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Fashion and Culture 1

Clothing Fashion and Popular Culture


Richard Tanksley 2003

Fashion and Culture 2 Abstract What is fashion? Where did it come from? How did it evolve? What is its function in society? What contributions does it make to our culture and how do it and our culture interact? This paper will explore these questions and attempt to put past research and present pontification together to form a brief but thorough overview of this thing that we call fashion. This paper will outline a few of the major theories concerning fashion, explore some current mass cultural writings on the subject and suggest implications for future research.

Fashion and Culture 3 Fashion is one of those rare subjects that is almost totally unrespectful of serious scientific scruntity. In its nature itself, fashion shrugs off labels, rebelliously resists the rigid molds of categorization, and generally thrives on shocking, surprising, and constantly renewing itself. The word fashion is almost synonymous with the word change. If people had never or suddenly ceased to change the style of their dress, fashion would not exist. To study fashion, is to study change. As Simmel (1981 (1904)) suggested, fashion is a living entity. It does not have to make up its mind whether to be or not to be, because it can both be and not be at the same time. So how did this all happen? Why did people begin to wear clothes at all, and then, why did they begin to have different styles of clothes? The theories abound but most researchers agree that clothing did not evolve out of necessity except where it was needed as protection from weather. In warm climates, humans are capable of being naked all the time. Skin coloring, hair, oils, etc., help protect our skin from the sun, wind, and rain. Similarly, the evolution of clothing as a form of modesty has been discounted by most researchers. Ellis (1987, p. 55) said, "Many races which go absolutely naked possess a highly developed sense of modesty." So if the body is capable of surviving without clothes, why then, did they evolve? Wilson (1987) suggested that clothes serve as a boundary between our self and non-self. Wilson pointed out that many cultures have symbolic systems and rituals that serve to create and strengthen

Fashion and Culture 4 boundaries since it is the margins between things where contamination or corruption can occur. The gates of Heaven and the gates of Hell are an example from our culture. The human body, with all its orifices does not offer a strong boundary between self and non-self. "Dress is the frontier between the self and the not-self (Wilson, 1987, p.3)." While most researchers look at fashion years after it had become a conscious choice, some writings still reflect the frontier thinking. Simmel (1981 (1904)) said that fashion helped to overcome the distance between and individual and his society. He elaborated to say that fashion is a socially acceptable and secure way to distinguish oneself from others and, at the same time, it satisfies the individual's need for social adaptation and imitation. Campbell (1987) discussed fashion in terms of taste. He said that fashion can be said to form a universal standard of taste which, however, allows for the singularity and subjectivity of individual tastes. The concept of fashion as a foundation for taste brings another equally aqueous construct into an already complicated equation. Trying to use fashion and taste to describe each other is like trying to balance a ball on another ball. What is useful, though, from Campbell's studies is the concept of the struggle between universality and individuality. Simmel's also toyed with the idea of the struggle between universality (or conformity) and individuality. He saw fashion as the struggle between two opposing and mutually exclusive principles (1950 (1903)). According

Fashion and Culture 5 to the first principle, all men are created equal and share a common substance of humanity. The second principle says that every man is a unique being. Fashion is the unlikely combination of these two principles. Simmel saw this combination as harmonious though. He saw fashion as a way for individuals to express their loyalty to and strengthen his or her social ties with the "norms of the time" without loosing his or her freedom of expression. So far we have introduced two concepts: 1) fashion serves as some sort of boundary between the self and the non-self. 2) Fashion reflects the struggle between the whole (conformity) and the individual (nonconformity). With this in mind, some further examination of the evolution of clothing and fashion is needed to establish a stronger framework for analysis. Previously, we analyzed clothing up to it being a boundary between self and non-self, a buffer between dangerous frontiers. This brings us chronologically to somewhere in the caveperson era. We need to make a jump soon to modern times or we'll never reach an analysis of fashion as it affects culture today. But looking back a cavepeople, the concept of wearing clothes as a boundary between self and non-self makes sense. As Wilson (1987) said, the human body with all its orifaces does not offer a well-defined boundary between the self and non-self. When we consider where on the body most primitive clothing was warn, it is easy to see clothing as serving as a barrier for this areas of the body with most ambiguous frontier: the groin.

Fashion and Culture 6 This barrier concept seems valid but what then? Why did clothing evolve to it's present elaborateness. It seems logical that in the beginning all clothing was relatively similar (within a closed group of people). It was probably made from the same material (whatever was available) and was probably fashioned in the same way (whatever was functional). So with this in mind, conformity ruled. So what would make clothing change? The only thing that is conceivable is that clothing changed to help distinguish on person or group of people from another. Lacking the genetic diversity present now, different styles of clothing may have been the only way to distinguish one group of people from another. So it could be proposed that clothing evolved to help distinguish self from non-self and fashion evolved to help distinguish self from other self. But since the evolution of fashion, where has it gone? What have been the driving forces behind the evolution of fashion to the state it is now? Before the industrial revolution, people lived scattered across the countryside and wore clothes that were functional for their lifestyle (usually agrarian). There was not a marked barrier between work and leisure. But the industrial revolution changed everything. People lived in cities, had free time and disposable income. The combination of these three factors led to a fashion explosion. One reason fashion had not exploded with agrarian life was because you were lucky if you saw 10 other people in a day and if you did, they were probably part of your immediate family. But when you have thousands of people living together in a city, you are seen by 100's of

Fashion and Culture 7 people in a day. The rise of cities, therefore was and is instrumental in the formation of fashion. The emergence of free time was also important in the evolution of fashion. Before the industrial revolution a worker would return from the fields, eat, and go to sleep. There was no time to be fashionable. But with the emergence of free time, there was time to be fashionable. Fashionable dressing itself even became a leisure activity. The third driving force behind the evolution of modern fashion was disposable income. During the machine age, not only did people have the money to buy fashionable clothes, but these clothes became an conspicuous indicator of how much of this money people had. Sports were also a driving force behind the evolution of fashion. Sports required special clothes. With the advent of the car, motoring wear was necessary. The first cars were open and the roads were dusty. Lawn tennis in the 1870s became a driving force behind the evolution of woman's fashion. It was hard to play tennis in long skirts and corsets. Women's tennis fashion slowly changed to be more functional and along with it, women's fashion in general changed. Dance can also be seen as a driving force behind fashion. According to Kunzle (1982), fashion is always closely linked with the current dance styles. This is evidenced still in modern clothing and dance trends. In the 60's when floppy bell bottom jeans were the rule the dance style was mainly and slow swaying and gyrating of the waist and upper body with little foot movement. In the late 80s jeans were worn tight at the ankles,

Fashion and Culture 8 some even required zippers to get them over the wearer's feet. But this was necessary for the super-fast-footwork dancing style exemplified by entertainers like MC Hammer. Currently, jeans are between the two extremes as are dance styles. Finally, spandex seems to have been invented for aerobics. Hollywood had perhaps the greatest influence of all on the evolution of fashion. Movies served as a mass validation of fashion trends and fashion itself. Now fashion from Paris of New York was reaching even the smallest towns in Kansas. Movies, in their literal interpretation of life, had to create styles to suit each character: black for the bad guys, white for the pureness, etc. This helped to establish clothes as not only something you wear but a reflection of the wearer's personality. Magazines and photography, working together, were and are perhaps the most dominate force in the evolution of fashion to its modern state. Through magazines and the photographs in them, people could see what other people were or were not wearing, what was "in" what was "out." Fashion magazines such as Vogue became an essential and influential element in the world of fashion. So what more of the theories relating to fashion? There are as many as there are clothing styles. Lurie (1981) saw clothes as an expression of hidden and largely unconscious aspects of individual and group psyche, as forms of usually unintentional non-verbal communication, a sign language. This theory makes sense but does not go far enough. Fashion is much more than a form of non-verbal communication.

Fashion and Culture 9 Barthes, R. (1967) also saw fashion as a language. But he saw fashion in a vacuum. He thought the purpose of fashion was to make the absurd and meaningless changes that constitute fashion appear natural. Barthes obviously analyzes fashion from a hostile point of view and sees it as an unnecessary aberration. One of the more interesting and perhaps valid theories of fashion comes from Knig (1973) who saw fashion's perpetual mutability, its "death wish," as a maniac defense against the human reality of the changing body, against aging and death. The very way in which fashion constantly changes serves to fix the idea of the body as unchanging and eternal. Campbell (1987) saw fashion as the practical solution to a problem of aesthetics and taste: Fashion became the de facto answer to the problem which none of the eighteenth-century writers on taste could solve: that is, how to find a commonly agreed, aesthetic standard which, while catering for people's real preferences, could also continue to serve as the basis for an ideal of character (p. 158). This analysis assumes that fashion was invented to solve this problem of taste. One valid point that his theory makes though is that fashion offers a norm along which people can orientate their actions and choices without suppressing their individuality.

Fashion and Culture 10 So what about social class and fashion. Previously the "upper" classes thought that fashion was invented by them and slowly trickled down to the lower classes. As Simmel said: ...the fashions of the upper stratum of society are never identical with those of the lower, in fact, they are abandoned by the former as soon as the latter prepare to appropriate them...Fashion... is a product of class distinction (1981, p.7). That may have been true in Simmel's time but now it is not. Some examples: the grunge look which started with poor musicians in Seattle sent a ripple through fashion which affected and still affects everything from fur coats to thermal underwear. Poor Black children playing basketball in Los Angeles pulled their too-small shorts down a few inches to hide the fact that they were too small. Now every other NBA basketball team has shorts that have long legs and are worn pulled down below the waist. Baggy clothing worn by gangsters in Los Angeles because of its usefulness in carrying handguns caused a baggy trend that still affects fashion all the way to the haute runways. College students now wear mechanic's jackets and shirts in a white-collar adaptation of blue-collar fashion. So fashion no longer moves in a linear fashion from high culture to mass culture. What about fashion as art? Fashion is art, the only difference being that more traditional art does not tolerate copies, while copies make fashion exist. Fashion is art though by most definitions. It is the conscious use of skill and creative imagination to produce an aesthetic object. It both

Fashion and Culture 11 draws upon the works created before it and points direction for the future. But fashion is much more than art because it is wearable. Unlike a painting hanging on the wall, clothes say more about the person wearing them than the person who designed them. A modern perspective on fashion is offered by Gopnik (1994) who said that people are embarrassed by the transparency of fashion and try to hang all sorts of meaning on it (see this paper for a prime example). What Gopnik said is, What clothes reflect most of all is the eternal desire to be wanted, and the equally eternal and more wistful wish to disguise that desire. (Those disguises can sometimes be so beautiful and even poetic that the desire for them becomes a romance of its own.) (p.16) Gopnik goes on to say that fashion takes something basic and unchangingsexual yearningand attaches it, to a subtle, completely arbitrary algorithm of change. Fashion, by making the little round of variations within that fixed framework of pure wanting so arbitrarythis hem line up now, this lapel wider right this minutegives us a comforting sense of controlling our own instincts. We attach an abstraction to an appetite in order to persuade ourselves that the appetite may not be quite so raw as we know it to be (p.16). Gopnik also has an economic theory of fashion. He postulates that if clothes can't be made to wear out fast enough, that something must be

Fashion and Culture 12 found that will wear out faster, that something is fashion. This may be a strong component of modern fashion but says little for the evolution of fashion before the fashion industry manipulated things. Gopnik's first theory is perhaps the most valid theory discussed so far. There has always been some element of sex in fashion. The trend has been from more clothes like the endless garments, corsets, slips, etc. that Victorian woman wore, to less clothing, like thong bikinis. Every new fashion trend that showed more of the female body was not only viewed by society as unattractive but was seen as a precursor to moral looseness. In her 1942 article in the New Yorker, fashion columnist Lois Long expresses her distaste for pants: The latest aberration to tear down my contention that women have taste and sense has been the advent of slacks on city streets, miles from either factories or beaches. This emphatically must stop. I have spoken. There isn't one woman in two hundred who looks as well in slacks as in skirts...(p. 23) Long was reflecting the feeling of the time that pants on women showed too much of the female figure. This could cause people to become lustful, which in that time was bad. Modern fashion has always toyed with sexuality, used it as its tool, its driving force. The humble beginnings of fashion, to distinguish one person or group of people from another have been relegated to a minor function. The main driving force behind fashion is sex. As Gopnik said, clothes not only reflect the desire to be wanted, but the desire to hide that

Fashion and Culture 13 desire. The second desire is often not hidden much if at all. The dress on the cover of this paper screams "do me!" there is nothing hidden about it. More evidence for this is seen in the way fashions evolve. For example, jean bottom widths become wider and wider until they reach a point where they are almost ridiculous and it is impossible to make them any wider. Pants become tighter and tighter until such crazy things as shrinking your jeans onto your body evolve. Collars become longer and longer until little pieces of plastic have to be used to make them stay straight. The ultimate example: in the Middle Ages, longer toes on shoes came to symbolize longer penis length. It was carried to such an extreme that people were tripping over the ends of their shoes so they started curling the tips back and tying them around their ankles. Why does this happen? It's all a reflection of the desire to be wanted. If wide jean bottoms will make people want me then even wider bottoms will make people want me even more. Also, if everyone has long collars, but mine are longer, I will stand out and people will want me more. This is the driving force behind the cyclical, changing nature of fashion. As for the conformity, non-conformity struggle, it isn't much of a stuggle. People conform or not conform depending on what they think makes them more desirable, within the boundaries of their personality. Researchers have postulated that fashion helps people to reflect their individuality but never say why people would want to reflect their individuality. People want to stand out because if they look the same as the person next to them than they are only equally as attractive as that

Fashion and Culture 14 person. Also, people like to wear clothes that reflect their personalities and attitudes towards sex. As a basic example, black leather with metal studs means into kinky sex while white lace means you'd be lucky to get any at all. The conformity that exists exists because people tend to dress like their role models (on television, in movies and magazines) who are getting what they want sexually. Anti fashionists, people who reject fashion and wear the opposite of what everyone else is wearing do so in an attempt to say, "I don't need to be fashionable in order to be wanted." Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. If it works really well, everybody will start doing it. This is another way that fashion tends to cycle. Anti fashionists shop at secondhand stores in attempt to purchase clothes that are totally out of fashion. It worked well, too well, because everyone saw these different people as attractive so now everyone wants to look like that. This is obvious now with the popularity of the grunge look. Anybody who looks like they bought their clothes at a second hand store is seen as sexy. As for clothes as art. This just happened as a by-product of the constant refinement of the craft by designers. When cars were first made, making them was a craft and the finished product was far from art. But now cars are art (ok, some cars). Fashion is the same way. Through continual refinement and perfection of the craft, it became and art. Fashion isn't an art because fashion is just a concept but the designing of clothing, driven by fashion, has become an art.

Fashion and Culture 15 Fashion is not deeply wrapped in social class. Any class adopts whatever fashion they think will make them wanted. Clothing that is attractive to one class may not necessarily be attractive to another class. That's fine because most people, when they wear clothes to be wanted want to be wanted by people in their same social class. If not, they see what people in the other social class are wearing and wear it. As for the fashion industry and haute fashion, haute fashion is a combination of fashion for the sake of art and testing and pushing the waters into what people will thing is attractive. The fashion industry tries to make clothes that will make people feel desired when they wear them. They advertise them this way, the fashion magazines show them this way. The beautiful girl or beautiful man wearing the new clothing line is desired by everyone. The obvious translation is that if the consumer buys that clothing aticle, he or she will be desired also. So as for the function of fashion in our culture; basically clothes are a form of art that is a reflection of our desire to be wanted. The competitive nature of being wanted drives the ever-changing aspect of fashion. As for future research, what needs to be done is surveys of fashion consumers. People need to be asked why they buy clothes, what they feel like when they wear a new dress, what they think of people wearing fashionable clothes, what they think of people wearing unfashionable clothes. Fashion research has been intelectualized to death by professors wearing the same clothes they have worn for 70 years. Research needs to be done by and using real fashion consumers.

Fashion and Culture 16 References

Barthes, R. (1967). System of fashion. Paris: ditions du Sol. Campbell, C. (1987). The romantic ethic and the spirit of modern consumerism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Gopnik, A. (1994). What it all means. The New Yorker, Nov. 7, 1994, (1415). Ellis, H. (1987). Quoted in E. Wilson, Adorned in dreams: Fashion and modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press. Knig, R. (1973). The restless image. London: George Allen Unwin. Kunzle, D. (1982). Fashion and fetishism. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Litlefield. Long, L. (1942). Feminine fashion. The New Yorker. May 2, 1942. (23). Lurie, A. (1981). The language of clothes. London: Heineman. Simmel, G. (1981). Fashion. In G. B. Sproles (ed.) Perspective on Fashion. Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing. (Originally published in Internaional Quarterly 1904, 10, 130-155) Simmel, G. (1950). The Metropolis and mental life. In K. H. Wolf (ed.) The sociology of Georg Simmel. Chicago: Free Press. Wilson, E. (1987). Adorned in dreams: Fashion and modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press.