Written by Matthew Geraghty. Illustrations Matteo Barracco
Were August Sander, the great 20th century social documentary photographer, to be going about his work today, he may have found himself falling into silence. His tongue fettered in his mouth, as he sought out the order and coherence modes of dress related to class and occupation bestowed upon society. For in the post-modern world, the clarity of the past, has given way to a sartorial mélange that is less simply explained. Although clothes continue to provide an important non-verbal statement of a person’s social status, post-modernism’s relentless recycling of retro aesthetics and social norms, creates a framework that is more nuanced -but no less hierarchical. For fashion’s existence is predicated upon stratified society, it requires members who are viewed as worthy and those that are unworthy, the inferior and the superior, the hip and the square.
So while Pierre Bordieu, when penning Distinction (1984), saw clothing as a marker of class segregation – a means for elites to establish and maintain positions of power – the pick-and-mix quality of many contemporary styles means that competitive class emulation is perhaps not the central driver of the fashion industry it once was with ‘tribal’ and lifestyle affiliation now playing a significant, though not dissimilar, role. It is an interesting shift, given the ossified nature of British society, where social mobility is more akin to the Victorian era, than contemporary Denmark. If ever a time appeared ripe for ‘uniforms of class’, Britain today would be it, because where you’re born is where you’ll stay. Amen.
To a great extent the fashion world’s post-modern landscape can provide nothing but a chimera, a will-o’-the-wisp promising the individual the sartorial tools to circumvent, or step outside, the unyielding order of current society. For, although its disruptive pattern of sundry fashion elements make seeing where an individual sits in the social order a more demanding task, it is not impossible. Where once a glance at someone’s attire would have provided a simple ‘class story,’ the democratization of fashion through mass production and lifestyle choice means that the answer is often only found in the detail. Where two individuals appear equal in appearance and style, the quality of material, the brand worn, the choice of watch or footwear will be the differentiator.
This should be of no surprise, for as with all things in life, fashion is not unaffected by the world that spawned it. Clothes are cultural artifacts, and do not sit apart from the times they arise in. They are intimately embedded, reflecting the social and cultural concerns of their age. Within contemporary consumer society, fashion is presented as a means to create a unique and individual version of the self. It’s a heady promise. A promise shouted from every TV, billboard and magazine -and a lie. For it is notable in modern society just how similar people appear. But the individual is given little chance to reflect upon this inconvenient truth – because the world of fast fashion now tickers by at such a speed that today’s ‘must have’ is tomorrow’s heritage wear. This paradox is often only resolved through a clumsy alliance of myth and reality – accepting the fable of individuality, whilst living the concrete of mass-production.
Traditionally these developments operate along vertical planes. A trickle down theory of fashion (or fads) espoused originally by Georg Simmel in his 1904 essay Fashion. Though perhaps a more pertinent description might be a system of envy and contempt – where the cycle follows a rhythm of adoption and abandonment by social elites, as the lower classes embrace the styles and the elites look for other ways to both differentiate themselves and reinforce the hierarchy. Scarcity is the key. The moment a fashion becomes universally available its power is lost.
The full article can be found in our print magazine, The Social Issue, available here