Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Sociology of Fashion

Masai Warrior
In a fashion school one of the core courses is, or should be, sociology. There should at least be a course that touches upon the sociology of fashion addressing the issue of, "Why do people dress?" To jump from that and how it applies to a career in fashion design is simple. Why would people want to dress in YOUR clothes? The space in between is merely marketing. To sell clothes you market to the socio-psychological reasons why people dress in the first place.
Why do people dress?
One answer might be: "Because they are cold."  That´s a good answer. Long ago, man learned to stay warm on chilly prehistoric nights by crawling under a leftover animal hide. Perhaps at some point he realized that by tying strips of skin together his fur blanket stayed on better. But that does not explain why he began to carve bone, antlers and ivory into adornments. Why at some point did primitive peoples divide into a diversity of cultures with tattoos (a form of dress within the skin), scarring rituals (a form of dress from within to the outside), hairstyles, piercing or other body modifications, body and face painting, nail designs, traditional clothing and perfume? Yes, even perfume is considered a non-visual "form of dress".  Fashion is the more recent phenomena of cultural dress. Occasionally a classic will emerge, such as bluejeans or the little black dress.  For the most part fashion is everchanging, sometimes at ridiculous rates, not static as is the case of traditional cultural dress. 
There are several established focuses in fashion theory as to what creates fashion. These are based in the social sciences - anthropology, sociology, psychology - as well as cultural studies and history. 
  • Modern Anthropological: Man posesses an innate instinctual propensity for adornment and dress.
  • Protection:  Clothing choices change based on extremes in weather conditions.
  • Modesty: To cover sexual organs. To avoid sexual attention from the opposite sex.
  • Sexual Attraction, Seduction:  People dress to seduce a mate.
  • Zeitgeist : Fashion responds to social and political change. The miniskirt for example or the bra burning protests of the 1960s.
  • Trickle-Down: Fashion develops in the upper classes and the lower classes aspire to it.
  • Trickle-Across: Fashion develops in any of the social classes and transports to the others.
  • Anti-fashion: Dress which is indifferent to or explicitly contrary to the popular fashion. This often cancels itself out when a rebellious style of dress becomes popular and thus becomes "fashionable".
  • Symbolic Communication:  Dress to send a message about how you feel or who you are.
  • Postmodern: Man defines and redefines himself through dress in order to survive in a metropolis.
The Harvard University paper, Why the Devil Wears Prada:  The Fashion Formation Process talks about some of these. My personal view is that first theory, the modern anthropological theory is the precursor to all the others. And that these are all true. Fashion is merely a western world term for an industry which is created out of man´s most innate instincts to "fill in blanks". At some point in the evolution of man from ape a desire to fill in blank spaces developed. They drew on cave walls (home decor?), they covered themselves, they pierced and adorned and tattooed. Psychological and biological spaces needed filling as well as physical ones and all these were expressed in their form of dress  All forms of art and engineering and rituals spring from there.

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