What is fashion? • 13 July 2007

What is fashion?

What is it?

Throw me a bone, people.

I think I have 75% of the answer worked out, but what interests me is the remaining 25%.


  • Posted 13 July 2007 at 1:40 pm | #

    Interesting question. All of my thoughts answer different questions.

    Something becomes fashionable when it crosses from early adopter to mainstream.

    Fashion tends to be aspirational. It’s a device for people to feel a part of something bigger – and the more exclusive the better. Fashion declines when it becomes too mainstream, too popular and too accessible.

    Fashion certainly doesn’t have to be functional.

    I guess fashion is the idea of popularity converted into a consumable good. Is that the direction you’re going in?

    (I’m off to see the Potter movie now – how fashionable of me!)

  • Posted 13 July 2007 at 1:51 pm | #

    Yes. All of this is good for mulling-over…

    Here are the old ideas that were in my head, and which are seeming unsatisfying to me to me at the moment.

    With Marx, I’d say it’s got something to do with the capitalist system’s compulsive need to expand in order to survive (because the system must always generate a profit—must always seek the creation of new capital). That’s the systemic view, and the one that resonates with the idea that fashion is necessarily a consumer good (but is it?).

    With Weber, I’d say it’s all about the creation of social boundaries: in-groups and out-groups. You try to surround and cover yourself with objects that make a statement about you. That’s the more interior/cultural view.

    I could integrate the two, as many, but all of this falls short for me.

    First, is it just capitalism? Do non-capitalist societies have fashion or is it mere projection for me to imagine a tribesperson’s desire for bone jewelry just like her sister’s as a kind of “fashion” impulse?

    Second, sure, it’s mostly about in/out group stuff. But somehow this doesn’t help me get my head around the conformity that “fashion,” as I’m thinking of it, can drive. (In this sense, fashion is distinct from the “style” of early adopters, which I also of as individuating and preceding fashion.)

  • Tova
    Posted 13 July 2007 at 1:57 pm | #

    fashion is not wearing dark sox with sneakers, and not pulling your sox up to your knees unless you are a pre-pubescent girl. also it means no fannypacks.
    but i am not one to answer, because by all accounts, i am a fashion disaster.

  • Posted 13 July 2007 at 2:04 pm | #

    You are a fashion disaster, but with style.

    I wore knee-length argyle socks over tight-ankle yoga pants all winter. Regularly went grocery shopping in this get-up. Many comments, e.g., “Are you a fan of Dr. Suess?”

    Why, yes.

  • R
    Posted 13 July 2007 at 2:08 pm | #

    mostly agree with dark sox and sneakers point, although may be occasional exceptions, esp. with white sneakers. but a possible counter-argument re: knee-sox: http://www.flickr.com/photos/flintjasper/62902110

  • Posted 13 July 2007 at 2:24 pm | #

    Hot. All retro is ultimately fashion, except for that moment when it’s (pre-fashionable) high style.

    It is very hard for those who wish to be distinctive but who hate fashion to ride that wave. Look at the constant, music and film &c. consumption and other self-maintenance that hipsters are obligated to carry out. Look at the anxiety this creates for the guys at, say, Pitchfork magazine. For them, “style” is anti-fashion. It is completely about in-groups. When I think about how much effort the anti-fashionable have to put in to staying outside of fashion, I realize what a completely huge, subversive force we’ve got on our hands here.

    Not that I’ve even defined “fashion” yet. I’m enjoying playing without a net…

  • Posted 13 July 2007 at 2:49 pm | #

    Fashion is for people that need an easy way to do things. It attempts to duplicate for the masses what stylish people do all on their own. Mastery of style is far more worthy.

  • Posted 13 July 2007 at 2:57 pm | #

    Worthy of what? Isn’t style, insofar as it’s anti-fashion, just the hidden side of the social process?

    Otherwise, I think the “easy way” is key. People want to agree. Fashion is about creating out-groups, but it’s also crucially about offering conformity. As someone just mentioned on email, this solves an existential problem. It helps them be less alone.

    For some, it’s enough to have fashionable clothes. Others want to have fashionable lifestyles, or friends, or even fashionable ideas. (This is where it gets slippery. I hesitate to open up the definition too much.)

  • Posted 13 July 2007 at 3:12 pm | #

    It’s weird how fashion travels through a population. Is it a virus? A function of the collective unconscious?

  • Posted 13 July 2007 at 3:35 pm | #

    That is exactly what interests me: more the question of “how it works” than “what it is.” The first question precedes the second, in a sense.

    Today, I’m thinking it is two sided: for the individual, it helps her feel included. Maybe that’s some kind of dialogue with a collective unconscious, indeed, and maybe also it entails a neurological co-phenomenon (NOT to be mistaken for a cause, as I argued Wednesday).

    On the other hand, from a systemic point of view, it seems to have a lot to do with capitalism. I’m not convinced that fashion exists in non-class-based societies (am thinking of its social history in the west back to French aristocracy, or somesuch). Viral marketing fascinates me, but the virus is a metaphor and the marketing is the meat: it seems like market-makers are picking up on the deep conformity in us, and making systematically-obsolete fashion hay out of it.

    Say, do clothing stores in Arizona still rotate fashions according to “seasons”?

  • Posted 13 July 2007 at 5:07 pm | #

    Fashion exists in all cultures, regardless of whether or not they are a capitalistic society. Tattoos, dress, jewelry, all that is fashion, there has been fashion since the dawning of time. Fashionable body types, hair, feet, skull shape. Humans have a need to beautify and belong.

  • Disynthesist
    Posted 13 July 2007 at 6:00 pm | #

    These terms probably have other meanings, but off the top of my head:

    Fashion can be considered the social component of utility without which something would not have been adopted by someone.

    In this context:

    Personal utility is the value given to something by an individual due to it’s contribution to their interactions with the physical world (and to themselves personally).

    Practical utility is the sum of the individuals personal utility for something and the personal utility experienced by everyone else for that same thing.

    Social utility is is the value given to something by an individual as a result of only social factors and interactions with others (Eg: opinion, tastes, desires of others)

    Net utility is the sum of practical and social utility. (Generally practical and social utility are as mutually exclusive as possible by definition.)

    So for any self-interested individual adopting ideas, behaviors, or items which have a positive net value (net utility – net cost to the individual), such items must have sufficient social utility to tip the balance of net value to be worthwhile (sufficiently positive) to the individual.

    So fashion is the social component of utility without which something would not have been adopted by someone.

    Some factors in the spread of fashion could be considered:

    – Non-utilitarian lifestyles and societies

    – Significant importance placed on the opinions of others or a few individuals

    – A sufficient purportion of communication being used to express the (supposed) social utility of something (eg some advertising) instead of informing individuals of potential personal or practical utility

    – Prevalence of individuals with conformist personalities (individuals placing increased value in the social utility of things)

    -Increased personal importance given to exclusiveness or means of externally defining the self.

    Note: The component of aesthetics which gives pleasure to the individual would be considered personal utility.

  • Posted 13 July 2007 at 6:53 pm | #

    DISY, thanks for this! I really appreciate your thoughtful input here. I’d forgotten to consider what the economists would say, and this helps me sharpen that up. The factors you suggest to consider are all great, but putting them into the language of utility suggests that consumers are more rational, more atomized and more calculating than they typically are.

    That’s especially noticeable with respect to consumption of fashion, which is herd-like, often soon-regretted, and wildly emotional. For example, is conformism simply the result of “individuals” who have “conformist personalities”? Or is it a non-atomized, essentially social phenom which individualistic theory cannot quite capture?

    By the same token, do individuals do cost-benefit analyses with respect to “adopting” a fashion trend? Doesn’t this approach deeply assume that they do—that all social action has an ultimate numerical payoff? I’m uncomfortable with any theory that doesn’t leave much room for the possibility that somebody somewhere is getting duped.

    For me, what I’m trying to get my head around is behavior that is both PRE-rational (like group identity or existential anxiety) and also POST-rational (purely artistic). Behavior that doesn’t intend to or have the effect of garnering individual chips for global poker game rational choice theory imagines. Behavior that’s also fundamentally IR-rational in many ways. 🙂

    To conceptualize utility in a particular hairstyle or cut of clothing or other arbitrary fashion-datum, you have to be willing to open up the definition of “utility” so wide, and so far from its original materialist-utilitarian underpinnings, that it essentially loses its comparative value. That, my love, is when a concept dies the death of a thousand qualifications.

    That said, this issue you raise is awesome: “- A sufficient purportion of communication being used to express the (supposed) social utility of something (eg some advertising) instead of informing individuals of potential personal or practical utility.” BECAUSE, the whole reason I’m interested in figuring out what fashion IS is that I’m studying the “fashion” of ethical consumerism. How do you convince someone that it’s their “utility” to purchase carbon offsets? Talk about personal non-utility!! It’s equivalent to purchasing indulgences from the Pope!! And yet… the fashion of green consumerism is really getting hot. Thus, the way you frame the issue beautifully brings the puzzle right into view.


  • Posted 13 July 2007 at 7:46 pm | #

    Go onto Second Life and create an avatar. See what features you pick, and what clothes, and how you feel about this image. It’s quite extraordinary. A remarkable combination of objective (how should this computer-generated representation look?) and subjective (a weird, immediate attention to the representation as if it is somehow related to your self).

    There’s something going on with the whole “fashion” of social networks, that’s for sure.

    I think they rotate fashions according to the seasons out here. I avoid the mall like the plague, so I don’t really know. That said, I do manage to find my tank tops for the summer and short sleeved tees for the fall and long sleeved shirts for the winter. And jeans, jeans for every season. So they’ve got to be making it all available to me as necessary, no?

  • Disynthesist
    Posted 13 July 2007 at 10:00 pm | #

    Utility may be the wrong term to use, but you don’t need to assume that people are rational, only predictable in some way. Rational and irrational isn’t an issue, neither is the balance between consciousness, emotion or instinct. And while it may be the simplest or clearest way to describe and model social behavior at the group level, it is an emergent property of the many interactions between distinct individuals which is where any theory must be grounded to most accurately model the dynamics of the group. Strictly speaking, groups themselves don’t think and act, individuals within groups do.

    When describing these interactions, you can’t assume that because a behavior is voluntary it is also intentional. To borrow an example from biology and sexual selection, when a species of grouse mate the males group together and present themselves like peacocks and the females go and inspect them based on what are effectively honest indications of fitness before choosing a mate. However, it’s a lot of work to scrutinize each individual and from an evolutionary perspective there’s always the possibility that their criteria could be maladaptive. So another factor that influences the birds choice is how many other females are expressing interest in a particular male. By placing a variable number of stuffed female grouse around a male, it’s been shown that increased interest from other females (who are theoretically accurate in their assessment) make the same male more attractive to other females. This “sexy son hypothesis” is one example of social value which does not require intentionality or even rationality really, and the base assumptions (that the other females are right) can be wrong, so birds can get “duped”. There may be many such behaviors in humans, but whether they are socially acquired or biological in origin (adaptive or kludges) is perpetually debatable. If you simply want to be fashionable, then you desire what is popularly desirable. If everyone is so motivated, you get a very chaotic, though deterministic system.

    Maybe you shouldn’t assume that rational examination is a point in a serial mental process cumulating in observable behavior, and that many mental processes can occur in parallel. Paul Thagard has done some work on this and calls it coherence, a form of constraint satisfaction problem. While it’s a bit abstract, take the example of the tripartite view of the human brain, with each available choice being evaluated as to how well it satisfies not some utility calculation, but the weighted sum of the conscious, emotional, and instinctual motivations respectively. This is one alternative to the concept of an internal paradigm. For more info:

    I think “death of a thousand qualifications” is a red herring. If you’re going to model let alone test a hypothesis about group behavior you’re going to need to measure something which will require an operational definition in some form. It might not rule out other explanations of greater predictive value or be fairly restricted in context; but unless someone can provide a testable antithesis that has greater internal and external validity then it’s the best model there is for now (which doesn’t mean it’s any good unfortunately :P). As for “materialist-utilitarian underpinnings”, there is nothing requiring anything materialistic or utilitarian, only that personal choice is not random (and thus predictable and statistically duplicatable in theory), the ability to satisfy cognitive motives is as valuable (or personally utilitarian) from a motivational perspective as satisfying emotional or instinctual motivations since something neurological is going to produce the individuals behavior. What those motivations are, how they are weighted, and how they come to be is no simple matter though.

    As for ethical consumerism, I think that’s a good example of where individuals assign value to a behavior and specifically communicate it to others because they perceive that they will share the benefits of the costs others incur, and that because others believe so as well, communicating the idea to others is itself socially desirable. So people will be increasingly motivated to persuade others to act in such a matter and provided they cannot hide their actions they must then act to incur they’re own share of the cost or earn the distain of the group. If this behavior is worthwhile to the group as a whole, it then becomes a matter of practicality on a scale of the group (mutual individual) self interest more than fashion, but it does not need to be effective or could even be harmful provided only that people perceive it to be advantageous. Not bad for an individualistic theory 🙂


  • R
    Posted 15 July 2007 at 8:33 pm | #


  • Posted 16 July 2007 at 10:22 am | #

    Susan: Cultures might all typically have fashions but Owl seems to be alluding to the rapidly changing fashions of our own culture. Everything is changed each season, except for the old standards. There’s probably a correlation between the rapidity of fashion overturn and relative prosperity but enduring “fashion” also has tradition grounding it to keep it set. How exactly do you distinguish between the whimsical fashions of the West and the rigid customs of other cultures? Aside from the merely obvious fact that our fashions change much more rapidly than some others’ do.

    >>>Strictly speaking, groups themselves don’t think and act, individuals within groups do.

    Not so sure about this one. Individual reasoning is easily overridden by the perceptions one takes from the group’s behaviors. If you watch from high enough above, the group does seem to have a collective reasoning of its own, though it’s usually pretty crappy.

    This all reminds me I need to spend some more time with Thoreau. He makes me feel like I want to wear patched clothes everywhere I go.

  • Posted 16 July 2007 at 1:33 pm | #

    I can’t stop thinking about this idea of using Second Life as a field for research, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about it. No need for human subjects research approval! No possibility of hurting subjects or need to consider the ethics of the experiments I do on them! (Yeah; not an unproblematic assumption.) I’m either going to jump in before anyone else (though god knows the marketing researchers are already on this— a whole brilliant army of widget wankers finding new keys to the craft) or draft my contra-argument immediately. For now, the thing that amazes me about SL is that everyone in there is acting EXACTLY LIKE HUMANS ACT. They’re not generally inspired by the boundless possibilities of the environment—as Karen was when she took a harajuku girl avatar rather just another Jane in sneakers and jeans—and they look to what others are doing in order to decide how to play. Hmm.

    More soon on bone jewelry, individualistic theory and the tragedy of the commons, but right now my brain has to do something else. This is the problem with having only one brain.

  • Posted 17 July 2007 at 6:13 am | #

    I think fashion is the tool we use to imitate beautiful people.

  • Posted 17 July 2007 at 7:46 am | #

    I think most people who discuss fashion in this manner are wearing Dockers, something from Rei, and comfortable shoes. 🙂

    And CARL, I was referring to OVO’s comment that “On the other hand, from a systemic point of view, it seems to have a lot to do with capitalism. I’m not convinced that fashion exists in non-class-based societies (am thinking of its social history in the west back to French aristocracy, or somesuch). In that regard, my comment made total sense. Next time I will use appropriate notation…And they are called “Classics” in fashion, not the “old standards”.

  • Posted 17 July 2007 at 12:48 pm | #

    oh yeah – I thought of one non-consumer fashion item: language.

    always evolving, language is certainly used as a tool to separate the in from the out.

  • Posted 17 July 2007 at 3:05 pm | #

    Yeah, Cody, that might get to the nub of it. It occurs to me that slang isn’t just about making a distinction between who’s in and who’s out, but also about distinguishing the now from the past. It denotes an era. There’s something about the desire to update that isn’t just the machinations of das capital.

  • Posted 17 July 2007 at 3:07 pm | #

    I hope nobody reading this is wearing Dockers or anything from REI.


    (Er, uh, melt your fleece.)

  • Posted 17 July 2007 at 3:14 pm | #

    I finally looked up this Thagard fellow D mentioned. He seems to be cleaning up the theory of would-be “rational” action from the inside out. Good for him. It’s always troubled me that most theories of individual action rest on an oldschool, scientifically unsound idea of action originating from intention (one which happens even to show up in structuralisms too—e.g. Marx’s writing that the thing that special about humans is that they “erect” structures in their minds before they do them—unlike the bee who creates its hives by instinct). I try not to reproduce that—what you call the idea of “serial mental process culminating in observable behavior.”

    Thagard seems to sense that prediction is possible without the old metaphysical assumptions—and if I get into working on theories of social action (which won’t be happening anytime soon, since I’m off in an “empirical” direction) I’ll read up.

  • Disynthesist
    Posted 27 July 2007 at 9:05 pm | #

    Cool! Glad I could help.

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