Simmel's arguments were further developed by Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), who similarly argued that the cycles of fashion were structured by class. For Veblen what became fashionable was largely determined by what was in short supply and expensive. This was a way (as Simmel also suggested) of distinguishing classes, but also of displaying wealth and power. Fashion was a way of making wealth visible through “conspicuous consumption” so that it might be admired by others.
There are two main objections to such views:
elites are no longer, if indeed they ever were, the main purveyors of fashion. In modern societies, elites often find themselves “out of fashion” or even lagging behind current trends.
Other studies of fashion have tended to emphasize features other than social class. Gender is now seen as a key determinant in the study of fashion. In Elizabeth Wilson's Adorned in Dreams (1985), fashion is seen to represent the Romantic movement's critique of the culture of instrumentality that accompanied the industrial revolution. In this view fashion is explicitly concerned with sensuality, aesthetics, and individualism. Further, fashion values the life of the city by emphasizing the spirit of play, fluidity, and performance over authenticity. Fashion is a form of adult play made possible by the development of modernity. In this respect, Wilson criticizes some feminist authors for dismissing fashion as a form of masculine control, when it offers women, its main consumers, with the potential for aesthetic creativity.
Indeed many have argued that the “grand theorists” of fashion have mistakenly presumed it to be an explicit product of western society. Here the study of fashion has become the recognition of the acceptable codes of behavior that govern the presentation of the body. In particular these features have emphasized the role of gender and youth in the construction of fashion. Particularly important here has been the shift from equating fashion with the lifestyles of social elites and the rise of a mass fashion industry over the course of the twentieth century. If, in the 1920s, Hollywood helped democratize ideas of glamor and beauty, it was the 1960s that provided the first genuinely mass fashion. Further, the 1970s witnessed the emergence of supermodels, who were highly paid international figures who helped promote a certain look. Most of these developments sought to target women as the main consumers of a fashionable image, but this would change in the 1980s. Until this period heterosexual men's clothing was probably more conformist than that of women. This was a direct consequence of the fact that men risked being labeled effeminate for showing too much interest in fashion. Expressive fashions up until this point were mostly confined to gay men, ethnic groups, and popular entertainers. The shift in fashion occurred during the 1980s for three main reasons:
the arrival of high-street stores that explicitly offered affordable stylish clothes for men;
new visual representations of men (in particular the softer and more caring form of masculinity that was represented in the new man); and
the arrival of new style and fashion magazines.
Other sociologists have emphasized how fashion can become a site of cultural struggle. Dick Hebdige, in Subculture (1979), argues that the adoption of different styles on the part of young people can act as a form of defiance. Fashion and clothing can become a way of subverting dominant discourses and codes that seek to regulate acceptable behavior. Youth cultures and subcultures hold out the possibility of suggesting new and oppositional meanings in different social contexts. The rise of new youth lifestyles since the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950s offered opportunities to subvert the values and meanings of the dominant parent culture. However, whatever the role that fashion plays in the formation of identity, it continues to be linked to a wider culture of modernity in a way that was recognized by earlier classical thinkers. In particular, fashion is a requirement of the economic system. Unless consumers are willing to buy new things, get into debt, and give up old tastes in preference for the new, then capitalism's ability to expand would be severely curtailed. If fashion represents change and the formation of identity, it nevertheless continues to represent the cycles of profit maximization in an increasingly commercial world.
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