Fashion: Theory and Praxis

Fashion is the construction of an object-sign-image designed to provoke the desire of consumption and conformity. Fashion is about appearance. Fashion is pretence. Fashion is experimentation. Fashion is creative. Fashion is the commodification of a world-view. Fashion is an industry. Fashion is a verb.


The clothes wear the body. The shoes walk the feet. The accessories make the person. And always, surely as the seasons, these keep changing. Fashion marks the passing of time with objects.

In his 1931 entry on ‘Fashion’ in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, Edward Sapir, the anthropologist and linguist, perceptively distinguishes fashion from, and relates it to, taste, fads, and custom, by drawing attention to the way in which taste is ultimately individual; fads are obsessively asserted for usually short durations in spite of fashion and belong to particular groups; and custom is relatively permanent types of social behaviour which make departure from it possible in the guise of fashion. In order to understand fashion, one needs to attend to the specific cultural and psychological context which gives it meaning.

Fashion has typically been about class, in more senses than one. The fact that someone is recognised as being fashionable lends a glamour or ‘class’ to that persona. But, the deeper roots of that ‘class’ lie in how fashion, over time, served a useful function in creating, and more importantly, maintaining hierarchies. Fashion, in clothes especially, required not just creativity, but wealth. And so it functioned as a signalling mechanism for class identity. What was worn by the elite – especially in the European societies up until the 19th century – and how, it became an important marker of their class status in society. The fact that some of these hierarchies came to be eroded by the onset of capitalism and industrialisation, made it even more important that wealth and belonging (or the aspiration to belong) to a social class could be shown by means of displaying the ability to afford the changing fashions of the day. Thus, fashion has historically had an important function in being a signalling mechanism to indicate status. Fashion creates recognition, and confers respectability upon its consumers, and this requires an elaborate network of credulity and conformity.

The economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen, In his 1894 article on ‘The Economic Theory of Woman’s Dress’, insightfully argued that the most obvious and immediate index of the pecuniary strength of a household is the ability to spend and consume unproductively. The more easily that a household can demonstrate its conspicuously unproductive consumption of valuable goods, the greater its correlation with reputability. Women, who have historically been seen as pecuniary possessions themselves, have the function of being the exponents of such wasteful expenditure which makes manifest the unit’s ability to pay. According to Veblen, the three cardinal principles of a woman’s dress were: its expensiveness, its novelty, and its ineptitude. Thus, the dress was required to be uneconomical as clothing, to be worn for a short duration of time, and must be restraining to incapacitate any useful effort of work. Veblen argued that the amount of time and effort which needed to be devoted to acquiring the knowledge and accomplishment of fashion served no productive purpose other than to display the ability to afford such waste. This was especially tragic in the case of women who could not afford the idleness or the expenditure needed for fashion but for reasons of respectability needed to preserve the fiction that they could do so, by keeping up outward appearances of fashion. He pointed to the one great mutilation practised by Occidental womankind – the constriction of the waist (something that fashionable dresses enforced upon women) which should appear to hamper, incommode, or injure the wearer, thus displaying her pecuniary ability to withstand idleness and physical incapacity.

His was a scathing critique of fashion, but also an early feminist indictment of the way in which fashion forced women to modify their bodies and their lives. Women’s dresses may have become less cumbrous, but, in a way, these concerns remain relevant today as women are forced by their social and psychological contexts to validate their image as fashionable by being thin, wearing certain kinds of uncomfortable garments or shoes. In fact, the pleasures and torments of fashion are now much more entrenched compared to the late 19th century. In an interview relating to the recent movie set in the fashion industry (The Devil Wears Prada, 2006), the actor Anne Hathaway stated how she and another female co-star had to get very thin in preparing for their movie roles; to the extent that they would be hugging each other and crying for hunger. Indeed, “don’t smile, don’t point, and don’t eat” was how Lauren Laverne, a journalist, memorably summarised in The Guardian what she learnt at London Fashion Week in 2012.

In today’s mediatised society, from a very early age, children, especially girls, imbibe the significance of dress, hair, and make-up as inalienable aspects of their femininity. The Barbie-doll clutching little girls playing at being little women transition into the ‘tweens’ (the industry term for pre-teen consumers), and then into fashion conscious teenagers before morphing into fashionable adults. Celebrity-led choice of apparel and accessories and the merry-go round of ‘beauty pageants’ plays a significant role in moulding the children into craving capitalist consumers of the future. Need I tell you of what is termed the ‘Suri-effect’? Suri Cruise (daughter of Hollywood actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes) was photographed wearing silver heels at the age of three. The fashion craze this sparked was good for the 4 billion $ industry of high heel shoes for young girls, and metallic high heel shoes for girls aged 4-8 and 8-12 with one and three quarter inch heels that became legend. This idea of dressing little people to be as fashionable as their parents (and more precisely, moms) led the designer Burberry to launch a ‘Mini-Me’ collection exactly like that for adults. In 2011, the French firm Jours Après Lunes created a line of ‘loungerie’ for girls aged 4-12 years. The advertising industry uses plenty of images of very young girls wearing bikinis with piled-up hair, large beads and sunglasses. The Vogue magazine (the famous fashion magazine that also carried the Vogue Enfants supplement) in December 2010 showcased a photoshoot featuring child models, especially the 10 year old Thylane Loubry Blondeau who pouted and suggestively posed on tiger skin wearing stilettos with heavy makeup and clothes with cleavage cut to her waist. Such use of child models in the fashion circles provokes an outrage understandable to many. This Lolita image of young girls as ‘sexual candy’ is what has now prompted the French legislature to take seriously the banning of ‘beauty pageants’ for girls, in order to prevent their hyper-sexualisation. In many other countries, including in the UK, there are debates fuelled by parents’ despair at seeing fashion retailers selling risqué lingerie to young girls. But then, for women, even the  blackberry phones and the computers come in pink. Pink and Glitter. Glitter and Pink. Surgery before summer. That perfect female body. Because fashion says so.

Driven by technology and metaphysics, fashion will continue to invent forms of consciousness that make the human body and its experience of time open to rediscovery. In London, the Spanish designer Manel Torres has developed a technique which makes it possible to spray the body with your own individually designed clothes out of cans; these can be worn and then taken off as usual clothes.

But, don’t we know – from Judith Butler, that gender is a performance, from Simone De Beauvoir, that one is not born, but becomes a woman.

Strolling down Takeshita Street in Harajuku, Tokyo or Champs Elyseé in Paris, or Oxford Street in London, or any fashionable street in any city that is ‘known’ for fashion, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the world is brimming with a certain ideal of beauty and perfection; and this tiny miniscule section of fashionable society has hordes of aspirants everywhere, who slave to earn to spend to dress with a splash of the hyper-sexual and a bit of the surreal on the side.

This begs the question, why do so many imitate so few? The German philosopher Georg Simmel, writing on Fashion in the 1957 issue of The American Journal of Sociology answered this at the level that imitation is significant because it gives an individual aspects of a group identity; it transfers the demand for creative activity as well as the responsibility for action. “Fashion,” he thought, “is the imitation of a given example, and satisfies the demand for social adaptation.” As a product of class distinction, it is bound to be exclusionary; a small group sets the fashion, the great majority always should be on the road to adopting it. But it also has power to make people adopt atrocious things for its sake alone. And changing fashions say something about the times they belong to: the more nervous an age, the more rapidly its fashions change. Fashion, thus negotiates the balance between aspects important to the individual and those important to society as a whole – it renders possible a social obedience which is at the same time a form of individual differentiation. Like Veblen, he noted how women were the focus of fashion, and felt that fashion gave the woman a compensation for her lack of position in a class based on a calling or a profession.

While we may decry this widespread social phenomenon, we cannot deny that for women in particular, and whether they wish it or not, fashion continues to have a specific significance in securing identity and respectability. Do you remember reading the American epic Gone with the Wind? The headstrong central character, Scarlett O’Hara, is down and out. She must rebuild her life. She is determined to persevere. She needs money. And to get that help, she needs guess what – a dress! She has no money for a dress. So, she gets a dress made from the green velvet curtains at Tara (the plantation, her home). This dress forms a part of the resuscitation and resurgence of her identity. The American writer and President of PEN American Centre, Francine Prose, in a recent issue of Prospect magazine, writes this about wearing designer clothes which were a present from a fashion industry friend, “When I wore them, I not only felt different (I’ll mention Cinderella just this one more time) but I also couldn’t help noticing that people treated me differently—with a new attention and respect”. Upon mentioning this to her friend, she received the response: “Ah. Now you finally understand why people bankrupt themselves to buy clothes”.

But do people who bankrupt themselves to buy clothes really understand their own behaviour? The über-semiotician Roland Barthes spent a decade of his life trying to decode fashion as a textual system of meaning. His 1967 book The Fashion System (translated into English from French much later than his other work) is a detailed and complex exploration of how fashion functions as an autonomous system with its own internal logic. Studying the translation of signs in the images and texts of fashion magazines (the ‘image-clothing’, the ‘real-clothing’ and the ‘written garment’), he attempted to uncover how the abstract notion of Fashion is produced through language. Again, in recent decades, as material culture becomes a focus of postmodern analysis, fashion has spawned a trend of theory, as exemplified by academic journals including Fashion Theory: Journal of Dress, Body, and Culture and Vestoj.

Notwithstanding the ponderous Barthesian studies of the deeper bourgeois codes inscribed in the culture and aesthetics of fashion imagery, the general understanding of fashion concentrates on its ludic aspect – fashion is playful, impractical, an escape. It is an invitation to a fantasy world where you can be anyone you wish. Or so the story goes. In reality, fashion is a playful, and often impractical, ingratiation of the ego and the outer self, but only for those with leisure time and wealth to spare. And its imitation by those who consume fashion fakes, is simultaneously, both a boost to the ‘real’ status of the mythical true fashion, and poses a threat of dilution of its embodied exclusivity were it to become universally accessible.

The allure of fashion is such that those who cannot afford the real deal, can still derive comfort from the enormous market for fake goods. In every large city, there is the corner where you can find cheap and fake Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and Gucci merchandise sold by itinerant sellers on pavements. The people buying these goods buy them because this is as close to the blessed anointness of fashion that they can get. They consume fakes in the farcical theatre of fashion. And this creation of ‘wannabe-ness’ is the central driver of fashion.

For those in its thrall, fashion relates to anxiety, and so to identity. It is not surprising that fashion tends often to figure with another word ‘Life-style’; this ‘styling’ of a life is fraught with ‘I’ (of the self) and ‘eye’ (of the other) co-ordinating decisions made in the capitalist choice and constraint curated realities of our lives. Fashion isn’t something external to such human experience, it has filtered right down to the perception of who we think we are as displayed through what we wear – such as when we people make a Fashion Statement. Or when it becomes normal in language to refer to people’s identities through what they wear – the men as ‘the suits’ (referring to well-off office workers of a certain kind) or women as ‘the dress’. The UK Labour leader Ed Miliband’s wife Justine Miliband recently asked in public to be seen as “more than just a dress”. The Liberal-Democrat Deputy Prime Minister’s wife Miriam Gonzalez Durantez responded “you can dress however you wish, because if you do not behave like a dress, nobody will think you are a dress.” Ostensibly, this was a defence of fashion against the charges of being silly. But, the slippery meanings of the signifier ‘dress’ in such debates draw attention both to the way in which women in public life are deemed suitable commentators on style (remember how Michelle Obama was hailed as a style icon for her dresses), and also how men and women perceive what women wear as salient for other aspects of their identity.

The poet Frank O’Hara once said “‘New’ is an old word. Let’s get a new one.” The mutability of fashion is an important part of its playfulness, its creativity, its ever-changing nature. Fashion industry today is inextricably tied up with capitalist consumption patterns that require an insatiable and ever-renewing appetite for appropriating, adapting and consuming newer objects. However, the origins of fashion can be dated back rather precisely to pre-capitalist Europe in the 14th century. Travellers to traditional non-European societies often remarked about the absence of fashion in such places. Doubtless, there were hierarchies, but these were not fluid, neither were they dynamically displayed by changing fashions. It has only been the case in the last century or two that fashion has made inroads everywhere. Moreover, the technological advances and upheavals of the 20th century have led to an era that can be called, for want of a better word, globalising. And, the advent of mass entertainment has now meant that it is considerably easier to sell. The culture of celebrity worship and the idolising of pop culture icons create a special class of people with a role as ‘brand ambassadors’. And perhaps, this phrase is apt. Because, today the power and reach of countries is rivaled by that of companies, and why shouldn’t these new global entities have their own ambassadors to peddle their economic diplomacy in the competitive marketplace?

Yes, the marketplace. For fashion is among the founding myths of capitalism (or as Werner Sombart put it: “Fashion is capitalism’s favourite child”). It embodies desire, renewal, change, creativity and price discrimination. Equally, fashion is about commodification and profitability. The demographic and socioeconomic changes of the last centuries have globally widened the circles of consumers possessing a willingness and an ability to pay. Parallel to the haute couture of the elite classes, there is mass fashion which refines the art of trickling down aspirational and affordable fashion to the majority, and anti-fashion fashion which incorporates critical responses to fashion as part of mainstream fashion and street fashion which seeks to commodify what comes from the ground up. These streams of artful/artistic commerce do intersect, but in carefully calibrated arenas where the original fashion is re-enacted for a different audience on viable business terms. Take the Vogue Autumn/Winter 2013-14 Ready-To-Wear designs by Ashish Gupta whose collection interprets ‘street style’ quite literally – “high-vis tabards and outside-workwear uniforms. And add to that some sequin tweeds, checks and houndstooths.” To demystify, these sequins et al are added onto what are, essentially, fluorescent and orange construction and traffic workers’ uniforms. In such cases, fashion enables the socioeconomic hierarchies to operate by transposing the context of a garment’s functional identity from its value domain through statements of difference or change or excess.

Driven by technology and metaphysics, fashion will continue to invent forms of consciousness that make the human body and its experience of time open to rediscovery. In London, the Spanish designer Manel Torres has developed a technique which makes it possible to spray the body with your own individually designed clothes out of cans; these can be worn and then taken off as usual clothes. Similarly, fashion will continue to supplement the inadequacies of the present by locating the material co-ordinates of time and space as elsewhere; somewhere other than in the now and here (‘retro’/ ‘futurist’/ ‘ethnic’; the appropriation of ‘other’ times and places and lives).

Fashion is finally about profit/ability. Whatever the aesthetics of a look, ultimately it needs to net the cash. And the usual economic calculus applies – the highest return for the lowest cost. This is the reason why the garments paraded and sold in the heartlands of capitalist paradise are usually manufactured by sweatshop labour in the hinterlands of capitalist hell.  The threads of the fashionable garment, if unravelled, will spin in long lines around the colourful globe from Bangladesh and Vietnam and India and China to Italy and New York and France and England, and much in between. The poor sew what they can’t see, and the rich who wear never hear. Meanwhile, the neoliberal ideology repeats its Panglossian mantra – it is all for the best in this the best of all possible worlds!


The statistics are sobering. A quick look online suggest that the world clothing and textile industry (clothing, textiles, footwear and luxury goods) reached almost $2560 trillion (there are 12 zeroes in a trillion, in case you wondered) in 2010. Of course, this is divided into childrenswear, bridalwear, menswear, womenswear and so on. And even during the latest recession in the West, the luxury segment of the market continues to soar globally. And this enormous industry requires large amounts of labour (often with bad pay and worse working conditions) and a colossal amount of energy in manufacturing (often resulting in the environmental impacts of resource use and pollution byproducts).

Hence, the growing voices in the non governmental sector for ‘ethical fashion’. Like sustainable development or ethical investments, this is an attempt to foster change through encouraging consumers to demand ethical and environmental standards from the fashion industry, and to enable the industry to seek certifications that ensure compliance to such standards. Product Red logo is a prominent example of such ethical merchandising business model in the industry. These humanitarian concerns are, however, drowned out by the bigger lure of lucre for most businesses and many consumers. Arguably, this could be tinkering on the deck while the ship continues to sink.

No amount of liberal benevolence and no pile of lace, shoes, or handbags can obscure the fact that a significant majority of the world’s population will never know fashion. They’ll still be struggling for food and water, livelihood security and a right to be free of bloodshed. The environments of high-fashion – the glossy, glassy towers and display windows, the catwalk, and the fashion week, the poker-faced marionettes strutting down the aisle and staring down from perfume adverts – are an affluenza-ridden narcissistic alter-reality to the simmering cauldrons of despair that are the eyes of those haunted by poverty, want and violence.

So the next time you see a fashion item being advertised as ‘to die for!’, wonder what you’d rather live for.

Nitasha Kaul is a Kashmiri novelist, poet, academic, artist and economist who lives in London. Her debut novel Residue (Rupa/Rainlight, 2014) was earlier shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Aside from fiction and poetry, she comments in the media and has written in edited collections, journals and newspapers on the themes of identity, culture, economy, gender, social theory, technology, democracy, Bhutan and Kashmir. She has a joint doctorate in Economics and Philosophy, is the author of the book 'Imagining Economics Otherwise: encounters with identity/difference' (Routledge, 2007), and has previously taught Economics, Politics, and Creative Writing in the UK and in Bhutan. She has travelled to over 55 countries across 4 continents documenting the strangeness of the everyday and the otherness of the present. More at

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