fashion history

Theories of Fashion and Fashion History

What is Fashion

Fashion is everywhere around us and something we deal with on a daily basis. Individuals and societies have for centuries used clothes as a form of nonverbal communication to indicate geographic origin, occupation, rank, gender, sexual availability, locality, class, wealth and group affiliation. Fashion is a way of expressing oneself and even people who claim not to care about it choose clothes every morning. That choice says a lot about them and how they feel that day.

The primary functions of clothes were practical: they used to protect us from climatic conditions and they covered up our skin. Today clothes have become a way of expressing our individual identity and personality. Fashion enables us to make ourselves understood by the onlooker.

Fashion and Culture

Coco Chanel said: “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”

Fashion can be used as a barometer to understand the contemporary social and cultural contexts because it embodies the spirit of the time. Every aspect of society including lifestyle, taste, moral and aesthetic values, economy, politics, and custom are all integrated within the clothes people wear for specific times and places.

The 1970s are a good example as in that time walking down the streets you could tell someone’s political views and thoughts by the clothes they wore: the hippies had their uniforms and the conservatives had theirs. Another movement, the skinheads, was started in the mid-1960’s in UK by working class youths seeking comradery against social alienation. The skinheads stuck to working-class fashion: cropped hair, meant-to-last shoes and boots, white T-shirts and worn Levis.

Fashion has the unique ability to represent the mood of the time. “Fashion is a code,Tom Wolfe has written, “a symbolic vocabulary that offers a sub-rational but instant and very brilliant illumination of individuals and even entire periods, especially periods of great turmoil.

The Need to Belong

Clothing is commonly used to indicate affiliation with a group, an organisation, or an activity, whether it involves wearing the clan tartan of your Scottish ancestors, the tie of your preparatory school in England, or a baseball jersey from your favourite team. Clothing style thus becomes a means of group identification. Individuals who want to achieve or maintain social approval, acceptance, and a sense of belonging conform to the group dressing norms.

One age group where conformity through dress is important is adolescence. Teenagers are probably the most fashion-conscious humans on earth and the most preoccupied with social acceptance and coolness associated with the clothes they wear. Fashion and image go hand in hand and both have a huge impact on a teenager’s lifestyle.

Peer pressure is very influential in clothing selection for the teenagers. They will dress in a particular way to stave off mocking and humiliation from peers. They feel that if they dress in inappropriate clothes, they could end up losing their friends. Teenagers want to fit in and duplicating the fashion around them gives them a sense of belonging in today’s world. Fashion is there to keep friendships and bolster their self-esteem by “mirroring”.

There is almost always enough diversity in group-appropriate clothing which makes it possible to simultaneously display our affiliation with a group while also showing our own uniqueness.

Fashion and roles

This world is like a stage at the centre of which we stand and play different roles. We behave differently when in school, different at home, different with friends, different at work. Fashion enables us to use different clothing to demonstrate all of these roles. We assign “costumes” to specific roles and outfits for one role are generally not used for others. For example, we have clothes we wear exclusively for work and we have clothes exclusively for going out.

For every role we wear the clothes we think others expect us to wear as we do not wish to experience role conflict by wearing incorrect clothing. An example of role conflict by dress would be a daughter-in-law dressed in a halter top and miniskirt as it would be contradictory to the expectations of in-laws.

Dressing for Status

Throughout history, the clothing we wear has been capable of displaying and epitomizing a person’s culture, financial status and social power. Status is different than class or caste. It’s based on the cultural position, the prestige of holding certain occupations or family background and carries with it a particular anxiety of dressing for a position.

There is a famous conjecture of Thorstein Veblen (1857 – 1929), a North American economist and sociologist that the “objective of being fashionable is to gain status by being rich and powerful”. Veblen observed that “no line of consumption affords a more apt illustration than expenditure on dress. This is because clothing is a social necessity and to be in public is, by necessity, to be clothed. By being on show, clothing becomes a prime indicator of its wearer’s “pecuniary repute”, and since, in modern industrial society, clothing is a universal item of consumption, it is difficult for anyone to ignore the pressures of competitive emulation. Dress, therefore, is ideally placed as a vehicle with which to assert superior status in relation to one’s peers within the leisure class, as well as collectively displaying the superiority of this class over all others.” Foremost in Veblen’s mind must have been the fashions of the 1890s, a decade that gradually favoured increasing conspicuous consumption by the rich.

Fashion is one of the most favoured forms of semiotic distinction, because fashionable clothes and accessories are easy for others to observe at a glance. The phenomenon of acquiring commodities that have become status symbols is, of course, well known. However, status symbols tend to have a rather limited life span. When status symbols take the form of easily purchased commodities, the number of people who purchase such symbols expands and consequently their status value declines, and they need to be replaced.

Uniforms in Fashion

Uniform, a more specialised form of clothing, is designed for a specific occupation within an institutional setting; its widespread use since the 19thcentury reflects the critical role it has come to play in the display of social identities. Uniforms tell us what kind of services we can expect from the people wearing them. For example, the clothes work by hospital doctors, porters, visitors and patients proclaim the role of people who wear them. Uniforms make it easy to determine a person’s role and to behave properly towards them.

Uniforms put employees in the position of visual metaphors. We associate different uniforms with different role expectations. Policeman’s or security guard’s uniform is connected with law, authority, order and help. The nurse’s or paramedic’s uniform is associated with help, care and protection. When people put on a uniform they adopt what they think it symbolises.

Brief History of Fashion

Already Romans and Egyptians took great interest in their appearance. Wearing a particular type of clothing communicated status, wealth and occupation. During the 15thcentury Burgundian Court of Philip the Good emerged as a centre of fashion in Europe. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the fashion focus shifted from Burgundy to Italy and then to France.

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France (1770-1789) dictated fashion of the period that she reigned. French Revolution of 1789, which overthrew the French royals, caused some upheavals in the history of fashion.

Another major development during that period was the Industrial revolution in Britain (1760 to 1840). Textile manufacturing flourished in Britain during this period and machines took over production and tailoring. Evolution of fashion as we know today starts from the 1770s but not much changed till the beginning of the 20thcentury.

20thcentury marks a large scale adoption of fashion by the masses. The evolution of the entertainment industry led to people being influenced by fashion in the films. Introduction of synthetic fibres and the availability of mass produced cheaper and practical clothes changed the fashion scenario like never before.

Fashion Cycles

Fashion changes periodically. Fashion cycle generally has five stages: introduction, rise in popularity, peak of popularity, decline in popularity and rejection. Whenever some fashion is at the peak of its popularity, there is a tendency to oppose it. A style then develops that completely changes the previous one.

Until the Victorian Era, a fashion look took between 10 and 15 years to actually reach all areas. Once rail travel improved communication, the cycle of fashion speeded up and was moving in a yearly cycle by the Edwardian Era in 1901. These days mass fashion is moving almost in a weekly cycle and some trends are hot for a very limited time.

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