Fashion: Seductive Play is a monograph originally written in German by Eugen Fink in 1969 that focuses on the significance of fashion as an object of study that is also worthy of philosophical consideration. The book has been translated into English in 2023 and published in a new edition that is also enriched by an original Introduction written by Stefano Marino and Giovanni Matteucci. Through a detailed and in-depth contextualization of Fink’s thought, Marino and Matteucci (editors of this book) succeed in highlighting its topicality by comprehensively outlining his discourse on fashion as a philosophical question, being highly controversial today.
With a pragmatic stance, Fink points to a number of deficiencies that can be blamed on a certain typical dichotomous attitude that has characterized Western thinking and has often led to heedless disqualification of the aesthetic validity of fashion. However, a redefinition of popular culture that has taken place in the last few decades has made it possible to critically rethink and overcome the traditional oppositional division between high culture and low culture. Hence, one of the aims of this project is to propose what we can define as the first instance of legitimization of fashion and its play of forms, analyzed with an approach derived from phenomenological philosophy.
In their introduction, Marino and Matteucci circumscribe the origin of Fink’s book to a precise context within his philosophical development, making reference to Simona Bertolini’s work (a great expert of Fink’s thought) who has traced a specific timeline in the evolution of Fink’s philosophy (p. 7). Throughout his studies, Fink tackles various stages of philosophical reflection, which gradually lead him to also embrace fields such as anthropology and pedagogy. Eventually, his interests culminate in a pronounced scrutiny of the relation between human beings and their environment, and how human beings interact with the world through play — understood as a vital thrust. This final stage in the development of Fink’s thought is precisely the stage in which we can place his fashion book. Besides this, through Marino’s and Matteucci’s essay the reader is immediately introduced to the specificity of Fink’s phenomenological investigation by means of an analysis of the concepts of play, appeal, seduction, leadership, and body. In particular, the latter is investigated in a somehow dialectical way: on the one hand, there is the level of the “alienated” body, i.e. the body understood as an object. On the other hand, there is the level of the body recognized as an organism and as the “instrument” through which we can have our unique and real-life experience. Fink, thus, emphasizes in a new way the importance of the bodily dimension, which has been severely undermined and repudiated by the Western tradition which is in favor of the spiritual sphere. Following the steps of this same reasoning, a second implication becomes apparent: by covering our body with clothes (which is distinguished from that of other animals because of its nakedness), we somehow enter into a second dimension. This extra layer differentiates us from all other species, because this “second skin” is culturally chosen, and delineates human beings as socially, artistically and intellectually refined creatures. So, fashion becomes the civilized, established medium that marks the individuals from the outside world, a cultural phenomenon that is surely worthy of study.
Through a theoretical-conceptual approach, the cardinal principles of Fink’s investigation are examined in this book and compared to other currents, to broaden the articulation of his philosophical proposal regarding fashion, eventually revealing the anthropological implications intertwined with it. Heir to the questions of philosophers such as Husserl and Heidegger, Fink succeeds in reconstituting his own original investigation, in which he takes up a new line of inquiry that delves into the expressive ambiguity of clothing and, more generally, into the polysemous field of aesthetics, understood as a complex system of symbols of ambivalent nature. It acknowledges the beauty of appearance, and its noteworthiness is revealed by retracing some dimensions that are viscerally linked to human existence and cannot be minimized by being reduced to a mere consumerist discourse. So, it becomes evident that clothes are a sort of bridge that connects the individual to the outside world and, likewise, delimits his/her physical presence, separating the body from the rest, circumscribing the subject’s individuality and making known its meaningful interaction with other organisms. The meaning that human beings assign to their own image and aesthetics, hence, acquires an actual importance, and this emphasizes the practical-operational character of appearance, rather than its purely conceptual nature.
Ultimately, the originality of Fink’s philosophical thinking is recognized by Marino and Matteucci in their Introduction specifically for its anthropological roots, which find their raison d’être in his historical perspective. From the author’s critical point of view, fashion is understood as a sort of compensation for the decline of human beings’ primary instincts during its evolution. Clothing, together with other forms of interaction, is constituted as an alternative form of transformation and personification of human beings’ surroundings, thus identifying art forms as a different way of expressing one’s being. On account of this, through a socio-anthropological excursus, it is shown how clothes function, firstly, as a barrier to safeguard the body from the gazes of the world, as a sort of social connection between the wearer and the observer. Secondly, clothes function as an active interaction of performative symbols that acquire an explanatory connotation when worn in front of others. Through an elaborate proposal, Fink develops his own theory on fashion, acknowledged as a necessary practice for human being’s existence. The dialectical reconstruction of the fashion phenomenon here serves as a common thread, capable of grasping the essential continuity in the author’s perspective.
The original version of the book was opened by a short Preface written by Walter Spengler (included also in this English edition) that makes another salient point. Although it is difficult to briefly define the concept of fashion because of its multifaceted nature, we cannot deny that it has a profound meaning for human beings. When we refer to “fashion”, we immediately tend to think of clothes; however, any aspect of the human experience, in principle, is fashionable. In its broadest sense, fashion can be applied to everyone — men, women, children — and everywhere — in architecture, in travel destinations, or even in ways of giving birth or dying. This human “fashion-ability” proves to be crucial, because when one misses its meaningfulness, one also risks to miss a whole set of values, symbols, and ideas that belong to that specific trend — given that, people can even be socially excluded when they do not possess fashionable features or do not follow certain biases. There is therefore a sort of unwritten rule that presses the human being in his/her appearance to be exposed to the judgment of others, who trivially can define him/her as “in” or “out” on the basis of tacit shared standards.
The first chapter of Fink’s book, after Spengler’s Preface, scrutinizes the roots of clothing, understood as a significant representational medium for humankind since its origins. Fink’s argumentation draws on a Kantian conception which reworks with elegant delicacy, the Biblical narration on how the human being became truly “human”. A dialectical traversal between Kant and Fink unfolds in many articulations that, although conditioned by the Kantian legacy, results in a series of genuine implications of thought. The main ideas about the anthropological “rise” of human beings are thereby retraced.
Initially, through the use of language, the human being enters into a thoughtful relationship with the world. Aware that he/she can make use of the light of reason, the human being is now also capable of rebelling against leadership and acquires, for the first time, the capacity to choose. The break between what we may call the pre-human condition and a properly human one (characterized by reason) is underscored by the Finkian reworking of this narration that stresses how individuals self-determine, refine themselves, and establish a leadership and a deeper relationship with the space they inhabit. People, uplifted from their primordial slavery condition, experience a freedom from which they will not return back. Secondly, Kant pointed out the difference in sexual drive and the concept of nudity that exists between non-human animals and human beings. While for the former, sexuality is dictated by the seasonal heat, the human being experiences his/her sexuality with greater constancy. Moreover, nudity is a concept peculiar only to the human experience of life, which, in fact, sees the use of fig leaf – an image laden with erotic symbolism – in covering one’s genitals. Fink takes up the reins of Kantian thought by admitting that the human being is adept at refining his/her drives and reworking his/her relationships in such a way as to give them an emotional and affective value. It follows a statement that postulates a dichotomy between a benign and a malevolent power of thought, which allows the individual to reflect on possible future scenarios, and yet, now aware of strains of life, has to deal with preoccupations that burden him/her. However, in this dialectical exchange Fink accentuates the concept of “care,” for which the capability of the human being to reflect on his/her past plays a central role and explains why he/she acts in favor of a better future, providing what is necessary for his/her existence, while recognizing that labor and pain are inescapable. To continue, the concept of human dominion over other animals, used as tools, is examined. There is, thus, a mutual respect between humans as co-rulers (p. 42), a kind of “self-proclamation” of human beings as a chosen species who live above all others, and whose freedom is only limited when the freedom of another human being begins. In this regard, Fink positively underlines that sociability is a covenant between humans that derives from reason and that our freedom is not limited by the other, but rather coexists with the other. Ultimately, an inherent reflection on freedom is provided: on the one hand, freedom offers us more choices; on the other hand, decision-making power forces us to face a situation to ponder and chart our own path. The human being, as creator of his/her own destiny, manages to give value to his/her own body, even with the use of material production.
In the Christian narrative, as opposed to the spirit, soul or mind (which elevate the individual), the body holds the individual in the earthly dimension, connoting it as a limitation to our proximity to a higher sphere. The body becomes the expedient that brings us closer to the animal realm and does not allow us to approach a divine existence. However, as the author stresses here, humans’ vital experience always takes place in an embodied manner; indeed, without the body, human beings could not open themselves to the world.
In the second chapter of Fink’s book, human society is contextualized in its forms and organizations, and the concept of “fashion” is analyzed within existing divergences of the system. In a broader sense of the term, fashion reflects the Zeitgeist of our time, providing the means by which we identify ourselves with the actual historical context. In truth, fashion influences our lives so much that those who contradict the Zeitgeist by dressing differently, for example, paradoxically confirm the influence of fashion and emphasize how far it has spread to all the different layers of society. Or else, in the strictest sense of the term, the fleetingness of fashion is also affirmed, which, in its continuous evolution, is manifested in a short time span. Once again, an assessment of Western thinking with regard to the significance of fleetingness is made, whereby the human being deciphers the importance and worth of things on the basis of their durability and temporal stability. This gives rise to one of the main prejudices against fashion: because of its intrinsic nature, it is unstable and constantly changing over time, for which it is popularly considered to have no moral depth. Fashion, therefore, has been wrongly considered as frivolous and has been often portrayed as an unnecessary vice that people fall prey to – all victims of fashion businessmen who, for their own financial gain, induce people to buy more and more. While admitting the importance of the quality and durability of clothes that serve to cover the human body, Fink also foregrounds the aesthetic aspects of clothes, which are just as real as their functional features. Indeed, the human being lives in a reality that is manifested concretely, materially, and he/she is self-aware of his/her corporeality, through which he/she expresses a series of values and ideas that go beyond mere functionality, such as social status, personal taste, sexual desire, and so on. Fashion finds further social significance in its ability to scan time and place, by decoding who we are and what we do, by revealing gender, age, and a host of features that otherwise would not be expressible except through the language of clothes. Finally, considering fashion from an exquisitely economic point of view, Fink argues its validity by stressing that the current economy goes beyond production strictly related to primary needs, and in textile production there is also creative and artistic work that elevates a simple piece of cloth to an intangible, but no less important, value.
The third chapter of Fink’s book further explores the different meanings of the word “public” to which fashion is related. On the one hand, the notion of “public” can connote a political, state institution, linked to a system of laws and regulations. In addition, it can be used as the opposite of “private” or “familiar”, when we refer to all those social and work roles that lie outside our most intimate family sphere. Alongside the concept of public, we find the notion of “publicity”, which differs from the first term because it refers to a lifestyle that is not entirely subjugated by external constraints, i.e., how a person acts, speaks, and dresses is explained as a result of a primordial instinct to the emulation of others. In this context, garments, thus, become an intelligible element, a sort of frontier between publicity and singularity, reflecting both the individual’s taste and personality and, at the same time, the influence of external vogues. This sort of guidance from the surrounding arises from the work of the designer, who must be able to grasp what the consumer’s innermost and unconscious desires are, launch new ideas that challenge popular taste within an unpredictable fashion market, and finally translate them into their design. It is precisely this extravagance that makes people amazed and constantly breaks a temporary balance that allows them to create new ones. Designers propose new ways of thinking through their artworks, although the uniqueness of their creativity is soon lost because the industrial reproducibility of a garment is almost immediate. Conversely, a consumer experiments and plays with forms and contents, and is able to appreciate fashion in its infinite manifestations.
The aforementioned expressive capacity of clothing differentiates us from the animal world, where all kinds of enclosures have the mere function of protection, while human beings also entrust a cultural and meaningful symbolism to what they wear. Through his/her work the designer identifies the impulses proper to his/her contemporary era, which, in the 1960s (that is, the time when Fink’s book was first published in Germany), were already displaying greater freedom concerning sexual attraction and fluidity between the sexes. The designer, stripped of all taboos, interprets the impulses and desires dictated by sexual charge that are inherent in human beings and creates clothes that reflect these energies and drives. In doing so, for Fink there is a division between interpreting the image of the man and that of the woman. In the former case, the sexual symbolism of the man is much less pronounced and obvious: as a matter of fact, the attraction to him is reinterpreted in a more subtle way in the form of values such as masculinity, power, and physical prowess, to transmit the idea of security, strength, and protection. In the women’s case, what is pointed out are the most forbidding areas, to directly outline forms and shapes of the female body. Hence, women’s physicality is emphasized in a harmonious way, through an intriguing game of veiling and unveiling, covering and uncovering, playing with the accessible and the forbidden, in order to enhance her appeal.
The fourth chapter of Fink’s book focuses on the notion of stimulus and how it works, even unconsciously, on human reactions, first at a biological level. Merely through a single detail, fashion manages to cause a response, a stimulus precisely, in the beholder. The human being, in his/her relationship with the other, is always subjected to new stimuli, which can give rise to different feelings such as sympathy or antipathy. Therefore, the relationship with the outside becomes meaningful, so that an interest can be aroused at different levels: it may derive from curiosity, from sexual interest or from an interest towards otherness, but anyway the totality of all those small reactions characterizes our interaction with the environment and form our cultural surroundings. Again, the role of the designer comes into play and takes part in the equation proposed by Fink. Appeal pervades human society and is cunningly read and interpreted by the designer with unobtrusive discretion, so as to elicit some reactions or emotions, almost on a subconscious level. There is, however, a political symbolism attached to appeal which can express a social status, or an erotic charge that manifests itself in different ways — according to the taste of the current Zeitgeist.
At any rate, it must be recognized that there is a fine line between what suggests a reaction and an interest in us and what overtly highlights certain parts of the human body. When physical characteristics are explicitly shown off, the opposite effect occurs, in which the naturalness of what one wants to show off is lost, hence mislaying that veiled je ne sais quoi that is typical of the fashion game of seeing-through. By analyzing the concept of appeal, a challenge is opened up to the reader whereby we no longer think of fashion as a mere game of concealing and revealing, as a way of exaggerating or hiding forms. Rather, we are now led to think of fashion as a true act of representing something deeper and more innate, which takes us back to the primordial human nature and our instincts: an innate response in the human being full of meaning that mediates with our deepest Self. So, when we judge clothing from a moral perspective, we miss the fact that attire remains in-between two opposed dimensions: one that refers to the idea of “civil”, that can be rationally understood and that aligns with socially accepted and promoted values, and another that is “natural”, that represents the physical tangible part of our body which is viscerally linked to the concept of nature — a blank canvas on which to express culturally established concepts.
So far, in examining Fink’s book, we have observed the world of fashion as a vehicle for certain values of appeal, status, or human artistic expression. However, in the fifth chapter of his book Fink shifts his attention to an understanding of fashion in relation to the question of human sociability. By analyzing leisure time, both on a philosophical level and from an economic-productive point of view, Fink shows the seriousness of both production time and leisure time, emphasizing the inability of the human being to make full use of the latter. Rest time and the need for sociability are phenomena that have always permeated humankind, although historically the possibility of enjoying spare time has been a prerogative of the élite, since the main part of the population was subjected for centuries to what we may call “dehumanizing working conditions”. Whilst anciently there were occurrences of participation and entertainment of the population, the dissonance between the more privileged and the less favored found a point of resolution that mainly coincided with the French Revolution, an historical moment that sanctioned an extended freedom for all social strata. Moreover, shortly before the publication of Fink’s book (originally appeared in 1969, as I said), we witnessed advances in the industrial sector, the affirmation of mass production, and the implementation of the assembly line as a productive organization. All these factors introduced and established tight rhythms in the working hours of men and women, who ultimately made this rhythmic progression of time their own. The notion of rhythm and organization of time turns out to be tricky: the human being, absorbed in this incessant tempo, is almost incapable of filling his/her free time spontaneously and creatively: somehow it seems that, once he/she acquired the coveted freedom, he/she became unable to enjoy it. The more society advances in its progress, the more urgent the need to structure leisure time is. Consequently, new industries are born to organize different activities for people, such as games, sports, and events which, although aimed at filling the people’s time in a creative, free and convivial manner, mirror and mimic the existing timing and dynamics of work and formal activities. So, in leisure time we witness a kind of performance in which the actors participate voluntarily where they dress with an established style, behave in a certain way, and create events and participate in a play for which they entertain themselves, but not without labels, behavioral patterns or tacitly agreed norms.
Fink, through an analysis of the human being’s daily splitting of time, highlights once again the limits of the dichotomous approach that has been typical of Western thought, according to which leisure time is less important than work time, since it neither produces nor is considered “serious”. As in the case of fashion, also in this case Fink succeeds in unhinging prejudices about what is popularly considered to be superfluous or less necessary to human existence, giving a demonstration of the validity of all the nuances of the beautiful and the pleasurable that human beings eventually wish to experience. Fink makes the investigation of beauty a cultural issue and evinces the adult’s intrinsic need to relate to the others in a playful context and how human beings manifest their sincere desire to show themselves to the others in so many ways, including through clothes. As follows, dress becomes a symbolic medium, a set of meaningful constructs that finds its own expression in leisure time, giving the person the opportunity to originally style his or her image.
Finally, the role of young people in the use of clothes is also theorized. As bearers of a new and often critical image of society, they challenge the taste and moral values of their time, in order to create new ones. It is precisely with them that fashion and, in general, aesthetic sensibility become a means of cultural redemption, demanding a pedagogical and societal responsibility to recognize, appreciate and enhance the beauty that accompanies human life in all its forms, both as artworks and as forms of design that adorn and embellish the play of the human being.
Thinking about fashion also means contextualizing it to different historical moments. As I have stated above, in the 1960s the transformation of the production industry was already evident. Mechanization enabled forms of reproducibility capable of responding to an ever-increasing demand for goods, finally allowing people, not only to meet their basic needs but also, to satisfy and enjoy their whims, reaching the less well-off social strata also (and not only) in matters of fashion. While the dichotomous approach between high culture and low culture has already been discussed above, in the sixth chapter of Fink’s book this precept again becomes indispensable in understanding the function of cultural industries which, in their multiplicity of ways of manifesting themselves, recognize the fundamental value of the free creativity of individuals.
Fink’s reflection investigates fashion as a cultural industry, disentangling it between the different accusations of being a constricting leadership or being a tempting seduction. If we interpret fashion as a coercive pressure, we admit that in every trend there is also a normative force that defines the most fashionable lines of the moment. Nonetheless, this drive mostly points in the direction of the current style, offering many different outfits from which a person can choose. In a broader context of analysis, there are several transformational leadership dynamics that stem from the experience of state authority or the pedagogical leadership of a teacher. Similarly, what is witnessed in fashion is a diktat that is proposed by a sort of unknown authority that shows us the next trends to follow to stay fashionable; for instance, in fashion newspapers the idea of “must have” often echoes between the pages. However, the human being, endowed with reason and awareness, accesses the phenomenon of dress in a process of self-determination, according to one’s cultivated taste. Thus, the aesthetic choice is an active stance by the individual, who freely plays with fashion and trends, relating to them more as suggestions than as despotic directives. Furthermore, referring to the concept of seduction, Fink illustrates the reasons why this concept must not be necessarily limited to a negative connotation, thus proposing a renewed consideration of aesthetics in virtue of its equally important positive attributes. The term “seduction”, as a matter of fact, has been traditionally used to indicate something sinful, something wrong, which can lead us into a trap. By contrast, for Fink there exists a pure, transparent and above all real beauty that individuals can discover and experience throughout their existence. The beauty of a design, whether from nature or man-made, brings a relief and, as Fink argues, a “positive illusion” (p. 109) that sustains the human being by alleviating the inevitable hard, tedious, sacrificial, and working experiences of life. Charme is necessary to save the human being from his/her situation of misery, whereas it provides a moment of contemplation, a consolation, at least apparent, from life’s hostilities.
In the last chapter, Fink draws his conclusions by deliberating on a possible existential justification for fashion. If considered in purely economic terms, it is evident that there exist goods that are far more important and useful than clothes, i.e., necessities. It is equally true that, from a market perspective, any good or activity reflects the economic possibilities of people who have purchasing power that allows them to own those goods and access those activities. So, assuming that the individuals’ economic well-being is used to achieve a specific power, image or relevance within a certain social group, it follows that the value we place on material goods no longer determines a purely economic value, but also a political one. Moreover, the fact that fashion is seen as unnecessary gives it, a fortiori, a negative connotation since, in the Western polarized approach, there is a division between useful goods, which are positively received, and useless goods, from which we morally tend to distance ourselves. Therefore, it becomes possible to interpret the choices of sharing and exhibiting one’s closeness to fashion from a mere moralistic point of view, but in doing so, for Fink, we overlook its most authentic and original value: its aesthetic value. Fashion is actually neither useful nor necessary. In its irrationality and elusiveness, it is an artistic expression and ultimately even a symbolic and political statement; its nature is ambiguous, dialectical and polysemous, just like the human being’s identity, and, like the human being, it essentially exists as such. Besides this, fashion is also strictly linked to human nature because of its capacity to transform the human beings’ physical life experience. Due to the complex phenomenon of the fashion system, it would be erroneous to simply judge it as positive or negative, or as worthy of existence or not: in fact, nowadays fashion permeates our lives and its existential character is a certain phenomenon. In this way, the intentionality of Fink’s reasoning lies not as much in the moral or utilitarian argumentation of la mode, but rather on what is, in universal terms, justified for its very own existence. By all appearances, such a question denotes the superficiality of the accusations leveled at fashion; after all, as Fink observes, there is no supreme authority with the power to decide what, in this world, is justified to exist or not.
Fashion belongs to the human dimension and diversifies the human being from all nonhuman animals: it is a cultural product and a complex signifying organism. Its ambiguity makes it unique and capable to creatively play with the wearer who, conversely, gives to the clothes a personal meaning, without discarding the relationship with the surrounding environment, but eventually establishing a continuous dialectical relationship between being and appearing, private and public, wearer and beholder. Indeed, fashion plays between multiple branches, revealing and concealing, playing with sex appeal, demonstrating a power, a social status, the membership to a group, and differentiating male and female gender, or mixing them.
In the 1960s, when Fink’s book was written, great changes were taking place within society. That decade represented a moment of political and social transformation, it gave new impetus to industry and looked towards modernization, as it offered space to a new freedom of expression for a hitherto, non-existent precariousness of identity, and forcing the young generation to ask new questions that need to be answered.
It is precisely in this context of cultural ferment that Fashion: Seductive Play becomes an instrument of ideological struggle, acquiring a profoundly pioneering significance. Its publication, indeed, can be understood as the concretization of a blatant awareness on the part of philosophy, which admits its role in the construction of a prospective critique, applicable to a tangible reality that is inevitably subject to change. Fink’s text is, thus, a rare proof of philosophical exploration of fashion, aesthetics and the corporeal dimension; a sort of enterprising and compelling prelude that opens a new path for philosophical fashion studies. Its argumentative richness lies in Fink’s realist attitude that, thanks to his dialectical ability, unhinges the groundless accusations moved towards fashion. It eventually replies to some questions and prejudices that have widely characterized Western culture and challenges some of its limitations and fallacies. Thanks to the editors’ accurate Introduction, the English edition of Fink’s book is also enriched with new insights that reveal an urgent — and, now more than ever, topical — need for a confirmation, still uncertain in some ways, of fashion’s legitimacy as a research topic.
Indeed, many of the stereotypes to which — according to Fink’s critical analysis — fashion was subjected, are still alive and popularly shared. However, thanks to a cultural profiling of trivializing logics, Fink allows us to understand the essentiality of the fashion phenomenon from a cultural-pedagogical point of view. Firstly, recognizing the essential value of our physical dimension and then, consequently, the symbolic system we adhere to by dressing ourselves. Finally, the publication of Fink’s book in English translation, many years after its original publication in German, proves to be a precious rediscovery and appreciation of fashion issues noteworthy for its unconventional character, an overture that has opened a dialogical encounter between philosophy and fashion that is still ongoing.