Fashion Theory: On Status

About Fashion & Style

Fashion is not the same thing as style. Where fashion is trendy, fostering change and progression, and facing the future, style isn't trendy. It's inherently conservative and traditional, making use of permanent stylistic codes and decorations (Polhemus, 1995). A style is a distinctive form or quality, a manner of expression that can apply to clothing, cars, art, etc. It does not become fashion until it gains consumer acceptance at any given time within a certain group of people, and is context-dependent. For example, tribal tattoos are the style of specific tribes. When spring-breakers in Panama City start flocking to tattoo parlors en masse to get them, they become fashion.

Sources of Fashion

Why does fashion change? There are several reasons, many of them obvious, among them: boredom, profit-driven conspiracy, status, changing user lifestyles and needs, and the evolution of collective social identities.

Collective social identities can fluctuate around the following:

* Status: wealth vs. poverty * Age: youth vs. age * Gender: masculinity vs. femininity * Sexuality: erotic vs. chaste * Social Attitude: conformity vs. rebellion

Consider also the use of fashion to communicate ambivalence in gender (masculine/feminine, androgyny, unisex, intersex, metrosexual...)

Today, much of fashion is focused on establishing and communicating status. There are three main points regarding status in fashion theory:

1. The Trickle-Down Theory (Veblen, 1899 & Simmel, 1904): fashion is a process of emulation by which new fashion passes from the upper class to the lower and in their descent, fashions are vulgarized and a new fashion cycle starts.

I would add to this that it's not just about class-wars. I remember sitting in my freshman year creative writing class and discussing mythologies. There was a guy in the class who was an avid outdoors man, and he was livid that "frat boys" had begun wearing jackets from North Face around our Virginia campus, because they were "posers".Β  I can only imagine what he would say today if he could see the young Italian boys with their spiked hair, leaning against their Vespas and wearing North Face jackets in Rome...Β  (In fact, if you Google "north face posers", you will find a whole range of hate groups and angry threads on the topic.)

There are several stages to this theory: first designers cater to wealthy clients (or mountain climbers), then fashion leaders serve as models of new looks, fashion trickles down from the elite class to the lower classes, the speed of change is regulated by the ability of the other classes to see, obtain and copy the fashion, and finally, change is fueled by the pursuit of the dual drives for differentiation and imitation. ...Posers, indeed.

2. The Trickle-Across Theory (Blumer, 1969): fashion is a social process, likely to occur in times of rapid change.

rachel haircutThe following changes in the 20th century led to this theory: leveling of class structures in the US; mass media affects on the spread of fashion information; accelerated rate of fashion change and aesthetic research. Under this view, fashion can occur in any field (remember The Rachel haircut?), and the fashion elite is created through the fashion process, which is a system of collective selection. Here, the fashion innovators buy early and are the visual leaders. The fashion influential are those who define looks and standards within peer groups.

Consider this carefully in relationship to status. Today some of the most well-known luxury brands make the mistake of misidentifying status, and thus alienate their key customers by treating them like potential shoplifters! Think about the following:

  • Ostentation vs. understatement: the little black dress was "invented" by Chanel to create a go-anywhere dress in an understated color and rich fabric, but today you can find variations in Target or the gaudiest of pieces in a stripper shop (I've heard on good word!)
  • Overdressing vs. underdressing: I could go on and on about this one. I once received a huge number of outraged comments after reporting on the widespread use of flip flops in Milan (people with a lot of time on their hands, no doubt). Many of my fellow Americans refused to believe that the classy Milanese would lower themselves to expose their toes. Yet they do, and Juicy Couture sales have exploded over here. We see Bill Gates in jeans all the time. The trend of mix-and-match applies here, but so does the point that you must always know your customers... all of them. We commonly see ladies of lesser means blowing five months' rent on handbags. Also, to get back on Milanese footwear, the streetcars of Milan are lined with young boys who buy a new pair of Hogan sneakers every summer. This obviously isn't for their innate beauty; it's because everyone knows how expensive they are (for teenage kicks), and the logo stands out.
  • Disingenuous mistakes: remember when Madonna began to wear underwear as outerwear? I'm pretty sure that was not an accident. Do you think the thousands of nightclub-crawlers who duplicated this image in the 80s coincidentally forgot to put their shirts on before they went? Enough said.

Another example: The changing associations of status in blue jeans shifted as the primary groups who wore them evolved:

  • Rural workers and cowboys (1850-1940)
  • Motorcycle gangs (1950s)
  • Leftist bohemian and hippies (1960s)
  • Mass market phenomenon (1970s)
  • Streetwear of subcultures (1980s)
  • Professionals and other consumers who buy designer and premium jeans (1990s)

We can go on endlessly about over changes in the groups wearing particular items and looks (menswear, for example, or even pants)...