Fashion that can be defined initially as the social systemic production, consumption and institutionalization of novelty is a cultural phenomenon that integrates culture, the individual and the economy. Fashion is both an idea and an ideal.
Yet it finds expression materially and visually in forms coded by color, shape, texture and branding, and must be produced and circulated within cultural fields integrating local and global systems. Fashion is not just a social process pertaining to clothing and address. It is more of an expressive sensibility favoring novelty and individuality, which energizes facets of both economic production and personal consumption.
There are a number of important reasons why any analysis of contemporary culture must come to grips with the logic of fashion and its centrality to our everyday experiences. In general, fashion is fundamental to culture because it offers aesthetic forms in fields such as dress and clothing, philosophy and religion, music, habits and customs, through which individuals attach to, or demonstrate their difference from, various communities.
As a cultural process, fashion is responsible for locating individuals within a constantly changing forest of objects, people, events, styles and practices to which they relate, about which they form opinions and which symbolically help to locate them within various social strata and communities. In this way, being 'in fashion', indifferent to it or actively claiming to reject fashion becomes an important technique for individuals to establish their social difference and individuality.
Fashion is elemental to our economies because it plays a significant part in energizing innovations, mobilizing design and aesthetic industries, and providing an ongoing impetus for creative economic production. Fashion objects allow us direct contact with the politics and economics of global economic systems, and provide a potential material site for people to consider questions of excess consumption, labor exploitation, the form of beauty or good more broadly, and potentially oppressive or alienating representations of embodiment and identity.
The sociologist Georg Simmel (1997), writing in a famous essay published over a century ago, pointed out that fashion was not just about clothing styles, but was in fact a basic process that propelled modern life, and in turn its structuring of the psycho-social development of the modern person.
Georg Simmel situates fashion away from any one realm of social life and argues that fashion refers to a general phenomenon of all modern societies. In essence, fashion is a type of social horizon point where individual interests come up against the collective, and where the stability and conservatism of social customs are challenged by new and innovative aesthetic and behavioral forms.
Any object can thus represent fashion whether it be clothes, ideas or habits but in essence it refers to any field of social action where the dynamic, sometimes antagonistic process of individual formation and collective integration is evident.
To quote Simmel:Fashion represents nothing more than one of the many forms of life by the aid of which we seek to combine . . . the tendency toward social equalization with the desire for individual differentiation and change.
Entwistle (2000) defines fashion generally as a system of dress found in modernity a social system for encoding the presentation of bodies. From her perspective, fashion is a form of dress that essentially concerns the body how it is presented and dressed, how it performs, and what messages it contains and represents.
Diana Crane's (2000) study principally locates fashion within the domain of clothing, which she highlights as providing rich insights into both norms of appropriateness and convention, and their possible breach through the abundant variety of clothing alternatives that are on offer.
The anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir (1931) agrees that clothing, being the field of expression most closely linked to the body and identity, may perhaps be the natural field for considering fashion, though he concedes that it can also exist in a range of other everyday fields such as furniture and leisure forms. Reflecting upon the phenomenon of fashion, Sapir takes an interesting approach by linking fashion with the psyche, noting that 'fashion concerns itself closely with the ego'. Making the point that utility has a lesser priority in systems of fashion, he states: 'Functional irrelevance as contrasted with symbolic significance for the expressiveness of the ego is implicit in all fashion'.