Georg Simmel’s conception of “fashion” and the fascinating way that he describes its dual ability to allow individuals to express their identity, while at the same time reaffirming their position within a group via conformity, has gotten me to think about examples of what we consider “fashion,” and has left me with many questions.
Simmel makes it clear that fashion is driven by class relations, and that it is used, predominantly by the upper middle class to distinguish themselves from the lower classes who seek upwards mobility. Whether the example of fashion in question is a mode of dress, a specific technological gadget, or the use of table manners, its popularity is soon made known. Adoption by the masses subsequently follows, as does the designation of “out of style.” So on and so forth goes the endless cycle of fashion, a pattern that not only brings certain items into and then out of the cultural spotlight (i.e. snapback hates circa 1990s), but also ensures that said items will regain social cache once again (snapbacks now) before fading into irrelevance. Writing in the early 1900s, it is no surprise that Simmel does not fully capture the realities of modern life. As discussed in class, his explanation of fashion’s manifestations does not describe the phenomenon that occurs when the styles of lower classes influence mainstream culture. The impacts of “alternative fashions” such as “hipster fashion” and the trendy urban street wear that have become pervasive do not fit neatly into Simmel’s fashion cycle.
How would he categorize these fashions? Would he call them fashion at all? Does “fashion” necessitate a cycle that flows from top downwards class wise, or is fashion’s cyclical nature of rare eccentricity-wide spread conformity its most salient quality? If the latter is the case, then the existence of stores like Urban Outfitters, retailers who true “hipsters” would deem as corporate impostors that have co-opted their looks to make profit, would signal that this style is becoming “out of vogue” in the sense that it is mainstream. Brands like Obey and Stussy would thus be on their way “out of fashion.”
A similar wrinkle and difference in modern times is the size of our middle class. Although evidence now points to the shrinking of the middle class, most people in America would still identify themselves as being members. With a larger and more stratified middle class, who is responsible for the role of “early style adopters?”
One thing I’ve recently noticed is the influence that celebrities have on the way we dress and the shaping of our tastes. Rap artists like A$AP Rocky and his Mob have introduced many brands to the public, and without Kanye or Jay Z many would not know what an Audemar is, or the name Tom Ford. Kanye and Hova might be in the upper or upper middle class, but A$AP’s proclivities for Givenchy and Margiela surely superseded his fame. As such, how does status come into play with regards to Simmel’s “fashion?” Lady Gaga definitely makes a point to express her individuality and artistic creativity, but would Simmel call this “fashion?” He emphasized the importance of group interaction in the formation of sociation, so is the adoption by a group of people required to achieve “fashion” distinction? I may not be Raf Simons or Tim Gunn, but I don’t foresee Gaga’s meatsuit or flying dress being sold in our local malls.
I don’t think answering all of these questions is imperative, but that engaging and interacting with Simmel’s ideas is fitting tribute enough.
I’ve included a link to a Rolling Stone piece about Lady Gaga’s “fashion” moments as well as some images of the celebrities mentioned above.