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Are Simmel's Ideas About Fashion Still Relevant Today?


Fashion as a product of class distinctions

In Simmel’s analysis of fashion, he suggested that the upper classes use fashion as a way to distinguish themselves from the lower classes. Fashion worn by the elite is copied by the classes beneath them who do this to try to identify with the elite. As Blumer explains, ‘the distinguishing insignia of the elite class filter down through the class pyramid.’ (Blumer, 1969). This leads to the elite losing the insignia that separates them from the lower classes. Furthermore, upper classes are forced to create new fashions in order to separate themselves from the masses again. Therefore, repeating the process when lower classes imitate them. This could still occur today, especially with the increasing use of social media and the popularity of influencers. This idea is illustrated when influencers and celebrities post images of them wearing designer clothing and accessories and lower classes following these influencers on social media try to imitate the same fashions. It could even be argued that Simmel’s ideas are more relevant today than in the past as fashions spread faster due to the internet and pop culture. Due to globalisation and mass production it is easier now for fashion to ‘spread throughout society and to transcend class barriers’ (Pundir, 2007). For instance, designer brands are frequently mentioned in popular music and fashion events such as the Met Gala and fashion weeks which are highly publicised. It is now easier to create and sell imitations of designer fashions. For example, at the Hollywood beauty awards Kim Kardashian wore a vintage one of a kind Thierry Mugler dress. Less than 24 hours after she wore the dress, fast fashion website Fashion Nova had a copy of the dress ready for pre-order on their website (Ilchi, 2019). Simmel offers an explanation for this. He examines that the ‘more an article becomes subject to rapid changes of fashion, the greater the demand for cheap products of its kind’(Simmel,1904). This suggests that the quicker fashion trends change the need for cheaper copies increases. Fashion Nova could be considered below the elite but above the lower classes. Fast fashion companies like this contribute to the imitation process. As the poorer classes have ‘enough purchasing power to regulate industry and demand’ (Simmel, 1904). These companies fill the demand created by lower classes after upper classes create new fashion trends. This is evidenced in the example of companies like Fashion Nova copying fashions from designer brands in order to sell them to a wider consumer base for a lower, more affordable price.

Fashion is discarded once adopted by the lower classes

According to Simmel, once fashion is adopted by the lower classes it is discarded by the elite, ‘As fashion spreads, it gradually goes to its doom’ (Simmel, 1904). Once fashion is imitated by lower classes it is no longer exclusive and fails to distinguish the elite. This is still relevant today in the example of designer brands burning goods to prevent them from being sold for lower prices in sales. Brands such as Burberry have destroyed over £50 million worth of products in the past five years (BBC, 2018). However, today individual members of the elite such as celebrities may try to profit from the trends they start by selling them to members of lower classes, rather than discarding them. Contrasting Simmel’s idea, Blumer argued that fashion doesn’t die because it is discarded by the elite but because it gives ‘way to a new model more consonant with developing taste.’ (Blumer, 1969). He suggests that fashion dies to make room for new fashion because the world and peoples tastes change frequently. It could be said that this is more relevant today than Simmel’s argument because fashion trends come and go at a fast pace. As fashion develops, tastes change more often and so does the demand.


Fashion as being more associated with women

Another observation made by Simmel is that women are more associated with fashion than men. Simmel explained that in society women are an oppressed group due to ‘the weakness of her social position’ (Simmel, 1904). He describes fashion as a valve in which women’s desire for ‘individual prominence finds vent, when its satisfaction is denied her in other fields’ (Simmel, 1904). He suggests that women use fashion as a way of showing their individuality. This might not be direct as women may only be following fashion and not imitating it. This is still partially relevant today as for some women fashion is one of the only ways they can express themselves. Although women have more freedom than in the past and can express themselves through their careers and interests.

Imitation and differentiation

In Simmel’s analysis of imitation and differentiation he explains that we imitate fashion due to a desire to fit in, it helps us to feel like we belong. A modern example of this could be subcultures that are partly defined by styles of dress, such as, goths, punks and skaters. Similarly, to what Simmel said, within these subcultures people make connections through shared identities that are created from the interests they share and the fashions they wear. He describes that when imitation of fashion occurs the fashionable person will be envied. It is not a negative form of envy, but they are admired and receive approval from others.