Identities Through Fashion
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Identities Through Fashion

A Multidisciplinary Approach

Ana Marta González, Laura Bovone, Ana Marta González, Laura Bovone

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eBook - ePub

Identities Through Fashion

A Multidisciplinary Approach

Ana Marta González, Laura Bovone, Ana Marta González, Laura Bovone

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About This Book

Fashion has become a fertile field of study for academics across disciplines, now that the rules, once tightly fixed, have been deconstructed. This volume brings together academics from various disciplines - philosophy, sociology, medicine, anthropology, psychology and psychiatry - to examine fashion's complex relationship with post-industrial societies. Herein the authors address, from the standpoint of their respective disciplines, what crucial functions fashion fulfils in the modern world, especially as it relates to the construction and deconstruction of the self.This volume is the result of a conference held by the Social Trends Institute at which the authors presented original papers. The Social Trends Institute is a non-profit research centre that offers institutional and financial support to academics in all fields who research and explore emerging social trends and their effects on human communities. The Institute focuses its research on four main subject areas: family, bioethics, culture and lifestyles, and corporate governance.

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1 Introduction

Diana Crane
Fashion is a complex, multifaceted subject that has been studied in many academic fields. Scholars from disciplines in the humanities and in the medical and social sciences are interested in similar issues related to the phenomenon of fashion, but they approach them in different ways and rarely communicate their conclusions to their counterparts in other fields. The goal of this volume is to show that our understanding of fashion can be enhanced by juxtaposing perspectives from several disciplines, including communication, cultural studies, medicine, philosophy, psychiatry, psychology and sociology. These chapters suggest that a few scholars, both classical and contemporary—such as Georg Simmel, Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Baudrillard—have provided theoretical frameworks that constitute a basis for research by scholars working in very different fields.
Propelled by increasingly intrusive media, fashion is very visible in contemporary society and has both positive and negative effects. Definitions of fashion focus on four concepts that refer to various aspects of its manifestation. The simplest type of definition is that fashion is a form of material culture related to bodily decoration. Laura Bovone, a sociologist, links fashion to a major aspect of contemporary societies, the use of consumer objects and choices to communicate one’s perceptions of one’s place in society. In her chapter ‘Fashion, Identity and Social Actors’, she says that ‘the concept of fashion needs to be inextricably linked to the concept of consumption.’
A second type of definition focuses on fashion as a signifier. Here the emphasis is on fashion as a kind of language in which clothing styles function as signifiers. Clusters of norms and codes constitute recognizable styles at any specific time. These norms and codes are continually being revised and modified, usually in relatively minor ways, but from time to time substantial changes occur. The meanings of some items of clothing are stable and singular, like the man’s suit, while the meanings of other items are constantly changing and may at times be ambiguous, as in the cases of the blue jean and the T-shirt. Fashions are often confused with fads. The term fad refers to specific items which become very popular for a few weeks or months and then disappear.
A third type of definition views fashion as a system of business organizations in which fashion is created, communicated and distributed to consumers. The public performs an important role in the dissemination of fashion. Dissemination formerly occurred largely through imitation from elites to non-elites. Now, role models include celebrities from popular culture and members of minority subcultures.
A fourth type of definition identifies the hypothetical effects of fashion, such as the reinforcement of social differentiation, the expression of aspirations for social mobility and the resolution of anxieties regarding social identity. One indication that fashion is not a trivial and ephemeral phenomenon is the way in which fashionable clothing and accessories are and have been used to express and shape personal and social identities.
The study of fashion is complicated by the fact that fashion is continually changing, not just in its substantive content but also in its relationship to social institutions and the public. Ann Margaret Brach, an engineer, concludes that the essential characteristic of the content of fashion is continual change. In her chapter ‘Identity and Intersubjectivity’, she says: ‘The matter or content of fashion must change for fashion to exist at all.’ Alejandro Nestor García Martínez, a sociologist and a philosopher, argues that the instability inherent in fashion differentiates fashion from style. Style refers to behaviour that is relatively stable. Several of the authors in this volume take the position that in order to understand the nature of fashion today, it is necessary to examine how its role in Western societies has evolved in the past two hundred years. The characteristics and impact of fashion have changed as the nature of society has evolved from premodern to modern and from modern to postmodern. Major changes in clothing styles are generally indicators of important shifts in social relations and levels of social tension. The processes of diffusion and the effects of fashion differ in different types of societies.
In premodern and modern societies, members of the upper class and later the bourgeoisie used fashion to indicate their social position or the position to which they aspired. Identification with social class influenced the way individuals perceived their identities and their relationships with their social environments. According to Simmel (1957 [1904]), fashion was a major tool in the quest for social distinction. In postmodern societies, fashionable styles reflect the complexity of the ways people perceive their connections with one another. Different styles have different publics; there is no agreement about a fashion ideal that represents contemporary culture. Lipovetsky (1987) perceives this so-called ‘empire of fashion’ as liberating for the individual who obtains the capacity for self-expression. By contrast, Baudrillard (1970) views the individual as being trapped in a consumer society where fashion, along with other cultural goods, is useless and ultimately meaningless.
The authors in this volume explore different aspects of the connections between fashion, identity and self-image. Laura Bovone provides a useful definition of identity. She distinguishes between personal identity (what makes an individual unique) and social identity (what makes an individual similar to others in her social group). How has fashion been used to express these two types of identity? How have these connections evolved over time and in various circumstances?
Ana Marta González, a philosopher, examines the views of classical thinkers of the Enlightenment and romanticism—including Kant, Rousseau and Schiller—who, in her opinion, still define the intellectual background of our world and hence of fashion. González’s question is: How did classical thinkers shape the ways we perceive ourselves and others and hence our proclivity towards fashion? She notes the affinity between Simmel’s conception of fashion as ‘a principle of social distinction and assimilation’ and Kant’s recognition that the individual relies on fashion to facilitate assimilation with others in her social environment or, alternatively, to distinguish herself from others. She explains how philosophers, prior to Simmel, conceptualized the relationship between the individual and public space in which fashion unfolded. She agrees with Bauman (1996) that the problem of identity takes different forms in modern and postmodern societies. In modern societies, individuals used fashion to construct unique selves, but, in postmodern societies, they prefer to avoid commitment to a specific identity, so as to remain free to experiment with alternative identities.
González argues that the conclusions of Lipovetsky and Baudrillard concerning the reasons for the importance of fashion in postmodern societies are exaggerated. Lipovetsky overemphasizes the level of hyperindividualism that supposedly elevates the role of fashion while Baudrillard overstates the extent to which the individual lacks a coherent sense of self that could provide a basis for selecting among fashions and consumer goods. González challenges the theory of the ‘minimal postmodern self’, which supposedly shifts from one identity to another, on the grounds that traditional identities, as defined by classical philosophers, are not entirely irrelevant in contemporary society.
García Martínez provides an alternative explanation for the importance of fashion in contemporary societies. Drawing on the work of Norbert Elias (1994), he argues that the prominence of fashion has resulted from a general civilizing process in Western societies which has gradually spread from elites to other social classes. This process has produced structural transformations, which have led to greater social differentiation, and changes in individual personality, such as an increase in individualism and in the desire for social distinction. As a result of increased social differentiation, there is greater diversity in people’s tastes and, in turn, enormous variation in choices offered by the fashion system. An abundance of new and ephemeral fads and fashions are created and adopted by members of youth and minority subcultures. These changes have led to an increase in the visibility of fashion as a phenomenon but have also resulted in a decline in shared codes of sartorial meaning across different social groups.
Laura Bovone and Colin Campbell (the latter is also a sociologist) attempt to clarify the relationship between fashion and identity in contemporary societies. For Bovone, fashionable clothes are consumer objects. The consumer, not the worker, is the most important actor in modern society. Clothing and personal appearance in general are important indicators of other people’s behaviour. More than any other type of consumer object, fashion expresses our social identity because it provides, according to Bovone’s chapter, ‘Fashion, Identity and Social Actors’, ‘opportunities to place ourselves socially via situated practice, to communicate to the outer world our belonging or exclusion, or even our ambivalence and instability’. Rather than seeing fashion as a meaningless but oppressive phenomenon, as does Baudrillard, Bovone emphasizes the role of fashion in providing aesthetic choices that enable the consumer either to conform or to rebel, to assimilate or to subvert the dominant culture.
Campbell, like García Martínez, attempts to explain the significance of fashion in contemporary society. He attributes the appeal of fashion partly to what he calls self-illusory hedonism or daydreaming that leads to an ‘insatiable desire for novelty’. In his chapter, ‘The Modern Western Fashion Pattern, its Functions and Relationship to Identity’, he states that ‘the essential activity of modern consumption is not the actual selection, purchase, or use of products so much as the imaginative pleasure-seeking to which the product image lends itself.’ He also attributes the importance of fashion to its role in providing an aesthetic standard of judgment for consumer goods. Fashion expresses personal identity in the sense that the style of the products that individuals purchase, use and display ‘says something about who they are’ and serves as an indication of their social identity along with other aspects of their lives. However, Campbell does not agree that individuals select or create new personal identities through their choice of consumer goods, including fashion, with the possible exception of members of minority subcultures. Instead, he concludes that, for most people, the connection between fashion and personal identity in the modern world takes the form of ‘discovering their true identity by a process of monitoring their responses to the various styles that are brought to their attention ... as a part of a process of coming to realize “who they really are”’.
Brach is critical of the role of fashion in contemporary society. For her, the freedom for self-expression that some observers have associated with postmodern societies is illusory. The increasing domination of fashion as an economic system imposes a specific type of identity on consumers through the mass media. Images transmitted through the media encourage continual experimentation with fashion but do not lead to self-discovery or to a stable personal identity. Maria Teresa Russo, a medical anthropologist, is also critical of contemporary fashion, specifically the way in which fashions generated by business organizations in search of profit undermine the individual’s capacity to develop a personal style. She points to the role of the fashion brand, which expresses an impersonal lifestyle and turns the individual into a ‘walking advertisement’. Although fashion is used in different ways by different social groups, the fashion system is particularly oriented toward the tastes and interests of youthful consumers, some of whom become obsessed with certain aspects of fashion. Russo argues that young people in contemporary society are susceptible to the dictates of fashion because their identities are based on ‘appearing rather than being’. Fashions are not chosen in order to express their personal outlook. Instead, young people use fashion to conform to ideas about personal appearance that emanate from the media.
Efrat Tseëlon examines the issue of fashion and identity in a different way by showing that clothing research and sartorial reality produce quite different indications of the meanings of clothing. She argues that fashion researchers have concentrated on ‘pockets of homogeneity’ with regards to clothing rules and their meanings while academic researchers have emphasized that sartorial meaning is ‘contextual, complex, contingent and negotiated within a context’. Both types of researchers suggest that the meanings of clothing and of fashionable clothing can be compared to a language. Through empirical research, Tseëlon tested the idea that ‘clothes and personal appearance are means of non-verbal communication used to exchange personal and social information.’ By studying whether and how well peers were able to interpret the meanings that individuals intended to communicate through their clothing, she found that the messages conveyed by ordinary people’s wardrobes were much more ambiguous and less stereotypical than previous research on fashion has indicated. She concludes that the reality of wearing clothes is ‘fragmented, random, fluid and idiosyncratic... no clear code is followed by all’.
The three authors in the volume who are specialists in the medical and behavioural sciences are particularly concerned with the negative effects of fashion on adolescents. María Elena Larraín, a psychologist, examines the connections between fashion and the process of identity formation in adolescence. Some adolescents become excessively concerned about their bodies and about their appearance generally. Their anxieties about themselves are reflected in exaggerated levels of attention to their clothing.
Francesco Cecere, a physician, and Raphael M. Bonelli, a psychiatrist, discuss the role of fashion and the media in the generation of pathological behaviour in the form of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorders. Although thinness as an ideal is widely disseminated by the fashion media, Cecere finds that the medical literature on eating disorders pays little attention to fashion. He suggests that this neglect is unfortunate since studies of the media have found that the media play an important role in generating and perpetuating eating disorders. For example, even brief exposure to music videos showing images of very thin women increases the level of dissatisfaction with their bodies among adolescents. Bonelli is disturbed by the alarming impact of fashion magazines on the level of satisfaction of women with their bodies. Although psychological problems are the determining factors in eating disorders, the fashion media play a major role in the internalization of the ideal of thinness among adolescent women. Cecere argues that public health services that are attempting to develop strategies for preventing eating disorders need to involve media and fashion professionals and make use of the kinds of language and images that occur in the media in order to attract the attention of their target population.
Bonelli argues that fashion has both positive and negative aspects. In spite of having negative effects on some social groups, an interest in fashion and personal appearance is a sign of mental health. Psychiatrists are able to infer changes in mood from changes in their patients’ clothing. He says that observation of the outfit is part of the diagnostic method. Psychiatrists consider that both an exaggerated interest in fashion and a complete disinterest in fashion are unhealthy. Bonelli also observes that fashion is an important influence on a person’s lifestyle, a set of behaviours that influence mental and physical health. The study of lifestyle is an important topic in public health medicine.
As the authors in this volume show, fashion is not simply a matter of seasonal changes in clothing styles. Closely allied with the mass media, the fashion system influences the ways in which we perceive and use our bodies; it also affects our conceptions of our personal and social identities, although members of some social groups are more likely to be affected by fashion than others. Larraín, in her chapter ‘Adolescence: Identity, Fashion and Narcissism’, stresses that ‘fashion is a complex phenomenon that cannot be explained by a single theory.’ Therefore, a multidisciplinary approach, such as has been used in this volume, provides a variety of perspectives that contribute to our understanding of the phenomenon and suggests new directions that future studies should take.


Baudrillard, J. (1970), La société de consommation, Paris: Denoël.
Bauman, Z. (1996), ‘From Pilgrim to Tourist—or a Short History of Identity’, in S. Hall and P. du Gay (eds), Questions of Cultural Identity, London: Sage.
Elias, N. (1994), The Civilizing Process, Oxford: Blackwell.
Lipovetsky, G. (1987), L’empire de l’éphémère, Paris: Gallimard.
Simmel, G. (1957 [1904]), ‘Fashion’, American Journal of Sociology, 62 (May): 541–58.
Part I Fashion and Identity

2 The Modern Western Fashion Pattern, its Functions and Relationship to Identity

Colin Campbell
I begin this chapter by tackling the question of why fashion has become such a significant feature of modern industrial societies, or, to put it another way, what crucial function or functions could fashion be said to be fulfilling in the contemporary developed world? There are, I believe, two related answers to this question. But first, before outlining these, it is wise to define the terms used. In contemporary discourse we tend to refer to a fashion to mean the prevailing style, while to talk of the fashion is usually to mean that which is the latest or most approved; unfortunately, however, the term fashion is also sometimes used as if it were simply a synonym for custom, or indeed for any practice that is currently popular and widespread. Now, not only do I wish to reject these latter meanings, but I would also like to use the term to refer to a distinctive institution—that is to say, to a widespread, established, persistent and valued pattern of conduct, one that—following McKendrick, Brewer and Plumb (1982)—I shall refer to (with a slight modification) as the ‘modern Western fashion pattern’.1 The significance of using this term is to emphasize how the modern phenomenon of fashion is very different from that which preceded it (see also Polhemus and Proctor 1978; Wilson 1985). Indeed, what we have come to know as ‘fashion’—what I am calling the ‘modern Western fashion pattern’—only really came into existence in the eighteenth century, and what distinguishes it from that which preceded it is the exceptionally rapid pace of change that occurs in the prevailing or dominant style or styles. Of course, even in traditional societies fashions changed over time. However, this change was never rapid and often occurred at such a slow pace that it was not actually discernible to its members, who as a consequence frequently believed styles to be unchanging. What happened in the eighteenth century in Western Europe marked a dramatic break with this pattern of slow and gradual change. The critical events appear to have occurred in England in the reign of George II and were followed by what has been termed a ‘fashion frenzy’ early in the reign of George III. At this time, instead of changes occurring gradually, they were occurring frequently—effectively annually in the case of ladies’ clothes, as each year the new fashion doll came across the channel from France. Thus, in 1753 for example purple was the ‘in’ colour for ladies’ dresses, while in 1757 the fashion was for white linen with a pink pattern; in 1776 the fashionable colour was ‘color de Noisette’...

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