Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Day 109: The Sociology of Fashion, Feminism, and Social Class

This month, the FFB's (Feminist Fashion Bloggers) monthly topic of discussion is social class, as it pertains to feminism and the fashion/beauty industry. The roundup for all posts can be found here.

Warning: this is my most geeky academic post, by far.  And it has very little to do with mirrors.  (You lucky readers, you!)  Below please find a series of edited excerpts from my PhD qualifying exam on Cultural Sociology.  (Seriously.)  Naturally, I wrote about fashion.  

So.... what do sociologists have to say about fashion, social class and feminism?  Plenty!  Here goes:

One of the earliest sociological theories of fashion appears in Thornstein Veblen’s analysis of conspicuous consumption, in which products are consumed as a way of demonstrating wealth and status. This theory has been used to explain the fashion cycle in clothing.  George Simmel explains that, as the lower classes imitate their social superiors, the elite strive to distinguish themselves from them.  Thus, once a particular fashion diffuses down the social strata, it can no longer be considered “in fashion” by elites, and must be replaced by a new trend.  

Marxist feminists have voiced concerns that capitalist beauty culture reinforces the subjugation of women, particularly poorer women. Commenting on how “under capitalism, the sale of women as commodities” has been “displaced by the sale of commodities to women,” Evelyn Reed remarked that, “The fashion world became a capitalist gold mine with virtually unlimited possibilities. All a big businessman had to do was to change the fashions often enough [...] and he could become richer and richer.”  The agenda of the (capitalist) fashion world, Reed argues, exploits women by both their gender and their class: “while it may be ‘fun’ for wealthy women to discard their wardrobes with each season, such expectations are “disastrous for the poor.”  By this sensibility, fashion can both reflect and reproduce social inequality.

Interestingly, most contemporary accounts of the fashion cycle suggest that Simmel’s “top-down” theory no longer predominates!  Instead, Diana Crane argues that, although 19th century fashion followed a class-and-gender-based “top-down” model, “contemporary fashion is more ambiguous and multifaceted,” and, since the 1960s, a “‘bottom-up’ model, in which new styles emerge in lower-status groups and are later adopted by higher-status groups [...] has explained an important segment of fashion phenomena,” (pg. 14).

Also, many fashion trends appear to bypass the issue of class entirely, and instead follow patterns of “personal identity” to include consumer identification with groupings based on age, race, gender, sexuality, leisure activities, and various sub-cultural allegiances.  That contemporary fashion cycles operate differently from purely top-down models suggests a certain democratization of fashion, and perhaps increased space for people to challenge class and gender inequalities through fashion. 

So there you have it.  Proof that I'm a total geek.  But I do love fashion, and I'm endlessly fascinated by it's role in both reflecting, reproducing, and challenging social inequality!  And now I have a question for you:


Thanks again to FFB for creating discussion around this well-deserved topic!

SOURCES CITED:          
Crane, D. (2000). Fashion and its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.
Davis, F. (1992). Fashion, Culture, and Identity. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press.
Reed, E. (1954). The Woman Question and the Marxist Method. Cosmetics, Fashions and the Exploitation of Women. J. Hanson and E. Reed. New York, Pathfinder Press.
Simmel, G. (1957 [1904]). "Fashion." American Journal of Sociology 62: 541-558.
Veblen, T. (1994 [1899]). The Theory of the Leisure Class. Mineola, N.Y., Dover Publications.
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  1. Wow, that's a comprehensive analysis! Very interesting stuff. I completely understand the top-down trend movement, but I'm confused by the bottom-up one even though I acknowledge it exists - maybe it had something to do with the relatively privileged strata from the student revolt generation onwards always trying to distance themselves from their privilege through fashion statements.

  2. Oh man, Poet, you must be a closet-sociologist! I'm fascinated by this concept as well, and tend to think of the Olsen twins dressing like homeless women in oversized thrift-store clothes (and $500 designer sunglasses!)

    I actually edited out a part where I talk about this stuff. Here it is:

    "One fascinating explanation for this transition away from “top-down” conspicuous consumption might be found in the emergence of what author David Brooks identifies as “Bobo” (Bohemian-Bourgeoisie) culture. Bobo-ism is a product of the mingling of mainstream culture with 1960s-era counterculture – in which “new upper class” elites find elitism itself to be unfashionable, and thus, find (often expensive) ways to signal their disdain for materialism."

  3. Oh, I like this proof of your geek-dom. I found myself arguing with the top down theory as I read...and then you arrived at the thought I'd been having as I read.

    My father taught me that the wealthy often don't dress the way middle or lower class people might expect them too as it is declasse to flaunt wealth.

  4. Terri - I agree completely! Having worked in fashion firms where we literally copy elite designers (i.e., cut up a garment and send all pieces to Hong Kong to match fabric, buttons, etc.) I KNOW that most ready-to-wear fashion designs trickle down from the top.

    BUT, the way people put together their clothes always speaks to their individual sense of style and expression. Hence, we can subvert fashion to our own meaning, sometimes emulating elites, and sometimes making fun of them!

  5. Great post! I agree that fast-fashion labels are still aggressively copying top-to-bottom. All you need to do is visit Zara or H&M for five minutes, and you can tell which high-fashion designer they are copying that season. It is very obvious.

    The bottom-up model is very interesting, even though I think that most trends in fashion retail are still top-to-bottom ones. I immediately thought of the Olsens, as well as the trendy, young well-to-do people on Hel-looks, who draw their fashion inspiration from poverty and the suburbia. I agree with Terri about it being declasse to flaunt wealth, at least in certain circles - in Finland people often disapprove of the wealthy Russian tourists who wear their labels loud and proud for example.

    I also thought of that one post by The Sartorialist, the one where he photographed a homeless man and discussed the man's "style". Not that I have anything in particular to say about it now (I'm too tired to construct an argument), but if anything, it was the classic example of the bottom-up model.

  6. When I think of bottom-up design, I think of how the street inspires designers. (Frankly, one can be inspired by wealthy elites but for so long.) Street styles are constantly evolving, which I think the Satorialist documents nicely. I agree with the theory of "personal identity" as inspiration of fashion. Ultimately, what I think happens is this weird refraction: the designer draws inspiration from smaller sub-cultures, creates garments based on that idea, the garment gains popularity and gets "knocked-off" and sold back to the masses as trendy. I don't follow fashion as much as I used to, but I remember in the 90s seeing a lot of grunge inspired clothing coming down catwalks.

    1. Judith Williamson was quoted saying on Threadbared (a sociology and fashion blog):

      It is currently “in” for the young and well-fed to go around in torn rags, but not for tramps to do so. In other words, the appropriation of other people’s dress is fashionable provided it is perfectly clear that you are, in fact, different from whoever would normally wear such clothes.

  7. Yeah for academic writing quoted wholesale, love it!

    I do recognise the bottom up thing, but wonder if it's a bit more complex than that. they was any emerging subculture, no matter how small, is immediately chewed over and sucked into the design process and sold back to the people on the street. I read somewhere (in relation to music) that electroclash in the early 2000s, was the last bottom up movement that was allowed to grow organically and become fully formed.

  8. Julie, I think you're 100% on track with that explanation. It's interesting how the fashion elites draw inspiration from unpredictable sources. Those styles immediately become "elite" and then trickle down to the rest of us! I'll never forget hearing a 50-year-old woman say "Oh, 20 years ago I used to wear uggs to warm my feet after surfing... but not in baby powder blue!"

  9. Franca - stellar insight here as well. I'd love to hear other thoughts on recent "bottom-up" movements!


    I abdicate all responsibility for coming up with a personal style. With two sisters living in big cities (San Francisco and Chicago), I just ask for clothes for birthday and Christmas. That way I get to wear stuff I didn't have to shop for, and am absolved of all responsibility for "my look".

  11. I agree with your analysis. It really comes together very nicely.

  12. Its basically all about trendy accessories and that is what women bother the most which is a good thing because fashion should be the one that is in trends.

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