APOSEMATISM: FASHION’S ANTISOCIAL ADAPTATIONS
Finding Solace Through Style in a Claustrophobic Era
In order to become the super organism humanity is today, humans built innumerable power lines, launched thousands of satellites, laid 550,000 miles of cable deep in the oceans, and manufactured billions of cellphones. The proliferation of conduit and infrastructure has brought us into constant contact, and as our digital lives dissolve further into the collective static of the internet, we feel an ever-greater need to protect our physical selves. Offices at Facebook and Google (where programmers divine new ways of infiltrating your private life) are furnished with nap pods, where you can steal away for a moment of humanity. We use screen protectors and VPNs to grasp at anonymity—Tom Cruise likes to ride a motorcycle, not because he enjoys the ride but because with a helmet on he can finally get some privacy. Privacy itself is a defense mechanism; it protects us from the machine of commerce and social pressure. In this day and age, we are trying to hold on to who we are.
It is an antisocial era. Aposematism describes the conspicuous advertising of sounds, colors, odors, and forms that serve as warning signs to drive off predation in nature. Frogs that display brilliant colors, snakes with patterned scales, a pufferfish that blows itself up to double its size—these are all examples of this system at work. Just as an insect can adapt to a hostile environment by growing a spiked back or a colorful pattern, we too are coding a defensive instinct in our appearances. Shirts that say “Fuck Off” aren’t just for teenagers anymore. Neek Lurk, founder of Antisocial Social Club built a cult brand with two million followers by targeting “losers, weirdos, negativity, people into bondage and BDSM, porn lovers; oh…and people that get the bigger picture and meaning.” Our reaction to the claustrophobia of modernity is echoed in style, creating a struggle for individualism deeply ingrained in the mainstream. Personal space is a luxury afforded to few, but desired by all.
Insular gigantism is a term used to describe the transformation that small animals experience in isolation. Just as a species of mice on an island will swell into a grotesque version of itself, centuries of aristocrats in high castles grew big and fat. Today, wealthy people cherish their health, finding God at Soul Cycle and eating raw nuts, forcing their habits, clothing, and possessions to become the primary modes of harnessing the power of scale. Size is an unmistakable advantage, and the fetishization for large things (cars, guns, watches) demonstrates our fixation on its power. Scale is the simplest and bluntest expression of our desire to defend our space. Like the children who stack on one another’s shoulders under a trench coat to get into a peep show, we wear high heels and platform shoes to shake the stigma of being small, and to impose on our enemies. This tendency not only applies to our feet, but also to our heads and our bodies—from the Triple S sneaker to the proliferation of oversized down jackets, we’re surrounded by large expensive things that make us feel safe and keep others at bay. Just like the pufferfish, we swell ourselves up when out in public, building a physical barrier between our bodies and the environment. So thorough is our obsession with size that what was once large is today not large enough. The Hummer has been replaced by the Rezvani Tank (owned by the likes of Chris Brown and Jamie Foxx), marketed as “the toughest Extreme Utility Vehicle on Earth.” The emerging market for “a luxury military vehicle designed for defense, built for the road” forecasts a future in which things only continue to grow.
In 1933 Bob Switzer was unloading tomatoes in Berkeley, California when he fell and fractured his skull, severing his optic nerve. Forced to spend months in a dark room during his recovery, Bob worked to develop the world’s first fluorescent paint, and shortly thereafter, using his wife’s wedding dress, the world’s first piece of high-visibility clothing. With more and more people looking to stand out and keep others away, loud clothes have become commonplace, a standard part of our stylistic vocabulary. We are conditioned to recognize bright colors where they don’t belong. Signs along the highway catch light and blast messaging back into tired eyes. The word “warning” is synonymous with reflective foil and industrial orange. Metallic clothes and neon colors are alien, disrupting their environment in an uncanny way, declaring themselves as signs of danger ahead.
NYU’s Bobst Library is famous for its patterned floor and its suicide problem. The architect who designed it, Nazi sympathizer Phillip Johnson, claimed that the floor’s threatening spiked pattern was “purposely designed to reduce suicide jumpers.” Just like the regal ring-necked snake, this pattern was designed to signal danger, to keep people away by calling attention to itself. The opposite of camouflage, these superficial devices protect not by blending in with the environment, but by standing out from it. Much like dramatic coloration, these patterns clash with nature and can be seen from far off, telling everyone within eyesight that they’re in harm’s way.
In Katsuhiro Otomo’s infamous anime, Akira, a young man named Tetsuo is given supernatural powers after being kidnapped and experimented on by the government of Neo-Tokyo. At the film’s climax these powers prove too great for his body, causing him to expand, distort, and explode into horrific slimy, malformed tumor-like blobs as he destroys the city around him. Deformed bodies are monstrous; they challenge the ways in which we recognize reality and orient ourselves socially. The Comme des Garçons top that distends your abdomen turns you into a humanoid, dividing you from the familiar silhouette that we recognize as human. The Margiela Fusion sneaker is a Frankenstein concoction of various incongruous bodies hacked apart and forced together with glue.
While some objects make you into a monster, others make you into a weapon. The balaclava that renders you faceless and the shoe shaped like a knife operate in a different defensive capacity from their shapeless counterparts. Rather than deform the body and ward off threats by leveraging disgust, these items recall and aestheticize fundamental fears and dangers. Adding spikes to your windowsill to keep pigeons away is no different from wearing a shoe sharp enough to poke someone’s eye out. Like the townspeople in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, we instinctively fear the adoption of weaponized traits and stay away from those who possess them.
People look for ways to connect with one another—this pursuit brought us language and civilization itself. The impulse to build community, find intimacy, and discover your true self are all expressed through this desire for connection. These rituals and practices are indications of intelligent life, our collective ascension from the primordial gloop. If nothing else, culture is the attempt to negotiate this collectivity, to find commonalities and turn individuals’ desires and beliefs into product and artifact. Aposematism is what happens when we are too connected, it is the inevitable byproduct of a culture determined to maximize contact and infuse all matters of identity and expression with a social quality. It’s not just a means of defending your space and earning privacy, but a way of signaling to peers that you too are exhausted by the state of things. We are united in the struggle to protect our individuality, to navigate the world with the confidence that says, “I am not you.”
Lucas Mascatello is an artist and brand strategist based in New York City.