Fashion and Philosophy: A Talk by Professor Gwenda-lin Grewal

Gwenda-lin Grewal

Gwenda-lin Grewal

On January 17, Professor Seth Jaffe welcomed Dr. Gwenda-lin Grewal to his Introduction to Political Theory class for a guest lecture called “Fashion and Death: A Talk on Fashion | Sense.” The lecture was part of JCU’s Rome Political Theory Colloquium, co-sponsored by the Departments of Political Science and International Affairs and History and Humanities.

Gwenda-lin Grewal is the Onassis Lecturer in Ancient Greek Thought and Language at the New School for Social Research in New York City. During the lecture, Grewal discussed her new book Fashion | Sense: On Philosophy and Fashion (Bloomsbury, 2022). In the book she explains the thought process behind fashion, as well as makes ties between fashion and ancient philosophy and literature.

The inspiration for the book began over a decade ago when Grewal was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale. She noticed that, though many of the intellectuals around her seemed to think that caring about looks was a shallow business, they were at the same time obsessed with looking and dressing smart (meaning dressing as if they didn’t care about dressing). This led Grewal to wonder if caring about what one wears and how one presents oneself is not just for fashionistas, but rather, a question that everyone confronts when they pick out their clothes and put them on.

Grewal also talked about the claim that fashion is modern and western. She challenged this idea by showing the many references that ancient literature makes to fashion (in the modern or contemporary sense of the word). Grewal posed the question “How did fashion begin, when did it arrive, and where is it heading?” She referred to ancient works such as The Knights, an ancient Greek play by Aristophanes, and The Republic by Plato to show that not only do fashion trends recur, but so does the role fashion plays in the way one is perceived by the public.

During the lecture Grewal mentioned Machiavelli’s letter to Francesco Vettori. Machiavelli was a Florentine diplomat, politician, and writer. In the letter, he explains how, upon arriving home, he changes out of his muddy work clothes and into “regal” ones to read alone in his study. The pun on the Italian word reale—“regal” but also “real”—seems to suggest that Machiavelli dresses himself up in authenticity.

Grewal ended the lecture by referencing the beginning of her book. She concluded that, “Everything is in fashion, or maybe fashion is somehow everything.” Fashion is the way you present yourself to the world, and it at once encapsulates and hides “you.” Fashion in this way reveals thinking. And, according to Grewal, it is only in being aware of fashion that you can begin to get to know what is underneath the clothes.