Fashion and Emotions Graduate Seminar

Pamplona, Spain | May 19-20, 2011

STI cosponsored the Fashion and Emotions Graduate Seminar at the University of Navarra the 19th and 20th of May. The event, in which more than 30 people from all over the world participated, was organized by the Institute for Culture and Society's Emotional Culture and Identity Project (CEMID), led by Ana Marta González.

Fashion and Emotions Graduate Seminar at Universidad de Navarra, co-sponsored by Social Trends Institute

Run by acknowledged scholars in the field of fashion theory, this seminar addressed graduate students in philosophy, psychology, communication and social sciences, who are interested in attaining a deep understanding of the phenomenon of fashion as it is experienced in the context of contemporary emotional culture.

Participants were selected according to their curriculum vitae and a professor's recommendation letter.  Five of the selected candidates received a grant from STI for their travel expenses.

CEMID director, Ana Marta González, noted that the conceptual distinction between taste and emotion can help to characterize and interpret the current emphasis on emotions. Taste involves a common standard, against which fashion can have an impact by introducing aesthetic novelty. Emotion, however, is purely subjective. Yet it is precisely this latter aesthetic judgment that the fashion industry has tried to harness.

Participants at Fashion and Emotions Graduate Seminar at Universidad de Navarra, co-sponsored by Social Trends Institute Laura Bovone, director of the Center for the Study of Fashion and Cultural Production at Milan's Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, observed that emphasis on the emotional aspect of fashion is taken to be a relevant sign of our current emotional culture, distinguishing it from previous emotional culture(s) in developing the contrast between modern and postmodern approaches to fashion.

Lucia Ruggerone, senior lecturer in sociology at the Università della Valle d'Aosta and Diana Crane, emeritus professor of the University of Pennsylvania and noted author in fashion studies literature, also participated as speakers in the seminar, highlighting the importance of fashion in post-modern material culture and the empirical study of the emotions in fashion, respectively.

Efrat Tseëlon, cultural theorist and Chair of Fashion Theory at the University of Leeds, noted the importance of the emotions in marketing research: "This is something that market researchers have noticed long ago, and it is influencing their market strategies, from emphasizing the objective qualities of products, current strategies emphasize the subjective 'shopping experience'."

Read Mercatornet's post-seminar interview with Professor Tseëlon entitled "I feel, therefore I buy."

Watch a YouTube video of Ana Marta González explaining the Seminar:


Paper Abstracts

Ana Marta González - University of Navarra
Opening Remarks to Fashion and Emotions Seminar

In the name of the “Emotional culture and identity” Project, as well as the Social Trends Institute, it is a pleasure to welcome you all to this Seminar on Fashion and Emotions.

The general purpose of this seminar is to foster research on fashion and fashion theory, by gathering a number of scholars and graduate students interested in the field, and creating the conditions for an in depth study of the phenomenon of fashion.

In this case, the focus is on the relationship between fashion and emotions. In the following sessions we are going to analyze the topic mainly from a sociological perspective. In these introductory notes, I would like to offer you a sort of philosophical background.

Fashion and emotions.

As we know, the phenomenon of fashion goes far beyond the fashionable styles which come and go season after season in the realm of dress and apparel. To a greater or lesser extent fashion dynamics of social assimilation and distinction affects almost all aspects of our social life. This was observed by Simmel long ago, and is also reflected in Herbert Blumer’s text, that you all had the opportunity to read for this seminar.

However, it is also true that in ordinary speech the term “fashion” is usually taken to mean the so-called “fashion world”, in which the movement of fashion is somehow institutionalized around the production and dissemination of clothing, in a highly conscious process, which allows and calls for independent study.

Still more specifically, the word “fashion” tends to evoke the glamorous side of the fashion system revolving around dress and design –images of models, runaways, magazines…-, even if this glamorous world is sustained by hard, ordinary work and the routinized labour of many anonymous people (as it is also highlighted in one of the articles you read).

While one could certainly focus on this, ordinary, side of the fashion world, from a philosophical point of view, the most interesting aspect is that, as a result of their ordinary work, fashion designers, models, magazine editors, retailers, etc, perform something extraordinary: namely, they introduce first in the cultural world of certain social elites and ultimately in society at large a symbolic reference, meant to challenge  and become a social standard of taste, at least in the sense that, in one and the same breath, those creations stimulate different judgments of taste, indirectly reflecting and organizing the operation of the social emotions which revolve around equality and difference, acceptance and rejection, inclusion and exclusion. For, although fashion operates with aesthetic elements, its movement goes far beyond the aesthetic realm, precisely because it symbolizes and conveys a sense of social assimilation and distinction.

The element around which fashion routinely organizes those social emotions is aesthetic novelty. “Being in fashion” is being one of the first to assimilate aesthetic novelty. In the fashion world, being first or being late makes all the difference.

Now, to be effective, novelty has to challenge the established standard of taste. The fact that this standard is usually linked to middle class –as Fred Davis notes in another text –explains the provocative nature of so many fashions.  Yet, were it not for this standard, fashion would be ineffective. Against an aesthetic cacophony, no creation could be recognized as novel, and make a difference in terms of fashion. This would explain why fashion is having such a hard time in contemporary individualized society: when anything goes, nothing goes.

Nevertheless, while it can operate only on the back of an existing standard of taste, fashion is partially responsible for shaping and modulating that very standard, according to the rhythm of a changing social life. While change gets to the essence of fashion as much as stability represents its background, the acceleration of change in late modern societies could explain the difficulty of any particular fashion making a big difference in the fashion world. The attempt to preserve fashion in museums is the counterpart of contemporary ephemeral art, perhaps a metaphor of the desire of immortality. Yet, in the ordinary world, too much change leaves no more trace than a vague sense of nervousness.

The aesthetic of fashion is embodied in a social context

Fashions do not follow abstract aesthetic criteria; rather, they are embodied in a social context, and serve a social purpose, namely, the expression of social assimilation and distinction. However, it should be noted that, while social assimilation and distinction are obviously related to the operation of the social emotions, fashion itself is first linked with the operation of taste and the excitement of novelty, which activates a communicative process, which also belongs to the essence of fashion.

Of course, as Bourdieu pointed out, our tastes may already convey a sense of social distinction, and thus be expressive of social difference; however, that sense of distinction is extrinsic to the operation of taste per se; no psycho-social story about the origin of taste can account for the normative value it holds for the subject. From this perspective, David Hume’s attempt to account for an unalterable standard of taste by merely resorting to sentiment and conversation could surely be found faulty; nevertheless, his account is interesting as he views the genesis of common sense and fashion, in terms of a civilizing process, which requires leaving behind the idiosyncrasy of overly private and strong emotions in order to make room for the sociality of taste:

“The intercourse of sentiment… in society and conversation –says Hume— makes us form some general unalterable standard, by which we may approve or disapprove of characters and manners” (Enquiry concerning the principles of morals, section V, part II, p. 229)

According to Hume, in the course of social interaction, participants feel moved to moderate their own private emotions so as to make them apt for communication. This is the way we routinely create what is called “common sense”.  Were we to convey our immediate emotions without moderating them against such common sense, it would be impossible to make room for what Hume calls the “delicacy of taste”, which he considers a mark of distinction, and is explicitly different from what he calls the “delicacy of passion" [1].

It is against the background provided by that common sense that the different fashions take off. By introducing an element of novelty, trends-setters introduce an element of social distinction, which finds a reflection in the judgement of taste.

The communicative role of fashion

Now, to the extent fashion stimulates judgments of taste [2], it fulfils a communicative role; in a way, it creates the social space. Now it is Kant who illustrates the point:

“For himself alone a human being abandoned on a desert island would not adorn either his hut or himself, nor seek out or still less plant flowers in order to decorate himself; rather, only in society does it occur to him to be not merely a human being but also, in his own way, a refined human being (the beginning of civilization): for this is how we judge someone who is inclined to communicate his pleasure to others and is skilled at it, and who is not content with an object if he cannot feel his satisfaction in community with others...” (KU, 5: 297).

Being inclined to communicate one’s own pleasure to others, and being skilled at it, is for Kant the mark of a refined human being, the beginning of civilization [3]. It is not just the direct aesthetic pleasure we find in certain objects, but the pleasure we take in communicating our pleasure to others, what is relevant for the origin of civilization, and also of fashion.

Interestingly enough, however, he draws a distinction analogous to that of Hume between delicacy of taste and delicacy of passion, for, according to Kant, “Taste is always still barbaric when it needs the addition of charms and emotions for satisfaction, let alone if it makes these into the standard for its approval” (KU, 5: 223).

This distinction entails a suggestion for our reflection on fashion and emotions. For, while in the actual operation of fashion we find both aesthetic and additional emotional elements, Kant’s distinction allows us to venture a hypothesis about the relative weight of each of these elements depending on the social context. Thus, in a relatively homogeneous social world, fashion would operate, and fulfil its social and communicative role, by introducing aesthetic novelty against the background of a social standard of taste. Yet, in a highly fragmented society and culture, where it is really difficult to single out a common standard of taste and the very sense of aesthetic novelty declines, fashion increasingly grounds its appeal in the extrinsic “addition of charms and emotions”.

This, I would say, is the situation of fashion in our consumer society. It is taken for granted that, in order to find its place, in order to appeal the public, fashion has to appeal directly to our emotions. Hence the need for emotional designs and emotional dissemination of fashion, that is designs and dissemination which engage us emotionally.

This emotional engagement with the products of fashion can be pursued in a number of ways –which the article by Anca Cristina and Joseph Plummer illustrates—; in our highly individualized societies, however, fashion designers crucially draw on the resources of romantic individualism, with their appeals to the search and expression of one’s true self.  Thus, not only fashion, but also fashion ads are construed around a variety of stereotypes evocative of different lifestyles, which can be recognized by the targeted public as goals or ideals: the ideal of a glamorous life, or an alternative, rebellious life, or a successful achieving life, or a natural and simple life... A whole world, an entire life invested, embodied in a product, in a commodity. We sell and buy dreams, hopes, emotions, desires…

As a means of communication, fashion is a vehicle of desire: through the use we make of fashion we more or less consciously select the desires, as well as the image, we want to convey to others. It is not necessarily a matter of being focused on projecting a certain image; it is something that follows from the actual use we make of fashion. Thus, one particular teenager can take particular pleasure in himself, in his distinctiveness, so that this is what he consciously wants to communicate to others. And fashion, in spite of its communicative and social nature, or precisely because of it, can serve that narcissistic purpose. More often, however, people are not particularly focused on their own selves, but rather on the work and the activity they have to perform, and then dress accordingly –that is, according to the social expectations that are in place—, making use of the resources available to us, on rather utilitarian grounds, more or less oblivious to their fashionable genealogy. Still, this pragmatic attitude about fashion is telling something about them and their concerns, their value hierarchy, particularly, or their relative indifference to the aesthetic and social values explicitly embodied in fashion.

Whether we want it or not, the position we take regarding fashion, as well as the use we make of it, somehow reflects our emotional stance towards the social reality we experience on a daily basis, with all its ambiguities and perplexities. This accounts also for its significant, if limited, role as a social indicator.

Fashion as a significant, if limited, social indicator

Indeed, while we can certainly take fashion as a social indicator, this cannot be done without adding some qualifications. Not only because there is always a significant part of the population that is completely indifferent to the most notorious events of the fashion world, but also because no particular fashion can ever claim to be a complete and transparent reflection of the social world at any given moment. No matter how successful it is, every fashion is always the result of a creative process sparked by a partial experience of reality and filtered by a chain of multiple mediations, all of which leave a mark on the final product.

Drawing on art theory of a romantic background, fashion designers have often been regarded as geniuses, able to absorb the dynamics of social life, and infuse their own personal and creative response into it, which is then materialized in a product and disseminated in a variety of ways. Within a romantic framework, the artist’s response to the world is considered to encapsulate the spirit of the age. It seems to me, however, that this expectation places too much weight on the shoulders of artists or designers. While their creative work certainly captures some aspects of the spirit of the age, we cannot expect to decipher that spirit by merely analyzing those creations, oblivious to the complexity of the production and disseminating process, which, as it was suggested above, also leaves a trace on the product.

In the context of highly individualized and democratized societies the creative responses of designers seem no longer authoritative for the general public. Creativity is not only proper to designers; it is also proper to consumers, who, on the other side of the fashion system, work out their personal solutions to the usually very practical problems of dressing well in a variety of contexts. The culturally fragmented nature of our societies not only makes it very difficult to wait for the one grand fashion which will challenge and significantly modify the single standard of taste; it also makes it very difficult to expect one coherent style that could articulate one’s individuality in different social settings without conveying excessive uniformity  or excessive distinction.

Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the symbolic power of fashion. Fashion designers still provide an aesthetic reference, as well as a significant social indicator of the tensions and the complexity of contemporary experience.

Why is it that certain fashions are massively assimilated and others ignored, why are they celebrated by certain groups and contested by others? What is all this telling us about our own social and cultural worlds? How are we to interpret the fact that significant segments of people remain indifferent to the dynamics of fashion?

While we can assume that the echo found by a certain design is significant in its ability to reflect the dynamic intersection of individual tastes, following from social dynamics at any given moment, we should not lose sight of the role of the media in the framing of novelty and the construction of the response to fashionable events. 

At any rate, these questions are meant to provide a background for our reflection these days.

In the first session, Laura Bovone will lead us in the exploration of the basic antithesis between reason and emotion, in the realm of fashion. The texts she has suggested for reading provide the sociological keys to analyze both the phenomenon of fashion and fashion communication.

In the second session, Efrat Tseëlon will analyze fashion from the perspective of consumption; she will highlight the prominent role of emotions in consumer behaviour as well as in advertisement.

Diana Crane will then present the main lines of a research project we are developing within the “emotional culture and identity” project. This research aims at understanding how people emotionally react to fashion ads.

This latter point is obviously linked to the last session, by Lucia Ruggerone, on the presence of emotion in the reception and appropriation of fashion.


[1] Hume, D., “Of the delicacy of taste and passion”, in Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, vol. I, London 1882, Reprint in Aaleen: Scientia Verlag, 1964, pp. 91-94: “Delicacy of taste is as much to be desired and cultivated as delicacy of passion is to be lamented, and to be remedied, if possible… When a man is possessed of that talent, he is more happy by what pleases his taste, than by what gratifies his appetites, and receives more enjoyment from a poem or a piece of reasoning than the most expensive luxury can afford… Nothing is so proper to cure us of this delicacy of passion, as the cultivating of that higher and more refined taste, which enables us to judge of the character of men, of composition of genius, and of the productions of the nobler arts… Perhaps I have gone to far in saying, that a cultivated taste for the polite arts extinguishes the passions, and renders us indifferent to those objects, which are so fondly pursued by the rest of mankind. On farther reflection, I find, that it rather improves our sensibility for all the tender and agreeable passions; at the same time that it renders the mind incapable of the rougher and more boisterous emotions”.

[2] As Kant observed, “the judgment of taste, by which something is declared to be beautiful, must have no interest for its determining ground” (KU, 5:296); yet, as he also noted, “from that it does not follow that after it has been given as a pure aesthetic judgment, no interest can be combined with it” (KU, 5: 296); rather, he goes on,  “if the drive to society is admitted to be natural to human beings … then it cannot fail that taste should also be regarded as a faculty for judging everything by means of which one can communicate even his feeling to everyone else, and hence as a means for promoting what is demanded by an inclination natural to everyone” (KU, 5: 297).

[3] “Further, each expects and requires of everyone else a regard to universal communication, as if from an original contract dictated by humanity itself; and thus, at first to be sure only charms, e.g.., colours for painting oneself (roucou among the Caribs and cinnabar among the Iroquois), or flowers, mussel shells, beautifully colored birds’ feathers, but with time also beautiful forms (as on canoes, clothes, etc) that do not in themselves provide any gratification, i.e., satisfaction or enjoyment, become important in society and combined with great interest, until finally civilization that has reached the highest point makes of this almost the chief work of refined inclination, and sensations have value only to the extent that they may be universally communicated; at that point, even though the pleasure that each has in such an object is merely inconsiderable and has in itself no noticeable interest, nevertheless the idea of its universal communicability almost infinitely increases its value” (KU, 5: 297).

Academic Leader

Ana Marta González - University of Navarra


Ana Marta González - University of Navarra
Introduction:  Emotional Culture and Fashion

Laura Bovone - Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore
Fashion and the Basic Antithesis between Reason and Emotion

Efrat Tseëlon - University of Leeds
The Myth of a Rational Consumer

Diana Crane -University of Pennsylvania
Emotion in the Production and Dissemination of Fashion

Lucia Ruggerone - Università della Valle d'Aosta
Emotions in the Reception and Appropriation of Fashion