The Seducer’s Diary: Fashion, Desire, and Psychoanalysis

Lucas Ballestín on the connections between the fashion industry and psychoanalysis, confronting why desire itself appears.

One of the few things that all human cultures share across space and time is that we all dress our bodies, or at least, are unwilling to wear them as they come. The concepts developed in the psychoanalytic clinic have been stretched to all manner of domains for culture: novels, television, film and theatre, video games. But, relatively speaking, psychoanalysis has demurred on fashion. But I would like to push against this inattention, and maybe it helps to give some reasons.

In every sense, fashion illustrates so many key features of our ambivalent relationship to our bodies and our selves: we like to emphasize certain features while hiding others, for example. But fashion is also about how we construct and display our personal identity and values, it is about consumption and capitalism, it is about race, it is about gender and it is about the making of self and other. It’s about sex. It is about appearance and reality. And while I suspect most theory will look on fashion as a hopelessly vapid consumption addled mania, I’d like to claim that this is even more reason to commit to studying it. For, in the end, everything we might seek to critique or dismiss in fashion is only an expression, if an exaggerated one, of ourselves. To start, I’d like to touch here on one specific connection: that between fashion and desire.

Following the footsteps of Rebecca Arnold, Alison Bancroft, and Laura Mulvey, I want to sketch this sketch through the lens of psychoanalysis – which allows us to theorize not just the desires and repulsions we’re aware of, but those that we are unaware of, powerless before, viscerally subjected to. How is it that particular garments, or a type of item can elicit our desire? How is it that maybe the most effective way to seduce with an aim to undress is precisely to cover our bodies up? I also want to get at the way we invest clothing with desire at an individual level but also how fashion as an industry relates to collective desire and imagination. How does the system of fashion produce and manage desire?

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Virginia Postrel, The Power of Glamour (2017)

One way to open this conversation here would be to think back to Virginia Postrel’s “Inarticulate Longings,” which described the connection between fashion and glamour. There Postrel paints glamour as a certain kind of unconscious longing for a desired object that, in fact, is just a physical representation for a much deeper need. This kind of picture can be better understood through the lens of psychoanalysis. To do that, I first want to give a brief taste of the psychoanalytic perspective on what desire is and how it works, especially at the unconscious level. How do we understand our attractions, repulsions, which can feel so visceral and irrational? Then I want to connect some of those more conceptual comments with fashion, with the hope of opening a conversation about how the fashion industry, as perhaps the paragon of late capitalism, produces restricts our unconscious desires.

So what can we say about desire from the perspective of psychoanalysis, what do psychoanalysts have to teach us about what desire is, how it works, and how we tend to relate to our own desire? The short answer is a lot, so I’m going to focus on just one idea: that desire is always desire for desire itself. (For those of you that are curious, this idea is stolen from Jacques Lacan).

What do human beings want, says this philosopher?

Lacan starts thinking about desire through some popular philosophers at the time who imagined that human beings are two things: 1. Haunted by a feeling of being not-enough, or out-of-joint with the world. Let’s call this the anthropology of disconnect. It’s because we have this sense of being badly fitted to the world, and not in control of ourselves, that we are haunted by an emptiness at the center of our being. Human beings are badly adapted to the world, we’re always missing something and therefore always desiring something-more, we are driven to look for things that we imagine will fill up that void that we sense deep inside ourselves. In other words, we can say that at a very basic level, human beings are desiring-subjects. What do human beings want, says this philosopher? Well, we want lots of things: food, sleep, comfort, etc. But what separates us from other animals, is that our deepest desire is not for biological needs, but for something deeper, what we want is the desire of other people. So for example, we need to eat, but we desire filet mignon, we need to drink, but we desire a fine wine. We desire sexual intimacy, but, truth be told, we don’t need it at all.

Lacan builds on this idea, arguing that we should make a distinction between our needs and our desires. Our needs are biological, our desires social. And the key to understanding our minds is to understand how we relate to desire. This means, at the most basic level, that we should not confuse the object of our desire with the cause of our desire, with the reason for desiring anything in the first place. The object of our desire is the thing we yearn for because we feel like obtaining that thing, getting it, will leave us satisfied and give rest to the feeling of wanting, which can be quite uncomfortable. Fine food, fine wine, a romantic interest, would all fall into the category of objects of desire, and my point here is to say that so do fashion products. How often have you spent money on something you didn’t truly need, just because it felt good to spend it?

The problem with this approach to the world, the human approach, is that objects of desire do not actually fulfill us, they never fill the void or absence at the core of our self. This means that no matter how badly we want something, the minute we have it, the desire moves onto something else. That is because we continually and automatically confuse the object of our desire with the cause of it. In other words, we think that once we have the object, there will be no reason to keep wanting and so we will be satisfied. The anxiety of yearning for more will be stopped. This confusion, which brings so much turmoil to us, is also the engine of consumption. If a company can harness this mistaken desire by convincing that the thing we truly want will come once we purchase their product, they can be sure to sell.

Where does desire start: why do we desire at all?

To talk about a cause of desire is to ask about two connected things. First, we are asking where does desire start: why do we desire at all? Second, we ask: what is it that makes specific objects desirable to us, what makes the fine wine, or the Gucci bag, so alluring? From the perspective of psychoanalysis, these questions are not questions about the world, or about the objects in the world, but questions about our fantasies, the unconscious fantasies that shape our sense of self and drive our constant desire for more.

Lacan adds a further twist to this complicated story because he argues that what we really desire, in the end, is desire itself. Here, again, we have two meanings. Firstly, that what we desire is the desire of the other. Secondly, that what we desire is the feeling of yearning for an object in the hopes it will end the sense of emptiness we carry inside. Let’s unpack. To talk about our desire being desire of and for the other is to say that we only want the things we want because they are wanted by others, and that we want those things because possessing the things will make us feel wanted by others (if everyone wants a certain pair of shoes, and we have them, the thing that makes the shoes desirable will make us desirable).

Then to say that desire is desire for desire itself, means saying that even though it feels anxiety provoking and tense to want something and not have it, there is something about the that tension that also feels enjoyable to us. There is something about always being on the hunt for the next object of satisfaction that is, in and of itself, enjoyable. Lacan thinks this is why we tend to become bored or restless after actually getting what we want. Because, remember, what we want is never what we think we want, what we truly want is never an object, and it’s never something we are consciously aware of. The thing we truly want, the cause of our desire, is something that is a deep nothingness within us that can never be filled, put into words, or alleviated by an external object. If we put these two last ideas together, we can say that what we truly want then, is to consistently desire, and be desired, by others.

At this point, it makes sense to turn back toward fashion. “Fashion can be read,” as Alison Bancroft writes, “as an attempt to fulfill the [gap] in subjectivity caused by lack.” According to someone like Lacan then, when we purchase the handbag, or that pair of shoes, what we are actually doing at the unconscious level is trying to gain access to an object that we have invested with all sorts of pseudo-magical, mysterious power: the power to fill the gap of desire once and for all, to enable us to possess, literally, the goal at which desiring beings aim. Even at the moment when we see the advertisement, on the catwalk, in the spread, the object already offers an alluring promise to transform us from beings who are under the spell of desire into master-possessors of our own, and other peoples’ desire. There is, of course, another word for filling a gap, and that is covering it. And that may be a better word for how fashion connects to desire, garments cover over the emptiness at the center of our selfhood, just as they cover the nudity of our body.

This connection to coverage and nudity, fabric and skin, the interplay between disclosure and concealment, and the drive to capture desire at the source, making ourselves into the recipients of the others’ desire can open up interesting conversations into not only the relationship between fashion and desire generally, but also into the relationship between fashion and sexuality more specifically. It’s important to know that, from the view of psychoanalysis, and of people like Lacan, desire is always already eroticized. To say that desire is desire for the others’ desire, that what we really want is to feel wanted, could easily be understood in erotic terms. I’m not going to take us there, because I want to stay at this more general level, but I am interested in talking about seduction in a more ordinary sense: we use clothes to seduce and are in turn seduced by clothes and accessories, precisely because we invest these objects with the power to elicit desire. And all of this unconscious network of ideas and emotions really are great for business.

If theatre is the art of watching and being watched, as Paul Woodruff argued, and film is so importantly about the visceral pleasure of looking, as Laura Mulvey showed, we might say that fashion’s artistry is in determining what is pleasurable to see and what is pleasurable to hide. And this interplay between showing and hiding is key in fashion. Both at the level of the individual garment and at the level we’re talking about here, the interplay between our conscious desire for an object and our conscious desire for desire itself.


Lucas Ballestín is a Philosophy PhD student at the New School for Social Research. He works at the intersection of psychoanalysis and political philosophy.

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