Theories of Fashion Costume and Fashion History
For centuries individuals or societies have used
clothes and other body adornment as a form of nonverbal communication to
indicate occupation, rank, gender, sexual availability, locality, class, wealth
and group affiliation. Fashion is a form of free speech. It not only embraces
clothing, but also accessories, jewellery,
hairstyles, beauty and body art. What we wear and how and when we wear it,
provides others with a shorthand to subtly read the surface of a social
Fashion is a language of signs, symbols and
iconography that non-verbally communicate meanings about individuals and groups. Fashion in all its forms from a tattooed and pierced navel, to the newest
hairstyle, is the best form of iconography we have to express individual
identity. It enables us to make ourselves understood with rapid comprehension by
How we perceive the beauty or ugliness of our
bodies is dependant on cultural attitudes to physiognomy. The accepted beautiful
female form that Rubens painted is subliminally undesirable nowadays, if we are
to be thought beautiful in a way that the majority accepts in the 21st
Today an inability to refashion and reshape our
bodies whilst constantly monitoring the cultural ideal leaves us failing the
fashion test. Those that pass the fashion test invariably spend their lives
absorbed in a circle of diet, exercise, cosmetic surgery and other regimes. This
includes the rigors of shopping in search of the ultimate garb.
If you are a big guy you may find it hard to find the best clothes to fit
you, Menswear UK specialise in
trousers with upto a 38" leg and clothes upto 5XL. They stock an excellent
range of brands including Animal, Southbay and Jacamo.
Our reluctance to give ourselves a regular
makeover through diet, exercise, and consistently conscious use of specific
dress styles infers that we have the personality flaws of a weak willed human.
We become in the eyes of fashion aficionados somewhat inadequate and imperfect
in the fashion stakes. Thus we strive to keep a culturally satisfying appearance
so that we feel better, whereas in fact we are striving to stay in the tribe,
whatever type of tribe that may be.
Group affiliation is our prime concern with
regard to fashion. As long as some group similarity is identified within the
group, our personal fashion whether current or dated can belong to any tribe. It
is the sense of belonging marked by how we fashion ourselves that gives us the
tribal connection. You are reading an original 'Theory of Fashion
Clothing', fashion history article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
An innate characteristic of human beings is the
desire to strive for differentiation. The removal of Sumptuary Laws and rigid
dress codes has enabled the individual to use fashion as a means to identify
clearly the many different rôles that a person plays in any one day.
Sociologists borrowed the word 'rôle' from the
theatre because, like actors individuals play many parts and each part has to be
learnt. Rôles are continually learned and rehearsed and relearned.
They are also shared, because like the actors on a stage, fluid
interaction only occurs if all the performers know the behaviour expected.
Edwardians were experts in the art of rôle play. They had had sufficient
time to readjust to the new patterns of behaviour established by the Victorians.
The Edwardians were socially stratified into
those who wore tailor made clothing down to those who wore other people's cast
offs. The poor simply looked poor, because their raiment betrayed them. Whilst
the rich and nouveau riche displayed their wealth through an iconography of
signs and symbols that enhanced their body image in the eyes of those that saw
themselves as socially inferior.
Rôles and activities are closely linked to what
people wear. People are affected by their rôle-set, which includes boyfriends,
girlfriends, sisters, brothers, friends, husbands, lovers, mothers, fathers,
grandparents, relatives, employers, customers, clients, work mates, business
colleagues, peer and age groups.
The people with whom a purchaser interacts
affects the final purchase and this applies to any fashion dominated item from
interior furnishings to choice of cars.
Likewise the purchase of fashionable clothes, fabrics, or accessories becomes a
visual currency and speaks volumes silently. The tools of fashion provide the
signs and symbolism that function as an information service for the rôle-set.
People are so aware that others make judgements
about them through their clothes and accessories that many run up huge debts to
appear to belong to a particular lifestyle. Frequently the rest of their rôle-set are doing likewise. Members of the rôle-set often encourage them. Only
individuals with a strong sense of self identity stick their necks out and admit
to wearing items that others might consider dubious or passé.
Those with high status occupations will wear the
clothes they think others expect them to wear. They will not wish to experience
rôle conflict by wearing the incorrect clothing. It is from the clothes a person
wears that we get our first impression of personality. They provide mental clues
to a person's status and occupational rôle, as well as being a means of
conforming to peer group expectations.
Clothes also have the utilitarian function of
providing both protection from the extremes of the elements, keeping us warm or
cool or safe. They also act as an aid to modesty or immodesty as the wearer so
The state of a person's clothes is synonymous
with self respect and is a sign of respectability. It also adds another sign
that the person has sufficient status in society to maintain at the cost of time
and money, laundering, dry cleaning and repair. To be respectable some expense
has to be incurred in the maintenance of cleanliness and neatness. You are
reading an original 'Theory of Fashion Clothing', fashion history article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
Thorstein Veblen the US economist who wrote the
book The Theory Of The Leisure Class in 1899 maintained that Dressing for status
as an outward expression of wealth is indeed functional, by the very fact that
such clothes prevent the wearer from engaging in manual labour. Also because of
their restrictive design they need the assistance of others to dress the wearer
and keep clothes in pristine condition.
Veblen devoted a whole chapter of his book to ' Dress
As An expression Of The Pecuniary Culture'.
He wrote '...our apparel is always in evidence and
affords an indication of our pecuniary standing to all observers at first
glance...dress, therefore, in order to serve its purpose effectively
should not only be expensive, but it should also make plain to all
observers that the wearer is not engaged in any kind of productive
Foremost in Veblen's mind must have been the
fashions of the 1890s a decade that gradually favoured increasing conspicuous
consumption by the rich. A century later the vogue for power dressing in
the 1980s saw excessive indulgence and conspicuous consumption in fashion. Fashionable behaviour was the epitome of conspicuous waste, but the purest form
of relief in a stressed, angst ridden society.
One of the most favoured forms of semiotic
distinction is fashion, because
fashionable clothes, accessories and body
adornment are easy for others to observe at glance. Incidental items,
specific handbags footwear, jewellery,
accessories and new hairstyles act
also as important status symbols.
First - a fashion is approved by others.
Then - it is copied because of competition.
Finally - it is replaced as it becomes commonplace and has ceased to fulfill its
function of being distinctive.
The status fashion can be anything from a
particular jewel such as solitaire diamond stud earrings or the latest fad for
long drop gold earrings to a brand logo pair of jeans in a particular style and
colour. The ability to decode trends that are not
deliberate and obvious is limited to a small group who adopt consumer items
early. You are reading an original 'Theory of Fashion Clothing',
fashion history article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
Some people instinctively know how to appear
respectable to the majority through their clothing. Others are less obviously
successful in attaining consistently reliable grooming. The rise of the
Corporate Uniform adopted by banks and similar institutions in the 1980s
reinforced power dressing. It indicated
how important the uniform is as a means of distinguishing one person from
another instantly. Uniforms provide us with mental clues.
Wearing an occupational uniform puts an employee
in the position of being a visual metaphor. We learn quickly to associate
different uniforms with different rôle conceptions and different rôle
expectations. We connect the policeman or security guard's uniform with
authority, law, order and help. Likewise we associate the nurses or paramedic's
uniform with help, care, protection and mothering. By contrast the jaunty
overall and hat of the ice cream vendor with the promise of pleasure.
When people put on a uniform they adopt what they
think it symbolises, but even people who don't wear a specific occupational or
leisure uniform tend to know vaguely what to wear. Those who adapt their
wardrobe to "fit in" with their company, succeed much faster in terms of upward
Young people in particular adopt the uniform of
their peer group. However the uniform must be the peer group's uniform, not one
imposed on them by adults. Fashion in the form of a mass youth uniform can
create a sense of belonging to the peer group and a feeling of identity as the
adolescent personality reaches maturation.
For the majority, an old status symbol, be it a
brand, a logo or attitude accessory is old-fashioned the moment is loses favour
within the group. An up to date status symbol cries out to some "I must have it
now". The mobile phone as a belt accessory was a perfect example of this. As new
products develop, last year's non WAP mobile phone version is soon passé as a
(wearable) iPod or other electronic gadget gains more approval by being newer
and more novel. By being the latest in a line of personal wear gadgets it
gives unspoken signage about a person of the 'latest' style statement and
therefore again by association some deeper meaning about (spending ability or
know how) of that person. It is
essential to have the latest fashion accessory, to gain instant peer approval.
Mass youth uniform can also work against
individual groups of wearers, as in the case of banning Burberry caps in city
pubs or clubs because of associations with fighting and the anti social
behaviour of some persons who adopt a distinctive fashion which can become like
a group uniform. More recently (in UK in May 2005) youths wearing hoodies
have been banned from shopping malls such as Bluewater. By association all
wearing of the garment was banned as some youths hide their faces with the hood as they
shoplift, or use the hood to avoid recognition on CCTV after shoplifting or
other misdemeanours. You are reading an original 'Theory of Fashion
Clothing', fashion history article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
Between the First and Second World Wars mass production of clothing
truly developed. But it was not until
clothes rationing was introduced in the UK that production methods
became more streamlined. Rationing of cloth and haberdashery, along with strict
specifications ensured manufacturers created garments in a speedy, efficient,
economic manner whilst attaining a certain standard of quality control. By the
1950s increasing numbers of women abandoned the little dressmaker and bought
from the increasing majority of
Department stores like Debenhams continued to
move with the times experimenting with new fabrics and new looks. By the 1990s
were using designers like Jasper Conran to design ranges with style and flair.
A whole range of exciting yarns, new fashion
fabrics, protective materials and engineered fabrics became widely available
after 1960. New materials and fabric finishing techniques are at first exclusive
and expensive. Initially they are offered to the world of
Haute Couture. A couple of years later they filter to the mass market.
The youth cult of the
teenager in the 1950s became a major force in the
1960s. Other contributing influences
were the glamour of the cinema, the television in ordinary homes and a change in
attitudes and values after the introduction of the female birth pill. Global
coverage of the mood of society was absorbed from the cinema, television and
fanzine magazines. The world had instant access to the latest trends and
fashions as fast as the picture could be transmitted.
Today what people see in their homes on
television or when surfing the Internet soon becomes accepted very quickly as
normal and everyday. In the comfort of one's own home the television monitor
scales down the stark newness of an idea, especially the impact of a fashion
concept and this makes it easier for us to accept more quickly when worn by
others even if we can't see ourselves wearing a similar item.
The young have not always been dominant in
fashion history. Until the
Victorian Era, a fashion look took between 10 and 15 years to permeate
country areas. Once
improved mass communication between country and city, the cycle of fashion
speeded up so fast, that by the
Edwardian Era in 1901, fashion was moving in a yearly cycle.
Emancipation of Women and the contribution of all
classes of women to the
1914-1918 war enabled and encouraged women to adopt more practical
clothing and to try out new styles in fashion, hair and beauty.
By the millennium everyday changes in lifestyle
included fitness and health pursuits, car and air travel and centrally heated
environments in homelife. All created a need for clothing fashion designed for
the way we live now. How we perceive our persona and what we want to say to
society in a very visual camera obsessed culture, is still expressed through our
bodies, the way we wear clothes, jewellery
and body art.
Today fashion and beauty can be affordable for
everyone. There is always a range such as Avon that provides quality beauty,
make up and accessory products at a prices most can afford. Mass fashion is
moving so fast that fashion now moves in a weekly cycle and
trends are hot for a short time only. You are reading an original 'Theory
of Fashion Clothing', fashion history article by Pauline Weston Thomas at
Page Added 2000, Updated 2005.
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Footnote:-This page was partially based on
content I updated from a dissertation I first wrote in 1979. The dissertation a
Comparative Study Between the Rôles of the Edwardian Hostess and the Edwardian
Seamstress looked at the symbolism behind Edwardian dress and the rôles of
women in Edwardian society. In particular it examined the rôle and high
lifestyle of Edwardian society hostesses compared with the degrading working
conditions and impoverished lifestyle of the seamstresses that made clothes for