In September 2020 I visited the V&A museum in London for the first time. One of the exhibitions was on fashion over time, exploring how fashion has changed alongside changing expectations, norms and gender roles. This got me thinking about the sociology of fashion and how clothing is framed in society.
Pictures: Taken by me at the V&A London
Fashion and what is seen a ‘stylish’ is socially constructed, it is a product of a variety of interweaving factors including but not limited to capitalism and consumption, culture, gender norms and social expectation. Sociologically fashion is defined as ‘being first with the latest’, to stand out but also conforming to the context and time. Things come in and out of fashion making it a recurrent phenomenon. Historically fashion was only something the rich had access to but with the rise of consumerism in the 20th century came the rise of increased choice for people from all income backgrounds. There are still many limitations and the most idolised brands are often the most expensive and out of reach to the vast majority.
The importance of fashion has strong links to women’s historical position in society. Veblen (1899) discusses how woman were expected to be a vicarious consumers as their consumption was a reflection of their father and then husband’s wealth. Although Simmel (1904) draws on compensation theory, finding that “fashion acts as a safety valve” (research gate), whereby when women experience periods of restrictions in a variety of aspects of their life, they have used fashion as a way of self expression. Offering the example of 14th and 15th century Germany where women where denied increased opportunity of personal development that was beginning to be afforded to men.
Fashion is historically rooted in class, with those with the most money (high/luxury fashion brands) starting the trends and then it eventually being adopted by the middle class and then working class in a way that Barber and Lobel (1953) called ‘the trickle-down’ model. Although some like Alberoni (1967) argue this was the case in the 18th and 19th century but now is much more blurred and not all trends are started by the wealthy due to the rise of mass media and access to a range of new lifestyles. What are your thoughts on this? I think that social media and the cult of celebrity is at the heart of fashion today.
Simmel (1904) highlights fashion as having 2 fundamental and symbolic functions: 1. to express difference, 2. to express community. Many stereotypes have been linked to fashion trends with the clothes people wear being stigmatised or normalised depending on who is wearing them. By definition of fashion there must be some people out of fashion to show that others are in fashion. This is often linked to stereotypes attached to certain ways of dressing at certain points of time, these are flexible and change.
Stereotypes linked to clothing are often in relation to youth cultures and collective identity. The 1960’s saw a range of youth cultures using fashion to create collective identities in a decade that saw lots of social and cultural changes i.e. hippies, mods, skin heads, rockers and punks.
The vibrant colours and shapes typical of ‘hippie’ clothing was a reflection of optimism for peace and an egalitarian society. Wearing such clothing in this era meant many would ascribe to you stereotypes including being anti government, drug users (particularly psychedelics), society ‘dropouts’ and practising holistic medicine etc.
Punk fashion is one style that also emerged in the 1960’s with distinctive fashion, music and culture including Mohawks, studded jackets and lots of tattoos etc. Stereotypes include drug and alcohol abuse, uneducated and aggressiveness, which those part fo the subculture refer to as ‘punk prejudices’.
Stereotypes of groups based on collective appearance can have real consequences for their experiences in every day life, both overtly and covertly. Stereotypes can be either positive or negative, impacting how people are treated based on stigmatisation of certain fashions. Whether something is positively stereotyped or negatively stereotyped is dictated by those in positions of power. They focus our attention on one aspect of a person rather than others, shaping how we perceive people before we know anything about them personally.
Fashion as protest
“the history of dress is a history of protests” Quentin Bell 1951
Some fashion trends have also been used by their wearers in forms of protest due to its ability for symbolism. During the 20th century the women’s suffrage movement in the USA developed 3 defining colours of their movement: purple for loyalty, gold for Kansas (campaign site) and white for purity. Wearing white dresses and coloured sashes to marches and events. Similarly at the 2017 Women’s march in the USA participants wore pink knitted ‘pussyhats’ in attempt to create a visual effect of protest. Aiming to reclaim the word ‘pussy’ following its use by the then Present Trump in a derogatory way – symbolically showing power and femininity.
Berets are arguably one of “the most historically and culturally rich garments in fashion”. This french originated item of clothing has been adopted by a range of groups to symbolise particular protest movements. In the 1960’s Che Guevara the Cuban marxist political revolutionist adopted the beret which became a symbol of his politics. Founded in 1966, members of the Black Panther Party in the USA often wore a black beret coupled with leather jackets and political pins. This beret was also seen to be mirroring soldiers in the Vietnam War who wore green berets, linking to how Black Americans were fighting a war of injustice. Berets have shown to be an “eternal symbol of revolution and counter culture” (Priya Elan, BBC 2020 ).
French people have claimed the yellow vest as their visual symbol of protests. Beginning in a rural movement protesting hikes in fuel and housing prices, the iconic yellow vest has been adopted across France in protests regarding a range of social issues. Yellow vests are cheap, accessible and typically associated with working class industries, these factors alongside a 2008 law requiring all French motorist to carry one in their car in case of road emergencies made them a no brainer to adopt as the symbol of protest.
There are is so much depth and history in fashion and its symbolic nature across time and contexts. I have only scratched the surface here with beginning to look at its sociological standing and look forward to learning more.