These are times of post-truth, alternative facts and truthiness: at times it seems we are becoming fluent in Newspeak. But even as we have come to adapt to a more flexible view of reality, integrity, sincerity, truthfulness and authenticity remain consecrated ideals of selfhood. ‘Keep it real.’ ‘Stay true to yourself.’ ‘Be yourself.’ These truisms and tautologies have grazed many a coffee cup, self-help book and T-shirt, and they are a standard trope in TED Talks. Though we may cringe when we hear them, many of us have come to accept those corny phrases as conventional wisdom.
But is there such a thing as a ‘real me’ or a ‘genuine self’? How does one live an authentic life? And is it possible to do so in fashion, an environment so wedded to the mood of the moment, so seemingly dependent on masks and masquerade, adopted when convenient and shed when no longer useful. Some might say that fashion and authenticity are antithetical: one the definition of the present ethos, the other the value of those who strive to prevail over it. Or so an existentialist, smoking in
Les Deux Magots in 1946, would have posited. Only by overcoming the accepted norms imposed on us by our social institutions – family, education, religion, government – can an individual begin to live a truly authentic life.
Today, philosophers prefer to think of authenticity as constructed and performed: we are selves upon selves upon selves. In 1981 Jean Baudrillard wrote about simulacra and simulation, meaning that we now have copies depicting things without an original. There is no more reality, only signs and symbols. Our experience of reality is only simulation; what it hides isn’t authenticity but that no such thing is needed for us to understand the world in which we live.
Curiously, as philosophers debate the collapse of authenticity in a postmodern world, in consumer capitalism it has taken on a supreme importance: in fashion it’s the holy grail. Terms like ‘artisanal,’ ‘heritage,’ ‘craftsmanship’ and ‘storytelling’ have become buzzwords, and conglomerates are fond of referring to their offices as ‘campus’ and co-workers as ‘family.’ The further away we feel from those values, the more important they become it seems. We speak of ‘real clothes’ as opposed to ‘fashion,’ and ‘real people’ as opposed to models.