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Sociological Explanations of Fashion Cycles

Fashion shifts occur periodically and with increasing frequency in the popular culture. Generations of people are affected or impressed by the styles and fashion sense of the music or movie stars who carefully cultivate their image.

The question arises that why do fashion shifts take place or why and how they affect people? Sociology has explanation in four main theoretical currents. From the functionalist viewpoint, fashion trends come and go because they enable social inequality and this influences the fashion cycles.      Exclusive fashion houses show new styles every season for their wealthy clientele. The main appeal lies of wearing exclusive and expensive new fashion is that it distinguishes wealthy people from others. Thus, fashion performs an important social function of allowing people to distinguish them on the basis of the class and thus preserving the layering of society into classes.

According to functionalists, the ebb and flow of fashion sped up in the 20th century thanks to technological advances in clothes manufacturing. Inexpensive knockoffs could now reach lower-class markets quickly. Consequently, new styles had to be introduced to keep the wealthy clientele happy and maintain exclusivity. However new fashion trends are initiated and accessed by lower classes who reject high fashion. Some sociologists turn to conflict theory to explain the fashion trends. According to the conflict theory the underlying tensions are visible in the social arrangements and these tensions when reach a certain point lead to the social change. According to the proponents of this theory the big fashion houses introduce new styles frequently to make big profits. They encourage people to buy more often and keep them distracted from the socio-economic and political problems that might cause them to express dissatisfaction with the existing social order and rebel against it. The fashion helps in maintaining social balance that can be disrupted by the underlying tensions between consumers and big fashion and corporate houses.

However some of the fashion trends flop as the consumers also direct the fashion decisions. Symbolic interactionism treats clothes as symbols or ideas that carry meaning. Clothing allows us to communicate with others by telling them who we are and who they are. They examine how various aspects of social life including fashion convey meaning and thereby assist or impede communication.

We develop patterns of behavior and belief associated with each of these social categories to which we belong. These social categories change over time and we also change with them. As a result our identities are always in flux. Clothes help us express our shifting identities. Clothes can convey whether we are conservative, liberal, religious, athletic etc. thus telling others how we want others to see us.

Feminists think fashion is an aspect of patriarchy, the system of male domination of women. According to them fashion imprisons women and at times impractical and uncomfortable. Fashion’s focus on youth and slenderness, diminishes women by turning them into sexual objects. Feminism explores the ambiguities of gender identity that underlie the rise of new fashion trends.