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Fashions in clothing are frequently regarded as frivolous, but major changes in clothing styles are generally indicators of important shifts in social relations and in levels of social tension. Fashion as a form of popular culture can be interpreted using theories that have been developed to explain other types of popular culture, such as theories of social reproduction, semiotic analyses of meaning in cultural images and artifacts, postmodern assessments of contemporary culture, and theories concerning the production of culture in cultural industries. Analysis of meanings of clothing and how meanings of specific items of clothing change over time is necessary in order to interpret changes both in the nature of fashion and in the motivations of fashion adopters. What induces the public to adopt fashions is an important area of study that draws on sociological and social-psychological theories. Fashion is created and produced in organizations that constitute a cultural industry, which can be compared with other types of cultural industries, such as film and music. The tensions between high culture and popular culture that exist in other areas of cultural consumption are reproduced in the fashion system as designers draw on themes from popular culture but also attempt to associate themselves with the arts and to use artistic strategies similar to those of avant-gardes in the arts.

Origins of Modern Fashion

In Europe, fashions in clothing began in the late Middle Ages when developments in dressmaking led to the production of types of clothing that fit the body closely in contrast to sacklike costumes worn in previous eras. In the close-fitting style, stylistic details could be varied continually. Until the Industrial Revolution led to some redistribution of income in the nineteenth century, fashion was confined largely to those with considerable means since material was expensive and clothing was made by hand. By the end of the nineteenth century, some clothing was manufactured, and the price of material had declined. Clothing was one of the first forms of popular culture that became available to all social classes. Its symbolic importance is suggested by the fact that in the United States, workers increased their expenditures on clothing as their incomes rose.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the fashion system was highly centralized. Paris was the center of fashion for women's clothes while London was the center of fashion for men's clothes. A few designers in Paris decided what would be fashionable in a large number of Western and Western-oriented countries. The most influential designer was Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman (1825–1895) who worked in Paris and created styles that were adopted by the upper and middle classes all over Europe and America. Worth created the tradition of haute couture, clothes made to order for clients who ordered them directly from designers. For a costume to be considered elegant, every detail had to be correct. Fashion evolved in an orderly manner, following a succession of cycles based on shapes of the skirt: bell, back-fullness (the bustle), and tubular. Fashionable dresses were composed of huge quantities of fabric and trimmings. Decisions by Paris designers to use a particular type of material or accessory had enormous consequences for fashion industries in the Western world, affecting the price of textiles and sometimes the survival of entire factories. During most of the nineteenth century, fashionable dress styles restricted women's movements, impeding activities such as climbing stairs or walking in the streets. They included in different periods tightly laced corsets, wide crinolines, tight sleeves, enormous bustles, and long trains.

Fashionable clothing was a type of nonverbal communication that conveyed information about the wearer's social role, social standing, and personal character. Upper- and middle-class women devoted a great deal of time and money to creating elaborate wardrobes that presented them appropriately to members of their social milieus. Fashionable clothing exemplified the doctrine of separate spheres that was supported by other social institutions. It was entirely suitable for the subordinate and passive roles women were expected to perform.

Fashionable clothing styles created in France expressed French conceptions of how bourgeois women should dress. French designers responded slowly to changes that were taking place in the lifestyles of middle- and upper-class women. Alternative styles, more appropriate for women's new roles in the workplace and for new forms of leisure, such as sports, gradually appeared in England and in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In these countries, women's movements lobbied against fashionable styles and advocated dress reforms without much success. New styles of clothing, in the form of uniforms, emerged in schools and colleges, where women performed gymnastics and engaged in sports. Resorts, where women played actively or took up swimming, were another site for experimenting with new types of clothing. At the end of the nineteenth century, bicycling became extremely popular with both men and women but entailed the use of clothing that was very different from fashionable styles.

During and after World War I, changes in clothing styles pioneered in the late nineteenth century began to appear in fashionable clothing, particularly in styles created by French designers, such as Paul Poiret and Gabrielle Chanel. A major trend in the period between the two world wars was a movement toward physical mobility and freedom through the simplification of fashionable clothing, as seen in shorter hemlines, looser and more comfortable styles, and the use of more practical fabrics that either had been formerly reserved for working-class men's clothing or were the result of new technological developments. Hemlines rose and fell periodically, but it was not until the late 1960s that the thigh-length mini-skirt made its first appearance.

Another important trend was toward androgyny in women's clothes and in their appearance in general, as exemplified by the popularization of short hair styles and the gradual acceptance of men's pants as female attire. In the 1920s, the fashion ideal in France was a "boyish" look (la garçonne) that represented a desire to break with conventional behavior through "the blurring or reversal of gender roles" (Roberts, p. 66). The equivalent in the United States was the "flapper."

Although some upper-class and working-class women wore pants between the two world wars, pants were not widely accepted until the 1970s when fashion designers, such as Yves Saint Laurent, finally began to include them in their collections. Blue jeans, which were invented in the mid-nineteenth century and had originally been worn exclusively by men, became a highly fashionable item of clothing for both sexes.

The fashion system was supported and made possible by values and attitudes toward social class and personal identity that were widely accepted in industrial societies during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Identification with social class was a major factor affecting the way individuals perceived their identities and their relationships with their social environments. Conformity to strict sets of rules about how certain items of clothing should be worn (gloves, shoes, hats, hemlines, and colors) signified that the individual belonged to or aspired to belong to the middle class. Acceptance of these rules was based on fear of exclusion. Violation of these rules indicated that the individual was not aware of the correct mode of behavior. Class-based fashion involved a high level of consensus among designers and the public.

Toward the end of the 1960s, the fashion system underwent major changes. In the new fashion system, fashion ceased to be dictated entirely by class considerations and became a means for expressing nuances of individuality, based on perceptions of gender, age, and race as well as political and social values. While clothes in the workplace continued to express class distinctions, leisure clothing was more likely to be used to convey personal identity rather than social class affiliation. As Anthony Giddens has argued, developing and nurturing personal identity became a major project for many people in the late twentieth century.

Class cultures were less homogenous than before; leisure cultures based on popular culture in the form of film, music, and sports proliferated and provided resources for discovering and expressing identities. Consequently, the number of sources of fashion ideas increased greatly, providing people with alternatives to ideas disseminated by the fashion industry. Fashions proposed by the fashion industry were no longer automatically accepted. Fashion creators ceased to view the fashion consumer as a fashion victim and began to see her as an autonomous individual who created a personal style that was meaningful to herself, by incorporating elements of fashionable styles rather than adopting an exact copy of a particular style. However, many women were not interested in fashion. In the late twentieth century, the proportion of the female population that followed fashion was estimated to be between one-fifth and one-third (Gutman and Mills, Krafft).

The public's desire for fashionable clothing that expressed their personal identities undermined the highly centralized system in which French fashion had predominated. This was replaced by a more decentralized system in which successful luxury fashion industries developed in several other countries, such as the United States, Italy, Japan, Great Britain, Germany, and Belgium. Many other countries have small luxury fashion industries. In this system, France, Italy, Great Britain, and the United States are the most influential.

Theoretical Perspectives on Fashion

The nature of and shifts in the character of fashion since the mid-nineteenth century have been examined from many different perspectives. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Georg Simmel developed the earliest theory of social change in fashion. According to Simmel's model, fashions in clothing were adopted first by the upper class, whose members sought to differentiate themselves from other social classes and to reinforce their social status. Fashions diffused next to the middle class and then to the lower class. By the time a specific fashion had been adopted by the lower classes, the upper class had already adopted newer styles since the previous style had lost its capacity to differentiate between them.

This model is useful for understanding the fashion system during the earlier period but is less useful in the contemporary period. Now some fashions originate among the lower classes and among marginal subcultures, such as the hippies, and are disseminated upward in a "bottom-up" process. In this model, dissemination upward does not occur in a systematic fashion from lower social levels to higher social levels, but may occur at any higher level where people, and particularly young people as heavy consumers of popular culture, are exposed to these trends. Dissemination occurs most rapidly when designers in the fashion industry pick up these trends, which are then disseminated downward in the social system.

What motivates people to follow fashion? Different theories have been applicable at different periods. In societies characterized by distinct class cultures, such as the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Pierre Bourdieu's (1984) theory of cultural capital can be applied to fashion. Understanding the nuances of fashionable dress can be conceptualized as a form of cultural capital available to women belonging to the upper class and used as a means of attaining or reinforcing class status. Thorstein Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption in which goods are a means of displaying personal wealth also applies to the behavior of some fashion followers, particularly those who are upwardly mobile.

In late-twentieth-century societies, where developing and nurturing personal identity have become a major project for many people, Fred Davis's symbolic interactionist theory is relevant for understanding how fashion is perceived. According to Davis, fashionable clothing is attractive to the consumer because it expresses ambivalences surrounding social identities, such as "youth versus age, masculinity versus femininity, androgyny versus singularity . . . work versus play . . . conformity versus rebellion" (pp. 17–18). Fashionable clothes redefine these tensions and embody them in new styles.

Postmodernist theory (Baudrillard) suggests that fashionable styles no longer have any inherent meanings but are made up of signifiers whose connotations are constantly changing, detached from their original cultural contexts. This theory suggests that fashion consumers are "sartorial bricoleurs," selecting clothes for their capacity to create a "look" and not for the messages they convey. Consumers' selections of styles can no longer be explained on the basis of their backgrounds or values. Instead, fashion consumers engage in style "surfing," moving quickly from one style to another without any ideological commitment. David Muggleton describes the postmodern fashion consumer for whom "the trappings of a spectacular style are their right of admission to a costume party, a masquerade, a hedonistic escape into a blitz culture fantasy, characterized by political indifference" (p. 49).

In his study of British adolescents who belonged to middle- and lower-class subcultures, Muggleton found that adolescents who engaged in style "surfing" were perceived as superficial. Styles were not adopted and rejected on superficial grounds. The British adolescents in his study selected their clothes to express their identities and believed that their clothes expressed their inner selves. However, their conceptions of their identities were constantly evolving and changing. This meant that their clothing styles also changed frequently. To an uninformed observer, their clothing selections appeared to be random, but, in fact, changes in their clothing reflected changes in how they perceived their identities.

Susan Kaiser et al. argue that postmodern culture produces a situation in which fashionable styles and the adaptations consumers create from them are highly ambiguous. Adopting a symbolic interactionist approach, they argue that consumers struggle to make sense both of fashionable styles and of one another's clothing. In the process, they create new variations on current styles that may be incorporated into styles produced by the fashion industry. The latter employs fashion forecasters to comb the globe for sites where trendy young people gather in order to identify combinations of items that may be successful in the future.

Resistance to Fashion

The notion of what constitutes resistance to fashion is complex and has become increasingly difficult to identify. Cultural studies as developed in Britain locates resistance to the dominant culture in subcultures, usually belonging to the working class. Clothing styles are particularly suitable for expressing resistance because of the ease with which they can be altered and adapted. Alternatives to the dominant culture are composed of oppositional elements from different class and ethnic cultures. Eventually, alternative cultures are assimilated by the dominant culture in less threatening forms. Angela McRobbie (1988) shows how urban street stall markets in London constituted a focal point for the transmission of influences from street cultures to young fashion designers and art students.

When the level of tension between a subculture and the dominant culture is pronounced, alternative clothing styles are likely to be perceived as highly provocative. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, clothes worn by African Americans were often considered inappropriate and offensive by whites. During the 1930s and 1940s, the zoot suit, worn by African Americans and Hispanics, became both an affirmation of subcultural identity and a statement of rebellion. Its most distinctive features were the peg-top pants that ballooned at the knees, the knee-length coat, its bright colors, and the flashy accessories, such as a long gold watch chain. Because it required more cloth than was permissible during wartime rationing, it became a symbol of resistance to the war and was the focus of riots between young black and Hispanic men and uniformed white soldiers.

Dick Hebdige, in a classic work using the cultural studies approach, traced the origins of the punk style to alienated youth in the British working class. Reacting against the hierarchical British class structure, working-class British youth expressed their frustrations by inventing unconventional styles of clothing that combined trends from commercial goods and elements from marginal ethnic cultures. The aim was to subvert the rules of fashionable clothing. Each choice of a garment or an accessory was seen as a creative act, as part of a practice of subversive consumption. In this environment, a young fashion designer and a musical entrepreneur who developed the first punk music group created the punk clothing style, using razor-slashed T-shirts, sewn to simulate scars, T-shirts showing the Queen of England with a safety pin through her nose and mouth, bondage chains, and hair styles in garish colors. Although its oppositional characteristics were muted, the punk style was rapidly accepted by fashion designers in Britain and elsewhere, and remains influential.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the creation and popularization of oppositional clothing is closely linked to popular music. Clothing worn by successful pop singers, such as Madonna, influences the clothing choices of their fans. New music groups, often African American, with distinctive clothing styles that subvert the clothing norms of the dominant culture, are constantly emerging. However, the rapidity with which successful groups are assimilated by the dominant culture through the medium of the music industry diminishes their potential for subcultural subversion.

The extent to which fashion as part of the dominant culture provides potential for resistance is limited. The images of women's roles projected by fashion tend to be ideologically conservative and often demeaning for women. Designers' cooptation of subversive elements from oppositional subcultures is more likely to be linked to a marketing strategy than to ideological commitment. Renato Poggioli argues that fashion is more concerned with the appearance of change and novelty than with bringing about any real change in the dominant culture. However, consumers may use fashion in oppositional ways. Mary Douglas argues that consumers may as often reject as accept the types of identities associated with products, and, in this sense, shopping becomes a form of social protest. Anthony Freitas et al., on the basis of a study of "least favorite" clothes, found that people tend to reject certain types of clothing that are associated with specific statuses (e.g., age, race, sexual orientation) as a way of indicating their lack of connections with specific groups. Focus groups conducted with young and middle-aged women showed that many of them rejected the images of women in fashion photographs taken from Vogue.

Meanings of Clothing

Semiotics provides tools for analyzing the meanings of particular items of clothing. From this point of view, clothing can be seen as a "language," which consists of images that are meaningful in specific social contexts in which they reinforce the structure of social interaction and the system of statuses and roles. Using concepts from semiotics, clothes can be viewed as signifiers whose meanings or "signifieds" can be identified. Some clothing signifiers are stable and correspond to "closed" texts; others are unstable and resemble "open" texts. Using this type of analysis, it is possible to develop typologies of the clothing signifiers that are most widely used or most characteristic of a particular period.

For example, Nathan Joseph argues that the distinction between uniforms and quasi-uniforms as compared to nonuniforms, such as leisure clothing and costumes, is essential for understanding the significance of clothing in Western society. The uniform has four major characteristics: (1) It designates membership in a group, often a formal organization; (2) It maximizes a specific status position, membership in a particular group, and conceals other status positions; (3) It is a certificate of the legitimacy of the individual as a representative of a particular group; and (4) It suppresses individual idiosyncrasies of behavior, appearance, and sometimes physical attributes. Quasi-uniforms are worn by members of nongovernmental organizations and have less legitimacy than uniforms worn by members of governmental organizations. Standardized clothing, such as mechanics' coverall and cowboy costumes, is different from uniforms in that it denotes membership in a diffuse, unorganized group rather than in a specific organization.

Ruth Rubinstein has identified six distinct types of clothing signifiers in American society. Her analysis is based on a distinction between signs and symbols. A sign has a single meaning that is widely recognized in the society in which it is used, while a symbol may be interpreted in many different ways, depending on the social status of those who are using specific symbols and of those who are interpreting them. These categories have analogies to the distinction between closed and open texts and to Joseph's distinction between uniforms and nonuniforms. Rubinstein's six categories include clothing signs, which correspond to Joseph's conception of uniforms; clothing symbols such as designer clothes and jewelry, which can be interpreted in a variety of ways; clothing tie-signs, which identify their wearers as members of marginal subcultures (such as the Amish or Hasidic Jews); clothing tie-symbols, which are a means of representing their wearers' affiliations with political causes or social issues; personal dress, which refers to the distinctive qualities of clothing people wear in public; and contemporary fashion, which represents the style of clothing at a particular time and which is influenced by political events and economic conditions, as well as collective memory.

The significance of items of clothing changes in different types of societies. The shift from a modernist to a postmodernist culture can be seen in the changing meanings of items, such as hats and T-shirts. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the article of clothing that played the most important role for indicating social distinctions among men was the hat. Virtually every man wore a hat when outside his home, regardless of social class. Since different types of hats were identified with different social strata, hats were used to claim and to maintain social status. At times, they were used to blur class boundaries by expressing a status to which a person aspired. Because men represented their families in public space, men's hats rather than women's were used to indicate the status of the family. Women's hats represented conspicuous consumption rather than coded signals referring to social rank. Occasionally a particular hat style, such as the straw boater in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, was worn by all social classes and also by women, before disappearing entirely from use except in popular entertainment.

The short-sleeved T-shirt imprinted with letters and/or images appeared in the 1940s, and, with the development of new technologies for printing on cloth in the 1950s, it became increasingly suitable for conveying visual and verbal messages. Because it is available at all price levels, rich and poor alike wear the T-shirt. Approximately 1 billion T-shirts are purchased annually in the United States. The T-shirt performs a function formerly associated with the hat, that of identifying an individual's social location. Instead of social status, the T-shirt speaks to all shades of issues related to ideology, difference, myth, politics, race, gender, and leisure. For example, it has been used to express racism and antiracism, sexism and antisexism, conservatism and liberalism.

Using the categories of closed and open texts, hats were closed texts, garments with fixed meanings. Another type of garment with fixed meanings is the business suit, which has distinct connotations of status and elitism. Garments with fixed meanings are generally worn in class societies or, in the early 2000s, in bureaucratic organizations typical of most workplaces.

Garments with open meanings, such as T-shirts and blue jeans, are more likely to appear in societies organized around lifestyles rather than social classes because members of different lifestyles wish to express different meanings using the same type of garment. Unlike hats, whose meanings were universally understood, T-shirts speak to like-minded people. A particular T-shirt may not be meaningful to those with different views and affiliations. The blue jean can also be considered as an open text since it continually added new meanings during the course of the twentieth century and into the new millennium. Starting in the middle of the nineteenth century as a form of clothing for men performing hard work outdoors, the blue jean became identified in the mid-twentieth century with social resistance and eventually with social conformity when the fashion industry began to produce trendy versions of the blue jean for both sexes. These examples illustrate the fact that, as society changes, not only the styles of clothes change but the same types of clothes express meanings, such as social status and social identity, in different ways.

Fashion as a Cultural Industry

During the late twentieth century, fashion as a cultural industry became increasingly similar to other culture industries, such as the film industry and the music industry. Fashion firms increased in size, formed oligopolies, and were bought by conglomerates. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fashion was produced in small French firms whose principal activity was making made-to-order clothes for clients. Industrial companies produced cheaper clothing for the middle and lower classes. Designer firms had relatively stable clienteles composed of members of the aristocracy, the upper middle class, wealthy bohemians, and foreigners. Designers met many of their clients and understood the social milieus in which they moved.

In the postwar period, luxury designer fashion firms underwent enormous changes. Profits were obtained primarily from sales of perfume and accessories and from licensing the right to reproduce designs by other firms. Clothing styles were used to create a prestigious image to enhance the sales of other products. In order to be successful, these companies found it necessary to sell their products in many other countries. The level of investment required to start this type of business soared. Young designers were increasingly unable to start their own firms and began their careers designing clothes for existing firms. As in other culture industries, conglomerates bought the most successful firms. In keeping with predictions based on theories concerning the production of culture, which argue that market structure and the organization of businesses in culture industries affect the level of innovation, oligopolization of the fashion industry and globalization of fashion markets have created a situation in which small firms are less likely to be recognized as innovative by fashion experts while large firms are able to survive with a low level of product innovation. McRobbie (1998, p. 180) argues that small British design firms function as "transitional structures" that serve to establish their owners' skills and reputations but can seldom be transformed into more permanent structures because of the lack of venture capital needed to compete in the global marketplace.

The roles of luxury fashion designers have distinctive characteristics in different countries, depending on the history of the fashion industry, the nature of the clientele, and the relative influence of marginal subcultures. In France, the status of the fashion designer continually increased in the twentieth century. The analogies of fashion creation to the arts were made explicit with the creation of fashion museums in several cities and the development of Paris as an international fashion center, where designers from all over the world displayed their creations.

In England, until the 1960s, fashion designers were considered artisans rather than artists. The clienteles of the most successful designers were composed of royalty and other members of the upper class, whose conservative tastes inhibited the aesthetic aspects of fashion design. Beginning in the late 1960s, young fashion designers from the working class were trained in art schools, where they were influenced by urban working-class subcultures and rebellious music and produced subversive designs. In the 1960s, an era that also generated world-famous British musicians, such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, a few young designers, such as Mary Quant and Biba, received a lot of publicity.

However, the British clothing industry has been largely unreceptive to the work of British designers, preferring standardized clothing for mass markets. McRobbie found that British fashion designers' training in art school encouraged them to view themselves as artists in Bourdieu's sense of the term—as an elite concerned with aesthetic issues and disdainful of practical considerations. She shows that this conception of the occupation is inappropriate for coping with the economic conditions young designers face in the marketplace after graduation. Nevertheless, McRobbie argues that the source of many new fashion trends in Europe and America lies "in the experimental funhouse of the British youth culture and club culture scene, in and around the art schools, in young graduates' studios and in the small units, shops, and stall-type outlets which they supply" (1998, pp. 183–184).

In the United States, a few designers achieved great success and notoriety creating clothes for Hollywood films in the 1930s and 1940s, but most designers worked anonymously for large clothing manufacturers, adapting Paris fashions for American customers. Beginning in the 1960s, they began to develop their own firms, which were oriented either toward the very rich, as a kind of niche market, or toward the creation of brands representing distinct lifestyles. In both cases, American designers were highly skilled at marketing their wares. The myth of the designer as artist was much less powerful.

Both British and French designers sometimes adopted strategies associated with avant-gardes but could also be identified as postmodernist. In this sense, their artistic behavior is similar to that of many creators in various forms of popular culture, such as television, film, and music video. For the avant-garde fashion designer, the major technique for communicating meaning is symbolic subversion; for the postmodernist designer, intertextuality. These two tendencies are very different from the classical approach to fashion design that reworked elements from the past to produce styles that, while related to the past, were neither copies nor pastiches. As with avant-garde creators in other forms of popular culture, avant-gardism represents a set of techniques that are generally adopted for specific purposes rather than as part of an ideological commitment. These techniques are often used at the beginning of the designer's career as a way of attracting attention and a clientele. In fashion design, the coexistence of avant-gardism and postmodernism has led to enormous variety but not to coherent messages.


Fashion is a complex phenomenon that needs to be understood both on the macro and the micro levels, using "a tapestry of arguments" (McRobbie, 1998, p. 186). The characteristics of fashion and the ways in which it is transmitted vary, depending upon whether societies are more or less stratified and whether the distribution of income is more or less egalitarian. Fashion is created in clusters of formal and informal organizations whose characteristics also influence the nature of fashion in a particular time and place. Fashion creators respond to the needs and desires of their target consumers but often ignore the needs of others, particularly those who are marginal, economically or socially. Alternative fashion codes and discourses emerge from these groups and are often assimilated later by mainstream designers. In different periods, consumers have sought to express different types of meanings through clothing, including the affirmation of social status and the expression of personal identity or have simply engaged in postmodernist "style surfing." A variety of theoretical approaches, such as symbolic interactionism, postmodernism, social reproduction, cultural studies, and semiotics, have been applied to the subject of fashion, but this activity has not produced a coherent field of study, possibly because scholars who have studied the subject have come from many different disciplines.

See also: Beauty Culture, Fads, Fans and Fan Clubs, Men's Leisure Lifestyles, Teenage Leisure Trends, Women's Leisure Lifestyles


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Diana Crane

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