A Treatise on Personal Narrative

A Treatise on Personal Narrative


I’ll begin with the tale of a great downfall, a tale that begins with the main character born as a symbol of all that is beautiful in the world who dies a spiritless victim of the world’s greatest faults. So goes the tale of the Cartier Love Bracelet, introduced in 1969, when vaunted jewelry designer Aldo Cipullo began his journey to construct a bracelet which embodied love, in its most amazing and painful forms. He crafted this bracelet to be screwed on, a symbolic act representing the effort required to build the eternal bond of love between people. The sealed bracelet represents the bond of love, one which can endure any elements and thrashing movements thrown its way, and the act of unscrewing and removing the cuff embodies the pain endured to recover from the loss of a bond, a pain which cannot be merely slipped off the body. However, in 2021, this symbolic meaning is no more. The Love Bracelet has been rebranded as a trophy desired by many as a symbol of status rather than the aesthetic and poetically beautiful work of art it was intended to be. To the wearer, this object is nothing more than a replaceable ornament, a status symbol which the billionaire’s child readily trades for the next sparkly bracelet at Christmas. The wearer does not truly care about this piece. They do not have an ideological or personal tie to the ideas this piece represents; they do not use this it as a tool for identity development and personal evolution; they do not have a purpose for owning such a beautiful piece aside from how much it costs and where it shuffles them into the societal pecking order.

Stories like these are aplenty in the fashion, hospitality, and design industries. Golden Goose sneakers, The Soho House bar, the classic Burberry trench coat—many companies have begun with engaging, envelope-pushing creative concepts only to be suffocated by status-seeking sheep. Stories like these are the reason people unify fashion and design under the umbrella of superficiality and frivolity, reducing them to mere representations of a broken capitalist society. However, what unifies fashion and design is so much deeper than uselessness; they both represent powerful tools for harnessing our world of symbols and images and unifying all that is beautiful into a playful spectacle of possibilities. Fashion and the clothes we wear, when properly appreciated, represent a tool for crafting the self into a circuit of characters who stand as emblems of different components of identity. Architecture and spatial design can create micro-societies with different social norms, spaces which are incredible arenas for exploring both the self and the human environment. These characters, clothes, societies, and places unify themselves under the idea of personal narrative, a beautiful state of delusion which frames a person’s existence as an infinite realm of possibilities, where life itself becomes an artistic medium. To embark on this adventure full of theory, science, and heavy-handed adverb use, we will begin with understanding fashion’s symbolic language and how it has fused with the human body and mind; move into how these fusions enable personal character development; switch gears to discussing architecture’s parallels to fashion, influence on societal norms, and role in creating hospitality’s micro-societies; and finally, unify the two under personal narrative and the spectacle of life.

Articles of clothing, at their simplest, are nothing more than pieces of cloth and thread that warm the body, yet they have mutated into a symbolic language consisting of representation and illusion. It is that language which, in turn, constructs the intangible, omniscient entity of fashion. Roland Barthes in the beginning of his book The Fashion System interprets fashion as accruing meaning through a reverse-Gestalt effect, where the outfit’s whole is distilled into its weighted parts.1 These parts, whether individual articles of clothing, a garment’s particular detail, or an attribute of the garment or detail represent the language of fashion’s parts of speech, all which convey meaning through representations and symbols. Anne Hollander in her book Sex and Suits describes these “meanings” as

a sequence of imaginative pictures . . . forming a sequential art, an emblematic projection of life, a visual analog of the sort of common experience that is founded on social facts . . .: common memories and allusions, perverse current references, things carefully learned by rote, other things learned by half-conscious habit, obscure jokes, open secrets, and a host of unconscious, collective fantasies always in flux through time.2

This system of associations makes up fashion, the force which tacks symbolic meaning onto the cloth which dresses the human body. But this meaning is intentionally indirect. It is not that blue jeans dictate that the wearer is a worker or that long skirts dictate somebody virtuous; these garments convey the illusion of work and the illusion of virtue.3 To quote Barthes, fashion is “never anything but the decorative attributes of being,” a system of beautiful and shared delusions, an arbitrary art form which uses materials, cuts, and shapes to form representations of the human experience.4

Clothing’s illusory, symbolic language has embedded itself so deeply into human existence that it has become inextricably linked to the human body and mind. Descartes asserted that there are two distinct matters in the universe, that of the body and that of the mind. While bodies are tangible, objective, and scientific, minds are more metaphysical, “thinking things, entities capable of affirming, denying, judging, willing, unwilling, and having sense perceptions.”5 The distinction between clothing and fashion mirrors that of Cartesian dualism. Clothes, the materials, cloth, thread, structure, and other tangible attributes of garments, have fused to become one with the human body, while fashion’s system of representations interacts with the human mind to influence human’s sense of self. To begin, clothing is imperative to interaction with the world; it transforms the body into a socially acceptable medium able to occupy the social context.6 According to Didier Anzieu in his book The Skin-Ego, clothing has become man’s “second skin,” an “ambiguous double: both permeable and impermeable, superficial and profound, truthful and misleading.”7 It represents the materiality of the lived body, the appendage which has superseded skin as the border between the self and the environment.

Unlike skin, however, whose somatosensory cues interact biologically with the brain, fashion’s visual language causes clothes to metaphysically influence every level of the Freudian mind. In the id, the epicenter of the reptilian brain and man’s innate sexualized and aggressive instincts, both clothing and fashion toy with sex and desire.8 As stated, clothing is the border between the self and the environment, but it also represents the border between decency and flesh, virtue and sexuality, civility and primality. According to Giorgio Agamben in his book Nudities, clothing is the precursor to human sexuality and desire; before the Fall, man was sheathed in God’s grace, protected from the sin of non-reproductive sexual desire, but upon eating the forbidden fruit, clothes substituted for divine glory as protection from the body’s sexualized and desirable nature.9 This notion of clothing as a medium of modesty has been passed down for generations, providing any sartorial tease toward the first flesh, a plunged neckline, deeply unbuttoned shirt, or short skirt, a direct channel into the reptilian brain. Fashion also more overtly influences desire through sexualized editorial campaigns and runway shows. Fragrance commercials are a perfect example; advertisements for Jean-Paul Gaultier and Paco Rabanne’s fragrances regularly feature images of perfectly lubricated undressed men and women and steamy make-out sessions, directly linking the illusion of fragrance to the illusion of sexiness by way of the id’s excitatory responses to sex cues.

Similarly, in the superego—the angel to the id’s devil, which regulates the ego’s conscience and civility—fashion’s symbolic language has infiltrated the subconscious regulation of human traits. Garments’ illusory associations with occupations or traits are capable of influencing human interaction with the world, a phenomenon beautifully illustrated by Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky’s 2012 experiment entitled “enclothed cognition,” wherein participants wearing lab coats over their outfits performed better on attention-based tasks than those in their normal clothes. Adam and Galinsky’s results illustrate that fashion’s representative language is capable of surfacing particular traits within the human personality.10 Whether increased feelings of anonymity when wearing sunglasses or adherence to masculine or feminine traits when wearing blue or pink, fashion interacts with the superego to unconsciously influence behavior.11,12

Finally, fashion’s interplay with the id and superego culminates in the ego, the epicenter of human consciousness and self-concept. Didier Anzieu in The Skin Ego theoretically explains the link between clothes, fashion, and the ego, explaining that “consciousness appears at the surface of the psychical apparatus.”13 As we have established above, clothing has replaced skin as the outermost layer of the human body, so clothing represents a physical manifestation of the ego. Anzieu further supports this claim, painting clothing and the ego as interchangeable ideas: “since the body is always a clothed body, the lived ego is always already a clothed ego. To speak of skins and egos, then, is to speak of, on and through clothing.”14 However, it is not just the clothing itself that is interchangeable with the ego; it is the associations entangled with each article of clothing, which reflect and influence states of being and character traits.

It is clear that clothing and fashion influence both body and mind. They have fused with the human body to become another appendage necessary to interacting with the world; they have mutated to both represent and influence human sexuality; they subconsciously influence behavior and character traits through the superego; and finally, they have become the physical manifestation of man’s self-image and consciousness. However, as stated above, fashion is never anything; it communicates exclusively in non-literal representations of the human experience and illusions of aspects of the world. If fashion is so inextricably linked to the human body and mind, then they too fall into this illusory category. If clothing has become somewhat of a second skin, then it is nothing more than the illusion of skin. If fashion so powerfully interacts with desire, then our experiences with desire are nothing more than the illusion of desire. If character traits associated with particular garments can affect behavior, then these character traits and behaviors are nothing more than the illusion of character traits and behaviors. Most shockingly, if clothing and fashion are so inherently tied to self-image and consciousness, then self-image and consciousness are no more than the illusion of self-image and consciousness. Many people would see this as a universal negative, a bizarre and dystopian reality plaguing our society with excess frivolity and superficiality. I, for one, do not.

For those in tune with the language of fashion, these collective delusions make the human experience into that of a semi-controllable avatar, one where humans can conceptualize and construct their personal narrative. Many twentieth and twenty-first century theorists believe that life itself is a spectacle, where interaction between the self and the environment is defined by an image-driven state of delusion. Guy Debord, for instance, in his book The Society of the Spectacle, theorizes that “life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles . . .  as a part of society, it [the spectacle] is ostensibly the focal point of all vision and all consciousness.”15 Similarly, in “Sensible Life: A Micro-Ontology of the Image,” contemporary scholars Kevin Attell, Scott Alan Stuart, Emanuele Coccia state that this imagistic interpretation of life enables it to be observed and harnessed in all its forms.16 Fashion makes life an exciting, exploratory medium where every permutation of the self can explore every permutation of life. Sexy clubgoer, working girl, titan of industry, alcoholic writer–any of these personae can be represented through fashion, which enables a dynamic interpretation of the self and provides a playful twist on life, one where on any given day the ego can play dress-up and costume itself into a character that dips into various iterations of the self. Anzieu beautifully projects this idea, explaining that the fashionable person is “a being of depths, of several leaves or several faces.” Roland Barthes’ theories go even further, stating that fashion “makes possible a genuine combinatory of character units and, so to speak, technically prepares the illusion of a quasi-infinite richness of the person.”17 The personality of a fashionable human, who meticulously curates clothes and crafts daily looks as an art of self-expression, is a multiplanar illusion, where the conscious use of clothing can fine-tune, express, confirm, and adapt in real time a person’s desired character for the day to play in the narrative of their own life.18

Once dressed, these characters need a place to go; after all, in 1887, while conceptualizing Gods and the creation of man, Friedrich Nietzsche stated, “a divine audience was needed to appreciate the spectacle that began.”19 Personae need an audience, and since we have spent the first part of this essay discussing how these fashionable forces enable this character development, we must spend the next part understanding the places they will go and the spaces they will occupy.

Like fashion, Architecture and design emerged from a basic human need and have mutated into a symbolic language which beautifies the world. Architecture emerged from the need for shelter. We need walls to protect from strong winds and threatening wildlife and roofs to block heavy rains, but it was not until such structures became sites for adornment and ornamentation that they became a crucial element of life’s spectacle. Famous German architect Gottfried Semper believed that architecture is the practice of crafting the building’s outermost shell, walls, rather than the structural system of beams and columns.20 He continues with the idea of a building’s small details or Kleinarchitektur, meaning little architecture, discussing how fountains, altars, sculptures and any other features which enable human interaction with a space represent the true practice of architecture.21 Semper’s ideas mirror those of fashion; they frame architecture as the creation of a building’s second skin, the layer of adornment which envelopes a space and beautifies the life of its human hosts. John Ruskin and Italian architect Filarete add to this idea, establishing that these decorative details carry an arbitrary system of associations similar to the language of fashion. Ruskin discusses how certain materials, finishes, and forms carry masculine and feminine associations while Filarete states that a building’s finishes are reflective of its occupants’ dignity.2223 Like fashion, architecture is a superficial subsystem of symbols which envelops buildings in illusion, and these attributes represent the set design for the spectacle of life. Semper further establishes this idea, stating that any artistic creation toys with reality to create a beautiful system of plastic, associative realities:

Every artistic creation, every artistic pleasure, presumes a certain carnival spirit, or to express it in a modern way, the haze of carnival candles is the true atmosphere of art. The destruction of reality, of the material, is necessary if form is to emerge as a meaningful symbol, as an autonomous human creation.24

Much like fashion, therefore, it is not that a Romanesque Revival courthouse is a dignified establishment of the law; its ornamental columns and stone finishes carry associations of colonial powers and give it the illusion of dignity. Unlike clothing, however, whose fashionable associations interact with the body and self, constructed environments influence their inhabitants’ society and culture.

Spaces are both reflections and influencers of human society and culture. Guy Debord introduces this idea, explaining in The Society of the Spectacle that artistic centers, tourist resorts, restaurants, and nightlife foster a pseudo community where personal narratives overlap to create a harmonious collective interpretation of reality.25 It is not that this collection of narratives merely occupies these environments; the layout, aesthetic design, and circulation help influence and support particular traits which overlap among occupants. Opera houses’ grand staircases, for instance, manipulated early Parisian society to value fashion, image, and status. An 1875 lithograph by Emile Thérond, for instance, shows how Charles Garnier, when conceptualizing the Paris Opera, intentionally placed the grand staircase as to provide pre-show entertainment for the guests: Patrons would arrive in lavish getup displaying their outfits and character selections for the evening while high-class aristocrats viewed from balconies.26 Such a layout enforces a classist social hierarchy with the established, wealthy aristocrats placed physically above those in the orchestra level while emphasizing cultural pressures to present oneself in their most proud, established image. Garnier continues, describing how the Opera’s expansive salons and powder rooms culminate in a culture of leisure, a place where these public spaces are filled with the smiling faces of Paris’s most elegant characters.27 These influencing forces, however, have evolved in modernity into more complex arenas for personal narrative, for an increased sense of fashionable freedom has caused business to adapt and tailor their spaces to a more homogenized, differentiated subset of characters.

Restaurants, nightclubs, and bars have succeeded operas and other large cultural centers as the modern world’s micro-societal spectacles. In On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife, David Grazian shows how upscale dining and clubbing have become a new stage for the spectacle of life to unfold.28He explains how table layouts in nightclubs have replaced the opera’s balcony seating as the new classist hierarchy. Whether on the dance floor, in an upper VIP area, or behind the DJ, table positioning is a stratifying factor which influences the social dynamics under a specific club’s roof.29 Modern bars, nightclubs, and restaurants, however, have added even more complex undertones to these spaces’ microsocieties because the saturated market requires product differentiation for these ventures to survive. While these ventures sell food, beverage, sound systems, tables, light shows, among other goods and services, their major product is the opportunity to immerse one’s desired character into a desirable environment for the evening. These environments are methodically constructed spectacles, where space, service, and clientele intermingle to create a harmonious, immersive experience. Grazian equates this construction to that of the theater:

Cultural producers of urban nightlife also rely on the metaphor of the theater to describe how they engineer sensory, impressionable experiences for their guests. Like confidence artists and other seductive swindlers, shamans, and showmen, a host of cultural producers and support personnel (including interior decorators, publicists, managers, table servers, bartenders, and hostesses) rely on professional set design, elaborate costuming and role-playing, sleight of hand, and other strategies of manipulation and cunning to manufacture the entertainment landscape as an extravagant spectacle that camouflages as much as it reveals.30

These immersive experiences are the main product differentiator in the hospitality industry, and the market is so saturated with differentiated spectacles that it opens a seemingly infinite set of arenas for life to unfold. An olive suede and chrome-finished nightclub with a disco ball for the sexy clubgoer; a chic, small bar for the working girl on the move; a massive mahogany steakhouse for the gluttonous titan of industry; a dark, dingy dive bar for the alcoholic writer—these spaces and micro-societies interact with a person’s character to create a clear and harmonious personal narrative, and it is this interplay between clothing, the self, environment, and society which unites the arts of fashion and spatial design.

Fashion and architecture/design unify themselves by way of personal narrative: clothing and fashion develop the characters while spaces craft the illusory settings for these narratives to unfold. Together, these two artforms make up the art of life, a spectacle which turns even life’s most mundane circumstances into a make-believe game of dress-up. They inject childlike playfulness into a world saturated with anxieties, bills, and viral diseases, pushing humans into a beautifully delusional state of bliss. While this can be a pleasurable and affirming state, it is important to emphasize that it is not the only psychological state brought by fashion. Many theorists, including Stewart Ewen in his book All Consuming Images, believe big fashion corporations prey upon this volatile sense of identity, flashing weekly advertisements for weekly collections to both instill in their consumers and profit off of ego uncertainty and wasteful, meaningless over-consumption.31 While I agree this can happen, it has a much lesser effect on those who have accepted fashion and the spectacle into their everyday lives.

The fashionable person I write about is a self-aware person who at least somewhat understands the combating faces and characters within their soul. They are a person who uses fashion advertisements and transactions to inspire, develop, and flush out their identities rather than a victim of aimless, herd-minded consumption. They are a person of taste, an opinionated individual who stands out while being in tune with specific micro societies enough to fit into a given social context.32 They are a person who rejects the logomania and wealth-signaling approach to life and instead asks questions, utilizing curiosity to understand a piece or place’s underlying artistic identity. Until the throng of fashionable consumers trends away from ego uncertainty and the need for status signaling and towards a conscious harnessing of personal narrative, more victims will fall to be buried alongside the Cartier Love Bracelet, Soho House, and Golden Gooses of the world in the cemetery of untapped beautifying potential.

  1. Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, translated by Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (Vintage Books, 2010), 15.
  2. Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress (Bloomsbury, 2016), 10.
  3. Barthes, The Fashion System), 264.
  4. Barthes, The Fashion System, 248.
  5. John Alison, “A Look at Cartesian Dualism” (University of Pennsylvania), N.D., accessed December 23, 2021.
  6. Alison, “A Look at Cartesian Dualism.”
  7. Didier Anzieu, The Skin-Ego, translated by Naomi Segal (Karnak Books, 2016)
  8. Alison Bancroft, Fashion and Psychoanalysis (Tauris, 2012).
  9. Giorgio Agamben, “Nudity,” Nudities, translated by David Kishik and Stefan Padatella (Stanford University Press, 2010).
  10. Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky, “Enclothed Cognition,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48, no. 4 (2012):. 918-925.
  11. Stanford Prison Experiment,” Encyclopedia of Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, n.d.
  12. Kunio Ishii, Makoto Numazaki, and Yoshika Tado’oka, “The Effect of Pink/Blue Clothing on Implicit and Explicit Gender‐Related Self‐Cognition and Attitudes among Men,” Japanese Psychological Research 61, no. 2 (2018): 123-132.
  13. Anzieu, The Skin-Ego.
  14. Anzieu, The Skin-Ego.
  15. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, translated by Freddy Perlman and Ken Knabb, (Critical Editions, 2021).
  16. Emanuele Coccia and Scott Alan Stuart, “Metaphysics of Clothing,” Sensible Life, 2016,  83-86.
  17. Barthes, The Fashion System, 254.
  18. Harsandaldeep Kaur and Sahiba Anand, “Actual versus Ideal Self: An Examination of the Impact of Fashion Self Congruence on Consumer’s Fashion Consciousness and Status Consumption Tendencies,” Journal of Global Fashion Marketing 12, no. 2 (2021): pp. 146-160.
  19. Friederich Nietzsche, Nietzsche On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
  20. Alina Alexandra Payne, From Ornament to Object: Genealogies of Architectural Modernism (Yale University Press, 2012).
  21. Payne, From Ornament to Object.
  22. Anuradha Chatterjee, John Ruskin and the Fabric of Architecture (Routledge, 2018).
  23. Adrian Forty, “Of Cars, Clothes and Carpets: Design Metaphors in Architectural Thought,” Journal of Design History 2, no. 1 (January 1989): 1-14.
  24. Gottfried Semper quoted in Chatterjee, John Ruskin and the Fabric of Architecture.
  25. Debord, The Society of the Spectacle.
  26. Chatterjee, John Ruskin and the Fabric of Architecture.
  27. Chatterjee, John Ruskin and the Fabric of Architecture.
  28. David Grazian, On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife (University of Chicago Press, 2011).
  29. Grazian, On the Make.
  30. Grazian, On the Make.
  31. Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002).
  32. Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020).
Back to Top