Fashion Nation

Fashion is made to become unfashionable
— Coco Chanel

Throughout this dissertation I will discuss the ways in which contemporary fashion is used to constitute value and meaning in the lives of people living in the globalised consumer society.

Fashion as well as Art has a power in the construction of social conscience. From the sociological concept of an institution, I will explain how fashion could be conceptualised as a social institution by analysing how it follows the rules of one. From the promotion of social behaviours and a collective conscience, contemporary fashion can be related to identity crisis and a lack of spirituality that is characteristic of our time.

Fashion has been the subject of extensive sociological, historical, economical and semiotic analysis in modern and contemporary social theory. It is part of the concrete, profound, complicated and symbolic process of forming the modern and postmodern self-identity, body and social relationships, and it can lead us to understand who we are as a society.

Fashion is constantly being redefined, and it seems change on its own terms.  Throughout history, fashion has served as a spectacle, capturing the view of the political, social, cultural and economic climates, and of what was to come, at least for the next season. Fashion seems to determine ones essence, working from the idea of our freedom of choice, throughout this post I will describe how Fashion is a mechanism of social control far from freedom of expression.

My aim is to illustrate the role that fashion plays in society, how it is the spirit of globalisation, homogenisation and the meaning this has for us by being part of it, as though we were all citizens of the ‘Fashion Nation’ not by choice but by fact, and why fashion cannot be taken for granted.

Typically, contemporary sociologists use the term institution to refer to complex social forms that reproduce themselves such as governments, the family, human languages, education, and legal systems. I have decided to base this essay on its definition by Jonathan Turner

a complex of positions, roles, norms and values lodged in particular types of social structures and organising relatively stable patterns of human activity with respect to fundamental problems in producing life-sustaining resources, in reproducing individuals, and in sustaining viable societal structures within a given environment.
— Jonathan Turner (1997:6)

Institutions by definition are the more permanent features of social life; they are for establishing or standardising patterns of governed behaviour. The development and functioning of institutions in society in general may be regarded as an instance of emergence; that is, institutions arise, develop and function in a pattern of social self-organisation, which goes beyond the conscious intentions of the individuals involved.

There are five main characteristics of a social institution I will explain in the first part of this essay, and those are: It satisfies the basic needs of society, it defines dominant social values, it establishes permanent patterns of social behaviour, it creates relationships within other institutions, and the most important to consider for my analysis in relationship to self-identity construction; it provides roles for individuals.

To argument how fashion fits within the definition I can start explaining how it satisfies one of the basic needs of society. Patterns of social behaviour become institutionalised when they are reinforced by custom and tradition. Right after we are born we get wrapped up in a piece of fabric, it means protection and care, and it is literally the first human interaction with a newborn baby, even before teaching begins. So we could say that getting dressed would be the very first social behaviour we learn, but it is so primary and instinctive that it is only regarded as common sense. It is one of the things that separate us from other animals, we use our skills to produce fabrics and garments, we cannot survive without clothes, it is not only part of our survival strategy but also an intimate part of being human, it satisfies the need of self-protection.

Fashion, is a language in itself, it defines dominant social values. Contemporary society gives a much more important role to clothes, as they can signify the belonging of an individual to a certain group, clothes are a symbol of status, some clothes can give us the idea of an individual’s income.

As Roland Bathes argues;

At first sight, human clothing is a very promising subject to research or reflect upon: it is a complete phenomenon, the study of which requires at any one time in history, an economy, an ethnology, a technology and maybe even, as we will see in a moment, a type of linguistics. But above all, as an object of appearance,[1] it flatters our modern curiosity about social psychology, inviting us to go beyond the obsolete limits of the individual and of society: what is interesting in clothes is that it seems to participate to the greatest depth in the widest society.
— Roland Barthes

By quoting Barthes I want to refer to how the term fashion is no longer strictly making reference to the spirit or style of a period, but to the psyche of the person wearing the clothing: clothing is supposed to express a psychological depth. The dominant social value that fashion establishes is socio-psychological, and it is the idea of self-identity.

To set an example of how fashion establishes permanent patterns of social behavior I will discuss the episode 1 Season 6 ‘To Market, To Market’ of one of the contemporary most fashion aware TV series: ‘Sex and the City’ (2003).

This episode compares the stock market with dating in New York. On this episode columnist Carrie Bradshaw (interpreted by Sarah Jessica Parker) has overslept and rushes through heavy traffic, she has been invited to Wall Street to have the honor to open the day by ringing the bell. It is Carrie’s first ‘official’ date with Jack Berger (a writer she fancies). After a lunch discussion about dating Carrie takes the girls’ advice to date simultaneously, notably graphic designer Applegate, a disaster date. After the side date she introduces her characteristic narrative style to highlight: ‘when it comes to finance and dating, I couldn’t help but wonder. Why we keep investing?’

What Carrie is wondering illustrates the essence of fashion itself. Fashion is not only an obsession for the new; ‘Fashion is based on creating a need where, in reality, there is none. Fashion is a factory that manufactures desire’[2] but also an irrational consumer behavior stimulator. The permanent pattern of fashion is reproduction by consuming.

The power of fashion in the globalised consumer society can be seen from many different shapes. 

For people who are genuinely obsessed with fashion, it is a sort of drug. This is a personal theory, but I believe it’s because they equate exterior change with interior change. They feel that, if they’ve changed their ‘look’, they’ve also evolved emotionally [3]

In contemporary society the lack of religion has been supplied by material consumption, the lack of spirituality has been supplied by more material consumption, and the lack of knowledge has been replaced by technological consumption. We do not know anymore who we are by what we wear because that seems to give us a space-time, a personality, an emotion.

Fashion is ephemeral, intangible ever changing, therefore it is an abstract form; if fashion sets the example to follow and is permanently changing then it is problematic for the construction of the self-identity. “Consumption does not give us the meaning we are looking for –it is an ersatz, nothing more nor less. But it is this that the modern project has been directed towards: that all of us should become full-time consumers – and that this would make us happy. It was this type of society we wanted: we have got the consumer society we have striven for. All societies have a dream of a state without lack, as in the idea of golden age antiquity, or of paradise in Christianity. In modern Western man it is the idea of limitless consumption that has fulfilled such a role.”[4]

It is maybe by this ephemeral quality that makes it hard for us to describe fashion as a social institution, and determine its influence on contemporary society. “We are hooked on experiences, and experiences are all about emotional stimulus. Market analyses cannot tell companies what these needs are, because they do not yet exist. So there is no alternative but to invent new needs, new stimuli”[5]I think that fashion recognises a human quality in the same way that religion does; we do not know what we need, we do not know what to believe, but we have been told we can choose, but choosing your religion is not the same as choosing what to wear today, and it will be different to what you will be wearing next season, next year, in ten years and no one needs to be obsessed by fashion to be a potential consumer.

Fashion has presented itself as something that could shape our lives, but as Malcom McLaren expresses: ‘Fashion doesn’t have that power anymore. It reached its peak when all those designers became orators and philosophers, when they began to believe that they could design their costumers’ lives as well as clothes. Everybody waited for the designers to say something significant, but they never did.[6] We could state that fashion functions relatively badly as a guide to life. What it can offer, despite everything, to our lives is an essential significance, and when the logic of fashion becomes the norm for the formation of identity, it has the opposite effect, it dissolves identity, a point I will develop further towards the conclusion of this essay.

Continuing with the conceptualisation of the means of fashion as a social institution I want to exemplify how it creates relationships within other institutions. The easiest way to do this is by looking at popular culture, the influence of fashion in sports, entertainment, film, photography, music, art, and their relationship to the development of mass-produced and mass-marketed fashions.

To argue this point in relationship with the social changes from the post-industrialised economy, Elizabeth Wilson states 

The cinema, with its much larger audience, was correspondingly even more influential in creating new ways for men and women to move, dance, dress, make love, be. The cinema in United States began as a proletarian entertainment, but move to Hollywood began the process of glamorization. In the silent movies stylisation of both gesture and looks was necessary for narrative, and promoted not only new ways of walking, sitting and using the hands, but also the development of styles to suit personalities.
— Wilson (2003: 169)

The idea of recreating oneself from the imagery of the cinema is being consistently used for trendsetting. However what I really want to discuss is the relationship between fashion and economy, as TV and cinema don’t stop in their entertainment purpose they also influence the market and stimulate consumption in society.

From the relationship of fashion and economy in the globalised consumer society, Simmel in his book ‘The Philosophy of Money’ analyses the radical importance of the democratisation of fashion as one of the main changes in comparison to earlier historical periods. For instance: ‘Yet the social changes of the last hundred years have accelerated the pace of changes in fashion … contemporary fashions are much less extravagant and expensive and of much shorter duration than those of earlier centuries… fashion now originates in the wealthy middle class… Consequently, the spreading of fashion, both in breadth as well as speed, appears to be an independent movement, an objective and autonomous force which follows its own course independently of the individual.’[7] (Simmel: 1978: 461)

The ideology that fashion reproduces is ephemeral, which supports the very basis of consumerism. As Svendsen pointed out “The principle of fashion is to create a ever-increasing velocity, to make an object superfluous as fast as possible, in order to let a new one have a chance. (…) Fashion is irrational in the sense that it seeks for change for the sake of change, not in order to ‘improve’ the object, for example by making it more functional. It seeks superficial changes that in reality have no other assignment than to make the object superfluous on the basis of non-essential qualities, such as the number of buttons in a suit jacket or the famous skirt length”[8]

The idea of a fashion as an institution should be apparent. Therefore it is not only about ideology but its reproduction and life within consumerism. Presently status symbols can be related to how successful one is at business, fashion, sports or generally projecting an expensive image[9]. Acquisitive power then becomes a validation of position and right to social inclusion, but this is often recreated from different fashions, the activities one performs and how it represents itself, but again, fashion is constantly changing. This creates a paradox, the pursuit of success is infinite and unobtainable; class once bound by lineage and social etiquette has been succeeded by material possession and competition, and more important for my discussion, it creates an identity crisis.

The basic meaning of fashion is to dress according to certain unwritten laws, however there are also apparent freedoms of choice. We can no longer just wear clothes from a purely functional response; the performing of our social communication day by day is dictated by the way we dress. The way we dress is dictated by the fashion institution and not by ourselves. In some cultures fashion is strongly influenced by religion, as in Muslim countries, but it still follows the same basic rule of dressing by meaning: I’m part of this culture, I identify myself with this therefore I belong to this certain group and not to another, I differentiate myself.

But, what are we identifying ourselves with? What is it that fashion proclaims? Yes it is beauty. It is power and an aesthetic form[10]. We can sell our soul for beauty, because the world humans have created is horrendous, unnatural, artificial, ugly, fashion sells desire. Desire for change, desire to be any person you want to be, clothes are after all a costume to recreate a certain behaviour, part of the theatre of life, controlling us for the inappropriate, condemning us to consume endlessly by the belief of chasing our freedom of expression. Fashion is a sophisticated social control mechanism. The success of fashion as a control mechanism comes from the acceptance of the public; social institutions depend upon the collective activities of the people, it is not fashion if only one person wears it, it is fashion if it is part of a trend and adds to the meaning of a social group and the individuals that not only identify themselves with it but also recreate their own personality from it.

Even the most radical counterculture movements such as the punks, whose values and norms of behavior diverge from those of mainstream society, can be fully recreated from fashion; studs and spikes can be easily purchased to imitate the punk aesthetic. In fact, any subculture can be recreated from certain clothes. From the combination of a weak spirituality, an ever-changing personality and a consumer mania, Fashion engenders the values of the postmodernity; fragmented, multiple, with conflictive identities, full of niche products, androgynous and indeterminate. And we are all part of it.

We live in the fashion Nation. Industry and economy have realised the potential that fashion has of directing consumer behaviour, it creates a whole image of how to live, of how to be a human. Turning the values of postmodern ideology into an unstoppable mass consumption cycle, idealising the unachievable and undervaluing the spiritual, promising self-expression, having a massive impact on human behaviour and social construction. I believe this has permeated too many layers within the globe, influencing cultures all around the world, playing with one of the most powerful and manipulative human aspects; the emotions. We believe clothes can change our mood, and they do, they are costumes after all, supporting the masks of our performance in life.



[1] Barthes makes a note about what he meant by appearance; ‘I do not mean here an article of clothing as it is worn (even if it is in fashion), but only women’s clothing as it is presented in words or in pictures in fashion publications. Such an article of clothing could be defined as an ‘utopia’.’

[2] TUNGATE Mark, ‘Fashion Brands, Branding Style from Armani to Zara’ 2nd Edition, Kogan Page, USA, 2008, Page 8.

[3] ibid, 2008, Page 9.

[4] SVENDSEN, Lars ‘Fashion: A Philosophy’ , Reaktion books, first published in English 2006. Page 136.

[5] ibid. Page 131.

[6] Concerning the concept of lifestyle, see David Chaney, Lifestyles (London, 1996), and Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Identity in the late Modern Age (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 80-87.

[7] The independency and social unconsciousness of fashion are both phenomena of the contemporary society, I point out this from History as a way to compare with the current society, but the focus of analysis is contemporary.

[8] SVENDSEN, Lars ‘Fashion: A Philosophy’ , Reaktion books, first published in English 2006. Page 28.

[9] One of the new values entirely aesthetic is the glamour and glamorous life as representation of success; ‘Glamour is not just beauty or luxury. It is not a style but an effect, a quality that depends on the play of imagination. Its power is not sensation but inspiration (…) their glamour includes the risks but omits the tedium, the sore feet, the dirt, the accounting. Glamour is never boring’ (ROSA: 2004: 24) Hollywood did not invent it but it generated a whole environment for it, making it desirable and enviable.

[10] Ben Highmore has a very interesting reading of Simmel’s essay ‘Sociological Aesthetics’ of 1896. This essay, argues Highmore presents a sociological aesthetics of the fragment, where the particularity of daily life would show fundamental forces. Thus ‘What is unique emphasizes what is typical, what is accidental appears normal, and the superficial and fleeting stands for what is essential and basic’ (Simmel 1968: 69)




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  • BAUMAN, Zygmunt “Work, consumerism and the new poor”, open University Press, Philadelphia 1998.
  • BAUMAN, Zygmunt “Wasted lives, Modernity and its Outcasts”, Polity, USA, 2001.
  • BAUMAN, Zygmunt “The individualized society”, polity, Oxford, 2001.
  • CARSON Fiona, PAJACZKOWSKA Claire, ‘Feminist Visual Culture’ Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2000.
  • HIDALGO Marta R, ‘The Sourcebook of Contemporary Fashion Design’ Harper Design, New York, 2011.
  • HIGHMORE Ben, ‘Everyday life and Cultural Theory’, Routledge, New York 2002.
  • ROSA, Joseph (Editor), “Glamour, fashion + industrial design + architecture” San Francisco Museum of Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2004.
  • SIMMEL George, ‘The Philosophy of Money’ Edited by David Frisby, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, New York 1978.
  • SVENDSEN, Lars ‘Fashion: A Philosophy’ , Reaktion books, first published in English 2006.
  • TUNGATE Mark, ‘Fashion Brands, Branding Style from Armani to Zara’ 2nd Edition, Kogan Page, USA, 2008.
  • WILSON, Elizabeth ‘Adorned in dreams: Fashion and Modernity’, I.B. Tauris, New York 2003.