How Do We Think About Fashion & Culture?

We started off this week discussing how fashion functions as a language, and helps people communicate with each other.  However, in order for fashion to be understood there has to be a shared knowledge of the language.  In this way, fashion creates a community of common interests and people.  We send messages through our fashion choices consciously and unconsciously, adhering to different values or ideologies.  Therefore, fashion is one way of making sense of the world and culture we live in.  However, Davis explains, “a fashion that has been accorded wide acceptance is, ironically, no longer fashionable” (Davis 155).  This is why fashion is constantly changing.

Raymond Williams defines culture as a “particular way of life which expresses certain meanings and values not only in art and learning, but also in institutions and ordinary behaviour” (Hebdige 6).  By this definition, every human is part of a particular culture or even many cultures.  By looking at what is valued in a culture, we learn more about the society in return.  Fashion can be considered one aspect of culture, and in order to understand it we must think of fashion objects critically.  For example, how did the fur coat come about, and why do we assume certain things about people who wear them?

Is fur on a bikini classy or trashy? Found on

Is fur on a bikini classy or trashy?
Found on

A glamorous ad for Saga Furs was featured in the September 1955 issue of Vogue.  (Via Found on

A glamorous ad for Saga Furs was featured in the September 1955 issue of Vogue.
Found on

An ideology is an understanding of how the world works.  It is unconscious and as Stuart Hall puts it, “You cannot learn, through common sense, how things are: you can only dicover where they fit into the existing scheme of things” (Hebdige 11).  This understanding works to preserve certain relationships of power, and from these understandings we create clothing codes.  Because, “clothing styles and fashions do not mean the same things to all members of society at the same time… what is worn lends itself easily to a symbolic upholding of class and status boundaries in society” (Davis 151).

Davis states that we will never know all of the associations we think of when it comes to clothing when we put them on because there are just too many in the world.  In this way, we can never be fully certain what is being communicated when someone wears something (Davis 153).  Every clothing item is context dependent that can mean different things in different places or times.  In that way, fashion is under-coded, in that we need to know the context in order to understand the meaning; it cannot stand-alone.  For example, wearing jeans to a football game communicates that you are laid back and casual.  Wearing jeans to a theater gala communicates that you are disrespectful and not “in the know”.

Furthermore, the social relations and assumptions we make about certain objects are not fixed.  Because fashion is always changing and evolving, we re-appropriate certain norms in new and different contexts.  This is because the signifier-signified relationship in fashion is very unstable, and the meaning of fashion objects can shift very quickly.  Hebdige uses the prime example of the safety pin.  The original use of this object was as a fastener for diapers that safely holds the fabric together on babies.  However, punks re-appropriated the safety pin to symbolize their disregard for rules by wearing large quantities on jackets and jeans.

In class, we did an activity to understand how a single piece of clothing can have many different meanings depending upon the context.  For example, we chose a diamond ring, which can be associated with marriage, commitment, wealth, conventional monogamy, eternity, love, and femininity.  It represents a dominant male to female power dynamic of possession as well as heterosexuality.

Historically, the appropriate size of a diamond ring or whether to wear a diamond at all has changed, depending on a nation’s economy.  A diamond ring can also mean different things in different cultures as well.  In African countries, they are seen as blood diamonds.  Lastly, a person of lower economic status can buy a cubic zirconium diamond that looks very much like a pure diamond, to try and give the impression that they are wealthier than they actually are.  This is a prime example of how the meaning of a piece of fashion can change rapidly and means different things to different people.

Real vs. Imitation Diamond Found on

Real vs. Imitation Diamond
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Two of the counterintuitive longings in human society that are reflected in our relationship to what we wear are our desires to appear as an assimilated member of society while simultaneously retaining some singular individuality. In his work “Fashion,” Georg Simmel discusses various paradoxical notions embedded in fashion, such as wanting to both blend in and stand out. “Fashion is the imitation of a given example and satisfies the demand for social acceptance” (Simmel 543).  As discussed in class, imitation can relieve the anxiety of standing alone in your choice, while finding a sense of self through understanding how and why others dress the ways they do.


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Although fashion can serve as a social equalizer, it’s innate nature of constant change can equally exclude those outside the monetary means to support the constant change of trends. “Naturally the lower classes look up and strive toward the upper,” and thus the elites dictate to the masses what is fashionable (Simmel 545). Once the masses have been able to replicate a style, the elites move on the distinguish themselves from their imitators, and something new comes into style. This imitation of the elite class further distinguishes the classes from one another, as the class demanding change are given “an advantage over the others” (Simmel 556). We discussed in class that fashion is always a social construction which must be adopted and exists without true standards. This is why fashion only exists in societies with the class distinctions required to instigate the rapid change of trends.

While anything can be fashionable, Simmel acknowledges that “some fashion always exists and fashion per se is indeed immortal” (Simmel 556). Similarly, although anything can be fashionable, not “all forms are suited to becomes fashion.”

The relationship between fashion and city life began in post-Industrialized society focused on production and consumption. “The capitalist city invented a fantasy world that was neither wholly public nor quite a private realm: the department store” (Wilson 144). As charted by Elizabeth Wilson in “Fashion and City Life” the rise of city stores drove an interest in the city as a mecca to obtain a wide range of goods with an upscale feelinh. “The department store was the bourgeoisie’s world. it was the world of leisurely women celebrating a new rite of consumption…Bourgeois culture was on display'” (Wilson 149). The beginning of bourgeois imitation of the elites following the rose of department stores in some ways seems to have cemented the role of the city in fashion.

As discussed in class, being in the city challenges inhabitants to have a heightened visibility and overexposure to those around them. There are very few times in a city that we are truly alone or non-observable, while often acting as if there is no one there. This heightened sense of self allows you to see yourself through the contrast and comparison to those around you. “In the city the individual constantly interacts with others who are strangers, and survives by the manipulation of self” (Wilson 138).

Carrie Bradshaw Creating Her Identity in NYC Found on

Carrie Bradshaw Creating Her Identity in NYC
Found on

Fashion in the city can serve as a type of protection and an indication of what type of person someone is. In the “omnipresent gaze in the strangely inquisitive animosity of the crowd,” dress could be used as a shield to hide from the constant exposure to strangers (Wilson 137). Even if fashion can serve as a disguise, the manner in which someone chooses to dress gives detailed clues as to the character of that person.

To think about fashion is to think about change, paradox, and general instability. The only static characteristic of fashion is its inability to stay the same. Driven by class dynamics and understood only through cultural perceptions, fashion gives us the unique opportunity to try to understand each other, whilst contrast and comparison of fashions allow for some kind of inner understanding. It can also serve to provide societal distance and improperly conceptualized assumptions about other cultures. Fashion may not allow for definitive answers but thinking about it can shine new perspective on the culture of the world around us.


How Do We Think About Fashion & Culture?


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