Fashion and Cultural Studies

Cultural studies of fashion have been, for the most part, less concerned with formulating broad theories of fashion than with observing its social uses in relation to broader issues of social power. Two early influences on this work were the semiotics of Roland Barthes and the youth-subculture studies of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (Barthes 1972, Hall & Jefferson 1976, Hebdidge 1979). Malcolm Barnard also sees the work of Raymond Williams as a powerful factor in cultural studies of fashion, because Williams’ view of cultural production saw “both the designing and wearing of fashions and clothing as versions of forms of creativity. . . As such, fashion and clothing are productive of the world in which we live” (Barnard 1996: 44; Williams 1958 and 1961). This view broke away from the dismissal of fashion as either trivial or simply reflective of the status quo, and drew attention to the ways in which subcultural groups use clothing to articulate identities and values.

Cultural studies of fashion thus tend to focus on the vernacular use of clothing and body ornamentation to represent a constellation of values and social practices rather than looking for general rules of fashion change and meaning. This has been called a “populist” approach by Fred Davis, who makes a counterargument for the continuing validity of a “center-to-periphery fashion system model” of innovation and diffusion. He complains that “populist critics are given to detect a veritable babble of dress ‘discourses’ in the postmodern society. . . [which are] engaged in symbolic identity construction exchanges of one kind and another” (Davis 1992: 202-3). He argues that, regardless of the proliferation of popular style cultures, the industry and its design dictates remain the primary engine of fashion adoption.

But a reception-oriented reading of fashion does not imply that large-scale production has no impact on popular clothing. It suggests that the significance attached to that clothing is contextual and has as much to do with its circulation in local style cultures as with its commercial production and marketing. It does not assume, in other words, that the widespread popularity of a particular style means that it carries a uniform set of meanings. Davis’s argument that today’s international fashion conglomerates represent the continued presence of a unidirectional design elite also overlooks the fact that many contemporary fashion conglomerates are profitable primarily due to licensed products like jeans and perfume rather than innovative design. As a retail industry economist notes, “the focus has shifted away from designing, [but] . . . if you have enough money and are good at marketing, you can create a strong brand” (Agins 1995: Al). It can be argued that fashion conglomerates increasingly capitalize on and repackage the stylistic innovations of “peripheral” social groups.

Angela Partington has taken up this issue in relation to the popularity of Dior’s postwar New Look among working-class British women. Referring to a 1951 snapshot of a woman in a modified New Look gown, Partington notes that in terms of a “trickle-down’’ model, this dress would be considered a “watered down” version of the Dior design. This model implies two things, according to Partington: that non-elite fashion consumers are “less innovatory or adventurous in their preferences,” and that class difference is, to some extent, masked by working-class emulation of the fashions associated with higher social status. She argues, however, that “the mass-market systems on which consumer culture depends provide specific conditions. . . under which class differences are rearticulated, rather than eroded or disguised,” and that “the popular version of the New Look in the photograph is a deliberately different appropriation of it, not a poor copy” (Partington 1993: 145-6). Partington argues that,

In a mass-market system, adoption of new styles is a process which depends on the flow of information within social strata rather than between them. . . there is no “emulation” of privileged groups by subordinate groups in such a system. Difference exists in the ways in which fashions are adopted, rather than in any time lag. (Partington 1993: 150-1)

As with the “Dior” dress she analyzes, even widely-diffused styles can be differently inflected within particular style cultures; in the post-war Britain she describes, the conflicting modes of femininity attached to the New Look (considered decorative and extravagant) versus the “Utility” dress (which signified restraint and practicality) were often “sampled and mixed together by the consumer to create fashions which depended on class-specific consumer skills for their meaning” (Partington 1993: 157).

This negotiation of fashion trends according to specific cultural values is also demonstrated in ethnographic research such as Maxine Craig’s work on AfricanAmerican men and women’s complex relationship to hair straightening. For years many women saw “the process” of hair straightening as a requirement for respectability, while men’s lye-straightened “conk” was associated with street style, hoodlums, and musicians. Rather than simply representing “identification with a white hair aesthetic,” straight hair signified a variety of meanings related to class and gender. Craig concludes that African-Americans “created meanings that defined hair straightening in terms of status within their own communities rather than in terms of racial identification” (Craig 1997: 402-3). Similarly, Elizabeth Wilson has pointed out that such style cultures can easily turn against dominant culture, as in the case of “black hairstyles for both sexes which cannot successfully be imitated by whites.” Like Partington, Wilson concludes that there is far more to fashion than the imitation of dominant culture, since style frequently serves to “reinforce class barriers and other forms of difference” (Wilson 1987: 9).

Miller, Toby. A Companion To Cultural Studies. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001. Print.

Barthes, Roland. The Fashion System. Trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge, 1993
Craig, Steve, ed. Men, Masculinity, and the Media. Newbury Park: Sage, 1992.
Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture, and Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Lurie, Alison. The Language of Clothes. New York: Random House, 1981.
Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. London: Virago, 1985.


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