Communicative Implications of Fashion

More institutionalized than fads Opens in new window, fashion has traditionally been considered a form of collective behavior because it constantly introduces something novel into the society. People wear clothing for protection and concealment of their bodies, but they also wear fashionable clothing to feel a part of a group and to differentiate themselves from others (Simmel 1904; Veblen 1953/1899).

Particular kinds of clothing and adornment can give people a feeling of acceptance. Nuns may wear habits to indicate their commitment to a vow of celibacy Opens in new window and service, but the wearing of the habit is also a symbol recognized by others that they belong to a group.

Likewise, young men and women may wear sports clothing or particular brand items (such as Tommy Hilfiger clothing or Nikes) to signify their belonging to a given group and social class, or they may wear clothing in a certain way, such as loose jeans barely hanging on one’s hips or wearing caps backward. Hairstyle, clothing, jewelry, and other adornments all symbolize an identity people wish to convey to others.

Along with providing a sense of group identity, fashion is important in differentiating groups. Around the turn of the twentieth century in the United States, when industrialization and technological progress were creating a new class of wealthy people, people used personal adornment and dress as a way to make other people aware of their wealth.

Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen referred to this purchasing and displaying of goods to symbolize wealth and status as conspicuous consumption. A fully equipped, dark-colored sports utility vehicle, such as the Cadillac Escalade, is an example of conspicuous consumption.

Fashions often emerge when the fads of marginalized subcultures are adopted by the fashion industry and then recycled to elite groups. Hip-hop fashion first emerged as a style among inner-city, low-income Black youth and was captured by the fashion industry, which then marked wide, baggy jeans, caps, and oversized shorts to elite and middle-class markets.

A cycle of fashion develops when the style of low-status groups trickles up to high-status groups. The style then becomes a status symbol and is sold widely to the middle class. Marginalized subcultures then may develop new styles that, if appropriated by high-status groups, create another cycle of fashion. The recent women’s fashion of tight, cropped shirts, animal skin prints, low-cut jeans, and high-heeled boots is a case in point.

Because fashion differentiates groups, it is also a mean of marking inequality between groups. Designer fashion labels, often displayed on the outer part of clothing, communicate material status. Within bureaucratic organizations, the status of different groups is also marked by apparel. Thus, workers may wear uniforms, but management wears suits.