Fashion: From Class

            Differentiation to Collective



Herbert Blumer





This paper is an invitation to sociologists to take seriously the topic of fashion. Only a handful of scholars, such as Simmel (1904), Sapir (1931), and the Langs (1961), have given more than casual concern to the topic. Their individual analyses of it, while illuminating in several respects, have been limited in scope, and within the chosen limits very sketchy. The treatment of the topic by sociologists in general, such as we find it in textbooks and in occasional pieces of scholarly writing, is even more lacking in substance. The major deficiencies in the conventional sociological treatment are easily noted‑a failure to observe and appreciate the wide range of operation of fashion; a false assumption that fashion has only trivial or peripheral significance; a mistaken idea that fashion falls in the area of the abnormal and irrational and thus is out of the mainstream of human group life; and, finally, a misunderstanding of the nature of fashion.


Fashion Restricted to Adornment Similar to scholars in general who have shown some concern with the topic, sociologists are disposed to identify fashion exclusively or primarily with the area of costume and adornment. While occasional references may be made to its play in other areas, such casual references do not give a proper picture of the extent of its operation. Yet, to a discerning eye fashion is readily seen to operate in many diverse areas of human group life, especially so in modern times. It is easily observable in the realm of the pure and applied arts, such as painting, sculpture, music, drama, architecture, dancing, and household decoration. Its presence is very obvious m 'the area of entertainment and amusement. There is plenty of evidence to show its play in the field of medicine. Many of us are familiar with its operation in fields of industry, especially that of business management. It even touches such a relative sacred area as that of mortuary practice. Many scholars have noted its operation in the field of literature. Its presence can be seen in the history of modern philosophy. It can be observed at work in the realm of political doctrine. And‑perhaps to the surprise of many‑it is unquestionably at work in the field of science. That this is true of the social and psychological sciences is perhaps more readily apparent. But we have also to note, as several reputable and qualified scholars have done, that fashion appears in such redoubtable areas as physical and biological science and mathematics. The domain in which fashion operates is very extensive, indeed. To limit it to, or to center it in, the field of costume and adornment is to have a very inadequate idea of the scope of its occurrence.


Fashion as Socially Inconsequential This extensive range of fashion should, in itself, lead scholars to question their implicit belief that fashion is a peripheral and relatively inconsequential social happening. To the contrary, fashion may influence vitally the central content of any field in which it operates. For example, the styles in art, the themes and styles in literature, the forms and themes in entertainment, the perspectives in philosophy, the practices in business, and the preoccupations in science may be affected profoundly by fashion. These are not peripheral matters. In addition, the nature of the control wielded by fashion shows that its touch is not light. Where fashion operates it assumes an imperative position. It sets sanctions of what is to be done, it is conspicuously indifferent to criticism, it demands adherence, and it by‑passes as oddities and misfits those who fail to abide by it. This grip which it exercises over its area of operation does not bespeak an inconsequential mechanism.


Fashion as Aberrant and Irrational The third deficiency, as mentioned, is to view fashion as an aberrant and irrational social happening, akin to a craze or mania. Presumably, this ill‑considered view of fashion has arisen from considerations which suggest that fashion is bizarre and frivolous, that it is fickle, that it arises in response to irrational status anxieties, and that people are swept into conforming to it despite their better judgment. It is easy to form such impressions. For one thing, past fashions usually seem odd and frequently ludicrous to the contemporary eye. Next, they rarely seem to make sense in terms of utility or rational purpose; they seem much more to express the play of fancy and caprice. Further, following the classic analysis made by Simmel, fashion seems to represent a kind of anxious effort of elite groups to set themselves apart by introducing trivial and ephemeral demarcating insignia, with a corresponding strained effort by non-elite classes to make a spurious identification of themselves with upper classes by adopting these insignia. Finally, since fashion despite its seeming frivolous content sweeps multitudes of people into its fold, it is regarded as a form of collective craziness.



Nevertheless, to view fashion as an irrational, aberrant, and craze‑like social happening is to grievously misunderstand it. On the individual side, the adoption of what is fashionable is by and large a very calculating act. The fashion conscious person is usually quite careful and discerning in his effort to identify the fashion in order to make sure that he is "in style"; the fashion does not appear to him as frivolous. In turn, the person who is coerced into adopting the fashion contrary to his wishes does so deliberately and not irrationally. Finally, the person who unwittingly follows a fashion does so because of a limitation of choice rather than as an impulsive expression of aroused emotions or inner anxiety. The bulk of evidence gives no support to the contention that individuals who adopt fashion are caught up in the spirit of the craze. Their behavior is no more irrational or excited‑and probably less so‑than that of voters casting political ballots. On its collective side, fashion does not fit any better the pattern of a craze. The mechanisms of interaction are not those of circular transmission of aroused feelings, or of heightened suggestibility, or of fixed preoccupation with a gripping event. While people may become excited over a fashion they respond primarily to its character of propriety and social distinction; these are tempering guides. Fashion has respectability; it carries the stamp of approval of an elite‑an elite that is recognized to be sophisticated and believed to be wise in the given area of endeavor. It is this endorsement which undergirds fashion‑rather than the emotional interaction which is typical of crazes. Fashion has, to be true, an irrational, or better "non‑rational," dimension which we shall consider later, but this dimension does not make it into a craze or mania.


The observations that fashion operates over wide areas of human endeavor, that it is not aberrant and craze‑like, and that it is not peripheral and inconsequential merely correct false pictures of it. They do little to identify its nature and mode of operation. It is to this identification that I now wish to turn.


Simmel. Fashion as Class Differentiation Let me use as the starting point of the discussion the analysis of fashion made some sixty years ago by Georg Simmel. His analysis, without question, has set the character of what little solid sociological thought is to be found on the topic. His thesis was essentially simple. For him, fashion arose as a form of class differentiation in a relatively open class society. In such a society the elite class seeks to set itself apart by observable marks or insignia, such as distinctive forms of dress. However, members of immediately subjacent classes adopt these insignia as a means of satisfying their striving to identify with a superior status. They, in turn, are copied by members of classes beneath them. In this way, the distinguishing insignia of the elite class filter down through the class pyramid. In this process, however, the elite class loses these marks of separate identity. It is led, accordingly, to devise new distinguishing insignia which, again, are copied by the classes below, thus repeating the cycle. This, for Simmel, was the nature of fashion and the mechanism of its operation. Fashion was thought to arise in the form of styles which demarcate an elite group. These styles automatically acquire prestige in the eyes of those who wish to emulate the elite group and are copied by them, thus forcing the elite group to devise new distinctive marks of their superior status. Fashion is thus caught up in an incessant and recurrent process of innovation and emulation. A fashion, once started, marches relentlessly to its doom; on its heels treads a new fashion destined to the same fate; and so on ad infinitum. This sets the fundamental character of the fashion process.


There are several features of Simmel's analysis which are admittedly of high merit. One of them was to point out that fashion requires a certain type of society in which to take place. Another was to highlight the importance of prestige in the operation of fashion. And another, of particular significance, was to stress that the essence of fashion lies in a process of change‑a process that is natural and indigenous and not unusual and aberrant. Yet, despite the fact that his analysis still remains the best in the published literature, it failed to catch the character of fashion as a social happening. It is largely a parochial treatment, quite well suited to fashion in dress in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century Europe with its particular class structure. But it does not fit the operation of fashion in our contemporary epoch with its many diverse fields and its emphasis on modernity. Its shortcomings will be apparent, I think, in the light of the following analysis.


Modernity and the Selection Process Some years ago I had the opportunity to study rather extensively and at first hand the women's fashion industry in Paris. There were three matters in particular which I observed which seem to me to provide the clues for an understanding of fashion in general. I wish to discuss each of them briefly and indicate their significance.


First, I was forcibly impressed by the fact that the setting or determination of fashion takes place actually through an intense process of selection. At a seasonal opening of a major Parisian fashion house there may be presented a hundred or more designs of women's evening wear before an audience of from one to two hundred buyers. The managerial corps of the fashion house is able to indicate a group of about thirty designs of the entire lot, inside of which will fall the small number, usually about six to eight designs, that are chosen by the buyers; but the managerial staff is typically unable to predict this small number on which the choices converge. Now, these choices are made by the buyers‑a highly competitive and secretive lot‑independently of each other and without knowledge of each other's selections. Why should their choices converge on a few designs as they do? When the buyers were asked why they chose one dress in preference to another‑between which my inexperienced eye could see no appreciable difference‑the typical, honest, yet largely uninformative answer was that the dress was "stunning."


Inquiry into the reasons for the similarity in the buyers' choices led me to a second observation, namely, that the buyers were immersed in and preoccupied with a remarkably common world of intense stimulation. It was a world of lively discussion of

what was happening in women's fashion, of fervent reading of fashion publications, and of close observation of one another's lines of products. And, above all, it was a world of close concern with the women's dress market, with the prevailing tastes and prospective tastes of the consuming public in the area of dress. It became vividly clear to me that by virtue of their intense immersion in this world the buyers came to develop common sen­sitivities and similar appreciations. To use an old but valuable psychological term, they developed a common "apperception mass" which sharpened and directed their feelings of discrimination, which guided and sensitized their perceptions, and which channeled their judgments and choices. This explains, I am convinced, why the buyers, independently of each other, made such amazingly identical choices at the fashion openings. This observa­tion also underlines a point of the greatest importance, namely, that the buyers became the unwitting surrogates of the fashion public. Their success, indeed their vocational fate, depended on their ability to sense the direction of taste in this public.

The third observation which I made pertained to the dress designers‑those who created the new styles. They devised the various designs between which the buyers were ultimately to make the choices, and their natural concern was to be successful in gaining adoption of their creations. There were three lines of preoccupation from which they derived their ideas. One was to pour over old plates of former fashions and depic­tions of costumes of far‑off peoples. A second was to brood and reflect over current and recent styles. The third, and most important, was to develop an intimate familiarity with the most recent expressions of modernity as these were to be seen in such areas as the fine arts, recent literature, political debates and happenings, and discourse in the sophisticated world. The dress designers were engaged in translating themes from these areas and media into dress designs. The designers were attuned to an impressive degree to modern devel­opments and were seeking to capture and express in dress design the spirit of such developments. I think that this explains why the dress designers‑again a competitive and secretive group, working apart from each other in a large number of different fashion houses create independently of each other such remarkably similar designs. They pick up ideas of the past, but always through the filter of the present; they are guided and con­strained by the immediate styles in dress, particularly the direction of such styles over the recent span of a few years; but above all, they are seeking to catch the proximate future as it is revealed in modern developments.

Taken together, these three observations which I have sketched in a most min­imal form outline what is significant in the case of fashion in the women's dress industry. They indicate that the fashion is set through a process of free selection from among a large number of competing models; that the creators of the models are seeking to catch and give expression to what we may call the direction of modernity; and that the buyers, who through their choices set the fashion, are acting as the unwitting agents of a fashion con­suming public whose incipient tastes the buyers are seeking to anticipate. In this paper I shall not deal with what is probably the most interesting and certainly most obscure aspect of the entire relationship, namely, the relation between, on one hand, the expressions of modernity to which the dress designers are so responsive and, on the other hand, the incipient and inarticulate tastes which are taking shape in the fashion consuming public. Certainly, the two come together in the styles which are chosen and, in so doing, lay down the lines along which modern life in this area moves. I regard this line of relation-ship as constituting one of the most significant mechanisms in the shaping of our modern world, but I shall not undertake analysis of it in this paper.


Fashion and the Elite

The brief account which I have given of the setting of fashion in the women's wear industry permits one to return to Simmel's classic analysis and pinpoint more precisely its shortcomings. His scheme elevates the prestige of the elite to the position of major importance in the operation of fashion-styles come into fashion because of the stamp of distinction conferred on them by the elite. I think this view misses almost completely what is central to fashion, namely, to be in fashion. It is not the prestige of the elite which makes the design fashionable but, instead, it is the suitability or potential fashionableness of the design which allows the prestige of the elite to be attached to it. The design has to correspond to the direction of incipient taste of the fashion consuming public. The prestige of the elite affects but does not control the direction of this incipient taste. We have here a case of the fashion mechanism transcending and embracing the prestige of the elite group rather than stemming from that prestige.

There are a number of lines of evidence which I think clearly establish this to be the case. First, we should note that members of the elite-and I am still speaking of the elite in the realm of women's dress-are themselves as interested as anyone to be in fashion. Anyone familiar with them is acutely aware of their sensitivity in this regard, their wish not to be out of step with fashion, and indeed their wish to be in the vanguard of proper fashion. They are caught in the need of responding to the direction of fashion rather than of occupying the privileged position of setting that direction. Second, as explained, the fashion-adopting actions of the elite take place in a context of competing models, each with its own source of prestige. Not all prestigious persons are innovators-and innovators are not necessarily persons with the highest prestige. The elite, itself, has to select between models proposed by innovators; and their choice is not determined by the relative prestige of the innovators. As history shows abundantly, in the competitive process fashion readily ignores persons with the highest prestige and, indeed, by-passes acknowledged "leaders" time after time. A further line of evidence is just as telling, namely, the interesting instances of failure to control the direction of fashion despite effective marshalling of the sources of prestige. An outstanding example was the effort in 1922 to check and reverse the trend toward shorter skirts which had started in 1919 to the dismay of clothing manufacturers. These manufacturers enlisted the cooperation of the heads of fashion houses, fashion magazines, fashion commentators, actresses, and acknowledged fashion leaders in an extensive, well organized and amply financed campaign to reverse the trend. The important oracles of fashion declared that long dresses were returning, models of long dresses were presented in numbers at the seasonal openings, actresses wore them on stage, and manikins paraded them at the fashionable meeting places. Yet, despite this effective marshalling of all significant sources of prestige, the campaign was a marked failure; the trend toward shorter skirts, after a slight interruption, continued until 1929 when a rather abrupt change to long dresses took place. Such instances-and there have been others-provide further indication that there is much more to the fashion mechanism than the exercise of prestige. Fashion appears much more as a collective groping for the proximate future than a channeled movement laid down by prestige full figures.


Collective Selection Replaces Class Differentiation

These observations require us to put Simmel's treatment in a markedly different perspective, certainly as applied to fashion in our modern epoch. The efforts of an elite class to set itself apart in appearance takes place inside of the movement of fashion instead of being its cause. The prestige of elite groups, in place of setting the direction of the fashion movement, is effective only to the extent to which they are recognized as representing and portraying the movement. The people in other classes who consciously follow the fashion do so because it is the fashion and not because of the separate prestige of the elite group. The fashion dies not because it has been discarded by the elite group but because it gives way to a new model more consonant with developing taste. The fashion mechanism appears not in response to a need of class differentiation and class emulation but in response to a wish to be in fashion, to be abreast of what has good standing, to express new tastes which are emerging in a changing world. These are the changes that seem to be called for in Simmel's formulation. They are fundamental changes. They shift fashion from the fields of class differentiation to the area of collective selection and center its mechanism in the process of such selection. This process of collective selection represents an effort to choose from among competing styles or models those which match developing tastes, those which "click," or those which-to revert to my friends, the buyers-"are stunning." The fact that this process of collective selection is mysterious-it is mysterious because we do not understand it-does not contradict in any way that it takes place.



To view the fashion mechanism as a continuing process of collective selection from among competing models yields a markedly different picture from that given by conventional sociological analysis of fashion. It calls attention to the fact that those implicated in fashion innovators, "leaders," followers, and participants-are parts of a collective process that responds to changes in taste and sensitivity. In a legitimate sense, the movement of fashion represents a reaching out for new models which will answer to as yet indistinct and inarticulate newer tastes. The transformation of taste, of collective taste, results without question from the diversity of experience that occurs in social interaction in a complex moving world.



 It leads, in turn, to an unwitting groping for suitable forms of expression, in an effort to move in a direction which is consonant with the movement of modern life in general. It is perhaps unnecessary to add that we know very little indeed about this area of transformation of collective taste. Despite its unquestioned importance it has been scarcely noted, much less studied. Sociologists are conspicuously ignorant of it and indifferent to it.

Before leaving the discussion of fashion in the area of conspicuous appearance (such as dress, adornment, or mannerism), it is desirable to note and consider briefly several important features of the fashion mechanism, namely, its historical continuity, its modernity, the role of collective taste in its operation, and the psychological motives which are alleged to account for it.


Historical Continuity

The history of fashion shows clearly that new fashions are related to, and grow out of, their immediate predecessors. This is one of the fundamental ways in which fashion differs from fads. Fads have no line of historical continuity; each springs up independently of a forerunner and gives rise to no successor. In the case of fashion, fashion innovators always have to consider the prevailing fashion, if for no other reason than to depart from it or to elaborate on it. The result is a line of continuity. Typically, although not universally, the line of continuity has the character of a cultural drift, expressing itself in what we customarily term a "fashion trend." Fashion trends are a highly important yet a much neglected object of study. They signify a convergence and marshalling of collective taste in a given direction and thus pertain to one of the most significant yet obscure features in group life. The terminal points of fashion trends are of special interest. Sometimes they are set by the nature of the medium (there is a point beyond which the skirt cannot be lengthened or shortened [see Richardson and Kroeber, 1947; Young, 1937]); sometimes they seem to represent an exhaustion of the logical possibilities of the medium; but frequently they signify a relatively abrupt shift in interests and taste. The terminal points are marked particularly by a much wider latitude of experimentation in the new fashion models that are advanced for adoption; at such points the fashion mechanism particularly reveals the groping character of collective choice to set itself on a new course. If it be true, as I propose to explain later, that the fashion mechanism is woven deeply into the texture of modern life, the study of fashion in its aspects of continuity, trends, and cycles would be highly important and rewarding.



The feature of "modernity" in fashion is especially significant. Fashion is always modern; it always seeks to keep abreast of the times. It is sensitive to the movement of current developments as they take place in its own field, in adjacent fields, and in the larger social world. Thus, in women's dress, fashion is responsive to its own trend, to developments in fabrics and ornamentation, to developments in the fine arts, to exciting events that catch public attention such as the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen, to political happenings, and to major social shifts such as the emancipation of women or the rise of the cult of youth. Fashion seems to sift out of these diverse sources of happenings a set of obscure guides which bring it into line with general or over-all direction of modernity itself. This responsiveness in its more extended form seems to be the chief factor in formation of what we speak of as a "spirit of the times" or a zeitgeist.


Collective Taste

Since the idea of "collective taste" is given such an important position in my analysis of the fashion mechanism, the idea warrants further clarification and explanation. I am taking the liberty of quoting my remarks as they appear in the article on "Fashion" in the new International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences V (1968:341-345) . represents an organic sensitivity to objects of social experience, as when we say that vulgar comedy does not suit our taste' or that `they have a taste for orderly procedure.' Taste has a tri-fold character-it is like an appetite in seeking positive satisfaction; it operates as a sensitive selector, giving a basis for acceptance or rejection; and it is a formative agent, guiding the development of lines of action and shaping objects to meet its demands. Thus, it appears as a subjective mechanism, giving orientation to individuals, structuring activity and molding the world of experience. Tastes are themselves a product of experience; they usually develop from an initial state of vagueness to a state of refinement and stability, but once formed they may decay and disintegrate. They are formed in the context of social interaction, responding to the definitions and affirmations given by others. People thrown into areas of common interaction and having similar runs of experience develop common tastes. The fashion process involves both a formation and an expression of collective taste in the given area of fashion. Initially, the taste is a loose fusion of vague inclinations and dissatisfactions that are aroused by new experiences in the field of fashion and in the larger surrounding world. In this initial state, collective taste is amorphous, inarticulate, vaguely poised, and awaiting specific direction. Through models and proposals, fashion innovators sketch out possible lines along which the incipient taste may gain objective expression and take definite form. Collective taste is an active force in the ensuing process of selection, setting limit's and providing guidance; yet, at the same time it undergoes refinement and organization through its attachment to, and embodiment in, specific social forms. The origin, formation, and careers of collective taste constitute the huge problematic area in fashion. Major advancement in our knowledge of the fashion mechanism depends on the charting of this area...


Psychological Motives

Now, a word with regard to psychological interpretations of fashion. Scholars, by and large, have sought to account for fashion in terms of psychological motives. A perusal of the literature will show an assortment of different feelings and impulses which have been picked out to explain the occurrence of fashion. Some students ascribe fashion to efforts to escape from boredom or ennui, especially among members of the leisure class. Some treat fashion as arising from playful and whimsical impulses to enliven the routines of life with zest. Some regard it as due to a spirit of adventure which impels individuals to rebel against the confinement of prevailing social forms. Some see fashion as a symbolic expression of hidden sexual interests. Most striking is the view expressed by Sapir in his article on "Fashion" in the first edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences VI (1931: 139-141); Sapir held that fashion results from an effort to increase the attractiveness of the self, especially under conditions which impair the integrity of the ego; the sense of oneself is regained and heightened through novel yet socially sanctioned departures from prevailing social forms. Finally, some scholars trace fashion to desires for personal prestige or notoriety.

Such psychological explanations, either singly or collectively, fail to account for fashion; they do not explain why or how the various feelings or motives give rise to a fashion process. Such feelings are presumably present and in operation in all human societies; yet there are many societies in which fashion is not to be found. Further, such feelings may take various forms of expression which have no relation to a fashion process. We are given no explanation of why the feelings should lead to the formation of fashion in place of taking other channels of expression available to them. The psychological schemes fail to come to grip with the collective process which constitutes fashion-the emergence of new models in an area of changing experience, the differential attention given them, the interaction which leads to a focusing of collective choice on one of them, the social endorsement of it as proper, and the powerful control which this endorsement yields. Undoubtedly, the various feelings and impulses specified by psychologists operate within the fashion process-just as they operate within non-fashion areas of group life. But their operation within fashion does not account for fashion. Instead, their operation presupposes the existence of the fashion process as one of the media for their play.

The foregoing discussion indicates, I trust, the inadequacy of conventional sociological and psychological schemes to explain the nature of fashion. Both sets of schemes fail to perceive fashion as the process of collective selection that it is. The schemes do not identify the nature of the social setting in which fashion arises nor do they catch or treat the mechanism by which fashion operates. The result is that students fail to see the scope and manner of its operation and to appreciate the vital role which it plays in modern group life. In the interest of presenting a clearer picture of these matters, I wish to amplify the sketch of fashion as given above in order to show more clearly its broad generic character.



It is necessary, first of all, to insist that fashion is not confined to those areas, such as women's apparel, in which fashion is institutionalized and professionally exploited under conditions of intense competition. As mentioned earlier, it is found in operation in a wide variety and increasing number of fields which shun deliberate or intentional concern with fashion. In such fields, fashion occurs almost always without awareness on the part of those who are caught in its operation. What may be primarily response to fashion is seen and interpreted in other ways-chiefly as doing what is believed to be superior practice. The prevalence of such unwitting deception can be considerable. The basic mechanism of fashion which comes to such a clear, almost pure, form in women's dress is clouded or concealed in other fields but is none the less operative. Let me approach a consideration of this matter by outlining the six essential conditions under which fashion presumably comes into play.


Essential Conditions of Its Appearance

First, the area in which fashion operates must be one that is involved in a movement of change, with people ready to revise or discard old practices, beliefs, and attachments, and poised to adopt new social forms; there must be this thrust into the future. If the area is securely established, as in the domain of the sacred, there will be no fashion. Fashion presupposes that the area is in passage, responding to changes taking place in a surrounding world, and oriented to keeping abreast of new developments. The area is marked by a new psychological perspective which places a premium on being "up to date" and which implies a readiness to denigrate given older forms of life as being outmoded. Above all, the changing character of the area must gain expression or reflection in changes in that subjective orientation which I have spoken of under the term, "taste."


A second condition is that the area must be open to the recurrent presentation of models or proposals of new social forms. These models, depending on the given areas of fashion, may cover such diverse things as points of view, doctrines, lines of preoccupation, themes, practices, and use of artifacts. In a given area of fashion, these models differ from each other and of course from the prevailing social forms. Each of them is metaphorically a claimant for adoption. Thus their presence introduces a competitive situation and sets the stage for selection between them.


Third, there must be a relatively free opportunity for choice between the models. This implies that the models must be open, so to speak, to observation and that facilities and means must be available for their adoption. If the presentation of new models is prevented the fashion process will not get under way. Further, a severe limitation in the wherewithal needed to adopt models (such as necessary wealth, intellectual sophistication, refined skill, or esthetic sensitivity) curtails the initiation of the fashion process.


Fashion is not guided by utilitarian or rational considerations. This points to a fourth condition essential to its operation, namely, that the pretended merit or value of the competing models cannot be demonstrated through an open and decisive test. Where choices can be made between rival models on the basis of an objective and effective test, there is no place for fashion. It is for this reason that fashion does not take root in those areas of utility, technology, or science where asserted claims can be brought before the bar of demonstrable proof. In contrast, the absence of means for testing effectively the relative merit of competing models opens the door to other considerations in making choices between them. This kind of situation is essential to the play of fashion.


A fifth condition for fashion is the presence of prestige figures who espouse one or another of the competing models. The prestige of such persons must be such that they are acknowledged as qualified to pass judgment on the value or suitability of the rival models. If they are so regarded their choice carries weight as an assurance or endorsement of the superiority or propriety of a given model. A combination of such prestigious figures, espousing the same model, enhances the likelihood of adoption of the model.


A sixth and final condition is that the area must be open to the emergence of new interests and dispositions in response to (a) the impact of outside events, (b) the introduction of new participants into the area, and (c) changes in inner social interaction. This condition is chiefly responsible for the shifting of taste and the redirection of collective choice which together constitute the lifeline of fashion.


If the above six conditions are met, I believe that one will always find fashion to be in play. People in the area will be found to be converging their choices on models and shifting this convergence over time. The convergence of choice occurs not because of the intrinsic merit or demonstrated validity of the selected models but because of the appearance of high standing which the chosen models carry. Unquestionably, such high standing is given in major measure by the endorsement and espousal of models of prestigious persons. But it must be stressed again that it is not prestige, per se, which imparts this sanction; a prestigious person, despite his eminence, may be easily felt to be "out-of date." To carry weight, the person of prestige must be believed or sensed to be voicing the proper perspective that is called for by developments in the area. To recognize this is to take note of the importance of the disposition to keep abreast of what is collectively judged to be up-to-date practice. The formation of this collective judgment takes place through an interesting but ill-understood interaction between prestige and incipient taste, between eminent endorsement and congenial interest. Collective choice of models is forged in this process of interaction, leading to a focusing of selection at a given time on one model and at a different time on another model.




If we view modern life in terms of the analytical scheme which I have sketched, there is no difficulty in seeing the play of fashion in many diverse areas. Close scrutiny of such areas will show the features which we have discussed-a turning away from old forms that are thought to be out-of-date; the introduction of new models which compete for adoption; a selection between them that is made not on the basis of demonstrated merit or utility but in response to an interplay of prestige-endorsement and incipient taste; and a course of development in which a given type of model becomes solidified, socially


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 elevated, and imperative in its demands for acceptance for a period of time. While this process is revealed most vividly in the area of women's fashion it can be noted in play here and there across the board in modern life and may, indeed, be confidently expected to increase in scope under the conditions of modern life. These conditions-the pressure to change, the open doors to innovation, the inadequacy or the unavailability of decisive tests of the merit of proposed models, the effort of prestigious figures to gain or maintain standing in the face of developments to which they must respond, and the groping of people for a satisfactory expression of new and vague tastes-entrench fashion as a basic and widespread process in modern life.


The Expanding Domain of Fashion This characterization may repel scholars who believe that fashion is an abnormal and irrational happening-and that it gives way before enlightenment, sophistication, and increased knowledge. Such scholars would reject the thought that fashion is becoming increasingly embedded in a society which is presumably moving toward a higher level of intelligence and rational perspective. Yet, the facts are clear that fashion is an outstanding mark of modern civilization and that its domain is expanding rather than diminishing. As areas of life come to be caught in the vortex of movement and as proposed innovations multiply in them, a process of collective choice in the nature of fashion is naturally and inevitably brought into play. The absence or inadequacy of compelling tests of the merit of proposals opens the door to prestige-endorsement and taste as determinants of collective choice. The compelling role of these two factors as they interact easily escapes notice by those who participate in the process of collective choice; the model which emerges with a high sanction and approval is almost always believed by them as being intrinsically and demonstrably correct. This belief is fortified by the impressive arguments and arrays of specious facts that may be frequently be marshalled on behalf of the model. Consequently, it is not surprising that participants may fail completely to recognize a fashion process in which they are sharing. The identification of the process as fashion occurs usually only after it is gone-when it can be viewed from the detached vantage point of later time. The fashions which we can now detect in the past history of philosophy, medicine, science, technological use and industrial practice did not appear as fashions to those who shared in them. The fashions merely appeared to them as up-to-date achievements! The fact that participants in fashion movements in different areas of contemporary life do not recognize such movements should not mislead perceptive scholars. The application of this observation to the domain of social science is particularly in order; contemporary social science is rife with the play of fashion.


The Societal Role of Fashion I turn finally to a series of concluding remarks on what seems to be the societal role of fashion. As I have sought to explain, the key to the understanding of fashion is given in the simple words, "being in fashion." These words signify an area of life which is caught in movement-movement from an out moded past toward a dim, uncertain, but exploitable immediate future. In this passage, the need of the

            present is to be in march with the time. The fashion mechanism is the response to this

            need. These simple observations point to the social role of fashion-a role which I would

            state abstractly to be that of enabling and aiding collective adjustment to and in a moving

            world of divergent possibilities. In spelling out this abstract statement I wish to call attention to three matters.

                        The first is a matter which is rather obvious, namely, that fashion introduces a

            conspicuous measure of unanimity and uniformity in what would otherwise be a markedly fragmented arrangement. If all competing models enjoyed similar acceptance the

            situation would be one of disorder and disarray. In the field of dress, for example, if people were to freely adopt the hundreds of styles proposed professionally each year and the

            other thousands which the absence of competition would allow, there would be a veritable "Tower of Babel" consequence. Fashion introduces order W a potentially anarchic and

            moving present. By establishing suitable models which carry the stamp of propriety and

            compel adherence, fashion narrowly limits the range of variability and so fosters uniformity and order, even though it be a passing uniformity and order. In this respect fashion

            performs in a moving society a function which custom performs in a settled society.

                        Second, fashion serves to detach the grip of the past in a moving world. By

            placing a premium on being in the mode and derogating what developments have left

            behind, it frees actions for new movement. The significance of this release from the

            restraint of the past should not be minimized. To meet a moving and changing world

            requires freedom to move in new directions. Detachment from the hold of the past is no

            small contribution to the achievement of such freedom. In the areas of its operation fashion facilitates that contribution. In this sense there is virtue in applying the derogatory

            accusations of being "old-fashioned," "outmoded," "backward," and "out-of-date."

                        Third, fashion operates as an orderly preparation for the immediate future. By

            allowing the presentation of new models but by forcing them through the gauntlet of

            competition and collective selection the fashion mechanism offers a continuous means of

            adjusting to what is on the horizon.' On the one hand, it offers to innovators and creators

            the opportunity to present through their models their ideas of what the immediate future

            should be in the given area of fashion. On the other hand, adoption of the models which

            survive the gauntlet of collective selection gives expression to nascent dispositions that

            represents an accommodation or orientation to the immediate future. Through this

            process, fashion nurtures and shapes a body of common sensitivity and taste, as is suggested by the congeniality and naturalness of present fashions in contrast to the oddness

            and incongruity of past fashions. This body of common sensitivity and taste is analogous on the subjective side to a "universe of discourse." Like the latter, it provides a basis for a common approach to a world and for handling and digesting the experiences which the world yields. The value of a pliable and re-forming body of common taste to meet a shifting and developing world should be apparent.




In these three ways, fashion is a very adept mechanism for enabling people to adjust in an orderly and unified way to a moving and changing world which is potentially full of anarchic possibilities. It is suited, par excellence, to the demands of life in such a moving world since it facilitates detachment from a receding past, opens the doors to proposals to the future, but subjects such proposals to the test of collective selection, thus bringing them in line with the direction of awakened interest and disposition. In areas of life-and they are many-in which the merit of the proposals cannot be demonstrated, it permits orderly movement and development.

In closing, let me renew the invitation to sociologists to take fashion seriously and give it the attention and study which it deserves and which are so sorely lacking. Fashion should be recognized as a central mechanism in forming social order in a modern type of world, a mechanism whose operation will increase. It needs tote lifted out of the area of the bizarre, the irrational and the inconsequential in which sociologists have so misguidingly lodged it. When sociologists respond to the need of developing a scheme of analysis suited to a moving or modern world they will be required to assign the fashion process to a position of central importance.



The recognition that fashion is continuously at work is, in my judgment, the major although unintended contribution of Simmel's analysis. However, his thesis that the function of fashion is the oscillating differentiation and unification of social classes seems to me to miss what is most important.



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            1957. Fashion, American Journal of Sociology 62:541-558 (reprint).

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