What is Fashionable?

What drives fashion – in clothes, ideas, behaviour, motor cars, and all the rest. What forces work to disrupt it? How important is fashion, and to whom?


Thor May
Adelaide, 2016



This page is an initial starter list for discussing the "Fashion" topic. The page makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome. 






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meetup group: http://www.meetup.com/Adelaide-Active-Thinking-Meetup/

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topics already discussed: http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/DiscussionTopics/DiscussionIndex.htm

comments: Thor May - thormay@yahoo.com  

Thor's own websites:

1. articles at https://independent.academia.edu/ThorMay  ;

2. personal site: http://thormay.net [an ancient site with many byeways]


=>Reading list: go to the end of these notes


Comments on the topic by Thor:

1. Introduction

There are sections of a newspaper or magazine, online or offline, which my eyes have always skipped straight over. They include those parts devoted to the journalistic idea of fashion, mass spectator sports, and a few others. This disinterest has been reflected in daily living, and the enthusiastic crowds devoted to such things have instinctively reciprocated. As a small, ugly man who began life as a small, ugly boy, the realms of Beautiful People have always found my kind an irritation, best kept invisible, and with no imaginable reason for having been born. Of course, the Beautiful People and I are both diminished by our mutual indifference. There must be some excellent Beautiful People out there, who even take time off from being fashionable sometimes. Probably we can both gain too from stopping to wonder what makes not only bodies fashionable, but motor cars, holiday resorts, and yes, ideas too. Hence this essay.


2. Ten starter questions about fashion

a) Google search shows ‘fashion’ almost entirely as clothing. What other things can ‘fashion’ be applied to?

It is hard to think of anything touched by humans to which the word “fashion” cannot be applied. Clearly Google, reflecting the commonest usage, finds that fashion is mostly about human decoration, and in the age of the selfie that is hardly a surprise. Yet any particular group of people, whether they are astrophysicists or back-street drug dealers, tend to have a particular way of doing things, thinking about things, and naming things. You could call each of these ways a fashion in its own sphere because looking back a century in each case, or sometimes even six months, the accepted way for similar groups would have been different. Fashion, in this sense, is a term to identify that some accepted group way changes with recognizable frequency. Fashion awareness is therefore closely associated with social, political and economic change.

b) How long has the idea of fashion been important, and in what fields?

Fashion historians sometimes say that “fashion began” in 14th Century Europe as long accepted clothing styles began to alter quite rapidly in parallel with other kinds of changes in European civilizations. These historians are really talking about the quite narrow concept of clothing fashion, which nevertheless occupies a disproportionate part of the attention of huge numbers of people, partly perhaps for reasons of sexual attraction.

Talking about fashion with its wider global meaning is a bit like talking about history. Across the broad arc of human civilizations, the pace of change has fluctuated greatly in different eras, often driven by warfare, emigration, trade, disease or new discoveries. In many societies there have been long periods, sometimes millennia, when the way of life seemed to almost stagnate, change was disparaged or punished (think of class systems and castes), and the wise men of the era would say that things had always been just so, usually as proscribed by a god or gods. As civilizations disintegrated, as they inevitably did sooner or later, those who could adjust rapidly would be the survivors, old ideas were challenged, and dressing styles typically changed too.

For several centuries now most human societies have been swept up in cataclysmic changes of ever increasing speed which have spread to every corner of the planet. In such times, notions of fashion acquire great importance. The way of thinking, doing, speaking, dressing and so on, as encapsulated in the notion of fashion, is a temporary lifeline to which people cling for some stability. At the same time, they have learned that today’s fashionable lifeline is tomorrow’s throw-out, so they become hyper-sensitive to the currents of accepted belief, and adept at changing their hats, their lip sticks and their handbags as the season demands. For entrepreneurs of course, the swirl of changing fashion is an irresistible opportunity, whether they deal in haute couture or academic philosophies.

c) Is being fashion conscious an embedded part of a person’s personality, applying to everything they touch, or are individuals selective in their fashion habits?

Different personality types respond quite strongly to changes in particular kinds of fashion, which means that the ‘fashion’ word tends to take on all sorts of extra connotations. However, snap judgements about this are risky. Thus when it comes to political fashions, we commonly talk about progressives and conservatives, or ‘left’ and ‘right’. These terms frequently carry an overburden of strong moral judgement. It may be no accident that the fancy word for left-handed is sinistral, sharing an etymology with sinister. However, a preference for the stickiness, or stability, of particular social or religious or dressing fashions seems to bear only a rough relationship with particular tendencies in, say, political preference. Just as economic conservatives can be social progressives or liberatians in yuppy suburbs, a text book Marxist type socialist might sport a fashionable tangle of hair and the latest artistically torn jeans, or be a grumpy workingman, dressed from the cheapest chain store sales.  

d) How does the importance of fashion change over a person’s lifetime?

Nowadays in most reasonably well fed societies supported by a knowledge of modern medicine, average lifespan extends from 70 to 90 years. This is a radical change from even the recent past. Two hundred years ago an average English woman lived for 42 years (during which time she would have 16 pregnancies, with most of the  children dying). As late as 1949 the same was true in China, and there are still parts of the world where a short life span is normal. With extended life spans the breeding period for humans has shifted from teenage pregnancy to late twenties, and extended into late 30s. These shifts have had a profound effect on cultural practices (though there is usually a cultural lag), including notions of fashion. Where arranged marriage is substituted by so-called love marriages or informal cohabitation, then fashionable behaviour (including dressing) becomes a major tool for finding a sexual mate. Commercial interests have noted this correlation of course, and done everything with their great powers of persuasion to reinforce the idea of fashion as a fail-safe instrument to attract Mr/Miss Right. The messages flood in, not only for dressing fashions, but for fashions in food & drink, holiday locations, social media, and all the rest. From this core involvement with the human breeding cycle, artefacts of fashion have extended to ever younger age groups and to ever older age groups, each with their own typical interests.

The susceptibility of individuals to the come-hither attractions of fashion just described vary hugely, both in degree and in the influence at different times in a life. From teenage years to at least mid twenties most individuals experiment to  some extent with lifestyle, dress, attitudes and so on. This renders them open to pressure from peers and commercial interests to try things utterly foreign to more conservative and intolerant tastes which may emerge in later life. The timid office clerk will sport a leather jacket, a week’s growth of whiskers and a Harley Davidson motorbike to pose as an alpha male for the season, before reverting to being a cardigan and slippers mouse in his thirties. Ditto for the female equivalent posing as a femme fatale. Of course, those are extremes on a scale. Personally, pop music never did anything for me, nor did beards and studded belts, while the femme fatale women infallibly sniffed out their cardigan-and-slippers faux alpha males, instinctively recognizing the soul mate signals behind the bravado. Well, they thought so. Half of all marriages do fail ...  

e) The fashion sections of media have always been overwhelmingly female in presentation and readership. To what extent does this reflect a natural or nurture-induced divide between the genders?

This is the dolls and toy fighter planes question, and will probably be hotly debated forever where a fashion of gender independence prevails. My own views have been modified in the furnace of life experience. I started out with the default hope as a teenager that female tastes and interests would mostly overlap with mine, and that any variation from that was probably culturally shaped. A half century later I’ve had to conclude that the male/female paradigm does have overlap, for some individuals much more than others, and in some cultures much more than others. I have also concluded that most women differ from most men quite markedly in their attitudes to social organization, communication, personal grooming, general interests, attitudes to technology and science, feelings about religion … and in a host of other ways. I’m sure that cultural pressures play a large part in reinforcing all of these things, but I’m no longer convinced that it is all down enculturation. Taking the world as one finds it, it now seems more productive to find the best in each gender’s particular inclinations. Media proprietors seem to have come to the same conclusion.

With the emergence of mass newspaper distribution in the 20th Century it did not take long for women’s ‘fashion’ sections to emerge in newspapers, nor for the magazine market to bifurcate into women’s magazines and men’s interest magazines. Now online, with media proprietors frantic in their search for eyeballs as advertising dollars disappear, something similar has appeared, albeit with more gender overlap. Some interest areas, such as physical fitness amongst younger, better educated readerships, tend to be more unisex in orientation.

So is the conclusion to be that fashion is women’s business? Not really. It is just that the fashions which capture male interest extend in somewhat different directions to those interesting for females. There is an inescapably obvious female fetish with grooming and self-presentation which fuels the ‘fashion’ sections of media but remains personally uninteresting to large numbers of men. This is also obvious in retail marketing, with traditional department stores (especially) catering overwhelmingly to female interests. If I accidentally walk into a store like David Jones in Australia, I instantly feel myself in hostile territory and walk straight out again. Amongst many men, me included, there is a built in interest in mucking around with all kinds of technology which seems like a waste of time to large numbers of women (who have somehow never grasped that this kind of play is the engine of creation).

f) Some studies of fashion phenomena have contrasted fashion-dominated societies with anti-fashion cultures. Fashion cultures are said to change rapidly, whereas anti-fashion cultures are more like traditional indigenous cultures where (it is claimed) fashions don’t change, or only very slowly. How well does the notion of fashion/anti-fashion fit the human world of the 21st Century?

This was partly discussed in question b) where I suggested that the elevation of fashion as a central cultural issue was indeed strongly linked to the rate of change in societies. However, it is worth noting that age related tendencies to rebel, or give the appearance of rebelling while clinging slavishly to peer opinion is common to all human groups. It is just that the elevation of consumer, market driven economies has offered an amplified and globalized outlet in the name of fashion for this kind of youthful urge. I suspect that a degree of dress fashion has always been present where there is a contest for attracting mates. Body decoration has been central to many cultures for millennia, including subsistence and hunter-gatherer cultures. For example the annual tribal ‘sing-sing’ gatherings in New Guinea, where participants from hundreds of tribal groups gather for competitive body painting display and dancing surely have cycles of fashion.

Fashion and anti-fashion have certainly entered new dimensions in the 21st Century. This relates to issues of scale and global communication. My mother didn’t see a light switch until she was 12 years old. Now there is hardly a 12 year old anywhere who hasn’t seen live images of, if not met people from every corner of the earth. There are more people on the planet at this moment than there has been from the assembled multitude of all the humans who have lived in earlier generations. These people now on the planet are living twice as long as their ancestors. Huge numbers of them are physically mobile trans-nationally (at this instant half a million people are in aircraft), and much of what they encounter world wide is almost identical, from spectacles and shoes to tooth fillings and pens. Roads are made in the same way to the same designs, so are most buildings, and most classrooms. With a few quirky exceptions, world leaders meeting wear the same business suits, shirts and socks. Police cars, policemen, ambulances, surgeons, nurses … are recognizable everywhere. Market traders in Lagos, Nigeria, carry the same mobile phones as labourers in Dubai and teenagers in Amsterdam.

So is the world being completely homogenised? Not really. It is being cross-linked at a million levels in ways never before seen. As just discussed, there are a huge number of artefacts and ideas of common exchange worldwide. These artefacts and ideas go through cycles of fashion, consciously churned for profit by the agents of market capitalism. On the other hand new social groups are constantly splintering off, greatly facilitated by tools of social media, and even traditional occupational groups find themselves having more in common with international colleagues than the crowd on the street outside. No longer is everyone confined by the forum of a local church or the prospect of working lifelong in a local farm or bakery. Teenage Goths recognize each other by dress and music worldwide, regardless of national origins. Military personnel worldwide, of every rank, are absolute slaves to the same dress fashions, same weapons, same patterns of organization, same fashions in spy-craft … whatever flag they seem to be serving. Engineers, less into clothing fashion than fashions in computer applications, speak a common language worldwide. Politicians, decamping to the same 5 star hotels, are swayed by the same fashions in banking and economic argument regardless of whatever ideology they proclaimed to seize power. Globalization on so many levels, in so many ways, cannot be unravelled. What it can mean is that where some fashion, especially a fashion in technical implementation, turns out to be toxic, then the effects can be globally destructive in unpredictable ways. We saw that with the casino of global banking practices in 2008. We are seeing something similar with the global lure and hysteria of a moving fashion in terrorist groups which set up in competition with more traditional organs of state terrorism. There will be many such deviations to come.

g) Existing notions of progressive/conservative political tendency do NOT seem to fit personal habits of being fashionable/unfashionable very well. What is it that leads some people to care greatly about being ‘in fashion’, while others are indifferent?

Firstly, what makes a conservative or a progressive political type? There are probably many answers to that. In particular cultures at particular times you could point first to the formative experiences that people have in their youth. Think of the trauma experienced by a child emerging from the wreckage of the so-called Arab Spring in many parts of the Middle East. What life conclusions are they likely to arrive at? Think of the experience of growing up in a supposedly ‘conservative’ society such as China which has undergone giddy change while people are fed a steady diet of misinformation, public trust is zero, and telling inconvenient truths  in any public forum is routinely punished. Or think of growing up in the United States with its glaring inequalities and social fragmentation while a barrage of media distraction from cradle to grave sings “Be happy; you can be whatever you want to be …” Do all these differently flavoured soups of enculturation produce the same balance of conservative and progressive types? You have to wonder.

If all the distortions of life experience just suggested were put aside, I suspect that there would still be a continuous range of personal inclination between progressive and conservative, influenced by a mix of deep personality differences. A mental shorthand I use myself to grade acquaintances on the progressive scale is their openness to new ideas, tolerance of ambiguity, and readiness to adapt to new situations. Putting those criteria up against the members of political parties, trade unions and professional associations I’ve met, I have to say that large numbers in all of them are pretty conservative, regardless of the banner their cause is wrapped in. Equally, you can find quite adaptable individuals in almost any political party. And none of this has much to do with being fashionable. Adolph Hitler was extremely fashionable in many circles, not only in Germany. It would be a stretch to say that Josef Stalin was ever a fashion maven. Boris Johnson of British brexit fame is a deeply conservative politician who gets away with any outrage by being fashionably irreverent and exercising a wicked gift for wit. Tony Blair, the political opposite by label of Boris Johnson, is a fashionably dressed fellow with a winning smile (not to mention sexy legs, according to Rupert Murdoch’s ex, Wendy Deng..). But Blair (together with George Bush) is surely a war criminal. So much for fashion.

The lesson perhaps is that while fashion enslaves the many, amongst the insouciant it can be worn like a magic cloak to disguise other ends. Social and political opportunists will use any tool available to advance their cause. in a certain time or place that tool might be religion, or an ideology, or kissing babies, or wearing a sharp Armani suite and a yellow tie. It all depends.

h) ‘Fashionable’ has many near synonyms such as ‘cool’, ‘trending’, ‘in’, etc, but for many people ‘stylish’ means something a bit different from ‘fashionable’. What is the relationship between style and fashion?

Style is a  word with a multitude of meanings,  but broadly means a way  of doing things. In the world of clothing fashion, the term style is often used interchangeably with fashion itself, good style implying with approval that the carrier is ‘in fashion’. As a person eternally out of fashion, I can find myself admiring the style (clothing style, mannerism, approach to life etc) of someone the mob might not find stylish at all. Good and bad style, in other words, is in the eye of the beholder. Sharing a liking for certain  styles might predict friendship, or even mark out a soul mate.

i) What is the predictive power of fashion for other kinds of social, political and economic changes, or is it entirely a mirror for what has already taken place?

Fashion, by definition, expresses a certain approved way of dressing, thinking, acting etc, or a group preference for certain objects (motor cars, housing styles) or even locations. The group in question might range from large populations to small cliques, but it is never the exclusive preference of an individual. Since groups always follow, never lead, it is hard to see how fashion could directly predict the future itself, although we might predict future fashions. An exception to this rule could arise for students of fashion trends over an historical period. It might be known that one kind of fashion tends to be followed by certain other fashions, or that one kind of event gives rise to certain fashions. Commercially inspired fashions go through deliberately created cycles (e.g. the hem lines on dresses). Economic cycles go hand in hand with fashions in austerity or prolificacy. If a war is in the offing, it is predictable that the populations involved will be driven to certain kinds of fashion. Predictions of this kind can be commercially valuable.

j)  A paradox at the heart of fashion is that fashion leaders aim to be distinctive and elite but are always overtaken by the imitation of the multitude. We see something similar in the teenage obsession with peer approval. What is going on with this psychology, and what are the consequences?

“Exclusive” is a word beloved of fashion mavens, whether they are talking about real estate or evening gowns. The aspiration fluttering in the heart of all who wish to be in fashion is to one day (if not now) to be a “fashion leader”. That wish is rather incoherent in the real world since immediately the fashion leader is imitated, and hence becomes fashionable, any kind of exclusivity evaporates. Nevertheless this kind of willow-the-wisp dynamic says a lot about what drives the constant churning of fashion, especially for profit. The multi billion dollar enterprise which is garment fashion creates ‘fashion leaders’ in the form of models and celebrities who are planted to incite the multitude of admirers to follow. The pattern is fairly stabilised into seasonal cycles, but kicked along by publicity from so-called scandals and other celebrity antics. The whole thing is not so different at bottom from political cycles, spectator sport, or even the manipulation of stock markets, except that in these game arenas things can spin out of control with rather dire consequences.  

[more to come]


Reading List*  (other suggestions welcome)


Chayka, Kyle (7 August 2016) "Same old, same old. How the hipster aesthetic is taking over the world ". The Guardian online @ https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/06/hipster-aesthetic-taking-over-world

Freeman, Hadley (6 August 2016) "Watch your backside, Tom Hiddleston: we’ve hit peak posh". The Guardian online @ https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/aug/06/watch-back-tom-hiddleston-peak-posh

Groundwater, Ben (Aug 3 2016)  "Vang Vieng, 'Shagaluf', Corfu: The cool destinations that aren't hip anymore". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.traveller.com.au/vang-vieng-shagaluf-corfu-the-cool-destinations-that-arent-hip-anymore-gqj30l  

Harder, Cherie (2016) "Why Fashion Matters to You". [recommended] QIdeas Website online @ http://qideas.org/articles/why-fashion-matters-to-you/

Hazareesingh, Sudhir (19 September 2015) "The decline of the French intellectual - Paris has ceased to be a major center of innovation in the humanities and social sciences". Politico website online @ http://www.politico.eu/article/decline-of-french-intellectual-culture-literature-art-philosophy-history/

Hill, Laura (Aug 9 2016) "Trail running: joggers are going off the beaten track". [Any kind of human activity can become fashionable. In this case women are more attracted to trail running because of its non-competitive, social character. This is a common characteristic of many kinds of fashion]. Brisbane Times online @ http://www.executivestyle.com.au/trail-running-joggers-are-going-off-the-beaten-track-gqnsbx  

Huffington Post (4 August 2016) Sample of click-bait news peddling : TRENDING -> Team GB Women's Rugby Sevens Get Naked To Promote Body Confidence // Jennifer Lopez Wears A Nearly Naked, Skintight Birthday Suit // Stop Pretending You Don't Watch 'The Bachelor' // Margot Robbie's 'Suicide Squad' Costume Was Apparently Too Short For U.S. TV Audiences // This Core-Strengthening Yoga Routine Will Spice Up Your Workout // 11 Weird Sports That Were Actually In The Olympics // 10 Reasons I Am An Atheist // Trump Boasts About Watching 'Top Secret' Iran Video Immediately After Becoming Eligible To Receive Classified Briefings // One Nation Get Four Senators, As Full Senate Results Finally Released // Look At This Giant Skyballs Balloon, Raising Awareness For Cancer // [Huffington Post online @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/donald-trump-iran-intelligence-briefing_us_57a26249e4b04414d1f370b9?ir=World&section=us_world&utm_hp_ref=world  ]

InStyle (2016) "The Fifty Best Fashion Tips of all Time". InStyle website online @ http://www.instyle.com/fashion/50-best-fashion-tips-all-time   

Krulwiich, Robert (May 04, 2012) "Who Killed Men's Hats? Think Of A Three Letter Word Beginning With 'I'". NPR blog online @ http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2012/05/04/152011840/who-killed-mens-hats-think-of-a-three-letter-word-beginning-with-i

Larocca, Amy and Rebecca Ramsey (August 16, 2015) "Fall's Big Ideas - In our biannual survey of the runway, we put the season’s biggest trends — Victorian Velvet, Gothic Creepers, Power Suits — on the women most likely to wear them". New York Magazine online @ http://nymag.com/thecut/2015/08/fall-fashion-trends.html

May, Thor (2002) "The paradox of scholarship: pissing on every lamp post". Academia.edu online @ https://www.academia.edu/2227990/The_paradox_of_scholarship_pissing_on_every_lamp_post

May, Thor (2014a) "How do we judge literary and artistic value?". Academia.edu online @ https://www.academia.edu/6338203/How_do_we_judge_literary_value_and_artistic_value  

May, Thor (2014b) "What will be the dominant ideologies of the 21st Century?" Academia.edu online @ https://www.academia.edu/5681348/What_will_be_the_dominant_ideologies_of_the_21st_Century

Stelio, Nedahl (August 7 2016) "The Rules: How to dress like a grown-up". Brisbane Times online @ http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/lifestyle/fashion/kate-moss-and-how-to-dress-like-a-grownup-when-youre-young-at-heart-20160801-gqi6g8.html  

Style Magazine (South Australia) online @ http://www.southaustralianstyle.com/  

Wikipedia (2016) "Style". Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Style  

Wikipedia (2016) "Fashion". [a long article with some good points on clothing fashion, but uneven quality]. Wikipedia online @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fashion


Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).

What is fashionable?©Thor May August 2016


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