Sociology of Fashion

Introduction In this essay I will compare and contrast the fashion styles, trends, culture and ethos of the post-war era of the 1950’s and the youth revolution of the 1960’s. I will address the ways in which fashion was utilised by members of society at this time to shape class-based identities. I will address consumption as a cultural phenomenon and theory on fashion of communication as a backdrop.

Following this and in order to gain a degree of critical depth I will focus on two British subcultures the ‘teddyboys’ and the ‘Mods’ drawing on the work of cultural theorist Dick Hebidge and illustrate the ways they utilised style in order to symbolise the values and meanings they shared as two distinctive subcultures one from the 1950’s and one from the 1960’s Slater argues that all consumption is cultural ‘consumption is always and everywhere a cultural process, but ‘consumer culture’ – a culture of consumption – is unique and specific: it is the dominant mode of cultural reproduction developed in the West over the course of modernity’(1997:8). He offers four explanations to support his argument (1997:132).

Firstly consumption always involves meaning, that is perceptions, as opposed to only sensations, so in the context of style and fashion, textiles or clothing are interpreted or ‘read’ by consumers in many ways. Secondly these meanings are shared by members of the same cultural or sub-cultural groups. Thirdly consumption is a culturally specific activity and therefore carries different meanings in different cultural contexts, and finally it is through consumption that we produce and reproduce cultures, social relations and society itself. We build identities as members of culture by enacting ‘meaningful structures of social actions’. Slater gives the example of contrasting families who sit down to dinner contrasted with families who graze and says through these differences ‘altogether different families and family relations are being reproduced.

’ While Slater does not address fashion consumption per se his arguments can be applied to the consumption of style especially in relation to how style is utilised by consumers to build culturally specific identities based on shared meanings. He cites Bourdieu’s work on taste and lifestyle and how they function socially arguing that ‘Cultural reproduction involves forms of competition and power … in which individuals and institutions have a stake, above all competition over value and legitimacy and competition over access to valuable ‘cultural capital’ (knowledge and competent ease in exercising taste and making distinctions). In the process culture comes to be seen as a battleground of class struggle and competition.

’ (1997:160) Fashion as Communication Barnard (1996) in his book ‘Fashion as Communication’ addresses the ways in which fashion and clothing communicate class, gender, sexuality and social identities. He cites Simmel (1971:301) who argues that the establishment of fashion in society is dependent on two tendencies the first is a need for union and the second is the need for isolation in other words individuals must possess the desire to be part of a larger whole society and they must also possess the desire to be and considered unique and outside the whole in some ways. The whole history of society, he says, is reflected in the conflict between ‘adaption to society and individual departure from its demands,’ (Simmel 1971:245).

Should one of these forces be absent, there will be no fashion. People appear to need to be social and individual at the same time and fashion and clothing are ways in which this complex set of desires or demands may be negotiated. In order to understand fashion and clothing as communication Barnard argues that it is not sufficient to understand communication as the simple sending and receiving of messages rather he cites Fiske’s definition of communication as ‘social interaction through messages’ (Fiske 1990:2-3 cited in Barnard p. 29). Communication understood as ‘social interaction through messages’ constitutes an individual as a member of a group or a community.

In terms of fashion and clothing, an individual becomes a member of a group through social interaction and that interaction includes spoken language, body language and comportment and the clothes people choose to wear. Hebidge (1979:55) argues that wearing ‘cropped hair, braces, short,wide Levi jeans, plain or striped buttoned down Ben Sherman shirts and highly polished doc Martin boots’ constituted one as a late 1960’s skinhead. It is not the case that an individual is first a skinhead and then embraces the symbols through clothing hairstyle and other stylistic accoutrements but rather that these symbolic manifestations constitute the individual as a skinhead. It is the social interacting, by means of the clothing, that constitutes the individual as a member of the group rather than vice-versa (Barnard:10).

1950’s and 1960’s Fashion Trends McDowell (2003) puts forward that the post-war decade of the 1950’s was characterised by huge psychological and sociological shifts which ultimately made possible much that was ‘swinging’ in the sixties. It was during these years that the really new fashion thinking took place. The American ‘ready to wear’ industry was producing ‘fashion’ for the mass market and provided an industrial model for French couture to imitate. Paris still ruled the world of fashion but its “mode of influence” had changed. As a new more liberated society evolved, women moved toward freer more relaxed clothes and began the move away from the dress rules and associated formality of decades.

Couture Design House survival now depended on not the depleted 30,000 private rich customers, but selling designs to the mass market. The fifties saw the rise of a new age of consumerism. Film, television, magazines and rock music created a new market – teens. The young no longer wanted to dress like their mothers, they wanted to dress ‘young’. Goods which had previously been denied to war torn Europe were now available and a consumer boom was actively encouraged. 1950’s teens had comparatively huge spending power compared to pre-1950’s. Since teens were spending more money on clothes they were the ones that helped shape the future of fashion. For that reason, more and more companies began catering to their desires. Thousands of teenagers adopted a variety of youth styles.

They were viewed as rebellious but compared to later anti-fashion and anarchic movements it was all rather innocent (www. fashion-era. com). In the late 1950s, the high-end fashion of the affluent (a. k. a. “haute couture”) was still very much cherished. It was the wealthy fashion houses and the upper class which decided what was “in” and what was “out” season after season. The rise of teenage fashion influence in the 1960s very much clashed with the ideas of what was considered sophisticated dress. However, it is worth pointing out that this does not mean an undercurrent of youth fashion or other fashion deviance did not occur before this time. “Fashion rebellion” (a. k. a.

“anything goes”) has existed since the beginning of the world. No matter how provocative or unusually a new clothing design may be, there will always be a group of people who for one reason or another will not want to “go along with the crowd. ” Subcultures and Fashion Consumption In order to address the question of the utilisation of style to communicate social values around class and gender it is useful to address groups within society who use fashion to distinguish themselves from ‘the crowd’. The groups are termed subcultures and are defined as groups of people that have something in common with each other which distinguishes them in a significant way from the members of other social groups.

There is something innately oppositional about them which sets them apart from mainstream society. They’ve come to designate social groups which are perceived to deviate from the normative ideals of adult communities. Subcultures form in communal and symbolic engagements with the larger system of late industrial culture: they are organised around age and class and are expressed in the creation of styles. These styles are produced within specific historical and cultural contexts – thus subcultures cobble together styles out of images and material culture available to them in an effort to construct identities which will confer on them ‘relative autonomy’ within a social order that is fractured by class, generational differences, work etc.

Subcultural style “indicates which symbolic group one belongs to, it demarcates that group from the mainstream, and it makes an appeal to an identity outside that of a class ascribed one” Kate’s (2002). According to Clarkes (1997) chapter in ‘The Subcultures Reader’ (Gelder and Thornton), Hebdige is the theorist of style and subculture par excellence: wheeling in the entire left of field gurus of art, literature linguistics and semiotics ‘to tease out the meanings embedded in the various post-war youth styles’. He prioritizes the creativity of subcultures, their ‘art’, ‘aesthetics’, the ‘signs of forbidden identity’ contained in the styles. I will now address two British subcultures drawing extensively on the work of Hebdige.

1950’s ‘Teddy Boys’ and 1960’s Mods In 1950, a group of Saville Row Tailors wanted to form a new style for young aristocratic men about town as an answer to American styles. For the young exquisites, who first and briefly took it up, its extravagance was also like a gesture against the war that was past, against Mass Culture. In its exaggerated form (curled bowlers worn over long Edwardian coats, ultra-tight trousers) the style was also short-lived, vanishing from Mayfair as it reached Suburbia. By 1953, this style importantly itself of aristocratic origin in an Edwardian fashion had been appropriated by working class youths. It was in London’s East end a group of young men rejected the shabby, but functional clothing styles worn by their fathers and began to long for more elegant looks.

A new fashion was taken on by semi-skilled adolescents. This look incorporated a “Drape” which is a long, knee length, single breasted wool jacket, narrow contrasting lapels and cuff, velvet or satin with pockets, drainpipe trousers, brocade waistcoats, stiff shirts, shoe string ties and suede shoes with crepe soles(www. fashion-era. com). This self imposed uniform that gave them group identity was that of the Teddy boy. The group got its name after a 1953 newspaper headline shortened Edward to Teddy and coined the term Teddy Boy (also know as Ted). The Teddy Boys were the first youth group in England to differentiate themselves as teenagers, thus helping to create a youth market.

Some groups of Teds formed gangs and gained notoriety following violent clashes with rival gangs, which were often exaggerated by the popular press. The most notable was the Notting Hill riot of 1958, in which Teddy Boys were conspicuous within racist white mobs who roamed the area attacking black people and damaging their property. Stratton (1997) cites Jefferson (1975) who argued that the working class appropriation of the style represented an attempt to ‘buy status’ because the style was, in the first place that of the aristocratic dandies dressed by Saville Row. This misses the point that in origin, the style was that of the established aristocracy of the last great period for that group, the Edwardian.

The appropriation by working class youth of the Edwardian style may be viewed, then not merely as an attempt to buy status in the sense of appropriating the style of a higher class but in the more important sense of establishing status in the context of an aristocratic heritage with the awareness that, in a visually orientated culture, style is a singular sign of belonging. In Britain the significance of consumerism and the mass media in promoting spectacular subcultures has been reinforced by the emphasis on the spectacle derived from a feudal preoccupation with status. The Teds, the first spectacular youth subculture utilised the feudal resonance to reinforce the aristocratic style itself.

One reason why ‘Teds’ were not seen in Australia or America, was that there was not the appropriate heritage to give the style its signification of upward nobility. There is no point appropriating the style of a social group which your society considers irrelevant. British ‘Teds’ drew on a preoccupation with status and on aristocratic heritage to emulate their ‘betters’. According to Hebdige (1979) the ‘teddy boy’ identity was that of an illicit delinquent. The teddy boy was ‘effectively excluded’ and ‘temporarily detached’ from the respectable working class condemned according to Jefferson (1976) as cited in Hebdige (1979:50) to a lifetime of unskilled work. Their style was exaggerated and combined aristocratic Edwardian style with a preference for black American rhythm and blues music.

It was a class based identity but one that saw teddy boys alienated from their respectable working class parent culture because of their violent attitudes towards other social groups particularly newly emerging immigrant groups in the UK. In contrast the ‘Mods’ of the 1960’s found themselves having grown up with a different set of social circumstances. By the early 1960’s large immigrant communities had been established in Britain’s working class areas and a rapport between blacks and neighbouring white groups had become possible. Unlike the teddy boys the mods responded positively to the West Indians now resident in Britain and sought to emulate their style. The mods dressed in a much more subdued style as compared to the ‘teddy boys’.

‘The mods invented a style which enabled them to negotiate smoothly between school, work, and leisure and which concealed as much as it stated’ (Hebdige, 1979:52). They could be recognised by their obsession with neatness dressing in conventional collar, suit and tie in respectable colours. They wore French crew hair cuts and invisible lacquer in contrast with the ‘Bryll’ creamed quiffs of the teddy boys. According to Hebdige (1979:52) they pushed neatness to the point of ‘absurdity’ and were a little too smart and somewhat too alert thanks to amphetamines. They were also known for sporting parka coats and driving scooters. In terms of style they presented something very close to the mainstream but it was a subversion or a parody of the consumer society they found themselves now situated in.

Again in contrast to the ‘teddy boys’ the mods worked in conventional jobs but it was at the weekend that they engaged in the underground activities that made their lives meaningful polishing scooters, buying records, taking extreme care of clothing, washing and blow drying hair. So while mainstream society was motivated by work, the mods viewed it as irrelevant and insignificant, while mainstream society condemned vanity and arrogance, for the mods it was permissible and part of their identity. Their admiration for the ‘black man’ and what he represented in terms of subversion and escape was represented through their shared interest in black music. Ultimately in the late 1960’s the mods split into two distinctive groups, one the ‘hard mods’ wearing heavy boots, jeans with braces and short hair grew into the proletarian, puritanical and

chauvinistic skinheads; and the fashion conscious mods involved in Carnaby street and rhythm and blues who became the fashion conscious hippies. Conclusion To summarise and conclude I have provided an overview of consumption as a cultural phenomenon drawing on the work of Don Slater and argued that fashion and style is always a culturally specific phenomenon. I have addressed fashion as communication drawing on the work of Malcolm Barnard and stressed that style always communicates a set of cultural messages to those who view it although not everyone will share the same meanings around the same styles. Finally I have illustrated the ways in which style is utilised to symbolise cultural and structural meanings by particular groups.

By addressing the British subcultures of the 1950’s ‘Teddy Boys’ and the 1960’s ‘Mods’ and focussing on the differing styles they developed and displayed and the meanings behind them I have illustrated how structural influences in particular social class was central to the resistant identities they created, identities that were shaped, depicted and recognised through a shared commitment to style. Bibliography Slater, Don (1997) Consumer Culture and Modernity, Polity Press: Cambridge Barnard, Malcolm (1996) Fashion as Communication, Routledge Davis, Fred (1992) Fashion, Culture and Identity, The University of Chicago Press Shilling Chris (2003) The Body and Social Theory, SAGE Publications Barthes, Roland (1985) The Fashion System, The Trinity Press: Worchester and London Edited by Gelder, Ken and Thornton, Sarah, (1997) The Subcultures Reader, Routledge McDowell, Colin (2003) Fashion Today, Phaidon Press, Inc