Fashion, Theories of

Marilyn Revell DeLong. Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. Editor: Valerie Steele. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005. 

Fashion involves change, novelty, and the context of time, place, and wearer. Blumer (1969) describes fashion influence as a process of “collective selection” whereby the formation of taste derives from a group of people responding collectively to the zeitgeist or “spirit of the times.” The simultaneous introduction and display of many new styles, the selections made by the innovative consumer, and the notion of the expression of the spirit of the times provide impetus for fashion. Central to any definition of fashion is the relationship between the designed product and how it is distributed and consumed.

Fashion systems model. The study of fashion in the twentieth century has been framed in terms of a fashion systems model with a distinct center from which innovations and modifications radiate outward (Davis 1992). Designers work from the premise of one look, one image for all, with rules about hem lengths and what to wear with what. In this model, the fashion-consuming public develops from an innovative central core, surrounded by receptive bands of fashion consumers radiating outward from the center.

Within this system innovation can originate from a select grouping of designers, such as Christian Dior who introduced the “New Look” in 1947. Influential factors can range from individual tastes, to current events, to marketing and sales promotions. The ultimate qualifier of the fashion systems model is the scope of influence, urging, even demanding, one look for all. The element of conformity is instrumental.

Populist model. An alternative model to the fashion systems model is the “populist” model. This model is characterized as polycentric, where groups based upon differences of age, socioeconomic status, location, and culture create their own fashion. Such groups might include teenagers in a certain school or senior citizens in a retirement community. Polhemus (1994) describes “styletribes” as a distinct cultural segment that generates a distinctive style of dress and decoration. Such “styletribes” may create their own looks from combining existing garments, creating their own custom colors by tie-dyeing or painting, mixing and matching from previously worn and recycled clothing available in thrift shops and vintage markets. They are not so concerned with one style of dressing as with expressing themselves, though there is an element of conformity that derives from the processes used and the resulting social behavior. Polhemus reflects that such “styletribes” have flourished at “precisely that time in history when individuality and personal freedom have come to be seen as the defining features of our age” (p.14).

The Flow of Fashion

The distribution of fashion has been described as a movement, a flow, or trickle from one element of society to another. The diffusion of influences from center to periphery may be conceived of in hierarchical or in horizontal terms, such as the trickle-down, trickle-across, or trickle-up theories.

Trickle down. The oldest theory of distribution is the trickle-down theory described by Veblen in 1899. To function, this trickle-down movement depends upon a hierarchical society and a striving for upward mobility among the various social strata. In this model, a style is first offered and adopted by people at the top strata of society and gradually becomes accepted by those lower in the strata (Veblen; Simmel; Laver). This distribution model assumes a social hierarchy in which people seek to identify with the affluent and those at the top seek both distinction and, eventually, distance from those socially below them. Fashion is considered a vehicle of conspicuous consumption and upward mobility for those seeking to copy styles of dress. Once the fashion is adopted by those below, the affluent reject that look for another.

Trickle across. Proponents of the trickle-across theory claim that fashion moves horizontally between groups on similar social levels (King; Robinson). In the trickle-across model, there is little lag time between adoption from one group to another. Evidence for this theory occurs when designers show a look simultaneously at prices ranging from the high end to lower end ready-to-wear. Robinson (1958) supports the trickle-across theory when he states that any social group takes its cue from contiguous groups in the social stratum. King (1963) cited reasons for this pattern of distribution, such as rapid mass communications, promotional efforts of manufacturers and retailers, and exposure of a look to all fashion leaders.

Trickle up. The trickle-up or bubble-up pattern is the newest of the fashion movement theories. In this theory the innovation is initiated from the street, so to speak, and adopted from lower income groups. The innovation eventually flows to upper-income groups; thus the movement is from the bottom up.

Examples of the trickle-up theory of fashion distribution include a very early proponent, Chanel, who believed fashion ideas originated from the streets and then were adopted by couture designers. Many of the ideas she pursued were motivated by her perception of the needs of women for functional and comfortable dress. Following World War II the young discovered Army/Navy surplus stores and began to wear pea jackets and khaki pants. Another category of clothing, the T-shirt, initially worn by laborers as a functional and practical undergarment, has since been adopted universally as a casual outer garment and a message board.

Thus how a fashionable look permeates a given society depends upon its origins, what it looks like, the extent of its influence, and the motivations of those adopting the look. The source of the look may originate in the upper levels of a society, or the street, but regardless of origin, fashion requires an innovative, new look.

Product Innovation

A new look may be the result of innovations in the products of dress, the way they are put together, or the type of behavior elicited by the manner of dressing. A fashionable look involves the form of clothing on the human body and its potential for meaning (DeLong 1998). Meaning can derive from the product, but meaning can also develop from ways of wearing the product, or from the body itself (Entwistle 2000). Fashionable dress embodies the latest aesthetic and what is defined as desirable at a given moment.

Lehmann (2000) describes fashion as a random creation that dies as an innovation is born. He views fashion as contradictory, both defining the ancient and contemporary by randomly quoting from the past as well as representing the present. Robinson (1958) defines fashion as pursuing novelty for its own sake. Lipovetsky (1994) claims that determining factors in fashion are the quest for novelty and the excitement of aesthetic play, while Roche (1994) describes fashion as dynamic change.

Though fashion implies continual change, certain products have persisted over long periods of time, such as blue jeans, which were made a staple of dressing in the United States in the twentieth century. Though blue jeans are a recognizable form, there is the potential for great variety in the product details, including stone washing, dyeing, painting, tearing, and fraying. Blue jeans epitomize the growth of casual fashion and endure because they can change to resonate with the times.

The way products are combined can define a fashionable look. For example, the idea of buying “separates” to mix and match instead of buying complete ensembles has increased the separate purchases of jackets, trousers, shirts, or blouses. The advent of the concept of separates coincided with the advent of the desired casual look. Mass production of sizes began to reflect a “one size fits all” model of fitting; more consumers could be fitted by choosing among the separate parts than would occur with the purchase of an ensemble with head-to-toe sizing requirements. Acceptance of separates and the growth of leisure was accompanied by a profound change, reflecting the restructuring of consumer societies and an increase in non-work lifestyles (Craik, p. 217).

The Fashion Life Cycle

An innovation is perceived as having a life cycle, that is, it is born, matures, and dies. Rogers’s (1983) classic writing spells out rate of change, including characteristics of the product, the market, or audience, the distribution cycle, and those characteristics of individuals and societies where innovation takes place.

Diffusion of innovations. Diffusion is the spread of an innovation within and across social systems. Rogers (1983) defines an innovation as a design or product perceived as new by an individual. New styles are offered each season and whether an innovation is accepted depends upon the presence of five characteristics:

  1. Relative advantage is the degree an innovation is seen as better than previous alternatives, in areas such as function, cost, social prestige, or more satisfying aesthetics.
  2. Compatibility is the degree to which an innovation is consistent with the existing norms and values of the potential adopters. An innovation is less likely to be adopted that requires a change in values.
  3. Complexity concerns how difficult it is to learn about and understand the innovation. An innovation has a greater chance of acceptance if easily learned and experienced.
  4. Trialability is the extent to which an innovation may be tested with a limited commitment, that is, easily and inexpensively tried without too much risk.
  5. Observability is the ease with which an innovation may be communicated to others.

The individual’s role. The fashion adoption process results from individuals making a decision to purchase and wear a new fashion. Rogers (1983) suggests that this process involves five basic stages: awareness, interest, evaluation, trial, and adoption. The individual becomes aware of the fashion, takes an interest in it, and evaluates it as having some relative advantage that could range from a new fabric technology or simply as being consistent with self concept or what one’s friends are wearing. If the individual evaluates the fashion positively, the process proceeds to trial and adoption.

The study of the pattern of consumers’ adoption of a fashion is often represented by a bell-shaped curve. The life cycle of a specific fashion represented graphically indicates duration, rate of adoption, and level of acceptance. The graph depicts the rate and time involved in the diffusion process, with the horizontal axis indicating the time and the vertical axis indicating the number of adopters or users (Sproles and Burns 1994). Such graphically portrayed data can be used to calculate the level of acceptance for a fashion. For example, the curve for a fashion that is rapidly adopted but also rapidly declines will show early growth and quick recession. The curve resulting from plotting the data in this way leads to characteristic patterns of fashion adoption, applicable for fads or classics. The graph is also useful to identify type of consumer in terms of when each adopts a fashion within its life cycle. The consumer who adopts the fashion at the beginning of the curve is an innovator or opinion leader; at the peak, a mass-market consumer; after the peak, a laggard or isolate.

Fashion leaders and followers. Theories of fashion distribution all have in common the identification of leaders and followers. The fashion leader often transmits a particular look by first adopting it and then communicating it to others. Fashion followers include large numbers of consumers who accept and wear the merchandise that has been visually communicated to them.

A distinction exists between the role of the innovator and leader. The leader is not necessarily creator of the fashion or the first to wear it. The leader seeks distinction and dares to be different by wearing what the innovator presents as new. By adopting the look, the leader influences the flow or distribution of fashion. But the innovator within a group is also influential in serving as the visual communicator of the style. Historically the leader has been influential in some desirable way and possible leaders include athletes, movie stars, royalty, presidents, or fashion models.

Characteristics and Influencing Factors

Basic tensions addressed by fashion in Western culture are status, gender, occasion, the body, and social regulation. Craik (1994) suggests potential fashion instabilities, such as youth versus age; masculinity versus femininity; androgyny versus singularity; inclusiveness versus exclusiveness; and work versus play (p. 204). Fashion systems generally establish means for self-formation through dress, decoration, and gesture that attempt to regulate such tensions, conflicts, and ambiguities.

Social change and fashion. Social change is defined as a succession of events that replace existing societal patterns with new ones over time. This process is pervasive and can modify roles of men and women, lifestyles, family structures, and functions. Fashion theorists believe that fashion is a reflection of social, economic, political, and cultural changes, but also that fashion expresses modernity and symbolizes the spirit of the times (Lehmann, 2000; Blumer 1969; Laver 1937). Fashion both reflects and expresses the specific time in history.

The tension of youth versus age has influenced dress in the twentieth century. The trend has been toward separate fashionable images for the younger and older consumer, especially with the burgeoning baby population that followed World War II. Fashions for the young have tended to take on a life of their own, especially with the parade of retro looks of the last decades of the twentieth century that increasingly borrow images of recent time periods. Roach-Higgins (1995) reasons that because fashionable dress requires an awareness of change in the forms of dress within one’s lifetime, the older consumer who has experienced that look before may choose not to participate (Roach-Higgins, Eicher, and Johnson, p. 395).

How one dresses for work and play has changed over time. A persistent trend of the twentieth century has been toward coveting leisure time coupled with an increasing need to look leisurely. Wearing casual clothing and leisurewear increased in the 1950s because families moved to the suburbs and engaged in many outdoor activities and sports. Clothing for spectator sports has increased, as has clothing for participation in many sports, such as tennis, golf, jogging, cycling, skiing, and rock climbing. In the 1970s the number of women who adopted pantsuits encouraged the trend to more casual dressing. In the 1990s the workplace was infiltrated by casual dress on Fridays. The formal-informal nature of dress reflects how much importance is placed on dress for work and play, but also the ambiguity and tension involved.

Appearance and identity. Clothes are fundamental to the modern consumer’s sense of identity. That criticism of one’s clothing and appearance is taken more personally and intensely than criticism of one’s car or house suggests a high correlation between appearance and personal identity (Craik, p. 206).

People may buy a new product to identify with a particular group or to express their own personality. Simmel (1904) explained this dual tendency of conformity and individuality, reasoning that the individual found pleasure in dressing for self-expression, but at the same time gained support from dressing similarly to others. Flügel (1930) interpreted paradox using the idea of superior and inferior, that is, an individual strives to be like others when they seem superior but unlike them when they seem inferior. In this way fashion can provide identity, both as an emblem of hierarchy and equalizer of appearance.

Whether or not fashion and the way products are combined upon the body can be considered as a visual language has been a source of discussion in recent years. Barthes (1983) insists that fashion be perceived as a system, a network of relationships. Davis (1992) concludes that it is better to consider fashion as a code and not as a language, but a code that includes expression of such fundamental aspects of an individual as age, sex, status, occupation, and interest in fashion.

Culture, observer, and wearer. Fashion favors the critical gaze of the knowing observer, or the one “in the know,” and the wearer who arranges the body for his own delight and enjoyment. Perceptions of the observer and wearer of fashion are sharpened based upon the many potential variations in lines, shapes, textures, and colors. For example, clothing of French inspiration and origin emphasized contour and cut of dress historically. Fashion changes occurred in the layout of the garment, which in turn focused attention on the silhouette and details, such as bias cutting and shaping (DeLong 1998). In contrast, societies where traditional dress has been worn, Korea, for example, fashion in traditional dress has derived more from the colors, motifs, and patterns adorning the surfaces, with the layout of the garments holding relatively constant. Thus subtle meaning derives not from the proportions of the chogore and chima, but from the variations found in the treatment of the surfaces (Geum and DeLong 1992).

Dress, agency, and popular culture. Popular culture can be defined loosely as those elements of entertainment that run alongside, within, and often counter to the elite structures of society. In the seventeenth century civilizing agents of aristocratic society included courtly entertainment, tournament, masque ball, and opera. But at the same time, popular culture became subject to increasing entrepreneurial control and commodification, with widening appeal to the urban merchant class (Breward 1995, p.97).

A new conception of popular culture was pertinent to the potential of dress as a communicator of social distinction and belonging. This movement preceded and contributed to the consumer and technological revolutions of the eighteenth century. Today popular culture is enhanced by the influence of mass media, and the medium has become the message, in many ways. According to Wilson (1985), fashion has become the connective tissue of the cultural organism and is essential to the world of mass communication, spectacle, and modernity.

Pursuit of modernity. Fashion is an accessible and flexible means of expressing modernity. The fashionable body has been associated with the city as a locus of social interaction and display (Breward, p. 35; Steele 1998). In the nineteenth century fashion was identified with a sense of contradiction of old and new. Modernity resulted in part from new technologies and a sense of the modern resulting from new ideas of design and consumption. Tensions from a growing commodification of fashionable trends emphasized the worldly and metropolitan. In the twentieth century modernity was identified through various but subtle means, from the way the dress contoured the body, to obvious product branding.

As a means of expressing modernity, Western fashions have been adopted by non-Western societies. In some societies where traditional styles of dress were prevalent, the men were quick to adopt Western business suits. Women have been slower to adopt Western dress in favor of traditional styles that express historical continuity. This creates an ambivalent message related to gender: Are women excluded from the modern world or are they simply the purveyors of tradition? Traditional dress in South Korea is more often seen on older women on occasions of celebration (Geum and DeLong). Both Chinese men and women have been encouraged recently to adopt Western styles of dress (Wilson 1985).

Gender and dress. A tension exists when women have been assigned the dual role of being fashionable as well as the subordinate gender (Breward 1995). In the last two centuries fashion has been primarily assigned to women, and it follows that fashionable dress and the beautification of the self could be perceived as expressions of subordination. Male dress has been somewhat overlooked. Veblen (1899) in the nineteenth century described separate spheres of the male and female, with feminine sartorial dress as a symbol of enforced leisure and masculine dress a symbol of power. Display and appearance of the body were considered innately feminine pursuits and thus the model was constructed in which overt interest in clothing appearance implied a tendency toward unmanliness and effeminacy. This gave rise to ultra-conservative, non-expressive male dress codes that prioritized the uniformity of the city suit as the model for respectable middle classes for males in most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Breward, p. 170). This model does not entirely explain the way men consumed fashion, for example, the aesthete of the l880s and dandy of the l890s.

Such expressions of difference in gender roles and fashionable appearances of men and women also occur in other historical periods. Within medieval culture, the display of masculinity and femininity varied according to class, age, wealth, and nationality. Clothing, fashionably cut, moved toward overt display of the body and its sexual characteristics (Breward, p. 32). Interpretations of a male and female ideal permeated visual and literary interpretations of the human body. The male ideal focused upon proportion, strength, nobility, and grace; the female ideal included diminutive size, delicacy, and heightened color.

In medieval society, concepts of femininity included monopoly on production and maintenance of textiles, clothing, and accessories and the display of patriarchal wealth and status. When the monopoly of women was broken, production of clothing moved from the home to the public sphere. Male-dominated systems of apprenticeships emerged for weavers, cloth cutters, and tailors; the mass production and marketing system was born.

Market Forces and Momentum

The fashion industry has led the way, or followed, depending upon the nature of the fashion and its origins (Wilson 1985). Fashions serve as a reflection of their time and place and can be determined by society, culture, history, economy, lifestyle, and the marketing system. The market for fashion ranges from the world of couture to mass-produced clothing called ready-to-wear.

The couture fashion system and the couturier, who regularly presents a collection of clothing, originated in Paris, France. The couturier caters to the handmade, made-to-measure, exquisite product. In some ways the couturier functions as an artist, but when the product fails that designer ceases to exist. In this way the couturier walks a fine line between artist and industrialist (Baudot, p.11). The dominance of Paris as an international center depends as much on its sophistication as a fashion center as on the superiority of its clothing (Steele 1998).

Other countries beside France have taken on fashion leadership—notably, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and each country has placed its unique stamp on fashion (Agins 1999). For example, Milan, the hub of the Italian fashion industry is close to the country’s leading textile mills in the Lake Como region. The Italians not only produce beautiful fabrics, they also design beautiful clothes as exemplified by such notable talents as Giorgio Armani and Krizia.

Though some may consider fashion frivolous, it is also considered a serious, lucrative business in capitalist society. The United States has been a leader in the technologies required for mass production and mass marketing of apparel, making fashion a democratic possibility, available to all.

Mass production and democratization of clothing. To provide clothing at moderate cost for all citizens took two primary developments, mass production and mass distribution (Kidwell and Christman 1974). Mass production required developing the technology for middle-quality clothing that could be made available for the majority. Mass distribution required the retailing of ready-made clothing and innovations in salesmanship and advertising. Department stores sprang up in every city following the Civil War and by the end of the century, mail-order houses were developed sufficiently to reach all citizens in the United States.

The clothing revolution that occurred in the twentieth century in the United States was a double revolution. The first was the making of clothing, from the homemade and custom-made to the ready-made or factory-made; the second was the wearing of clothing, from clothing of class display where clothing was worn as a sign of social class and occupation, to the clothing of democracy where all could dress alike. According to Kidwell and Christman (1974), in the eighteenth century anyone walking in Philadelphia or Boston could easily have distinguished towns people from country folk by the striking differences in their clothing. Clothing was distinctive because of differences in textiles and clothing construction. America was dependent upon England’s textile industry so the rich purchased fine-quality silks, woolens, and cottons while others had limited access to fabrics that were coarse and middle to low grade. The tailor and dressmaker made clothing for the rich and the amateur made clothing for the average person.

In the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution brought the machine, the factory, and new sources of power. A series of great inventions mechanized the making of yarn and cloth. By 1850 machines included the invention and distribution of a practical sewing machine that was quickly adopted for men’s shirts and collars and women’s cloaks, crinolines, and hoopskirts. By the end of the nineteenth century, machine cutting was standard; pressing became more efficient. Men began to look and dress alike, and the sameness of their dress made multiple production by machine entirely possible.

Ready-made clothing for women lagged behind what was available for men. In 1860 ready-mades for women included only cloaks and mantillas, and dressmakers continued to supply women’s fashions. Women of limited income made their own clothing, thus saving their clothing dollars for male family members. The department store and mail order were established means of distribution in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

In the early twentieth century, the mass-manufacturing process was organized and capable of producing clothing for both men and women. Thus was born an industry of industries, each with a system of organization to create ready-made clothing for everyone (Kidwell and Christman 1974). Though fashion always was an identifier of person, mass production equalized every person’s opportunity to identify.

Marketing and distribution systems. Entwistle (2000) describes fashion as the product of a chain of activities that includes industrial, economic, cultural, and aesthetic. Changes in production and marketing strategies allowed for the expansion in consumer activity during the second half of the eighteenth century that led to increased consumption and the speeding up of the fashion cycle. This led to an increase in fashions that could be selected to reflect specific and individual circumstances.

In the twentieth century consumer choice was affected by means of mass distribution including chain stores, mail order, and Internet shopping. Chain stores have made fashion accessible within a relatively short drive for most consumers. Mail order has enabled a consumer in a remote area to follow fashion trends, select an appropriate garment, and place an order for ready-made clothing. Internet shopping relies on a person’s access to a computer. Chain stores, mail order, and Internet shopping have extended the reach of fashion and created new consumer groups.

A Historical Perspective

Fashion is viewed broadly as a chronology of changing forms and a critique of wider cultural influences and their historical interpretation (Carter 2003; Johnson, Tortore, and Eicher 2003). The history of fashion reveals the importance of changes in appearance, but also the way fashion is conceived, who participates, and for what and how many occasions. The middle years of the fourteenth century have been identified as the first period of significant fashion change, generally related to the rise of mercantile capitalism in European cities (Lipovetsky 1994; Roche 1994; Breward 1995; Tortore and Eubank 1998). At that time, fashion became a practice of prestigious imitation among social groups and changes in tastes occurred often and were extensive enough for people to gain an appetite for new fashions in dress (Lipovetsky 1994; Roche 1994; Breward 1995). With class distinctions on the wane and an accelerated rate of stylistic change, the specific character of dress was associated with gender and the circumstance of different lifestyles. In the history of fashion, modern cultural meanings and values, especially those that elevate newness and the expression of human individuality to positions of dignity have allowed the fashion system to come into being and establish itself (Lipovetsky, p. 5).

The rise of fashion is associated with “the civilizing process” in Europe. The medieval woman engaged in what became the feminine pursuits of weaving, textile work, and fashion. Fashion in medieval society had a direct impact on the emerging of the individual, on self-knowledge, and understanding one’s place in the world (Breward, p. 34). The body provided a principal means of expression through clothing; for example, to throw down one’s glove was an act of defiance that committed a person to certain actions. The deliberate manipulation of the social meanings attached to clothing helped initiate a heightened sense of the significance of fashion.

Though fashion was first created for the privileged few, in the late nineteenth and twentieth century mass production made fashion accessible to the majority. In the nineteenth century the distinguishing feature of fashion was its imposition of an overall standard that nevertheless left room for the display of personal taste. Fashion change accelerated with major apparel changes occurring in twenty-year intervals.

The twentieth century is characterized as the age of mass production, mass consumption, and mass media. Mass fashion became a form of popular aesthetics and a means of self-enhancement and self-expression. Advances in technology and materials used for clothing production provided more comfortable, cheaper, and more attractive items to a larger proportion of the population. In the early twentieth century, mass consumption of fashionable dress increased within the sphere of fashion promotion and advertising, leading to unlimited diversification. The fashion industry became more complex and fashion intervals shortened to ten years (Tortore and Eubank 1998).

Mass media has allowed for wide dissemination of fashion information and opportunities for the stimulation of a more homogeneous public imagination. The fashion magazine and the Hollywood film brought fashionable models to a hugely expanded audience from the 1920s onward. Examples of fashionable dress were often made available through the expansion of chain stores and mail-order companies. At the same time, a reorganization of business practices, of marketing and advertising, prioritized certain strands of society as fashion leaders. A cult of the designer, revolving around ideals of couture and high fashion or strong subcultural identities, ensured the survival of hierarchies based on notions of quality, style, and individuality (Breward, p. 183).

Steele (2000) surmised that in 1947 when Christian Dior launched his “New Look,” it was still possible for a fashion designer to transform the way a woman dressed. The postwar transformation was remarkable, from the war years of boxy shoulders, rectangular torso, and short skirts to the postwar look of narrow shoulders, nippedin waist, padded hips, and long, full, flowing skirts. You could like it or hate it, but the look was the fashion, regardless (Steele 2000, p. 7).

Today major fashion changes occur frequently, but the choices and selections have increased so that mainstream fashion is one choice among many, including recycled clothing, vintage clothing, and wearable art. Also the easily recognizable rules of fashion, such as rigid proportions, hem lengths, and silhouettes now relate more to the particular look of one group than to a fashionable look for all. Agins (1999) has declared the end of fashion, but only as it has been known historically.