Social Reactions to Fashion Styles


The concept of fashion is probably as old as humanity itself. Even in ancient times, people needed to dress themselves. However, at that time fashion did not have any social influence. It had only practical functions and served for warmth and protection of bodies rather than beauty (Rissman 6). Fashion became an integral part of social history varying and adjusting to social, political, and economic changes (English 1). Fashion has become an indicator of social status and class (English 5).

Kings and emperors used to wear clothes that were underlining superiority (Rissman 8). The role of fashion and reaction of society to fashion styles was diverse at different periods of time. For example, in the 1960s, fashion followed the trends of rapid social change (Rissman 10). Due to the active feminist movement for women’s rights ladies started wearing pantsuits as an alternative to skirts to stress their equality with men in labor and social issues. However, at present fashion is treated mainly as a form of art (Rissman 11). Its function of a means of social distinction is not so evident. Fashion designers develop new styles and create clothes that are a kind of “moving, wearable art” (Rissman 11). Since fashion is a part of daily life, it provokes varied social reactions. Fashion styles can be accepted or criticized but they are rarely ignored.

The Definition of Fashion

The issue of fashion definition is still ambiguous. Every fashion researcher or historian tends to develop a unique interpretation of the concept, thus there will be no easy definition. Encyclopedia Britannica defines fashion as “any mode of dressing that is prevalent during a particular time or in a particular place” (“Fashion” par. 1), thus connecting fashion with society historically and geographically. In its broad sense, fashion can be treated as “shifting styles of dress – that is, specific combinations of silhouettes, textiles, colors, details, and fabrications – embraced by groups of people at a particular time and place” (Kennnedy 11). Those styles can be invented by a designer, a fashion house, or come out of the street. Moreover, fashion can also be regarded as “the entire system of innovation, production, marketing, dissemination, and adoption” (Kennnedy 11). On the one hand, fashion is “craft or an art form” (Kennedy 11). On the other hand, it is a huge business involving the capital of billions of dollars all over the world (Kennedy 11).

Barnard offers a definition of fashion which includes “all instances of what people wear, from catwalk creations, through High Street and Outlet purchases, to police and military uniforms” (1). He also mentions the modernity and ‘westernity’ of fashion. Diana Crane focuses on the social significance of fashion and clothing as its product (4). She states that “Clothing choices provide an excellent field for studying how people interpret a specific form of culture for their own purpose, one that includes strong norms about appropriate appearances at a particular point in time (otherwise known as fashion) as well as an extraordinarily rich variety of alternatives.” (Crane 12). The author also treats fashion as a visual indicator of social position or gender. Consequently, fashion is an instrument that identifies the perception of people’s social organization and positions in them at a certain period of time (Crane 16).

Sociological Theories and Social Control

Most researchers agree that fashion is closely connected with the life of society. It can produce sociological theories and provide means of social control. Both clothing and fashion can be carriers of “wide range of ideological meanings” (Venkatasamy 6). The fashion trends shape the consumer identity in conditions of a particular environment. The social aim of these fashion trends is to signify the consumer’s identity. It depends on the consumer’s lifestyle and attitude toward society. The preference in the lifestyle choices alters in different periods of time. These lifestyles predetermine the manner to dress depending on the occasion (Venkatasamy 6).

It presupposes some social control. Crane admits that “Clothing was also used as a form of social control: people were often required to dress in a certain manner that indicated particularly aspects of their social identities”(78). Workman and Freeburg discuss the role of sociology in fashion choices. Since sociology investigates social life, social change, and the social reasons and results of human behavior, it can produce theories that help to explain the concepts mentioned above and their interrelations. In its turn, a theory as “a collection of evidence, hypothesis, or principles” can be applied to provide explanations of social behavior (Workman and Freeburg). according to the authors, there exist four theories which can be useful in interpreting the fashion choices of society members. These theories include:

  • normative socialization theory
  • social learning theory
  • symbolic interactionist theory
  • social control theory (Workman and Freeburg).

Their study suggests the opinion that social control theory assimilates the normative socialization theory. It means that socialization can be considered a kind of social control. The role of social learning theory is in the assimilation of both positive and negative reinforcement for social control theory. It is revealed in the form of sanctions that are aimed at the stimulation of following the accepted norms Workman and Freeburg). The symbolic interactionist theory provides the social control theory with the idea that the suitable behavior can be learned through interactions with other members of society in various situations (Workman and Freeburg).

The Relationship between Fashion and Society

To deal with the relations of fashion and society, a definition of society can be useful. Workman and Freeburg treat society as “a large community of people tied together by geographical territory, traditions, institutions, nationality, and important cultural expectations.” Fashion and clothing were changing their functions in the course of history. The first clothes had very simple tasks. They were to protect people and keep them warm. Later the type of clothing became influenced by the social position of a person. It depended on both social status and occupation. For example, the clothes were divided into traditionally male and female. Besides, there was also a distinction in status clothes and other aspects of appearance since ancient times. Thus, in Ancient Egypt traditional clothes of royalty differed from that of poor people. According to the research, even headdresses were a significant component of fashionable status (Rissman 16).

An Egyptian woman is wearing a kalasiris and a man is in a schenti. The headdresses identify them as royalty.
An Egyptian woman is wearing a kalasiris and a man is in a schenti. The headdresses identify them as royalty (Rissman 16).

In Ancient Rome, the toga was a common clothing. It was an element of social, political, and economic status because only Roman citizens had a privilege to wear it (Rissman 23). Plebeians had to wear tunics, and women were wearing stolas with pallas over them.

Plebeian tunic, a woman wearing the palla, Senator wearing the toga.
Plebeian tunic, a woman wearing the palla, Senator wearing the toga (“Ancient Roman Clothing”)

Christianity has also influenced fashion. Old frescos and mosaics depict emperors wearing luxurious clothes decorated with jewels and brocades which differed from other people.

Mosaic from Rovena, Italy, pictures Emperor Justinian wearing jewels and brocade while religious men behind him are in plain robes.
Mosaic from Rovena, Italy, pictures Emperor Justinian wearing jewels and brocade while religious men behind him are in plain robes (Rissman 26)

The Medieval and Renaissance epochs brought new tendencies into fashion. Within those periods and the later ones, fashion and clothes remained the sign of social position. However, the history of fashion is not the problem of this research. Already in the 19th century, more attention was given to comfort. However, the social division of fashion and styles remained important (Rissman 56).

At present, fashion trends are difficult to define. They appear to be “very complex mechanisms that mirror changes in the economic and political landscapes” (Zegheanu par. 1). On the whole, fashion mirrors changes in social, economic, political, and cultural spheres. It is the reflection of modernity and a characteristic symbol of the spirit of the times (Zegheanu par. 1). In recent decades, fashion is often considered an industry of luxury which mainly concentrates on profit (Zegheanu par. 2). At such condition, quality became a secondary concern. The society cannot be satisfied with the expensive goods of poor quality. However, the main attention became concentrated on a brand. Brand logos on pieces of clothing or accessories became a tendency of the contemporary fashion world (Zegheanu par. 2).

Another aspect of fashion presence in the society is treating it as means of communication. Barnard treats communication as “a negotiation of meaning through the interaction between items of visual culture and the values (beliefs and ideas) held by an individual as a member of a cultural group. It is also one with which those who believe that communication is expression, or reflection or the sending and receiving of a message are likely to disagree” (4). He expresses the idea that the cultures can mirror their essence through the closes worn by its representatives.

Joanne Entwistle (qtd. in Barnard 4) stated that clothing can be considered “a part of the expressive culture of a community.” This idea may be supported by the historic study of fashion which traces specific styles of dress characteristic of different epochs. Thus, corsets and tight-shouldered dresses of the Victorian age were supposed to underline female’s helplessness and weakness (Barnard 4). Still, fashion is not just clothing. There have always been fashion trends in arts, media, music, films and other aspects of life (Cole, and Deihl).

Generation Z: The Aesthetic of Today’s Youth

Modern society is greatly affected by the development of technologies and their availability. Fashion as a component of social life is also influenced by information technologies. At present, the spread of newly emerged trends depend on how quickly the information is distributed. In the 20th century television was used as means of sharing information (Rissman 88). At present, the major channel of information exchange is the Internet. It enables people around the world to share news immediately. It predetermined the global character of contemporary fashion. The trends from different parts of the world are shared online. Thus, Japanese trends become popular in the Western world, and the style of British monarch family will be copied in the east (Rissman 90).

The aesthetics of modern youth is also affected by the digital world and technology. The things they consider interesting and beautiful are different from those a couple of decades ago. For example, young people are attracted by the anime style. It influences their choice in dress, accessories and make-up. Moreover, communication of youth is also influenced by technology and it is almost limited to online contacts. Unfortunately, it limits the real communication.

It can be suggested that the style preferences of modern young people are under the influence of information technologies. The contemporary young generation is also called “Generation Z” (Williams par. 4). Generation Z “is also nicknamed Digital natives, just because they can simultaneously create a document, edit it, post a photo on instagram and talk on phone” (Venkatasamy 8). The Millennial generation was digital as well. However, the representatives of Generation Z are the young people that grew up with smartphones and do not remember the times without the Internet or some modern devices (Williams par. 6). Their particular feature is the quick perception of information.

This fact also reflected their treatment of aesthetic and fashion as a part of popular culture. Due to the free access to information, today’s fashion trends are spread very quickly. The majority of fashion followers are found among the young generation (Venkatasamy 7). As soon as a fashionable accessory or piece of clothing becomes popular in the Internet societies, it becomes a desirable possession of young people. The ability to buy this or that item becomes a part of creation of adolescents’ identity (Venkatasamy 7). Modern youth is greatly influenced by styles depicted in fashion magazines, popular blogs or movies (Venkatasamy 7). College students tend to follow the trends without considering their suitability.

Characteristics of Generation Z.
Characteristics of Generation Z (“Characteristics of generation Z”).

However, there is another tendency observed among the contemporary young people. They are not interested in clothes as an aspect of fashion. On the contrary, they prefer plain denim clothing and simple hairdressers. Nevertheless, they still possess an important accessory of modern fashion and it is not a dress or a pair of shoes. For young, fashion-conscious people, it is a smartphone (Rissman 95).

Consumer Behavior

The most talented fashion designers and famous fashion houses would not make sense without the consumers. The modern society is characterized with the rise of the middle-class consumer. This fact together with “economic factors implicit in the improved production systems, mass manufacture, incentive advertising and marketing techniques – including visual display and merchandising, and wider distribution markets” had an impact on the ‘democratization of fashion’ ” (English 11).

The development of the middle class and its social and economic expansion resulted in activation of changes in aesthetic principles and transformation of fashion as an object of elitist culture into the part of popular culture (English 11). In earlier years, the ready-made clothes which were the goods of mass production were not popular. People bought them because they could not afford anything better (English 11). Thus, fashion became available to the broad population.

The end of the 20th century is characterized with the growth of popular brands which provided affordable clothes of good quality. The availability of fashion products resulted in the changes in consumers’ behavior. There appeared some stimuli that attract people to purchase fashion goods. These stimuli include fashion blogs or personal blogs of celebrities, and available online shopping (Osorno 10). Another specific feature of contemporary consumers is Consumer Impulse Behavior (Osorno 11).

The same aspect is investigated by Muruganantham and Bhakat, who treat it as “Impulse Buying Behavior” (149). The researches on the problem are relatively recent. Scholars treat impulsive purchase as an “unplanned” purchase (Osorno 11). The impulses to buy something are “normally urgent, spontaneous and a fast experience for the consumer. This impulse seems to disrupt consumer’s behavior routine” (Osorno 11). These actions are rather emotional than rational and are usually treated as unwanted and “bad” behavior (Osorno 11). Such impulsive behavior can transform into addiction and may need treatment or at least consulting a psychoanalyst. It is generally accepted that this behavior is more characteristic of women than men (Osorno 13). Gabrielli et al. investigate consumption practices of fast-fashion products (207). The qualitative study presents the approaches of consumers to fast fashion and its products.

Rinaldi and Testa introduce new paradigms of consumption (9). They state that the term ‘consumer’ loses its meaning since it traditionally is connected with purchasing and consuming. Instead, they suggest a ‘neo-consumer’ (Rinaldi and Testa10). Some of its characteristics include “polygamy and infidelity to the brand” and “nomadism” (Rinaldi and Testa 10). The first concept means that modern consumers have mire power and brands are ready to change to meet the consumers’ demands. The second concept implies the fact that the modern consumer is mobile and can choose among the products rushing from brand to brand, sometimes changing consumption styles.

Social Responsibility of Fashion Companies

According to Janson and Power (qtd. in Anguelov ix), the garment industry “is one of the largest, most globalized, and most essential industries in the modern world.” As an industry, it has an inevitable negative impact on environment and society. Since fashion is an integral part of a social life, the fashion companies should take care of social responsibility. It includes both the responsibility towards people and the planet in general. Rinaldi and Testa (101) describe the aspects that the fashion companies need to consider to be socially responsible. For example, they state that the social dimension of a company can develop in various ways.

They can include the following. First of all, social and community development (this aspect deals with the influence of the organization on “social systems and the environmental conditions of the communities in which it operates” (Rinaldi and Testa 102). The experience of Nike brand is the example of a way from scandals to social responsibility. The authors present the ways the company after the problems in the end of the 20th century met the demands of the critics and developed “measures such as codes of conduct, by auditing compliance with control procedures, by increasing wages and by introducing policies for the compensation of workers.” The attention to the issue of social responsibility helped the famous sports shoes brand to restore its reputation on the global market.

On the whole, the social responsibility of fashion companies can be provided in the following ways. They can donate some part of the profit to the social development of the area of their functioning. Besides, they can include some social mission to their objectives. Their social responsibility should also include the care of waste the factories make, the thoughtful use of the resources, and shift to the organic materials.

Case Study of Fashion and Social Action

It is evident that the modern companies need to be active participants of social action. Fashion companies are not the exception since people are their direct consumers. The companies which are concentrated on gaining profit and show no social initiatives can lose their image because the society today is demanding not only to the quality of the consumed goods but to the policies of their manufacturers as well. A case which can be an example of responsible value chain is presented by Rinaldi and Testa (105). It is the experience of Gucci, one of the world’s most famous luxury fashion brands. The authors state that “the culture of high craftsmanship and the absolute equality of Gucci products are combined, increasingly, with the principles of economic, social, and environmental sustainability” (Rinaldi and Testa 105).

In 2014, Gucci was one of the first to distinguish itself as one of the companies in its sphere to voluntarily set up a process of certification in the field of corporate social responsibility (SA8000) along its entire production chain. Moreover, there are some values that the whole world associates unequivocally with Gucci. They include “creativity, craftsmanship, absolute quality and Italian craftsmanship” (Rinaldi and Testa 106). Apart from devotion to the professional sphere, Gucci has always had a responsible attitude towards people, territory, the environment and the community (Rinaldi and Testa 106).

The company has a long-lasting collaboration with nonprofit organizations such as UNICEF. For example, their united initiative has raised more than $12 million to support African solidarity projects (Rinaldi and Testa 106). Another activity initiated by Gucci is the creation of Permanent Joint Committee which is responsible for “value chain policies” (Rinaldi and Testa 106). The Committee takes care of the social influences, the supervision of environmental influences, and the responsible participation in the programs of the company (Rinaldi and Testa 106).

The second case of companies with experience in cooperation with the society is that of Ikea. It started “The Better Cotton Initiative” (Rinaldi and Testa 107). Sustainability is one of the main focuses of the company. It suggested an innovation “based on flat packaging” (Rinaldi and Testa 107). This approach increases the effectiveness of company’s logistics since the flat packaging reduces the number of transportations. Less transportation, in its turn, means less carbon dioxide emissions (Rinaldi and Testa 107). Ikea Sustainability Product Score Card is the company’s internal procedure which helps to evaluate the influence of company’s goods on the environment and society. The cotton initiative is aimed at the increase of cotton production sustainability which is a challenging issue foe many world companies (Rinaldi and Testa 107).

Cotton is a strategic crop but its cultivation implies some social and environmental concerns. The environmental issue is connected with the irrigation and overuse of pesticides which have a negative impact on the quality of soil and water. Social aspect includes the harmful influence of pesticides on the health of people involved into growing cotton. Thus, Better Cotton Initiative was launched in 2005 to treat these issues (Rinaldi and Testa 107). The partners in this initiative are “farmers, manufacturers, retailers, major brands in the fashion and clothing sector (for example, Adidas, Levi Strauss and H&M)” and non-governmental organizations such as World Wildlife Fund (Rinaldi and Testa 108).

Life cycle of a pair of jeans.
Life cycle of a pair of jeans (poster of Better Cotton Initiative) (Rengaswamy par. 2)

Ikea together with World Wildlife Fund attempted the trace the chain of cotton supply. The initiative resulted in 50% decrease in application of pesticides and 50% reduction of water consumption (Rinaldi and Testa 108). Their pilot project launched in Pakistan united almost 25,000 cotton farmers after 4 years of work. It provided both environmental and economic positive changes. Apart from better cotton, Ikea tends to use environmentally friendly materials in its products.

An innovative program of Timberland brand “Path of Service” has been functioning since 1992 (Rinaldi and Testa 101). It was initiated to stimulate Timberland employees spending time for community service. Every worker was supposed to desiccate forty hours a year to this activity at the local level. The project managed to take care of the areas which were disused or influenced by some natural disasters. The initiative was supported in 30 countries where Timberland is present. On the whole, 844,955 working hours were volunteered after the start iof the project (Rinaldi and Testa 101).


Fashion is the part of life which people observe every day and often do not notice. Since ancient times, fashion was mainly associated with clothing and accessories. However, it can be considered a reflection of social, economic and political life of every epoch. Fashion has always been influenced by the historical changes. It had to alter to meet the demands of time. Functions of fashion are not limited to dressing people. It is also considered an indicator of social status, gender, and profession (Corrigan 14).

At present, however, status and gender distinctions are not so evident. Another function if fashion that can be still traced today is that of control. Certain occasions demand definite styles to underline the social identities of the participants. In all times, fashion has been closely connected with the society. Apart from defining social positions, it can serve as means of communication. In fact, fashion styles reflect the background of different historical periods. For example, the postwar fashion of 1940s is characterized with soft silhouettes of women’s dresses to contrast the uniforms they had to wear at work during war. The working men of 1950s were wearing refined suits with white shirts. Besides, the hippie fashion of 1960s and 1970s developed as a reaction to excessive conservatism of the 1950s (Rissman 80-82).

The relations of new generations with fashion are different. It is not just the matter of stylish clothes. The accessories sometimes mean more than clothes. Various technical devices are the most desirable accessories of modern youth and inevitable part of technological progress. The peculiarity of today’s fashion is that a person may wear old jeans with a plain T-shirt but possess the latest gadget. This tendency lead to fashion denial by young people. However, they do not realize that the technologies they use and the networks they live in are also a part of contemporary fashion and the reflection of the society. Another peculiar feature of modern fashion connected with society is consumer behavior. It is the aspect that underwent recent changes. Since fashion became available to the broad audience of consumers, their attitude to it changed. The consumers demonstrate impulsive behavior in buying goods. Sometimes it takes the form of obsession.

An important aspect that differs contemporary fashion industry from the previous epochs is the social responsibility of fashion companies. The companies initiate projects which have multiple aims. They are intended to improve the social and environmental issues within their spheres of interest. Thus, they get environmentally friendly resources, saved costs, and grateful consumers. On the whole, it can be stated that the relations of fashion and society have old roots and the two concepts cannot be separated.

Works Cited

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