How fashion influences society and those who create it: from aesthetics to a communication tool

When you think about fashion what comes to mind? Maybe the ripped jeans or designer sneakers, Coco Chanel’s iconic little black dress or James Dean’s leather jacket. Here, if you think about it, are all these examples they are not just items of clothing, but symbols which can communicate rebellion, belonging to a specific culture or subculture or perhaps to an economic status. Sociological studies help explore how fashion not only has an aesthetic dimension, but is also powerful social and identity communication tool which has the power to integrate us into our social community of reference and at the same time distinguish us based on our specific personal identity. In fact, when we choose a garment, we somehow tell who we are. But how does fashion work and who dictates the new trends?

What is fashion for?

According to anthropologist Mary Douglas, fashion is a symbolic system: People use it to communicate and strengthen the social structures of which they are part. In other words, wearing one type of clothing rather than another signals the difference between social classes, genders and professions, thus establishing appropriate rules of behavior. Here are a couple of examples:

  • wearing an elegant dress for a ceremony or a school uniform is not a casual or merely aesthetic choice, but serves to indicate a certain type of belonging and role
  • a wedding dress is not just a white dress, but symbolizes purity and tradition in our culture

Then there are scholars who capture other nuances of the fashion phenomenon. The most famous is the German sociologist Georg Simmel: in the famous essay Fashion of 1895, considers the push to follow or not follow fashion as a way for individuals to express their individualitywithin a more or less homogeneous social group.

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How important is clothing to feel part of a group?

Fashion, therefore, would be a space for action that would allow us to balance two trends: ours need to conform to others it’s ours desire to distinguish ourselves from others. When we adopt certain fashion trends, wearing specific items of clothing, we can therefore both show belonging to a certain social group, but at the same time distinguish ourselves as individuals within it. Let’s think about teenagers who wear t-shirts of famous musical bands: this choice communicates their belonging to a musical subculture, but each specific t-shirt also expresses a personal preference.

Is aesthetic taste determined by our social class?

A more recent sociologist, the French Pierre Bourdieuwas particularly interested in the question of “aesthetic taste”: according to him what we like is not a random factor but it is socially determined. This means that what is considered good taste or appropriate derives from the way we are educated, but, above all, it depends on the social positions we hold and our reference culture.

Taste is therefore one “social compass” and also a“weapon”. The “higher” classes in fact try to differentiate themselves from the “lower” classes who often try to imitate those higher up the social ladder. With the democratization of consumptionon the other hand, even the “lower” classes can access previously exclusive goods or services, eliminating (at least apparently) class distinctions. The upper classes at this point turn to another way to differentiate themselves again, giving rise to a infinite circle.

high fashion

How is fashion transmitted?

For another author, Douglas, the transmission of fashion occurs through rites and traditions that are taught and learned over time within social groups. Each group determines what is acceptable to wear in different circumstances: let’s think about dress codes within companies, for example.

For Simmel, fashion trends arise above all from the “elites” and are then imitated by everyone else: think of the fashion launched by influencers on social media, especially for those who belong to Gen Z.

Why fashions return: the charm of vintage

Simmel always sees the evolution of fashion as a endless cycle of adopting and abandoning certain trends and styles. Fashions emerge, are adopted by a majority, and then are abandoned when they lose their differentiating power. This cycle depends on ours desire for novelty and from the aforementioned dynamics of imitation and distinction. For example, low-rise jeans were very popular in the 1990s, but were then replaced by high-waisted jeans in the 2000s. This constant change is fueled by the human desire for novelty.

Traditionally, fashion is thought to pass from the more affluent to the less affluent classes in a process known as trickle down (“waterfall”). However, Bourdieu also recognizes the opposite phenomenon, the trickle up, in which certain trends emerge from the lower classes or subcultural groups and are adopted by the more affluent classes. An emblematic example is the influence of youth subcultures on fashion. The “punk” style, for example, originally associated with “marginal” groups, has gradually been made harmless and commercialized even by the luxury industry. The trickle up demonstrates how fashion is not a one-way phenomenon but rather dynamic in which different social classes influence each other.