What drives fashion?

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‘It was this new consumer demand, the mill girl who wanted to look like a duchess … which helped create the Industrial Revolution.’

(Vickery, 1993)

Understanding why fashion exists firstly requires an understanding of what fashion means. This essay will establish a definition of fashion before exploring the emulation arguments of Veblen and Simmel and comparing these to more modern theorists, including Bourdieu and Crane to discuss the stimuli that drive fashion.

Rouse (1989) describes fashion as an attribute that is bestowed on clothes through endorsement by certain people. The social meaning attached to consumer goods is contingent upon their status as commodities (Lee, 1993). This social legitimisation has the power to transform clothes from humble garments to status symbols. The endowment of meaning to clothes through individuals permeates the entire history of fashion.

Entwistle (2015) describes how most historians of fashion are referring to a very particular industry that was created through technological developments in Europe when they write about fashion. This ‘historically and geographically specific system for the production and organization of dress’, developed with the rise of capitalism and the emergence of a bourgeois class. Fashion, as we know it, began when this new social group challenged the established rule by flouting the sumptuary laws that prevented them from wearing the clothes of the aristocracy (Entwistle, 2015). In order to maintain their status as superior to the lower classes, Simmel (1904) argues that the upper classes adopted new styles of dress once their previous clothes began to be appropriated by aspiring lower classes. This increased the changing pace of fashion as the upper classes constantly sought to differentiate themselves from those lower down the social hierarchy: abandoning fashions as soon as they were adopted by those trying to emulate them (Simmel, 1904).

Veblen (1899) explained this system of emulation with his ‘trickle-down theory’, which described how the diffusion of fashion travelled from the upper to the lower classes. According to this hierarchical structure, wealth determined social status, and visible consumption was the way that wealth was expressed and validated (Schor, 2007). The body was used to display an individual’s conspicuous consumption (Fine and Leopold, 1993) and, since fashion had no utility, it showed the wearer’s distance from function. Not only must dress be conspicuously expensive, it must also be up to date and show distance from work. Only the rich could afford not to work and this ‘leisure class’ had the luxury of discarding clothes before they became worn out (Veblen, 1899). Those who sought to improve their status adopted the clothing of the upper classes, and these styles made their way down the social hierarchy as lower classes emulated those above them (Crane 1999).

This rather simplistic view of fashion assumes that a desire for superior status is the only reason that individuals would choose clothing (Campbell, 1992). More recently, scholars have further analysed the reasons behind how individuals interact with fashion. Teunissen (2013) described how fashion is not only worn to show affiliation with social groups, but to allow the wearer to express their individuality. While there is no doubt that the meaning attached to clothes can convey status, this limited view of fashion neglects the myriad ways that clothes can be used by individuals to construct their identities. Crane (2000) argues that, especially in today’s postmodern society, clothing is assembled on the body to express different aspects of the wearer’s personality. With self-creation and self-expression such important aspects of how we dress, it is naïve and over-deterministic to suggest that fashion is derived exclusively from the upper classes (Appleford, 2013). Even fashion designers no longer dictate fashions; certain styles ‘bubble-up’ from the street, in stark contrast to Veblen’s trickle-down system (Polhemus, 1994). With designers taking influence from street style and the fashion-conscious rich adopting styles that were first worn by the young working class, status is no longer considered to be the driving force in fashion (Twigg, 2013). Fashion is a much more complex phenomenon, in which influences and trends move in different directions, that cannot be reduced to a singular cause and effect (Entwistle, 2015).

It could be argued that the human desire for superiority has taken a different form, where once wealth was displayed on the body to show status, fashion is now arguably adopted because it is deemed fashionable (Blumer, 1969). Status is no longer confined to class and social position, but can also be gained through knowing what is fashionable and having the correct taste (Entwistle, 2015). This knowledge is explained by Bourdieu (1984)’s notion of ‘cultural capital’, by which prestige is attached to knowing the ‘right’ commodities to buy, as perceived by the social circle that an individual aims to align themselves with (Bourdieu, 1984). Thornton (1995) argues that subcultures possess their own ‘subcultural capital’, with which they distinguish themselves from mainstream fashion. While their interpretations of fashion may not match the traditional model described by Simmel and Veblen, they still use clothing as a way of displaying their superiority over others and the same hierarchies of legitimacy are present in subcultures (Entwistle, 2015).

While much early literature on fashion analyses the way that status influences how individuals dress, with classes competing against each other, this quest for superiority is now perhaps more of an internal competition. The way that fashion is used to present identity means that the body is an on-going project, where the self is constantly improved upon (Entwistle, 2015). Whether this self-creation means aligning with a particular class, or subculture, or to convey a more accurate personal self-image, individuals continue to consume fashion to present their ever-changing identity to the world. Fashion has existed, and will continue to do so, because of a human desire for superiority over others, but also over their previous selves.


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