Why Fashion can't stand still

In the world of fashion trends come and go, but the work of a small number of designers has survived to stand the test of time. From pioneers such as Coco Chanel and Christian Dior to the era-defining figures of Alexander McQueen and Paul Smith, they all have one thing in common: each of them was responsible to completely change the fashion of their time.

Photo: alexandermcqueen.com

Photo: alexandermcqueen.com

The intruding questions of why fashion changes, and what forces are behind it, have opened many discussions. Thus a number of theories have evolved. The three main fashion theories, being cited most often, should be explained further.

Christian Dior, Haute Couture 2008, photo by Patrick Demarchelier (WWD)

Christian Dior, Haute Couture 2008, photo by Patrick Demarchelier (WWD)

The trickle-down theory associated with Georg Simmel and Thorsten Veblen leans on the nature of class society (Veblen, 1899). It was suggested that “fashion became a mechanism to display class difference through the adoption of new styles of dress that differentiated the elite from the mass”, (Craik, 2009: 106). However, due to their eagerness, the middle class succeeded to recreate the elite style through mass production, and so adopted it for their own.

Thus, in order to preserve the conspicuous uniqueness of the upper class, the elite strived for creation of new styles.

The pursuit “for status through consumption is never ending. What at one time may confer status, may later be acquired by all, and confer no status”, (Trigg, 2001: 101).  To distinguish themselves from others, new goods have to be created and appropriated. In doing so, the elite creates a cycle of fashion.

This theory suggests an explanation for the rapid change of fashion, however it faces difficulties, dismissing the notion of a possible trickle up effect. As a strong example the jeans-phenomenon is often mentioned, to criticize the theory. As the popular wearing of jeans emerged from the lower classes, and at some point has been adopted by the upper classes.

However, Herbert Blumer’s theory of ‘the collective behaviour model of fashion’, argues that fashion originates from a collective desire of society to be fashionable (Blumer, 1968: 341-345). It is about being “’in fashion’ through the articulation of a sense of taste at a given moment and endorsement of certain styles and looks over others”, (Craik, 2009: 107). Blumer suggests that fashion changes due to new models of taste, which appear in order to be fashionable. Fred Davis criticises, that Blumer’s theory fails “to adequately consider the palpable influence of the elaborate institutional apparatus surrounding the propagation of fashion in the domain of dress”, (Davis, 1992: 120).

The third theory is George Sproles’ six-stage fashion process, which tries to integrate sociological, economic and psychological factors (Sproles, 1985: 55-69).  From the invention of fashion, following the demands of the market or norms of society, the process moves to the second stage of acceptation through the elite and celebrities. Next stage describes conscious spreading of the fashion, followed by adoption of the fashion by non-fashionable groups. In the fifth stage the fashion shifts its novelty status to symbol of the times, while new fashions are already being experimented with. Finally the last stage describes obsolescence of the adopted fashion, and the beginning of the new phase.

Sproles’ theory is being criticised for being too broad, though it “explains general trends and cycles of fashionability, but not deviations from fashion norms or new stylistic inventions that usher in a new fashion era or sensibility”, (Craik, 2009: 109).

As we can see, there are different approaches to explain the complex system of fashion’s change, and many more remain unmentioned.

Yves Saint Laurent, Photo: Richard Avedon

Yves Saint Laurent, Photo: Richard Avedon

Nonetheless there is one common notion from all the theories, mentioned above, and there seems to be a consensus about that “fashion is a matter not only of a purely factual, but also of a socially commanded change”, (König, 1973: 54). To put it another way, changes in fashion happen due to changes in society.

René König argues, that in order to undergo change, fashion has to gain stability (König, 1973: 54). Stabilising is a central point in terms of change, as it possesses a “decisive function in the realization of the aims of fashion because it always occurs during that period when the accomplished change becomes in its own right, that is, gains the upper hand quite irrespectively of whether this fashion crystallizes into a custom or a style”, (König, 1973: 55).

He further argues that fashion’s principal orientation point is time, and therefore fashion subjects to the dynamic laws of society.

However, it is important not to distract fashion, which is a socially constructed product, from the social body. Joanne Entwistle suggests that dress transmutes the body into, for society recognisable subject, creating meaningful signals and transforming the body appropriately within the framework of a certain culture, (Entwistle, 2001: 33).

When being observed outside of a fleshy body, e.g. a dress in a costume museum, it is often perceived as strange and almost alien, as we are accustomed to a dress as alive, i.e. on the body.

Thus, the dress can be considered to be a boundary between self and society. The dress “serves as a visual metaphor for identity; it is also social since our dress is structured by social forces and subject to social and moral pressures”, (Entwistle, 2001: 37).