My father, a physicist, once proudly told me that he doesn’t care about fashion. “I don’t think about these unimportant things,” he said. “My focus is on my work.” On most days he wears t-shirts or button downs with neutral tone pants, and he might add a jacket for special occasions. While not the most unusual, he still has a distinct sense of style and it has evolved over the years. I asked him why he didn’t wear the same thing all the time, or just throw on a potato sack and call it a day. He said, “Oh, because I like my clothes. I think they look nice.” Several others like him see fashion as a waste of time, but are involved in the fashion process nonetheless. No matter how far we may try to stay from fashion, due to the nature of the world we live in most of us are forced to make choices regarding clothing everyday. It is simply these choices that make us active participants in the fashion process, knowingly or not.
Many choose to follow trends in order to fit in and feel a sense of belonging. While some may go out of their way to dress in un-trendy ways, and distance themselves from those they see as ‘imitators’, philosopher Georg Simmel saw these people as engaging in an inverse form of imitation, ultimately becoming part of a group of others like them. Then there are people like my dad, who don’t see themselves as part of the fashion world at all. Unfortunately for him, as a modern consumer he is just as affected by fashion trends as anyone else. Since all clothes retailers are influenced by the fashion world, when he buys their clothes he is adopting their interpretation of any given trend.
As a multibillion dollar industry, fashion phenomena have attracted attention from sociologists, philosophers and market scientists. However, there is still no formalized theory of fashion, both due to a lack of research as well as the sheer volume of data and variables. After all, everyone wears clothes. Runway shows put on by designers provide an excellent jumping off point for learning about fashion, as the themes espoused by top brands both reflect and inform the choices of the larger fashion industry.
September and February are usually the months where brands and fashion houses host fashion shows portraying their spring/summer and autumn/winter collections respectively, for the upcoming seasons. These shows take place in various “fashion weeks” around the world (one week per city), with London, Milan, Paris, and New York attracting the most attention. However, like everything else since last March, the Autumn/Winter 2021 shows were different this time. Most designers showcased their collections virtually, while some chose not to show at all.
While discussing their Menswear Autumn/Winter 21 collection, Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons of Prada insisted that they wanted the collection to feel like an emotional response to everything the world has been through in the past year. Each look was built off the foundation of a bodysuit, to represent the body and symbolize vulnerability and a need for intimacy. Fashion has often been seen as a response to the events shaping society and the world outside. This ‘response’ attitude was evident in many of the fall/winter collections shown in February as well as the spring/summer shows from last September, when the mood was perhaps even more subdued. On the other hand the Prada womenswear collection that came out a month after the menswear show struck a more optimistic note, perhaps reflecting a turning point in the pandemic with the launch of vaccines and the tangible hope in the air.
Prada and Simons’ descriptions of their collections would fit into the external or exogenous model of the fashion process presented by sociologists, which says that changes in clothing simply reflect changes in the cultural values of society at large. While designers might well be inspired by the world around them as well as their lived experience, this model falls short when discussing the adoption of certain trends by different social groups. Cultural changes might affect the popularity of certain trends, but they cannot explain the different times at which trends are adopted by different groups, thus failing to predict future trends. Internal models can address these questions while looking at the fashion process as a self-contained phenomenon, influenced more by internal changes than external, cultural events. Simmel suggests that changes in clothing styles are the result of a ‘trickle down effect’, with trends being steadily adopted by successive social classes, starting with the upper class.
According to William Reynolds, a marketing professor from Chicago, trends may be either horizontal or vertical. A horizontal trend is one which spreads far, but does not change much during this time, while vertical trends remain restricted to a small group but change rapidly. Most fashion trends embody both these attributes to some degree. For example, low rise jeans in the 2000s became more popular as the waists got lower. When fashion trends die out or reach a turning point, it could be due to functional or cultural barriers to further movement in the same direction. In the late nineteenth century, hoop-skirts or crinolines were extremely popular and were made wider and wider until movement became virtually impossible. They then gave way to the smaller crinolette or bustle.
Within a small time period trends also often show a strong resurgence, exemplified by the wild popularity of nineties trends in the past few years. Rachel Green from the nineties show Friends was a cultural icon then and still is to this day, with her style recently becoming the focus of dozens of fashion articles and blogs. Trends may exhibit this cyclical nature due to the same technological and cultural barriers, becoming more and more extreme in one direction, ultimately reaching a peak and moving to the other extreme. For example, the long ‘tunic’ tops that were popular in the late 2000s and the short crop tops that they were replaced by soon after.
In an eighteenth century essay on fashion, philosopher Christian Garve cited the innate human desire for change as one of the reasons for changing fashion trends. In all aspects of life, humans seek novelty and variation, sometimes even if it worsens their position. Whether fashion trends come from influential designers or cultural revolutions, or trickle down from the rich, they feed our desire for change and our craving for aesthetic beauty. Fashion remains an important way for human beings to define and express their identity, and to relate to those around them.
Rujuta Singh is a student of political science, international relations and media studies at Ashoka University. Some of her other interests are fashion, music and writing.
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