Individuality and Inner Struggle
Humans desire to have individuality. What is
individuality? It can be thought of as a combination of
qualities that distinguish one individual from another.
Wanting to be different from others is a part of the human
nature, but what is also a part of this nature is the
longing for social acceptance. Therefore, humans are always
searching for a way to fulfill both needs. Minou Fuglesang
and Georg Simmel use fashion and envy, along with culture,
in their writings to define the inner struggle of the
human’s need to be an individual within a group.
In order to understand how exterior influences cause
inner struggle, one must understand what inner struggle is.
Inner struggle can be illustrated by Plato’s example from
Phaedrus of the charioteer and his horses (31). In relation
to fashion, envy, and culture, the charioteer represents
humans and their wants. One could say that the two horses
represent two of the many different needs of human nature:
one horse, individuality and the other horse, conformity.
When all three come together, the horse of individuality and
the horse of conformity want to go in completely opposite
directions while the charioteer wants his horses to go
straight ahead, so the charioteer has an extremely difficult
time reining the horses. Like the charioteer, humans also
battle with two sides that want to go different ways.
Simmel argues that fashion is a tool used to express
one’s individuality in order to be accepted by others.
Humans have two needs in society: “the need of union on the
one hand and the need of isolation on the other” (Simmel
301). They want to be seen as an individual, different from
everyone, but they also want to be part of a group for the
reassurance of their individuality. As Simmel states, “ . .
. fashion represents . . . the tendency towards social
equalization with the desire for individual differentiation
and change” (296). Fashion is extremely fickle and
transient because “the very character of fashion demands
that it should be exercised at one time only by a portion of
the given group” (Simmel 302). This transient character-
istic guarantees that the upper class, the ones in society
who have enough means to follow fashion, remain in a group
by themselves because as soon as the lower classes begin to
imitate the upper class fashion, the upper class changes the
Like Simmel, Fuglesang also holds that fashion is used
to unify and isolate. She states, “Women dress for each
other as well as for themselves” (109). The women who
attend the wedding celebration “dress for each other” to
obtain approval from other women but they also dress “for
themselves” to express their individuality. Fuglesang
emphasizes this ambiguity by recounting a story of her
experience at a “kupamba” in the very beginning of the
chapter. In her account, she describes women who follow the
most recent local fashions and those who imitate the styles
of television celebrities by wearing “pepeo collars with
frills” and “disco highlights”. These women emulate various
styles because it is a way for them to be different but
similar at the same time.
Why people follow fashion becomes more difficult to
determine when envy is involved. It can be a reassurance of
one’s individuality but it can also be a way of conforming
to society. People follow fashion because “the fashionable
person is regarded with mingled feelings of approval and
envy; we envy him as an individual, but approve of him as a
member of a set or group” (Simmel 304). Simmel’s argument
for this is supported by his example of the rich and poor
neighbors (304). The poor man feels envy toward his rich
neighbor while the rich man feels satisfaction from being
envied because he is not poor. Fashion works the same way.
Fashionable people know that they are different from others
when the less fashionable envy them. This satisfies their
need to be individuals. But then, there are those people
who envy the fashionable because the fashionable are a part
of a certain group, the chic group. They are not looking
for ways to express their individuality, but rather a way to
be like others, to be accepted by others.
Culture also plays a large role in the human’s in-
decision between individuality and social acceptance. Most
people feel they must honor their culture, a part of their
individuality, by continuing to honor old traditions. Yet
at the same time, they long to follow “local fashions” and
copy the styles of celebrities to be accepted by the popular
culture by exhibiting their “modernity” (Fuglesang 112).
Money is also an issue in some cultures. For example, the
extent of money lavished on a “kupamba” determines “the
bride’s social value” (Fuglesang 117). If money is used
sparingly for a “kupamba”, the bride and her family become
victims of gossip and dishonor in the community, losing
their social acceptance. Not only do fashion and money
cause conflict within oneself, it also causes conflict
within the community. As Fuglesang exemplifies, there are
religious reformists who disagree with the modern marital
practices. These religious leaders criticize the presence
of male musicians at all-female events, and they also
criticize the wedding veil, arguing that “it is a symbol
taken from the Christian wedding which has nothing to do
with Islam” (119).
Fashion, envy, and culture affect individuality and
conformity. They cause conflict within people because, like
the two horses, they pull humans in opposite directions.
All three advocate segregation by creating an elite group,
but simultaneously, they also advocate union by creating a
group. In order to overcome this inner struggle of self and
society, one must find a medium, a straight path to follow
like the charioteer.
Fuglesang, Minou. Veils and Videos: Female Youth Culture
on the Kenyan Coast. Vol. 32 Stockholm Studies in
Social Anthropology. Stockholm: Department of Social
Anthropology Stockholm University: Distributed by
Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1994.
Plato. Phaedrus. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul
Woodruff. United States: Hacket Publishing Company,
Simmel, Georg. On Individuality and Social Forms; Selected
Writings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.
Word Count: 960