FASHION IN SOCIETY
Fashion and Society: An Analysis of How Fashion Has Changed in Terms of Art, Culture, Identity, Expression and Technology
Fashion is a multi-faceted phenomenon. On the exterior, what appears to be thousands of designers tangles in a heap of fabric racing to create the next trend is actually more involved in our lives than we often care to think. When one looks at how fashion has evolved over the past ten, twenty, or even a hundred years, one will see that the seams of societal expression and convention are closely tied up with the mechanics of fashion. In fact, fashion can very well be considered a psychological state that alters itself to reflect the times it belongs to, or originates in. That is also where we obtain the terms “fashionable” and “unfashionable” from. The degree of comprehension of these terms is directly proportional to the extent one is accepted or ostracized. To be “fashionable” is to conform to the accepted method of expression, whereas to be “unfashionable” is to exhibit tendencies contrary to it.
Fashion may be viewed in the society from two points of view. Negatively, it can be defined through the terms ‘trend’ and fad’. It can be considered as easy entertainment for the rich, a hobby, or even a deviation from important, more pressing matters. On the positive side, it can be considered an extension of society, a medium through which it expresses itself. For a culture, fashion is one of the most common ways to analyze and revise their standards of beauty, to project what a community thinks, or how it feels. In this context, using the term, ‘communal art’ to describe fashion will not be wrong.
FASHION AND ART
Art and fashion have always been closely related, with one being projected in the other oftentimes throughout history. In the historical context, however, when one observes the cycle of the evolution of fashion, one finds that the bond between the two is not as deep today as it was at the turn of the twentieth century. The best examples of this can be found in France and its neighbors, where the contemporary aristocracy thrived on the spoils of art as entertainment, particularly theater and paintings (Museum of Art; Rhode Island School of Design; Brown University Scholarly Technology Group, par. 1).
For example, French couturier Paul Poiret was deeply influenced by painters. He had numerous artist friends, frequented art galleries, and was an avid collector of pieces by French and other painters. With a background in Ballet, Poiret was well acquainted with theater as well, for which he designed numerous costumes throughout his lifetimes, many of which inspired his couture dresses. In 1909, when the Russian ballet troupe, Ballet Russe, performed their first show in France, Poiret was highly impressed by their costumes (Museum of Art; Rhode Island School of Design; Brown University Scholarly Technology Group , pars. 1-5).
The colorful costumes of the Ballet Russe had been designed by Leon Bakst, and had an extremely rustic, yet charming quality to them, the same as Russian ‘peasant art’. For Poiret, they resembled the exoticism that had been ‘celebrated’ by the likes of Picasso, and that he revered. For him, they were spontaneous and wild, which was one of the concepts visited time and again by the contemporary art scene. They inspired Poiret to include ‘oriental’ motifs in his designs (Museum of Art; Rhode Island School of Design; Brown University Scholarly Technology Group, par. 5).
Apart from Poiret, numerous other couturiers and designers were friends with artists in the early twentieth century. They found inspiration in modern art, and often conspired with contemporary artists to design their dresses, and costumes for theater and ballet. The trend transcended the borders of France to reach Scotland, Germany, and even Russia. For the better part of the twentieth century, fashion could be seen echoing art. The stroked on the canvas corresponded with the textures of the fabric, and the colors on the painting complemented the colors on the dress.
A plethora of examples exists throughout the twentieth century to prove that fashion mirrored the contemporary art. Where the Art Nouveau definition of the female silhouette triggered the popularity of S-shaped corsets in the early years of the twentieth century, the apparels were soon discarded in the face of the First World War, where artists took to expressing the sorrows of war through deeper, troubled colors. Fashion, then, moved bid adieu to tight corsets, and gave way to a simple, straighter, sleeker silhouette.
Two forms of art that became the muse of many included the Art Nouveau, characterized by ornamental motifs, and the Vienna Secession movement, which brought to the fore abstract designs and flat colors. Designers took the opportunity to experiment and explore with the empty canvas that was the simple, tubular silhouette. Various ethnic designs, like Japanese and Viennese, inspired embellished dresses(Museum of Art; Rhode Island School of Design; Brown University Scholarly Technology Group, pars. 9).
Another example of art influencing fashion can be found in the 1980s, when psychedelic prints came into fashion. The era of rock and alternative ushered in youngsters exploring their rebellious sides, and wearing abstract prints with bright prints.
FASHION AND CULTURE
Fashion has always had a deep relationship with culture. From the tribes of Africa to the urban jungles of New York and Los Angeles, clothing has been used widely and repeatedly as one of the numerous ways to express one’s heritage, culture, and upbringing. For some countries, their fashion and apparels are one of the mediums through which people recognize their culture and heritage.
There is, firstly, the obvious relationship we draw upon when we hear the names of certain apparels and fabrics. The Sari belongs to India; the Burkha is worn traditionally by Muslim women all over the world; Kimonos are indigenous to Japan; Kilts belong to Scotland, and so on. Thus, clothing has always been one of the major identifiers of cultures all over the world.
Additionally, fashion resonates with the cultural values of a place, community, or religion. The traditions of the same manifest themselves through the attire that its followers don. A very popular example of this would be the tradition of ‘something old, something blue, something borrowed’, particularly in Catholic weddings all over the world. Another instance may relate to how people interpret colors and their meanings with respect to fashion. Where white is considered holy and convention for weddings all over the world, in some countries, such as India and Pakistan, it is the color of death, and is often worn at funerals. The color for the latter, particularly in America and England, is black. Furthermore, the color most accepted as the color of weddings in India and Pakistan is red, which is the symbol of passion and love, but also of danger.
Accessories used to complement the attire may also reflect the culture of a person. The married Indian woman dons numerous items of jewelry to denote her commitment. The ancient queens of India accompanied the sari with a mangalsutra, which is traditionally a black and gold locket meant to join the man and woman in holy matrimony. Unlike in the Americas, Britain, and many Christian countries, the mangalsutra is the primary symbol of marriage in the Hindu culture, with the ring being demoted to just an accessory. Apart from the mangalsutra and the engagement ring, the Hindu woman wears vermillion on her forehead, bangles on her wrists, and toe rings. Some, particularly in the western and south-western parts of the country, may also wear a nath (or a nose ring).
In almost all cultures, fashion has been the commonly used agent to modify the standards of beauty, although most practices have been discontinued the passage of time, as they were painful and, in other cases, inhumane. The women of the Kayan tribe in Africa, for instance, wore rings around their neck since childhood, as women with longer necks were not only considered beautiful but also the harbingers of prosperity and good luck for their husbands. In China, the same was denoted by small feet, which was why many women were made to wear small iron shoes all their lives in order to control their growing feet. The result would be a horrifying convolution of toes when the shoes were taken off. If one goes back by thousands of years, one will find such practices existing among our ancestors as well. Among the Aztecs, a slender and elongated neck was considered the symbol of influence, prosperity and a higher quality of life. Thus, they crushed the heads of newborn babies between two slabs of rocks in order to elongate them.
However, in the recent years, the relationship has evolved steadily and globally, most of which can be attributed to the rise of technology. The Industrial Revolution brought with it labor and employment for all, and as it spread, it modified people’s fashion choices according to pragmatism. For instance, as the numbers of women working in factories increased, an exponential portion of the female population realized that it was more comfortable to work in light skirts and jeans than gowns. Thus began the trend of women wearing pants and jeans to work.
The globalization of industries brought with it further changes to the fashion forefront. As companies and industries expanded, countries opened their borders to foreign trade, and an increase in import and export followed. With physical boundaries blurring in the face of the economic rise and industrial development, cultures started merging to enjoy the fruits of a united front. That, coupled with the rise of the internet and television, provided fashion a global platform as clothing brands set up stores off shore as well.
One of the primary reasons why this expansion became successful was because the change happened at a time when the world was evolving and recovering from the sorrows of war and political upheaval. The end of oppression, confusion, and bloodshed ushered in a younger, pro-active generation, which was open to experimenting. Thus, the change in fashion moved hand in hand with the economic boom and the younger generation that became a catalyst for it. Furthermore, this opened up numerous avenues and opportunities for new talent and experiment. The younger generation was more educated, increasingly visionary, and positively global. This triggered the merging of eastern and western culture.
Today, with the exception of middle eastern and some Muslim countries, fashion is one of the biggest markets in the world. The American population has diversified, and with it has brought new ideas for design. The Sari has become a popular apparel in America—an example can be derived from the popular TV show, ‘New Girl’, in which Cece Parekh, one of the principal characters, is Indian. There have been numerous Indian references on the show, and two of its protagonists, portrayed by Max Greenfield and Zooey Deschanel, have donned Indian apparels as well.
Similarly, cultures in the continents of Asia and Africa have diversified as well. One of the testaments to this fact is the universal popularity of jeans, which is a popular choice of clothing among youngsters.
FASHION AND IDENTITY
In 1992, the paper titled Dress and Identity defined two purposes that dress, also known as fashion, fulfills: one, the modification of body processes, and two, as a medium of communication (Roach-Higgins and Eicher 1-8). In the article, The Social Psychology of Dress, the effect of the dress has been described as something that affects how the body perceives surroundings and behaviors. Additionally, it has also been attributed a universal presence, as there exists no community, religion, or country in the world that does not ‘engage in dress’ (Johnson and Lennon, par. 1).
For years, fashion has been related to identity, as people have attached fabrics and apparels with subliminal psychological meanings. This, primarily, is how fashion serves as a medium of communication. As time has progressed, the meanings have changed in the context of time, place, happenings and any other factors.
Not only has fashion been interpreted in terms of gender identification, but many other sub-categories have been created to provide identities to both women and men. The fundamental difference in apparels for men and women has been based on the body parts that one wants to highlight. Men’s clothes concentrate on bringing to notice their upper body strength and shoulders, whereas women’s clothes underscore their breasts, waist, and legs, thus signifying their femininity. A century ago, light, pastel colors and floral, curvy prints were considered characteristic of women’s fashion. Men’s fashion, on the other hand, consisted of dark colors and sleek, straight, dominating lines. Even before that, men’s attire were often an extension of their status and power, and highly bejeweled. Women, however, still wore feminine curves and complementing colors.
Men and women had been cast into their respective cultural and social roles even before the concept of gender came into existence. Any kind of deviation from the accepted images challenged the ‘prevailing models of masculinity and femininity’. An example can be found in the elaborate clothing worn by the men in the Italian Renaissance, which strayed away from psychologists’ image of masculinity, which was ‘practical and instrumental’. Similarly, women’s clothing was supposed to be ‘emotional and expressive’ (Paoletti, par. 9)
Over the years, however, the line has blurred. Numerous circumstantial factors have been added to both men and women’s fashion, especially when it comes to identity. Now, when the image of a woman working is an acceptable one, dark, bold, and powerful colors have made their way into women’s wardrobes. Pantsuits, earlier considered androgynous, are a staple diet for corporate fashion. Similarly, men’s fashion has expanded and accepted the inclusion of lighter, traditionally feminine colors, such as pink and yellow.
The situation has, however, yet to change perceptions on a subconscious level, which is one of the reasons why women and men are still discriminated between at the work place. Fashion, in such cases, serves as a medium for women to extend their power and authority. Thus, dark clothes, sleek lines, and minimal makeup are all considered hallmarks of the working, assertive woman.
Continuing this though, and on a more complex level, fashion is used to categorize people. This may be according to their work, sexual orientation, preferences, or other categories. What is noteworthy is that this particular form of identification or interpretation works two ways: one, what people want others to perceive; second, what people actually perceive.
This difference in perception is actually the trigger for many societal stereotypes. For example, ‘nerds’ are often denoted by huge-rimmed, unflattering glasses, loose T-shirts and jeans, and ill-fitting clothes. An attractive woman will be denoted by form fitting clothes, and high heels. One example may be derived from the American comedy show ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Penny, one of the show’s female protagonists, earlier aspired to be an actress: she is portrayed with blonde, wavy, bouncy hair, and donning shorts, jeans, and form-flattering clothing. Amy, her unlikely best friend—a neuroscientist, and a ‘nerd’ accustomed to social ostracization—is, however, shown as wearing full cardigans of dark, dull colors; mid length skirts, and tights. She also has straight, flat hair and rimmed glasses.
Over the years, this categorization has changed, especially in context with women. The identity of the ‘perfect woman’ has altered with each new decade. She has been molded and remolded into different casts.
Till 1910, The Gibson Girl was the woman every female wanted to be. Wrapped in tight corsets, she had a looping 8 figure, an elongated neck, and curly hair. According to the creator Charles Gibson, he saw the Gibson Girl in everyday life. She was the epitome of the contemporary woman, engaged in activities that became her. She frequented theaters, churches, plays and even worked at the counters of local stores (Bahadur, par. 8).
The homely, statuesque Gibson Girl was followed by the Flapper, signified by a straight figure, and showing ankles. She did not put her assets on display and was concerned more with smoking and partying than the war plaguing the nations. The Flapper was followed by the Soft Siren in the 1930s. This was the era that followed the Stock Market crash, and fashion became more muted, with more emphasis on natural waists and busts, for which the Soft Siren was famous for.
Then came the Second World War, and with it the Star Spangled girl. As the war brought to the fore the need for courage and determination, an increasing number of women turned to serving their country through nursing and backstage war planning. The fashion in the era emphasized the womanly strength, with military shoulders taking the most attention. The attires become taller, sharper, and ‘more commanding’, to underscore women’s increasing participation in the war (Hart, par. 6).
The Hourglass figure of Marilyn Monroe followed the Star Spangled girl. For the next decade (1950s), women hankered after voluptousness—large breasts and hips connected by a thin waist. The fashion of this era greatly included dresses that emphazied the woman body, giving the sex a more feminine, desirable, and for the first time, sexy quality. Another radical change followed this era, when the Twig came into fashion in the 1960s. The hourglass figures of the likes of Monroe were shunned, and women rushed to appear slender again. The emphasis was once again taken away from proportions and concentrated on flat stomachs and less demanding, constricting clothing.
The 1970s was when the dieting era started picking up momentum. Toned bodies with a flat stomach and small hips became the norm, and women became hard pressed to flaunt their natural curves maintained with a steady diet. The 80s further fanned the flames, and height became the prerequisite for a woman to look sexy. This was the era of fitness, and women strived to live up to its expectations. In the eighties, women with athletic bodies were considered the epitome of attractive. The thinner and more toned a woman was, the better (Bahadur, par. 22).
The fitness craze took a backseat in the nineties and with Kate Moss, made way for the Waif, which meant an extremely thin body and limbs, a far cry from the fitness conscious woman of the eighties. The trend continued well into the 2000’s, with brands like Victoria’s Secret further popularizing the slender body, toned arms and large breasts (Bahadur, pars. 27)
FASHION AND TECHNOLOGY
For a long time, fashion was defined as what the elite wore. The latest fashion was what the kings and queens wore, with the lords and ladies of the court striving to emulate them. Out on the streets, for people who could not afford to wear elaborate costumes, local tailors stitched replicas with available fabrics.
It was only in the eighteenth century when fashion caught fire, in what Neil McKendrick described as the ‘fashion revolution’. Consumers in the eighteenth century became increasingly fashion conscious, and entrepreneurs and retailers saw in the onslaught an opportunity to exploit (McKendrick 41).
The consumer of the eighteenth century has been described as passive and bending to every whim and fancy of the designer. In this context, the picture of the retailer was that of a ‘materialistic’ agent, who misled the innocent customer into buying ‘commodities and fashions’ without a second thought (Lemire 34). It was Colin Campbell, however, who insisted that there had to have been radical changes in the desires, preferences and thought processes among the people, which in turn became the reason why designers and dress retailers became so successful (Campbell 67).
Colin’s explanation explains better the phenomena that immediately followed fashion front. Instead of choosing higher quality fabrics that lasted longer, people began switching to new and less durable attires, keeping in rhythm with the changing pace of the time (Lemire 34).
With the advent of technology such as the printing press, fashion was further commercialized. Now, people had a chance to keep up with the trends, without having to watch out for an elite in the crowd. Even then, it was only the upper echelons who had access to papers, as most of the lower class was illiterate.
By the time the 1900s rolled around, technological advancements had crossed distances in leaps. Photography became one of the principal mediums of promoting fashion and did cinema and the papers. The First and Second World Wars played a significant role in developing methods of communication, which fashion capitalized on.
The advent of the TV just after the Second World War made helped circulate trends to most households. It was also during this time that the celebrity culture picked up the pace. Once again, the population strived to emulate the celebrities and figures they saw on television. In fact, the television had such an impact on the population’s psyche that tastes and preferences changed as fast as the dresses. The television, too, capitalized on the gains: cinema and TV shows exploded on the front.
The arrival of the internet in every home in the recent years has changed the face of fashion radically. Today, there is no such thing as a delay. The internet has not only become the agent of promotion, but also the agent of the business. Online shopping has not only helped consumers fulfill their desires and needs, but has also helped businesses expand internationally. In addition, it has made fashion approachable to almost all classes of life. Today, the behavior and liking of the consumer matter as much as the designs being presented to them. The success of the brand depends on how easily it is able to embody the feelings, desires and needs of the consumers, as well as how convenient it is to buy the brand from outlets or online.
In her book, Fashion and Social Agendas: Class, Gender and Identity in Clothing, Diana Crane says that non technological ‘artifacts’ have governed and acted as catalysts for human behavior since times old, but often lose their influence in the face of technological advancement (Crane 2). Fashion is one such factor.
Not only has it been inspired by art, but has defined culture and identity for years. It has influenced people on a psychological level. It can define social roles and identities, both direct and latent (Crane 2). Seldom is a factor as dynamic as fashion that changes with each year, decade, and century. It changes with time and necessity, influenced by many other ephemeral, secondary factors. However, while they pass on, fashion, being so closely related to the lives of humans from early on, latches itself to social norms. Like technology, fashion has mutated to survive and thrive and has become an integral part of the society.
In recent years, its relationship with the society has become more multi-faceted than ever before. As fashion has evolved, it has slowly taken on the form of a complex phenomenon, with constraints of acceptance and societal judgment attached to it. What was once a fairly simple process related to status, culture and identity now also involves the definitions of the contemporary standards of beauty, and the criteria to fulfill them. That, coupled with disappearing borders due to globalization, has sparked the debate about whether fashion and its ubiquitous involvement in our lives are actually healthy.
There have not been nearly enough studies to explain the topic. The problem lies in the fact that fashion is not given enough importance as a scholarly subject. Whatever academic privilege it receives has to be shared with history, production and textile management. The innate problem is this: these might be components of fashion, but neither explains the phenomenon in and of itself.
There have been numerous studies gauging the impact and reaction of people for fashion, but few have managed to capture the evolution of fashion as a process on the whole. What needs to be done now is to concentrate on the subject as a process, and as a defining factor in society. Only then will new avenues be discovered and studied.
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