? Robert J. Brym (2004)
Fashion Cycles from Coco Chanel to Avril Lavigne: How Sociological Theory Can Help Explain What’s in Style
Since 1998, one of the main fashion trends among white, middle-class, pre-teen and young teenage girls was the Britney Spears look: bare midriffs, highlighted hair, wide belts, glitter purses, big wedge shoes, and Skechers “energy” sneakers. But in 2002 a new pop star, Avril Lavigne, was rising in the charts. Nominated for a 2003 Grammy Award in the “Best New Artist” category, the 17-year-old skater-punk from the small town of Napanee in eastern Ontario, affects a shaggy, unkempt look. She sports worn-out T-shirts, 70s-style plaid Western shirts with snaps, low-rise blue jeans, baggy pants, undershirts, a tie, a backpack, a chain wallet, and, for shoes, Converse Chuck Taylors. The style is similar to the Grunge look of the early 90s, when Nirvana and Pearl Jam were the big stars on MTV and Kurt Cobain was king. Thanks largely to Avril Lavigne, the Wall Street Journal announced in December 2002 that Grunge might be back.
Why in late 2002 were the glamorous trends of the pop era possibly giving way in one market segment to “neo-Grunge?” Why, in general, do fashion shifts take place? In the next few minutes I’m going to illustrate how the major theoretical approaches in sociology – functionalism,
conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, and feminism – can help explain fashion cycles.
Clothing styles come and go. Many of us are influenced by them. Why does this happen?
Until the 1960s, the standard sociological approach to explaining the ebb and flow of fashion trends was functionalist. In the functionalist view, fashion trends worked like this. Every season, exclusive fashion houses in Paris and, to a lesser extent, Milan, New York, and London would show new styles. Some of the new styles would catch on among the exclusive clientele of Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, and other big-name designers. The main appeal of expensive new fashions was that, by wearing them, wealthy clients could distinguish themselves from people who were less well off. Thus, fashion performed an important social function. By allowing people of different rank to distinguish themselves from one another, fashion helped to preserve the ordered layering
thof society into classes. (“It is an interesting question,” wrote 19 century American writer Henry
David Thoreau in Walden, “how far [people] would retain their relative rank if they were divested
thof their clothes.”) Especially by the 20 century, thanks to technological advances in clothes
manufacturing, it didn’t take long for inexpensive knockoffs to reach the market and trickle down
to lower classes. New styles then had to be introduced frequently so fashion could continue to perform its function of helping to maintain an orderly class system. Hence the ebb and flow of fashion.
The functionalist theory was a fairly accurate account of the way fashion trends worked until the 1960s. Then, fashion became more democratic. Paris, Milan, New York, and London are still hugely important fashion centers. However, new fashion trends are increasingly initiated by lower classes, minority racial and ethnic groups, and people who spurn “high” fashion altogether. Napanee is, after all, pretty far from Paris, and today big-name designers are much more likely to be influenced by the inner-city styles of hip-hop than vice-versa. New fashions no longer just trickle down from upper classes and a few high-fashion centers. Upper classes are nearly as likely to adopt lower class fashion trends that emanate from just about anywhere. As a result, the functionalist theory is no longer such a satisfying explanation of fashion cycles.
Some sociologists have turned to conflict theory as an alternative view of the fashion world.
Conflict theorists typically think of fashion cycles as a means by which industry owners make big profits. In their view, owners introduce new styles and render old styles unfashionable because they make more money when many people are encouraged to buy new clothes often. At the same time, conflict theorists say, fashion helps to keep people distracted from the many social, economic, and political problems that might otherwise incite them to express dissatisfaction with the existing social order and even rebel against it. Conflict theorists, like functionalists, thus believe that fashion helps maintain social stability. Unlike functionalists, however, they argue that social stability bestows advantages on industrial owners at the expense of non-owners.
Conflict theorists have a point. Fashion is a big and profitable business. Owners do
introduce new styles to make more money. They have, for example, created The Color Marketing Group (known to insiders as the “Color Mafia”), a committee that meets regularly to help change
the national palette of color preferences for consumer products. According to one committee member, the Color Mafia makes sure that “the mass media, . . . fashion magazines and catalogs, home shopping shows, and big clothing chains all present the same options.”
Yet the Color Mafia and other influential elements of the fashion industry are not all-powerful. I am reminded of Reese Witherspoon’s great line in the 2001 movie, Legally Blond.
“Oh,” she remembers at one point. “Two weeks ago I saw Cameron Diaz at Fred Siegel and I
talked her out of buying this truly heinous angora sweater. Whoever said orange is the new pink is seriously disturbed.” Like many consumers, Elle Woods, the character played by Reese Witherspoon, rejected the advice of the fashion industry. And in fact some of the fashion trends initiated by industry owners flop, one of the biggest being the introduction of the midi-dress (with
a hemline midway between knee and ankle) in the mid-1970s. Despite a huge ad campaign, most women simply would not buy it.
This points to one of the main problems with the conflict interpretation: it incorrectly makes it seem as if fashion decisions are dictated from above. Reality is more complicated. Fashion decisions are made partly by consumers. This can best be appreciated by thinking of dress as a form of symbolic interaction, a sort of wordless “language” that allows us to tell others who we are and learn who they are.
If clothes speak, sociologist Fred Davis has perhaps done most in recent years to help us see how we can decipher what they say, especially in his book, Fashion, Culture, and Identity.
According to Davis, a person’s identity is always a work in progress. True, we develop a sense of who we are as we mature. We come to think of ourselves as members of one or more families, occupations, communities, classes, ethnic and racial groups, countries, etc. We develop patterns of behavior and belief associated with each of these social categories. Nonetheless, social categories change over time, and so do we as we move through them and as we age. As a result, our identities are always in flux. Not infrequently we become anxious or insecure about who we are. Clothes help us express our shifting identities. For example, clothes can convey whether you are “straight,” sexually available, athletic, conservative, and much else, thus telling others how you want them to see you and the kinds of people with whom you want to associate. At some point you may become less conservative, sexually available, etc. Your clothing style is likely to change accordingly. (Of course, the messages you try to send are subject to interpretation and may be misunderstood.) For its part, the fashion industry feeds on the ambiguities within us, investing much effort trying to figure out which new styles might capture current needs for self-expression.
For example, capitalizing on the need for self-expression among many young girls in the late 1990s, Britney Spears hit a chord. Feminist interpretations of the meaning and significance of
Britney Spears are especially interesting in this respect because they focus on the gender aspects of fashion.
Traditionally, feminists have thought of fashion as a form of patriarchy, a means by which male dominance is maintained. They have argued that fashion is mainly a female preoccupation. It takes a lot of time and money to choose, buy, and clean clothes. Fashionable clothing is often impractical and uncomfortable, and some of it is even unhealthy. Modern fashion’s focus on youth, slenderness, and eroticism diminishes women by turning them into sexual objects, say some feminists. Britney Spears is of interest to traditional feminists to the degree she helps lower the age at which girls fall under male domination.
In recent years, this traditional feminist view has given way to a feminist interpretation that is more compatible with symbolic interactionism. Some feminists now applaud the “girl power” movement that crystallized in 1996 with the release of the hit single, “Wannabe,” by the Spice Girls. They regard Britney Spears as part of that movement. In their judgment, Spears’s music, dance routines, and dress style express a self-assuredness and assertiveness that resonate with the less submissive and more independent role that girls are now carving out for themselves. With her kicks, her shadow boxing, and songs like the 2000 single, “Stronger,” Spears speaks for the empowerment of young women. Quite apart from her musical and dancing talent, then, some feminists think many young girls are wild about Britney Spears because she helps them express their own social and sexual power. Of course, not all young girls agree. Some, like Avril Lavigne, find Spears “phony,” too much of a “showgirl.” (Here I am quoting Lavigne.) They seek “more authentic” ways of asserting their identity through fashion. Still, the symbolic interactionist and feminist interpretations of fashion help us see more clearly the ambiguities of identity that underlie the rise of new fashion trends.
My analysis of fashion shows that each of the four theoretical perspectives -- functionalism, conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, and feminism -- can clarify different aspects of a sociological problem. Please take a moment to download the Figure that accompanies this mini-lecture for a summary of how they do so. I do not mean to suggest that each perspective always has equal validity. Often, the interpretations that derive from different theoretical perspectives are incompatible. They offer competing interpretations of the same social reality. It
is then necessary to do research to determine which perspective works best for the case at hand. Nonetheless, all four theoretical perspectives usefully illuminate some aspects of the social world.