The conformity paradox in fashion looks something like this: Say you are an individual in the truest sense, and everything you do and wear is so unique and interesting that everyone who sees you acknowledges that you are different. A real trend-setter. As a result, your Instagram photos routinely get Pinned across the planet and end up featured prominently in trend analysis reports by mega-retailers like Zara.
In a matter of months your unique style becomes everyone else’s, and you are forced to evolve, or become just another clone of yourself. So you evolve. Again and again, until the only thing that makes you appear an “individual” is the fact that you keep evolving. The paradox lies in the fact that being “an individual” doesn’t seem to be possible in fashion, because eventually, we all end up dressing the same, liking the same things, and posting the same Instagram photos.
“The most common form of despair is not being who you are,” wrote Søren Kierkegaard, the father of existential angst, who argued passionately against conformity and the way it keeps us from becoming ourselves. Kierkegaard saw “mass appeal” as a mass opting-out of self reflection and understanding, choosing the safety of the river current rather than doing the hard work of figuring things out for ourselves.
“Truth always rests with the minority,” wrote the philosopher, “and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.” In other words, according to Mr. Kierkegaard (who would have been the most annoying hipster in the world if he were alive today), there’s no way all of you actually like Drake, Louis Vuitton bags and pumpkin spice lattes. At least some of you would prefer something entirely different, if only you gave yourself the chance to deviate from popular opinion.
And yet, ironically if there’s just one thing we all have in common it’s that we do tend to think of ourselves as different from everyone else. Fundamentally, we all believe that we’re unique somehow, and deserving special recognition for our talents and unique point of view. But how true is that really? How many versions of you are really out there? And how do you know if you’re the sheep or the wolf of your story?
Generally speaking, everyone will agree that conformity is bad and that being an individual is pretty fundamental to our overall success in life. But it wasn’t always so. Historically, nonconformists were seen as mentally unstable and ostracized from society. There were days when being “different” came with the same connotation as joining a cult would today. Not falling in line with everyone else was not only considered strange, but disturbing and cause for serious concern.
It wasn’t until Freud’s psychoanalysis came along in the early 1900s that people suddenly became “individuals” in the current sense. In an instant Freud changed the individual from just “a person” to a separate entitiy from the rest of society, with unique needs and desires. Freud’s strange philosophy of subconscious urges and repressed desires made people reevaluate themselves. Who am I really? Is this really the life I want? Maybe I deserve more? Before the 1950s people just accepted that social norms were the necessary stuff of happiness. A nice house in the suburbs, a nice family, one boy, one girl, a fully stocked kitchen and some money in the bank. What else could you possible want? Don’t we all want the same things?
Almost the moment these questions were out there, the advertising industry was born. And in time, thanks to Freud’s own nephew Edward Bernays who literally invented the field of public relations, companies everywhere began to employ Freud’s concepts of unconscious fears and desires to shape the way we understand our needs as individuals to be synonymous with our needs as consumers.
Though the way Bernays’ reached consumers was both insidious and highly manipulative, designed to speak directly to their deepest darkest desires, his original motives came from good intentions. The world was still reeling from the devastation of the Second World War, and in its wake Freud’s nephew came to the conclusion that humans must by nature be evil to allow for such horror to occur. His goal was to channel humanity’s “dangerous libidinal energy” into economic productivity, arguing that irrational and dangerous desires could be subdued with something as simple and innocent as shopping. It was an ominous beginning to what we know as the fashion industry today.
It was at that moment our collective perception of what it meant to be an individual shifted from uniformity to nonconformity. The monotonous but productive member of society who wore the same thing everyone else was wearing and seemingly wanted the same things everyone else wanted, became the quirky hipster who did weird stuff to their clothes and hair in a conscious effort to ‘be different’. This new individual was an economic gold-mine, needing a constant stream of new products to keep from looking too much like everyone else. Though it’s all in vain.
The specific flavor of individualism used to sell products to people ironically makes everyone exactly the same. We wear the same clothes (vintage high-waisted Levis jeans, with Zara top), listen to the same music (Rihanna and Drake), have the same hair (loose-wavy and below-the-shoulder-bobbed), we even have the same tattoos and piercings (geometric shape and a septum ring). We to do these things because we want to belong to the counter-culture tribe – we want to go against the grain, but within a couple of months literally everything we do becomes the norm. And so, in order to remain an individual in the fashion sense, you need to switch up your style every three months. And lucky for you, there’s a totally unique army of designs released for your purchasing pleasure exactly every three months, re-fall, winter, pre-spring, and summer.
Dr. Jonathan Touboul, a neuroscientist at the Collège de France and author of a recent study on conformity among fashion types, aptly called this phenomenon the “hipster effect.” He found that even people who identify as nonconformists will ultimately conform to the norms of a group simply because of the impossibility of keeping up with rapidly changing trends. Have you ever wondered why as people get older they stop pushing the envelope on what they’re wearing? This is why. Not only does it take an incredible amount of work to be a nonconformist, it eventually becomes impossible.
“If you take large sets of interacting individuals—whether hipsters, stock traders or any group that decides to go against the majority—by trying to be different, they will ultimately all do the same thing at the same time,” says Touboul. “The reason for that is the time it takes for an individual to register the decisions of others.”
No one wants to see themselves as a conformist, it’s empowering to see yourself as a unique person but all people function under the invisible force of a certain cultural current. The norm is defined by the parameters of what everyone else thinks. So, in light of this, who is the individual? The word itself seems to imply that it is someone who stands alone, and apart from everyone else. She is the wolf among the sheep. Or does she only think she is?
- The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations by Larry Tye
- The Interpretation of Dreams: The Complete and Definitive Text by Sigmund Freud
- The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition of Edification & Awakening by Anti-Climacus by Soren Kierkegaard
- The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism by Thomas Frank
First published in Lone Wolf Magazine by Natalia Borecka