Is fashion a reliable mirror of change in society?
Fashion is an innate part of the human society. Fashion found its existence in this world, since the mankind started covering up with leaves, grass, animal skin, fur, bones, etc. The material they used to drape themselves tells a lot about the prevailing conditions of the society. Clothing is a mere part of fashion which emerged when the simple needles made out of animal bone were used to sew leather and fur garments. Thus fashion is beyond clothing and styling. Fashion is a medium that not only portrays a society but also shows the choices of an individual. It helps people display their attitude, define their personality and communicate their beliefs and ideas in a silent yet very powerful manner. Hence fashion is a social phenomenon which comprises of: style of dress, literature, art, architecture, behavioural patterns, prevalent social trends, economy etc.
The more I read about fashion, then more confidence I gained in fashion as a reflector of social change. Looking back into history we see that fashion, to a certain extent, does provide visibility to change. The terms like “-retro-” look and “-futuristic-” look indicates that one can step back in history or step forward in the future by merely changing the look. In the following paragraphs I have tried to unfurl the connection between transition in society and fashion in a global scenario.
Fashion and Conservative Society -
Fashion is often associated with female gender but history shows that until the early nineteenth century men appeared more fashion-conscious than women. According to European history, men wore the most luxurious clothing and showed off more of their bodies as compared to women. On the other hand women covered themselves from tip to toe so much so that because women’s hair was considered seductive, they covered it after marriage. Besides gender biases, history is full of examples of how the body was distorted through painful corsets, padded doublets, bum-roll etc. It not only depicts the conservative outlook of the society but even the hollowness of society promoting baseless norms.
Fashion and Social Status -
Till the early 18th century, the authorities used sumptuary laws to regulate clothing on the basis of class. The king and aristocracy appeared in long robes and more elaborate clothing while the serfs and soldiers wore short tunics. Thus fashion was defined by the rich, leaving the poor to simply copy their superior’s styles. The inaccessibility to expensive clothing mirrors the inaccessibility of freedom and socioeconomic status.
Fashion and Revolution -
The French revolution (1789) introduced the principles of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ in the European, thus making popular the simple and non-elite dress style. The shift from knee-length breeches to utilitarian long trousers implies the rise in the position of working class as fashion clues travelled from masses to classes. On the other hand American Revolution (1776) led to the emergence of egalitarianism both in terms of thought and clothing.
The industrial revolution led to technological advances like machine spinning, power weaving, synthetic dyes, the invention of sewing machine, etc. It made good clothing affordable and accessible to all classes. Thus society was breaking it ties from social stratification.
Fashion, Rebellion and Resistance -
In the 20th century, “Jeans” got wide acceptance in the society as they expressed democratic values – from allowing free movement of the limbs to non-confirming to the class identification as jeans did not reflect wealth or status.
The protest against the Vietnam War (1964) introduced the world to the Hippie culture. Hippies embraced denim jeans, long hair, colourful psychedelic prints etc. They propagated the idea of love and peace and advocated simpler and easier lifestyle.
The Punk style developed a “do-it-yourself” culture, producing its own music and clothing, thus disrupting the conventional notions of beauty approved by the bourgeois culture. To break the hegemony of bourgeois class the punk look included whatever was deemed ugly and worthless like safety pins, razor blades, chains, bizarre hairstyles, dyed hair etc
The Hip-Hop culture is mainly seen as a way of opposing the legal apartheid found in United States, but it is also associated with American politics, slavery, treatment given in prisons, unemployment, etc. It was an attempt to raise the voice dominant, unjust and offensive system. The Hip-Hop fashion comprised of baggy trousers, displaying the waistband of one’s underwear and unlaced shoes as belts and laces were removed from prisoners in American jails in order to prevent inmates hanging themselves.
The emergence of all the above cultures shows the increasing suffocation in society because of class identities. Thus fashion became the voice of the suppressed and oppressed.
Fashion and Gender Identities -
Till the 19th century, the role of women in social, political and economic sphere was limited. The similar trend was witnessed in the Victorian dressing style. The women of Victorian era wore crinolines (which hampered movement and slowed their gait), low set sleeves (which prevented them from raising their arms) and corsets (which not only affected their health but also caused them to faint in warm or tiring circumstances). In the 19th century, the spread of education and awareness in fashion and clothing reversed the idea of ‘men act and women appear’. Gradually women became more active component of the society.
During the First World War women made significant contribution, by taking up jobs. Thus their dresses became more practical including bloomers and trousers. The shift in dressing style indicates empowerment of women. Later this exposure to the world enabled and empowered them fight for their rights, making them active both physically and politically.
The late 20th century saw the emergence of the phenomenon of ‘kinderwhore’, a look that challenged the model of femininity. Where conventional models of femininity involve demureness and sex continence, kinderwhore replaced the image of women as ‘dangerous and sexual’. This look posed a clear challenge to gender identities as it comprised of short, frilled ‘baby-doll’ dress, teamed with heavily mascara-ed eyes, bright red lips and untidy hair.
Fashion and Social Identity -
In the 1960’s the civil rights movement in America, brought a massive change in the political culture. For the first time in history, black models were featured in high profile fashion magazines. Fashion styles such as the “Afro” and the Dashiki, became fashionable globally. The world proudly embraced the idea of “black is beautiful”.
Fashion and New Millennium -
The 20th century saw the ‘casual Friday’ practice in business offices, reflecting the victory of comfort over formality. Classic polo shirts, khaki pants, shorts, easy-fitting tops, flip flop sandals, etc. became popular.
This phase even witnessed social and environmental awareness. Thus, the fashion industry promoted the creation of ‘green’ or eco-friendly products.
Besides, all the changes, the 21st century marks an increased industrial and financial growth of the countries like India and China. This led to the emergence of non–western designers and multicultural dress styles at the international forum.
The above instances clearly prove that fashion is a mirror of social change. But no entity exits in isolation. Fashion is a “reliable” mirror, requires the assumption that an individual is religiously follows the clothing style that coincides with his or her socio-economic scenario. Besides, same individual can adorn different looks in different spheres in the same era. For example – an otherwise soberly dressed doctor can adorn punk look at some occasions. An individual’s fashion style changes on the daily basis depicting their ‘mood’ rather than the ‘social change’.
Fashion industry works on the principle of “change is constant” and on the motive to keep “fashion in fashion”. So fashion doesn’t always change in response to social change rather it changes as per the changing trends of trade and economy. Like all other industries ‘money’ is the major driving force of the fashion industry. Whatever brings more monetary gains is marked as ‘fashionable’. At times fashion is planted in the minds of innocent masses through media, marketing and advertising world. People are misled by capitalist forces because of which they adorn a look without even knowing or supporting the ideology behind that look.
At times same social concept can be perceived differently by different people leading to emergence of different fashion styles. Besides, the youth gets easily driven by the fashion styles of their favourite personalities/ celebrities. So it would be hard to conclude that whether their fashion style is driven by a reason or is mere aping of someone’s style.
Social change is a very wide term and cannot be depicted by one factor. Fashion only displays some bits of change. Thus in my opinion the reliability of fashion mirror is not absolute as it depends on various factors. The social, economic and political factors formulate individuals’ attitude and their attitudes are reflected through their fashion choices. If all the factors (which effects society) are considered in sync with fashion, then fashion can be called as a reliable mirror or society.