Understanding Fashion As a Social and Cultural Phenomenon

Fashion is a cultural phenomenon that involves a collective consciousness, a shared understanding of what is current and desirable. It is a form of art and it is visible in all aspects of society from the latest collections on the runways to the way celebrities dress. The way that people dress is an expression of their own personality, beliefs and attitudes. It is a powerful tool for social and cultural change, for example, in the 1960s, when women’s rights and civil liberties were pushed through fashion. It is a way to create a sense of belonging and identity in society. It is also a way to express a sense of style, and it is in the fashion industry where one can see the most creative and diverse forms of expression.

For something to be considered as fashion, it must be both desirable and widely disseminated. The desire for a particular look must be broad enough to attract an audience of consumers who will be willing to spend money on it. This can happen in a number of ways: it can be top down, such as when high-end designers produce clothes that are then copied by manufacturers to sell to a much larger audience at a lower price; it can occur bottom up, as when styles and trends spread amongst different groups of individuals through popular culture and social media (such as the spread of ‘herbivore’ hairstyles); or it can be transversal across cultures, as when elements of a culture that are perceived as anti-fashion, such as traditional dress or tattoos, are incorporated into the mainstream of fashionable culture.

Clothes reveal who we are: they can create stereotypes, distance and unity. We wear certain clothes to identify ourselves with specific social groups: in high school we are goths or skaters; in the military we wear uniforms; and brides wear white dresses. Styles may vary within societies depending on social class, age, occupation and geography, but what we choose to wear is a conscious or subconscious decision that is informed by the media, our friends, colleagues and families. It is in this context that the concept of fashion as a social practice emerges, where individuals are both producers and consumers of cultural meanings, and where the distinction between what constitutes fashion and anti-fashion becomes blurred.

There is a lot of potential to explore in the field of fashion studies, including: