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The Cycle of Fashion
Fashion is fuelled by conversion. Designers continually persuade the public that their new ideas, however shocking they may seem, are in fact everything that a stylish wardrobe requires. Next season, the same designers convince everyone to give up their allegiance to such out-modish designs and embrace instead the innovative visual trends of the latest collections. The same garments are successively dubbed ‘outlandish’, ‘in fashion’ and ‘out-dated’ according to the apparent vagaries of prevailing fashionable sensibilities. Are we really duped by such duplicity? Or are we willing participants in the cycle of fashion? And perhaps more significantly, what relevance does the cycle have today in Western society’s culture of mass consumerism?
The idea that fashion in dress follows a cyclical phase structure is not new. The sociologist, Quentin Bell made such an observation over fifty years ago in his book, On Human Finery. Moreover, his observation was based on accumulated evidence of an uninterrupted cyclical flow in dress change in Western society since at least the thirteenth century.
The sociologist, Ingrid Brenninkmeyer describes this flow by comparing it to the rolling of waves in the sea. As one fashion gains popularity, crests and dissipates, another stylistic wave is already forming behind it. Further extensions of this metaphor liken different stylistic features to variations in the waves themselves. For example, just as different wave patterns form on the basis of their force, size or length, so also different overlapping patterns can be traced in changes of fashionable hem length, silhouette, fabric, décolletage and colour.
Mere descriptions of the fashion cycle however do little to explain exactly why successful designers’ ideas typically rise and fall in popularity. What is the motivating force behind such changes in fashion? What causes the cycle to move from one phase to the next? These questions cannot be answered simply. Perhaps sheer boredom inspires the continual search for something new. Or can novelty be related to ideas of sexual allure and attraction? Do competing market interests in the fashion industry play a role in animating the cycle? Or could changes in dress function as markers of class differentiation?
These factors and more have been variously proposed and analysed by researchers into the sociology of fashion. Bernard Barber (1957) depicted a ‘trickle-down’ theory of fashion as a symbol of social class whilst Gabriel Tarde (1903) outlined a theory of imitation. René Konig (1973) emphasised the displacement of sexual urge and Herbert Blumer (1969) formulated a theory of collective selection. However, each of these theories ultimately fails to provide a definitive account of the processes shaping the many vicissitudes and disparate progressions of contemporary fashion innovation.
Long waves in which a single style dominates for a season and is replaced in the next are no longer the norm. There are no modern equivalents of the crinoline, the bustle, the flapper dress, Dior’s New Look or the three-piece single-breasted man’s suit. The journalist Holly Brubach captures the current pace and diversity of the fashion cycle in an article written for the New Yorker on December 31st, 1990: “Fashion as it’s presented on the runways is nowhere near as unanimous as it used to be, but coverage of it in the press still focuses on hemlines and colours and items – on what the collections have in common … The truth is that these days you can find practically anything in somebody’s collection somewhere.”
The apparently random, rapid overlapping of new fashions is not restricted to changes in dress, but can also be noted in areas of modern culture as diverse as painting, music, architecture, entertainment and systems of health care. In Western society’s media-based culture of mass consumerism and against a background of globalisation, fashion appears to serve reactionary purposes that both structure and affirm the identities of groups and individuals. From surfers and students to alienated middle-class youths and married working women, weekly changes in fadlike styles give a sense of belonging whilst also distinguishing them from the masses.
Changes in the fashion cycle since the end of World War II therefore indicate an interweaving of complex and multiple processes. A uniform acceptance of single fashionable styles across the class structures of society has been replaced by a rapidly- changing, many-faced, identity-defining drive. It remains to be seen whether these phenomena signal the eventual disintegration of fashion’s long-enduring cycle.