Theories of Fashion

A slightly edited version of this article was was first published with Gentleman’s Gazette.

I remember when one of my history lecturers, Professor Dame Janet (‘Jinty’) Nelson, no less, said that I was ‘a real pol.[itical] ideas man’. The essay that I had written for her seminar group, and upon which she was passing judgement, was ropey. But it had potential. Apparently. Jinty’s complement was touching, although at the time I wasn’t sure what a ‘pol. ideas man’ was. I think I now have inkling. As a historian-cum-sociologist, I have long been interested in the causes, contexts and circumstances that guide people’s actions and give meaning to the objects they cherish and deride. Inevitably, therefore, the paradox of fashion intrigues. Fashion is thought to be ever-changing and inherently modern, but it is one of the most historically referenced aspects of contemporary culture. Whilst fashion could be considered capricious, even tyrannical, catwalk shows, the epitome of haute couture and the determinants of next season’s vogues, always make reference to the past. At the recent men’s fashion shows in London, Milan and New York, the influence of past sartorial styles was in evidence, from headwear to footwear and much else in between. To truly understand and enjoy male dress and style, I reckon it is necessary to know (or at least attempt to know) some of the theories behind fashion. So, as Jennifer Aniston used to say in the L’Oreal shampoo adverts, and to follow-up on a bibliographical article published by Gentleman’s Gazette’s Editor in Chief Sven Raphael Schneider last month, ‘here comes the [social] science’.

We’re In It Together: Elias & Goffman

EliasThe two sociologists that most influence my approach to clothing are Norbert Elias (1897-1990) (pictured) and Erving Goffman (1922-1982). Both writers were pitching their work at other sociologists, so they do not necessarily make for light reading, although perseverance has its rewards. Elias’ oeuvre presents particular challenges because it isn’t summarised in a single volume. The key texts are Über den Prozess der Zivilisation (The Civilising Process) and Die höfische Gesellchaft (The Court Society). The fact that these works were first published in German probably did not endear them to Anglophone researchers, which accounts for the paucity of popular references to Elias today. His theory of the ‘Civilising Process’ can be outlined as follows:

Charting the evolution of human manners and behaviour from the Middle Ages into modernity, Elias tried to show how developing commercial, cultural and political bonds encouraged greater interdependence between different groups of people. As society became more complex, people’s behaviour changed. Increasingly concerned about their conduct within society, people wished to avoid inflicting shame and embarrassment on themselves and others. The princely court occupies an important role in the Civilising Process because this arena demonstrated a heightened example of human interdependence. Within the orbit of the king, and in an environment as complex as his court, the adherence to proper modes of conduct was paramount; more so during the eighteenth century, which saw the rise of absolute monarchs. In time, the etiquette of the princely court spread as the rise of the bourgeoisie brought an end to the aristocracy’s exclusive access to the king. To test his ideas, Elias examined the court of Louis XIV of France (1638-1715). By studying the people who orbited the Sun King, Elias shed new light on the delicate web of dependency that existed within the royal court, as aristocrats, bourgeoisie and monarch were enmeshed in a complex series of social interactions as each tried to maintain and exert their position. Elias believed the royal court stood apart from other social groupings and possessed its own rationality, as the aristocracy were forced to embark on penurious status expenditure and to adopt specific modes of behaviour to compete with members of the bourgeoisie recently promoted to royal office. Louis XIV was the master puppeteer and manipulated court factions with relative impunity, but he was also entwined within the Court Society that he helped to create, for his pivotal role made him the exemplar for court etiquette. Adopting the right kind of behaviour placed great emphasis on people’s dress – although Elias didn’t spend much time considering courtly clothing – and their gestures.

Comportment was the primary interest of Erving Goffman. Researching in Canada – and the Shetland Islands – Goffman does not appear to have been familiar with Norbert Elias’s writing, but his ideas, lucidly explained in The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, supplement those of his German colleague. Conceiving of people’s behaviour as though they were stage performers, Goffman suggested that social situations work best when there is a ‘veneer of consensus’ or an ‘interactional modus vivendi’. These terms may beguile, but Goffman was essentially suggesting that people within a particular group tend to conceal their individual wants ‘behind the values to which everyone present feels obliged to give lip service.’ They do this to promote cohesion and to produce a more constructive relationship, whether in personal or professional spheres. This point is especially applicable to the way people dress because it has long been noted, and recently emphasised in Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Dress by Dominique and François Gaulme, that clothes converse. For my review of Power & Style, click here.

Conversant Clothing

The-Theories-of-Fashion-600x320Thorstein Veblen’s (1857-1929) (pictured) phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ is well used, even if it is not well understood. It appeared, along with other cantankerous phrases, in his The Theory of the Leisure Class, which considered the social and spending habits of America’s elite. The use of provocative phraseology indicates that Veblen was keen to reach a broad audience and the reviews that followed in the wake of the book’s publication reveals that he succeeded. Veblen’s book is therefore eminently readable, whether you have sociological leanings or not. In his study of the economic competition that guides human interactions, Veblen identified and defined the leisure class, a group of affluent and industrially idle people whose position at the apex of society was demonstrated and maintained through prolific status expenditure, rather like Louis XIV’s courtiers. The expenditure of the leisure class was wasteful, conspicuously so, because it did ‘not serve human life or human well-being on the whole’. One of the clearest indicators of the conspicuous consumption of the leisure class is provided through their dress. As Veblen bluntly observed, ‘a cheap coat makes a cheap man.’ Whilst acknowledging the communicative power of clothing, Veblen did not write about dress in detail. Two commentators have, Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and Alison Lurie (1926-) (pictured).

Alison-Lurie-600x337Lurie’s thesis, developed in The Language of Clothes, is essentially that clothing is a form of communication, possessing its own vocabulary and grammar. Combinations of clothes, their colour, cut and texture, can be eloquent or tongue-tied, confident or diffident. When people choose to wear particular styles and brands, they are (sub)consciously expressing their ideas and ideals. A Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, Lurie brings a personal touch to her study, filling it with a large number of personal anecdotes. Whilst some of these comments now appear dated, I think they add to the book’s charm. Her work stands in sharp contrast to that of Roland Barthes, who first developed the notion that clothes ‘speak’ in his intellectually bewildering work The Fashion System, a book many commentators have struggled to grapple with and over which Barthes himself expressed regret. If Lurie was inclined to listen to what people’s clothes said about them, Barthes was more concerned with how clothes were written about:

It is clear that Fashion utterances are entirely derived not from a style but a writing; by describing an item of clothing, or how it is worn, the writer/journalist invests in his words nothing of himself [sic] nor of his psychology; he simply conforms to a certain conventional and regulated style (we might say an ethos), which furthermore announces immediately that it is from a Fashion magazine. [i]

To varying degrees, the written description of clothes in style magazines will impact on consumer choices. Clothing commentary – formal, sexy, cool, sporty, dressy – indicates how we might be perceived in particular garments, which is an important consideration in light of the observations by Elias and Goffman. The problem is that Barthes’ System makes the ‘vestimentary code’ – essentially, the thoughts that determine people’s dress decisions – seem neat and formulaic, which is almost certainly never the case.[ii] Not least because many sartorial ‘rules’ seem rather arbitrary because they flux in accordance with societal mores – i.e. jackets should not be worn by speakers presenting to bearded men and brown is not an appropriate colour for the city.[iii]

Sartorial Solipsism

The-Style-Movement-300x286That said, a new clothing company, The Style Movement, is making use of Barthes’ theory – whether they realise it or not – to help men identify the clothes that suit their characters, or as they put, to ‘dress your ego’. By completing a short online questionnaire, it is apparently possible to place men into one of six sartorial categories: Classic, Epicurean, Intellectual, Maverick, Natural, Sophisticate. Learning whether he is more offbeat or on trend, a man will be provided with a ‘Style Statement’, a list of four adjectives that describes his dress, and a list of ‘Brands you might like’. According to my results, I am Intellectual, which was not so revelatory. I am intrigued by this approach to selecting an outfit. It certainly plays to the clichéd notion that men do not like clothes shopping and are blithely unaware of the significance of dressing appropriately, but survey results are only as reliable as the data that gets input. Theories behind fashion suggest the context in which clothes are worn, the values of the group to which a person belongs and the image that an individual wishes to convey, all contribute to a person’s look. Alison Lurie gives the example of the chameleon-like clothing choices of a former journalist, who changed his raiment to complement that of his interviewee, so he could get more information from them.[iv] Can nine questions really enable men to make a suitable sartorial impression? This is certainly a twenty-first-century approach to the age-old social conundrum of ‘what to wear?’, but as an Intellectual who likes his books, I think fashion is best understood through theory rather than with the third degree. And if the following has whet your whistle, the best book to start with is probably Alison Lurie’s The Language of Clothes, which is widely available and reasonably cheap. The book provides a rudimentary chronology on the development of men and women’s sartorial styles and attempts to offer a brief introduction to some of the more important fashion theories. I would recommend the studies by Goffman and Veblen for a more engaging and specific focus on the role of dress in social relationships.


[i] R. Barthes, ‘Showing how rhetoric works’, The Language of Fashion, Roland Barthes, tr. & ed. A. Stafford & M. Carter (New York, 2006), 114.

[ii] M. Barnard, Fashion as Communication, Second Edition (London, 2001), 96-99.

[iii] H. Walker, ‘Listen to the suit: the well-tailored art of persuasion’, The Guide to Hosting a Better Conference: a Monocle Survey, 25. A supplement issued with Monocle, 40:4 (February, 2011); D. Hayes, ‘Brown in town’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (February 16/17 2013), 17.

[iv] A. Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 2000), 137-38.

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