Fashion Theory: On Status

9 01 2009

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”.  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…  (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)…

Fashion Theory

9 01 2009

There are several definitions to help us further understand the meaning of fashion. These definitions vary among the fields of semantics, technology and aesthetics.

  • Semantics: fashion is a language of signs, symbols and iconography that non-verbally communicate meanings about individuals and groups; it is a body technique which articulates certain aspects of the language, gestures and disciplines of the clothed body.
  • Technology: Fashion is textile construction industrially replicated, whose meaning is given by marketing techniques.
  • Aesthetics: Fashion is the sketch of a designer, influenced by the past and by contemporary cultural influences and an aesthetic and sociological context; it is a continual, largely uninterrupted and even institutionalized succession of stylistic changes in dress, adornment and decorative design.

Basically, the answer to the question, “What is fashion?” is simply this: It depends on who’s answering.

If you claim that fashion is a sign vehicle, I could counter by quoting the semantics master Charles Sanders Peirce, who stated, “Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign.” Signs have no intrinsic meaning, and only become signs when we invest them with meaning. Hello, marketing!

Take, for example, the symbol we use for the heart. ♥ We learn this symbol very early in life, and there is no shortage of childhood drawings or Valentine’s Day cards to demonstrate its strength. However, if you were to view a picture of an actual human heart, it would hardly resemble those two curving lines.

Fashion can also be considered a range of codes. According to F. Davis in Fashion, Culture and Identity, a code in fashion is “a binding ligament in the shared understandings that comprise a sphere of discourse, hence, its associated social arrangements.” In other words, a code is something we commonly understand to mean a specific thing, and we can therefore use it to communicate. He continues, “A clothing style is a code as it draws on the conventional and tactile symbols of culture, but… the meanings evoked by the combinations and permutations of the code’s key terms (fabric, texture, color, pattern, volume, silhouette and occasion) are forever shifting or in process.” This explains why a woman can wear cowboy boots under a cocktail dress today and be considered bohemian, not a confused cowgirl or schizophrenic debutant.

Davis also explained that social identity is any aspect about the self which individuals can use to communicate with others. This includes dress, food choices, religious practices, vacation destinations… all involve the use of codes.

Clothing as a Code

There are many ways to illuminate this theme. Take, for instance, dress codes for social events. Among them:

  • Black Tie: formal. Men wear tuxedos, women wear cocktail, long dresses or evening seperates
  • White Tie: ultra-formal. Men wear full-dress, with white tie, vest, shirt. Women wear long gowns.
  • Formal: usually means the same as Black Tie
  • Black Tie Optional: means you have the option of full formality, but should stick to the formal side of variations (dark suits, dresses, etc.)

Consider these codes:

  • Victorian: bindings, corset
  • Modern: loose fit, exposed skin
  • Angularity: masculine
  • Curvilinear: feminine
  • Dark Hue: formal, business
  • Light Hue: casual, leisure

There are of course many more… safety pins are punk, lace is prim… you name it!

Fashion History & Industry Analysis

9 01 2009

This topic can take a long while to get through, so let’s start at the beginning with the question, “What is Fashion?”

In my class, on the first day, we were asked to define fashion. Everyone made some reference to art, style, fabrics, etc. Barely anyone spoke on the fact that it is business. In fact, today it is marketing, above all. So, let’s get to it!

What is Fashion?

Fashion is the culmination of a cultural system and a business system.

Culture: Fashion is a form of speech. It not only embraces clothing, but also accessories, jewelry, hairstyles, beauty and body art. What we wear and how and when we wear it, provides others with a shorthand to subtly read the surface of a social situation.

For example, their are several different stereotypes of fasihon expression. Among them:

  • Fashion victim: buys on trend, not brand loyal
  • Conservative: does not buy the look of the season, but of seasons past
  • Customizers: buy variations within a strict uniform (Muslim headscarves, black suits with new cuts)
  • Accessorizers: buy smaller items as accents of expression or aspirational belonging

Fashion is associated with social change and it is itself a tool for change. The history of creative/design aspects of the fashion business are made up of people and personalities. In learning about their lives and accomplishments, the development of the industry automatically unfolds.

In order to understand the dynamics of the industry in each country, it’s always important to bear in mind the following:

  • Social & economical changes taking place within a period
  • Their impact on consumer demand
  • The reaction of the industrial system

Within a designer’s creativity and research, there is an underlying reinterpretation of the past. For example, for his 1998 collection, John Galliano for Dior reinterpretted Paul Poiret’s 1910 collection. In the same year, he reinterpretted Jeanne Lanvin 1926.  There have been many variations on the reinterpretation of the royal gowns, as well as the reinterpretation of how the female form is represented in the silhouette.

paul poiret sketchdior 1998

National Cultures & Industry Influence

The French Way: The French model offers no second or young lines. These brands grow through accessories, cosmetics, fragrances and eyewear. There is a strong focus on specific product categories. Couture holds prominence. (An example is Dior.)
dior dress

The Italian Way: The Italian model grows through extension in the core business of apparel. Brand extension comes later. The designer delivers a lifestyle model from which all brand and line extension emerges. Ready-to-wear holds prominence. (An example is Armani.)

GiorgioArmani emporio_armani_logo armani_exchange_logo armani jeans armaniemporio red

The American Way: The US model is characterized by strategic alliance with department stores. Glorification of basic products is demonstrated in brand extension in everything from couture to household paint.

RL couture ralph-lauren-polo lauren furiture ralph-lauren-paint

Industry: Fashion is a business!

The fashion pipeline of fashion is a system of materials, production facilities and mechanisms, technicians and artisans, and supporting streams including communications, logistics, retail, and so on. The pipeline is a key concept for defining fashion cycles, market dimensions and supply segmentation and role innovation.

For example, the Spring/Summer 2009 collections are a culmination of the following activities (in broad terms):

→The June 2007 yarns suggestions are taken into account, based on current trends and availability
→ Selected yarns are displayed by manufacturers in the September 2007 Yarn Fairs for producers to source
→ Having selected their yarns from the yarn fairs, textile producers show their available textiles in the March 2008 Textile Fairs
→ The textiles are selected by fashion and apparel houses, who use these to create their collections, shown in the September 2008 Fashion Shows
→ In February 2009, finalized collections become available in retail outlets worldwide → → →

To give you an idea of what goes on at a textile fair, check out the clip below from the Paris Premiére show:

The trends examined in the development of each of these steps within the pipeline refer to trends identified in the external cultural setting. Trends are influenced by media and arts, technological innovations, socio-cultural trends, designer creativity and research, and the availability or certain materials within the pipeline.

Industry Sectors

Beyond apparel, the fashion and luxury industries embrace different sectors (clothing and accessories, fragrances and cosmetics, watches and jewelry, automotive, tourism and hospitality, household goods and decor…) that compete on the symbolic meaning of their products rather than on the price or on product usefulness. This is why consumers may pay 5 times the price of a bag displaying the Louis Vuitton logo as they would for a bag produced using the same techniques, without the logo. The symbolic meaning  of status, group belonging, wealth, sophistication, recognition, etc. are the key factors that drive consumers to  Louis Vuitton, beyond product quality or usefulness.

Each sector or industry is divided into its sub-segments which include the primary category’s key technology, product areas, group of clients, and end uses. Sub-segments are developed according to the supply structure (what do we have to work with form the beginning? set up costs? logistics?), growth outlook (how many people might want to buy this?), mega trends (what else are people doing with their time and money?), and attractiveness (is the product easily copied? can I protect my brand/market/dominance?).

Different business models within the fashion industry compete using various ranges of business logic. While I refer here to fashion, this principle is equally applicable in other symbolic industries.

  • Luxury conglomerates often compete and protect their dominance based on the strength of their branding. (LVMH, Richemont, Gucci Group, Polo Ralph Lauren)
  • Designer brands rely on creativity and the power of their communications campaigns to protect their brands. (Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Chanel, Valentino)
  • Industrial brands retain their brand strength by focusing their business models on trade services. (Diesel, Coach, Zegna)
  • Retailers base their business models around the strength of their stores. (Zara, H&M, GAP)

More soon…