The French word mode, meaning “fashion”, dates as far back as 1482, while the English word denoting something “in style” dates only to the 16th century. Other words exist related to concepts of style and appeal that precede mode. In the 12th and 13th century Old French the concept of elegance begins to appear in the context of aristocratic preferences to enhance beauty and display refinement, and cointerie, the idea of making oneself more attractive to others by style or artifice in grooming and dress, appears in a 13th-century poem by Guillaume de Lorris advising men that “handsome clothes and handsome accessories improve a man a great deal”.[3]

Woman’s Bicycling Ensemble, 1898, LACMA

Fashion scholar Susan B. Kaiser states that everyone is “forced to appear”, unmediated before others.[4] Everyone is evaluated by their attire, and evaluation includes the consideration of colors, materials, silhouette, and how garments appear on the body. Garments identical in style and material also appear different depending on the wearer’s body shape, or whether the garment has been washed, folded, mended, or is new.

Minidress by John Bates, 1965

Fashion is defined in a number of different ways, and its application can be sometimes unclear. Though the term fashion connotes difference, as in “the new fashions of the season”, it can also connote sameness, for example in reference to “the fashions of the 1960s”, implying a general uniformity. Fashion can signify the latest trends, but may often reference fashions of a previous era, leading to the reappearance of fashions from a different time period. While what is fashionable can be defined by a relatively insular, esteemed and often rich aesthetic elite who make a look exclusive, such as fashion houses and haute couturiers, this ‘look’ is often designed by pulling references from subcultures and social groups who are not considered elite, and are thus excluded from making the distinction of what is fashion themselves.

Whereas a trend often connotes a peculiar aesthetic expression, often lasting shorter than a season and being identifiable by visual extremes, fashion is a distinctive and industry-supported expression traditionally tied to the fashion season and collections.[5] Style is an expression that lasts over many seasons and is often connected to cultural movements and social markers, symbols, class, and culture (such as Baroque and Rococo). According to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, fashion connotes “the latest difference.”[6]

Bella Hadid at the Cannes Film Festival

Even though the terms fashionclothing and costume are often used together, fashion differs from both. Clothing describes the material and the technical garment, devoid of any social meaning or connections; costume has come to mean fancy dress or masquerade wear. Fashion, by contrast, describes the social and temporal system that influences and “activates” dress as a social signifier in a certain time and context. Philosopher Giorgio Agamben connects fashion to the qualitative Ancient Greek concept of kairos, meaning “the right, critical, or opportune moment”, and clothing to the quantitative concept of chronos, the personification of chronological or sequential time.[7]

While some exclusive brands may claim the label haute couture, in France, the term is technically limited to members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture[8] in Paris.[5] Haute couture is more aspirational; inspired by art and culture, and in most cases, reserved for the economic elite. However, New York’s fashion calendar hosts Couture Fashion Week, which strives for a more equitable and inclusive mission.[9]

Fashion is also a source of art, allowing people to display their unique tastes, sensibilities, and styles.[10] Different fashion designers are influenced by outside stimuli and reflect this inspiration in their work. For example, Gucci‘s ‘stained green’ jeans[11] may look like a grass stain, but to others, they display purity, freshness, and summer.[12]

Fashion is unique, self-fulfilling and may be a key part of someone’s identity. Similarly to art, the aims of a person’s choices in fashion are not necessarily to be liked by everyone, but instead to be an expression of personal taste.[10] A person’s personal style functions as a “societal formation always combining two opposite principles. It is a socially acceptable and secure way to distinguish oneself from others and, at the same time, it satisfies the individual’s need for social adaptation and imitation.”[13] While philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that fashion “has nothing to do with genuine judgements of taste”, and was instead “a case of unreflected and ‘blind’ imitation”,[13] sociologist Georg Simmel[14] thought of fashion as something that “helped overcome the distance between an individual and his society”.[13]

History of fashion

See also: History of fashion design

Changes in clothing often took place at times of economic or social change, as occurred in ancient Rome and the medieval Caliphate, followed by a long period without significant changes. In eighth-century Moorish Spain, the musician Ziryab introduced to Córdoba[15][unreliable source][16] sophisticated clothing styles based on seasonal and daily fashions from his native Baghdad, modified by his inspiration. Similar changes in fashion occurred in the 11th century in the Middle East following the arrival of the Turks, who introduced clothing styles from Central Asia and the Far East.[17]

Alleged Western distinctiveness

Gensei Kajin Shu by Yoshu Chikanobu, 1890. Various styles of traditional Japanese clothing and Western styles.

Early Western travellers who visited IndiaPersiaTurkey, or China, would frequently remark on the absence of change in fashion in those countries. In 1609, the secretary of the Japanese shōgun bragged inaccurately to a Spanish visitor that Japanese clothing had not changed in over a thousand years.[18]: 312–313  However, these conceptions of non-Western clothing undergoing little, if any, evolution are generally held to be untrue; for instance, there is considerable evidence in Ming China of rapidly changing fashions in Chinese clothing.[19] In imperial China, clothing were not only an embodiment of freedom and comfort or used to cover the body or protect against the cold or used for decorative purposes; it was also regulated by strong sumptuary laws which was based on strict social hierarchy system and the ritual system of the Chinese society.[20]: 14–15  It was expected for people to be dressed accordingly to their gender, social status and occupation; the Chinese clothing system had cleared evolution and varied in appearance in each period of history.[20]: 14–15  However, ancient Chinese fashion, like in other cultures, was an indicator of the socioeconomic conditions of its population; for Confucian scholars, however, changing fashion was often associated with social disorder which was brought by rapid commercialization.[21]: 204  Clothing which experienced fast changing fashion in ancient China was recorded in ancient Chinese texts, where it was sometimes referred as shiyang, “contemporary-styles”, and was associated with the concept of fuyao, “outrageous dress”,[22]: 44  which typically holds a negative connotation. Similar changes in clothing can be seen in Japanese clothing between the Genroku period and the later centuries of the Edo period (1603–1867), during which a time clothing trends switched from flashy and expensive displays of wealth to subdued and subverted ones.

The myth on the lack of fashion in what was considered the Orient was related to Western Imperialism also often accompanied Orientalism, and European imperialism was especially at its highest in the 19th century.[23]: 10  In the 19th century time, Europeans described China in binary opposition to Europe, describing China as “lacking in fashion” among many other things, while Europeans deliberately placed themselves in a superior position when they would compare themselves to the Chinese[23]: 10  as well as to other countries in Asia:[23]: 166 

Latent orientalism is an unconscious, untouchable certainty about what the Orient is, static and unanimous, separate, eccentric, backward, silently different, sensual, and passive. It has a tendency towards despotism and away from progress. […] Its progress and value are judged in comparison to the West, so it is the Other. Many rigorous scholars […] saw the Orient as a locale requiring Western attention, reconstruction, even redemption.

— Laura Fantone quoted Said (1979), Local Invisibility, Postcolonial Feminisms Asian American Contemporary Artists in California, page 166

Similar ideas were also applied to other countries in the East Asia, in India, and Middle East, where the perceived lack of fashion were associated with offensive remarks on the Asian social and political systems:[24]: 187 

I confess that the unchanging fashions of the Turks and other Eastern peoples do not attract me. It seems that their fashions tend to preserve their stupid despotism.

— Jean Baptiste Say (1829)

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