Fashion and Its Social Agendas
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Fashion and Its Social Agendas

Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing

Diana Crane

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Fashion and Its Social Agendas

Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing

Diana Crane

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About This Book

It has long been said that clothes make the man (or woman), but is it still true today? If so, how has the information clothes convey changed over the years? Using a wide range of historical and contemporary materials, Diana Crane demonstrates how the social significance of clothing has been transformed.Crane compares nineteenth-century societies—France and the United States—where social class was the most salient aspect of social identity signified in clothing with late twentieth-century America, where lifestyle, gender, sexual orientation, age, and ethnicity are more meaningful to individuals in constructing their wardrobes. Today, clothes worn at work signify social class, but leisure clothes convey meanings ranging from trite to political. In today's multicode societies, clothes inhibit as well as facilitate communication between highly fragmented social groups.Crane extends her comparison by showing how nineteenth-century French designers created fashions that suited lifestyles of Paris elites but that were also widely adopted outside France. By contrast, today's designers operate in a global marketplace, shaped by television, film, and popular music. No longer confined to elites, trendsetters are drawn from many social groups, and most trends have short trajectories. To assess the impact of fashion on women, Crane uses voices of college-aged and middle-aged women who took part in focus groups. These discussions yield fascinating information about women's perceptions of female identity and sexuality in the fashion industry.An absorbing work, Fashion and Its Social Agendas stands out as a critical study of gender, fashion, and consumer culture.
"Why do people dress the way they do? How does clothing contribute to a person's identity as a man or woman, as a white-collar professional or blue-collar worker, as a preppie, yuppie, or nerd? How is it that dress no longer denotes social class so much as lifestyle?... Intelligent and informative, [this] book proposes thoughtful answers to some of these questions."- Library Journal

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Clothing, as one of the most visible forms of consumption, performs a major role in the social construction of identity. Clothing choices provide an excellent field for studying how people interpret a specific form of culture for their own purposes, one that includes strong norms about appropriate appearances at a particular point in time (otherwise known as fashion) as well as an extraordinarily rich variety of alternatives. One of the most visible markers of social status and gender and therefore useful in maintaining or subverting symbolic boundaries, clothing is an indication of how people in different eras have perceived their positions in social structures and negotiated status boundaries. In previous centuries, clothing was the principal means for identifying oneself in public space. Depending on the period, various aspects of identity were expressed in clothing in Europe and the United States, including occupation, regional identity, religion, and social class. Certain items of clothing worn by everyone, such as hats, were particularly important, sending instant signals of ascribed or aspired social status. Variations in clothing choices are subtle indicators of how different types of societies and different positions within societies are actually experienced.
Recently, sociologists have begun to understand the power of artifacts to exercise a kind of cultural “agency,” influencing social behavior and attitudes in ways that we often fail to recognize. Technology embodied in machinery, architecture, and computers (to name a few) is a major influence in modern life (Latour 1988) and has tended to obscure the fact that nontechnological artifacts have been influencing human behavior for centuries. Clothes as artifacts “create” behavior through their capacity to impose social identities and empower people to assert latent social identities. On the one hand, styles of clothing can be a straitjacket, constraining (literally) a person’s movements and manners, as was the case for women’s clothing during the Victorian era. For centuries, uniforms (military, police, religious) have been used to impose social identities on more or less willing subjects (Joseph 1986). Alternatively, clothing can be viewed as a vast reservoir of meanings that can be manipulated or reconstructed so as to enhance a person’s sense of agency. Interviews by social psychologists (Kaiser, Freeman, and Chandler 1993) suggest that people attribute to their “favorite” clothes the capacity to influence the ways they express themselves and interact with others.
Social scientists have not articulated a definitive interpretation of how a person constructs social identity in contemporary society. Recent theories conceptualize people as functioning today in a social structure more fluid and less constraining than those of the past. Contemporary societies are characterized as “postindustrial” and their cultures as “postmodern,” implying a transformation in the relationships between different elements of the social structure and in the nature and role of culture.
In this book, I will examine fashion and clothing choices in nineteenth-century industrial and contemporary postindustrial societies, drawing examples from France, the United States, and England. In class societies, each class had a distinct culture which differentiated it from other classes, but at the same time it shared certain values, goals, and gender ideals with other classes. In contemporary, “fragmented” societies, class distinctions are important in the workplace, but, outside the workplace, distinctions are based on criteria that are meaningful to the numerous and diverse social groups in which they originate but not necessarily to members of other social groups. How do fashion and clothing choices differ in societies where social class and gender are the most salient aspects of social identity, as compared with societies where lifestyles, age cohorts, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity are as meaningful to people as social class in constructing their self-images and in their presentation of self? Changes in the dissemination of fashion and in clothing choices can be used to trace and interpret these transformations in class cultures.

CLOTHING AND SOCIAL CHANGE: Status, Class, and Identity

Changes in clothing and in the discourses surrounding clothing indicate shifts in social relationships and tensions between different social groups that present themselves in different ways in public space. In previous centuries, increases in the availability of clothing to members of different social classes that were related to a gradual decline in the cost of clothing affected the origins and accessibility of fashionable styles. In the late Middle Ages, clothes in European societies began to resemble those we know today: shapeless gowns were replaced by tailored, fitted garments whose forms were generally influenced by fashions originating in the courts of kings or the upper classes. In some countries, sumptuary laws specified the types of material and ornaments that could be used by members of different social classes (Hurlock 1965). In relatively rigid social structures, attempts to use clothing to negotiate status boundaries were as controversial as analogous attempts to use clothing to negotiate gender boundaries in the twentieth century.
Until the Industrial Revolution and the appearance of machine-made clothing, clothes were generally included among a person’s most valuable possessions. New clothes were inaccessible to the poor, who wore used clothing that had often passed through many hands before reaching them. A poor man was likely to own only a single suit of clothes. For example, among 278 people arrested in and around Paris in 1780, only twenty-eight possessed more than one outfit of clothing (Roche 1994:87). Those rich enough to own substantial wardrobes considered them valuable forms of property to be willed to deserving relatives and servants when they died. Cloth was so expensive and so precious that it constituted in itself a form of currency and frequently replaced gold as a form of payment for services (Stallybrass 1993:37). When funds were scarce, clothes were pawned, along with jewels and other valuables.
In preindustrial societies, clothing behavior indicated very precisely a person’s position in the social structure (Ewen 1985). Clothing revealed not only social class and gender but frequently occupation, religious affiliation, and regional origin, as well. Each occupation had a particular costume. In some countries, each village and region in the countryside had its own variations on the costume of the period (Pellegrin 1989). As Western societies industrialized, the effect of social stratification on clothing behavior was transformed. The expression of class and gender took precedence over the communication of other types of social information. The essence of social stratification in industrial societies can be understood in terms of hierarchies of occupations (see, e.g., Goldthorpe 1987:39–42; and Le Play 1862), occupation being an indicator of control over property and other economic resources. Clothes for specific occupations disappeared and were replaced by clothing for types of occupations and by uniforms that signified a particular rank in an organization. Regional identification became less salient.
In nineteenth-century industrializing societies, social class affiliation was one of the most salient aspects of a person’s identity. Differences in clothing behavior between social classes were indications of the character of interpersonal relationships between social classes in industrializing societies. The social “chasm” between the middle and upper classes and the lower class was enormous. At the end of the century, the lower class constituted the overwhelming majority of the population in this period (73 percent in France [Duroselle 1972:85], 85 percent in England [Runciman 1990:389]; and 82 percent in the United States [U.S. Bureau of the Census 1975, pt. 1:139]. Contacts between this class and other social classes occurred largely through services performed by members of the working class for the middle and upper classes. Such contacts were restricted, for the most part, to artisans and tradespeople, who were generally men, and to servants, who were usually female.
Even in the nineteenth century, clothes represented a substantial portion of a working-class family’s possessions. In France, a working-class man’s suit, purchased at the time of its owner’s marriage, was often expected to last a lifetime and to serve a variety of purposes, including Sunday church services, weddings, and funerals. A young woman and her female relatives typically spent several years preparing her trousseau, which represented an important part of the resources she contributed to her future household and which contained clothes, undergarments, and bed linens that were intended to last for decades. In England, poor families formed clubs for the purpose of saving to buy clothes (de Marly 1986). Clothes were relatively unavailable to the working class but abundantly accessible to the upper class, for whom fashions were created. Members of other classes who wished to have a fashionable appearance were required to emulate that class.
By the late nineteenth century, clothes had gradually become cheaper and therefore more accessible to lower class levels. As the first widely available consumer item, clothes were sometimes an indulgence for rich and poor alike. Young, employed working-class women spent their wages on fashionable items. Middle- and upper-class women devoted substantial proportions of their families’ incomes to clothes.
Costume historians have concluded that clothing was democratized during the nineteenth century, because all social classes adopted similar types of clothing (Steele 1989a). They argue that this transformation was most pronounced in the United States because of the character of its social structure. Class structures in industrializing societies during the nineteenth century were not identical. Since groups of people with similar positions in a class hierarchy tend to share distinctive, life-defining experiences (Kingston 1994: 4), variations in the nature of class hierarchies were visible in clothing behavior. The United States in the nineteenth century was widely believed to be a classless society, characterized by a high level of upward mobility. Tocqueville’s assessment of the country in 1840 as one in which, “at any moment, a servant may become a master” apparently reflected popular attitudes at the time. The obsession with fashion among American women in the nineteenth century has been attributed to the high level of “status competition” engendered by “the fluidity of American society, the universal striving after success, the lack of a titled aristocracy, and the modest past of most Americans” (Banner 1984:18, 54). Ironically, although expectations of upward mobility were higher in America than in other countries, actual levels of mobility were not (Kaelble 1986).1
The large numbers of immigrants in the second half of the nineteenth century made clothing in the United States particularly salient. Immigrants divested themselves of their traditional clothing as soon as they arrived, using clothes as a means of discarding their previous identities and establishing new ones (Heinze 1990:90). The United States also experienced high levels of geographical mobility owing to internal migration from East to West, meaning that large numbers of people were establishing identities in new locations. In France, there was enormous variation in social environments. In Paris, which was at the forefront of social change and modernity and the focus of internal migration, the demand for fashionable clothing was very high. By contrast, in provincial cities, which were pale imitations of Paris, and farming communities in the countryside, which remained steeped in tradition, new clothing was less accessible.
Fashion, which appeared to offer possibilities for a person to enhance his or her social position, was only one aspect of clothing during this period. It has to be seen in relation to the various ways in which clothing was used as a form of social control, through the imposition of uniforms and dress codes. Although men’s clothing was becoming simpler in comparison with the previous century, clothes in the workplace were becoming more differentiated as uniforms proliferated in bureaucratic organizations to indicate ranks in organizational hierarchies. In the workplace, social class differences were being made increasingly explicit by the use of uniforms and dress codes.
In the twentieth century, clothes have gradually lost their economic but not their symbolic importance, with the enormous expansion of ready-made clothing at all price levels.2 The availability of inexpensive clothing means that those with limited resources can find or create personal styles that express their perceptions of their identities rather than imitate styles originally sold to the more affluent. While, in the past, the occasional working-class street style was documented, the proliferation of street styles representing diverse subcultures within the working class has only occurred in the past fifty years. Theoretically, fashion is available to people at all social levels, both for creating styles that express their identities and for adopting styles created by clothing firms.
The nature of fashion has changed, as well as the ways in which people respond to it. Nineteenth-century fashion consisted of a well-defined standard of appearance that was widely adopted. Contemporary fashion is more ambiguous and multifaceted, in keeping with the highly fragmented nature of contemporary postindustrial societies. Kaiser, Nagasawa, and Hutton (1991: 166) refer to “the complex range and multitude of simultaneously ‘fashionable’ styles of clothing and personal appearance
. the range of choice in the marketplace contributes to a state of confusion bordering on chaos.” Clothing choices reflect the complexity of the ways we perceive our connections to one another in contemporary societies.


The best-known theory of fashion and clothing behavior is Simmel’s theory of fashion change as a process of imitation of social elites by their social inferiors (1957). Writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, Simmel delineated the role of fashion as it had developed in nineteenth-century societies, in which social classes had relatively distinct class cultures. Simmel’s model of fashion change was centered on the idea that fashions were first adopted by the upper class and, later, by the middle and lower classes. Lower-status groups sought to acquire status by adopting the clothing of higher-status groups and set in motion a process of social contagion whereby styles were adopted by groups at successively inferior status levels. By the time a particular fashion reached the working class, the upper class had adopted newer styles, since the previous style had lost its appeal in the process of popularization. The highest-status groups sought once again to differentiate themselves from their inferiors by adopting new fashions.
Although Simmel recognized that some trendsetters were working-class women who had become actresses or courtesans, he has been criticized for emphasizing the role of superordinate groups in initiating the contagion process. Others argue that upwardly mobile status groups were motivated to adopt new styles as status markers in order to differentiate themselves from groups subordinate to themselves, while the highest-status groups, whose eminence was secure and based on wealth and inheritance, tended to be relatively indifferent to the latest fashions (McCracken 1985:40). Veblen’s (1899) model of “conspicuous consumption” helps to explain the motivations of fashion adopters in some social strata.
Simmel’s theory assumes that new styles were widely adopted, but the question of who did or did not adopt them is crucial for understanding the nature of fashion in nineteenth-century class societies. Were fashions circulating primarily in the upper strata of these societies? To what extent were fashionable styles adopted by the working class? Middle-class observers in the nineteenth century tended to generalize from experiences in their own social circles and exaggerate the extent to which new styles were widely adopted by the working class. Middle-class commentators in magazines and newspapers drew their conclusions about working-class clothing from the appearance of certain types of people who were particularly “visible,” such as artisans and servants. Were those who were located in social positions that had little contact with the middle class less likely to adopt new styles? While costume historians have claimed that clothes were democratized during the nineteenth century, it would seem unlikely that members of the working class could emulate the extensive wardrobes of the middle class in anything more than a superficial manner.
Bourdieu’s (1984) theory of class reproduction and cultural tastes is useful for understanding how different social classes respond to cultural goods and material culture in highly stratified societies. His theory suggests that the dissemination of fashion was more complicated than the process described by Simmel. Bourdieu describes social structures as complex systems of class cultures comprising sets of cultural tastes and associated lifestyles. Within social classes, individuals compete for social distinction and cultural capital on the basis of their capacity to judge the suitability of cultural products according to class-based standards of taste and manners. Cultural practices which include both knowledge of culture and critical abilities for assessing and appreciating it are acquired during childhood in the family and in the educational system and contribute to the reproduction of the existing social class structure. In class societies, the dominant and most prestigious culture is that of the upper class. Elites possess “the power to set the terms through which tastes are assigned moral and social value” (Holt 1997b:95). The social backgrounds and cultural practices of the middle and lower classes prevent them from fully assimilating the tastes of the upper class. The consumption of cultural goods associated with the upper and middle classes requires attitudes and knowledge that are not readily accessible to members of the working class.
According to Bourdieu’s theory, the tastes of working-class men would be based on a “culture of necessity” characteristic of that class, in other words, clothing that was practical, functional, and durable rather than aesthetically pleasing and stylish. Those who moved into the middle classes would be expected to adopt the clothing behavior of that class but would not exhibit the same levels of taste and refinement owing to insufficient socialization and education.
Bourdieu’s theory helps to explain how social classes and hence social structures are maintained over time but is less useful for understanding how people respond during periods of rapid social change. His emphasis on the acquisition of standards for making cultural assessments in childhood and in the educational system suggests that these standards and hence cultural tastes change relatively slowly. The outcome of incessant competition for social distinction is stability, rather than change, in the social structure. During the nineteenth century, rising standards of living, combined with rising expectations and greater access to information, led working-class men to participate more actively in public spheres and public spaces. Changing conceptions of themselves as citizens might have been signaled by their use of new types of clothing to indicate their changing perceptions of their social status. In general, as ...

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