involuntary reproduction of the movement expressive of anxiety” (An Introduction to Orgonomy 143). Such expressions “bring about an imitation in our own organism” (An Introduction to Orgonomy 144; original emphasis). As a result, emotional affects and imitations are physical expressions in the organism—not conscious thought patterns—that are anchored in the depths of the organism: “the living organism functions autonomously, beyond the sphere of language, intellect, and volition” (An Introduction to Orgonomy 147; original emphasis). The main body of emotional functioning and social expressions are thus non-conscious, or “supra-personal” (An Introduction to Orgonomy 149). In relation to current discussions around ‘mirror neurons’, Reich saw material and embodied component in biosocial imitative behaviours. Our emotional life is therefore governed by excitation waves and “biological energy is being transmitted in these wave movements” (An Introduction to Orgonomy 154; original emphasis).
As with the “inner stirrings” evoked by music, an analogy between fashion and music is not far fetched—in fashion, there are trends and recurrent themes in music styles. The anticipation of new rhythms, tunes, and sounds excites people, producing an endless desire for new songs and artists. On a very material level, the pulsations of music also have the ability to break the isolation between individuals—doomed by their membranes to remain distinct from each other—and dancing is the recurrent playground of passion and flirting. Rhythms echo between the organic plasma of bodies, making peers move to the same beat, even if separated. It is music that brings them together in an undeniable unity, deeper than what language can bring about: their bodies pulsate together while separate. It is this sense of unity that also brings about a micro-utopian state between musicians, listeners, and dancers. Fashion, like music, leaves a sense of discharge, exhaustion, relaxation, and, in the end, a sense of haunting loss.
A Reich-inspired perspective opens some exciting avenues of thought in relation to fashion. Firstly, we can radically rethink fashion as energy, and secondly, the social phenomenon of fashion is the transmission of this energy. Like orgone, this energy can change organic (insulating) materials, such as everyday clothing, and it is essentially connecting waves of social excitation with plasmatic movements in the body—that is, conveying fashion into passion. A new look or aesthetic expression sweeps across the social field like a wave of an energetic force, moving all affected bodies floating on the surface of enclothed sensibility, transmitting this force into plasmatic motility. A new fashion is, indeed, a contagious passion that spreads like wild fire: neurons firing from the seductive energy of allure and arousal; new sensibilities matched with new looks; a network of bodies ready for new dopamine charges. Passion is an energy that pulsates through the body awakening the emotional sensorium. But passion is also erotic, that is, a force of imagination, a vitalization of desire and anticipation. It is a process defined by movement, as fashion never is, it is always becoming (Simmel). Thus, fashion is a wave of anticipation, a connection, a sense of frisson. We use fashion to dream up a world of becoming, and even if not always eroticized, it builds suspense and expectations—a becoming as a process, pointing to pleasure and the arousing ascent towards coming.
Applying Reich’s perspective of biosocial energy and plasmatic motility to the realm of fashion would rearrange the spatial configuration of agency and action within the everyday realm of fashion. The locus of fashion is not in the ‘system’ or in the ‘industry’, even if these are its commoditized vectors (that is, the channels or infrastructure through which most of the energy is fashion transmitted). Instead of being out there, in the system, an energetic perspective puts the locus of fashion in the body, in the plasmatic flows of energy rushing our excitement when our cognition is attuned to the expression and allure of another peer, or the ‘object’ of our cognition. Fashion streams inside and between organisms in the excitation of emotional and plasmatic movements.
This means fashion does not happen in isolation. It is fundamentally a social phenomenon, a pulsation of energies coupling two bodies together. Fashion is a form of flirting. Enacted socially, it grabs attention and holds it: you know fashion works when you can’t tear your eyes off its wearer. This attention excites and affirms the other, radiates a sense of attractiveness, sends a pulse of affection and pleasure. It is a co-creation between two people, an exchange of looks, of mutual recognition and allure. At its best, fashion connects two people; it ties their attention together to form an emotional charge of attentive togetherness. There is such a thing as a biosexual “sexual aura” or “sex appeal”, which Reich sees as “the contact of two fields of orgonotic excitation” (The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety 7). It is two aroused plasmatic systems pulsating together in mutual energy exchange, growing and expanding together.
Flirting in this sense should not be limited to the narrow experience leading up to sexual intercourse, but a much wider array of emotionally changed practices connecting the living bodies of organisms. Flirting is a series of practices, behaviours, and rituals capturing the attention of a peer, drawing their sensory apparatus into an intimate world, inviting them to attune their sensations to each other in order to share an experience of anticipation. Flirting is a space of connection in which passions are entwined; it is here fashion takes place.
If I have dressed up and I feel at my best, I build up an excitation in the body, a willingness to be seen and be judged by my looks. Through my dressed sensorium, I reach out into the world and seek to touch the attention of others. Then, if someone gives me an affirming look or acknowledgement, I feel a rush of excitement, a release of tension, and pleasure rushes through my body. A passage has been opened between us. A build-up of excitation and then a wave of affirmation surges through my nerves from being seen and acknowledged. My neurons fire, dopamine rushes: I feel a sense of life affirmation, alive in my body in the most positive sense. When I experience this, I realize fashion is not a thing, it is not bound to clothes or goods, but it is a place you go, an emotional space you enter inside yourself and another. Fashion is a pleasure, a feeling of growth in between bodies as their emotional sensorium reach out, touch, play, and embrace. As with flirting, this emotion can be cultivated and shared abundantly as the important erotic endorsement it is.
Coming back to the homology of fashion and music, we see how sound waves and beats make people move in unison while they stay separate. The love song frames our desires, as we are alone together, or together while alone. Music as well as fashion can be used in marching tunes as much as in soothing lullabies. But music can also help us imagine waves of sustainable forms of togetherness, like the never-ending cycle of new songs that pollute the airwaves and our attention but do not destroy the planet through environmental disasters. Perhaps loving forms of fashion can be like love songs. And there is a continuous need for new love songs. Each new generation needs their new love songs, and the repertoire is endless, just like the wide spectrum of anticipation, eroticism, intimacy, and disappointments of love. Indeed, perhaps we also need to reframe our work around fashion as love songs rather than collections, accessories, or aesthetic statements. Perhaps we can paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari, who argue:
Psychoanalysis ought to be a song of life, or else be worth nothing at all. It ought, practically, to teach us to sing life. And see how the most defeated, sad song of death emanates from it: eiapopeia. From the start, and because of his stubborn dualism of the drives, Freud never stopped trying to limit the discovery of a subjective or vital essence of desire as libido. But when the dualism passed into a death instinct against Eros, this was no longer a simple limitation, it was a liquidation of the libido. Reich did not go wrong here, and was perhaps the only one to maintain that the product of analysis should be a free and joyous person, a carrier of the life flows, capable of carrying them all the way into the desert and decoding them… (331)
In a similar vein, the task is never to ‘save’ fashion from consumerism or emotional armouring, and is not even to save it from itself, but rather to ask how fashion can be closer to the wellsprings of life and desire, how fashion can be a joyous love song to life, a flirting with the cosmos unchecked by anxiety and fear. Reich’s endeavour echoes throughout this search. Or paraphrasing Robert Smith (lead singer of The Cure), at its best, just like a love song, fashion can make me feel like I am free again, like I am clean again, like I am young again, like I am fun again.
Like the superabundance of emotions flowing between anticipating mates, the plenitude of love songs marks the relentless desires aching in organic bodies. It is the enigma of love, to which we owe our being. By exploring the emotional grounding of fashion and its vital affects, we may shift the locus of fashion from sustaining the ‘system’ to focusing instead on the passions of togetherness. In togetherness, we can work towards making fashion a crucial democratic science, cultivating mutual ways of attraction in ways that will serve the many rather than the few.
It’s a passion. Call it fever, or call it fashion: oh, what a lovely way to burn.
Note: This text is a reworked version of the first chapter of Vital Vogue: A Biosocial Perspective on Fashion (Selfpassage, 2018). The text has been changed to add emphasis on the love song as a medium to understand the connection between fashion and sensuality from a Reichian perspective.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus. University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
Freud, Sigmund. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex. In The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud,
edited by A.A. Brill, Random House, 1938.
Reich, Wilhelm. The Function of the Orgasm. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.
Reich, Wilhelm. Selected Writings: An Introduction to Orgonomy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.
Reich, Wilhelm. The Bioelectrical Investigation of Sexuality and Anxiety. Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
Simmel, Georg. “Fashion.” American Journal of Sociology vol. 62, no. 6, 1957, pp. 541-558.