I love Georg Simmel. Georg Simmel was a German sociologist, philosopher, and critic. He wrote about fashion in a sociological sense. Here's one of my favorite quotes from his essay “Fashion”:
“Fashion, as noted above, is a product of class distinction and operates like a number of other forms, honor especially, the double function of which consists in revolving within a given circle and at the same time emphasizing it as separate from others. Just as the frame of a picture characterizes the work of art inwardly as a coherent, homogeneous, independent entity and at the same outwardly severs all direct relations with the surrounding space, just as the uniform energy of such forms cannot be expressed unless we determine the double effect, both inward and outward, so honor owed its character, and above all its moral rights, to the fact that the individual in his personal honor at the same time represents and maintains that of his social circle and his class. These moral rights, however, are frequently considered unjust by those without the pale. Thus fashion on the one hand signifies union with those in the same class, the uniformity of a circle characterized by it, and uno actu, the exclusion of all other groups” (p. 308, as cited by Edles & Appelrouth, 2010).
Georg Simmel articulates beautifully an idea that fashion is a social creation and serves as an indication of social class. Fashion is not just about clothing, it’s also about sending a message to those around you. Depending on how someone is styled, different inferences can be made about that person. Fashion changes quickly, so it’s fairly apparent when someone is wearing an “outdated” look. Outdated looks are often associated with lower social classes - however there is a difference to be made between hipster/vintage and "outdated" looks. Clothes also show wear, so when someone is wearing damaged clothing, this is an indicator of a lower social class as well.
I have an ongoing joke with my best-friend. We made up a hypothetical situation that we continually reference. Whenever we see someone wearing clothing with an "explicit label" like a shirt that says VERSACE or a bag with the Louis Vuitton logo all over it, we go up to them innocently and acting completely perplexed and fascinated.
[Tap, tap, tap on their shoulder, they turn around]
Me: "um...excuse me? I am so sorry to bother you but I love - I MEAN LOVE - your shirt [bag,jacket,etc]. It's so beautiful. Where did you get it?!"
Them (clearly surprised, annoyed, and looking at me like I'm from a different planet) "Um....are you serious?! It's VERSACE - see?" (Pointing at the logo/name on the shirt).
Clothing labels - such as the example above - indicate class more explicitly because they can indicate the cost of a garment. There is a reason some people want to wear them.
Simmel discusses how clothing simultaneously individualizes us and groups us. When we have the resources to choose our clothing (not everyone is privileged with being able to choose) we tend to select looks which we think match “our style” or mimic a style we hope to achieve. I have heard so many times when shopping, “I love this, it’s so unique!”. In my experience, many people try to separate themselves from the majority and assert their individuality. We forget, however, that the “unique” items we are buying are often produced in mass quantities and sold across the country to millions of other shoppers hoping to look just as “unique” as ourselves. As much as we try to be unique, it is nearly impossible to actually achieve this.
Just as there are many people looking to assert their individuality, there are also people who want to “fit in” with the norm or fit in with the look of a certain social class (think about the intermission/GIVENCHY joke above). These people recognize which designs (often labels) are associated with their look. Here, I am thinking about the girls from my high school who drooled over Deisel Jeans paired with a Petit Bateu tee shirt covered in a Northface fleece. (I went to high school in Washington, DC.) These girls had an unofficial dress code and if others wanted to achieve the privileged upper class look, all they needed was the outfit and others would assume they belonged. Hence, people walk around with their LV monogram Neverfull Bags or their CC Chanel Handbags, and participants should know the difference between the two wearers: one bag cost $5000 [Chanel], the other costs $600 [Neverfull]. Clearly, they are from two different groups or classes. I find it strange too, that they will most likely get along with another person wearing the same logo or style bag better than the average person because it is of that group to which they feel they belong, and would like the world to know they do. It's these subliminal clubs and cues that I find so interesting.
While clothing has practical uses (can shield us from the weather), fashion does not. Fashion is a different shade of blue; it is a different hemline, a different cut of jeans. Fashion has purpose, though. It is an indicator of class; it distinguishes us from others while simultaneously grouping us. And there is so much more, but I will save it for another day. Thanks!