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Evolution of Fashion: Clothing as a Means of Class Distinction

Lisa B.'s picture

The continual adoption of new fashions among the many styles of available clothing is similar to Darwin's theory of natural selection.  The driving force for fashion change is the need for social groups to express their unique identity through clothing, which fostered the rise of the fashion industry in the Industrial Age. Fashion culture has always been defined by change, its constant search for the newest design, which gives it a formal similarity with other systems that rely on continuous innovation (Purdy 1). Clothing, and more generally, style, can be important non-verbal representations of an individual's status in society.

Clothing has been used to distinguish among classes from the earliest historical record. One early literary reference is the General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, written in the Fourteenth Century. Chaucer used a description of clothing to highlight social differences which were important in the narrative of the pilgrim's journey.  Wealth and social stature was implied in the description of the Doctor of Medicine's clothing, "he was dressed entirely with taffeta and finest silk" (Chaucer 23). Chaucer then contrasted the doctor with the Yeoman's bow and arrows, "the yeoman was dressed in a coat and hood of green; beneath his belt he carefully carried a sheaf of bright, green peacock-feathered arrows (well did he know how to take care of his equipment: his arrows never dropped with tired feathers!)" (Chaucer 7).

Fashion was an important mark of position in the rise of the leisure class in post-industrial society. Adopting the latest fashion, such as the high heel at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, can be expensive, which serves to exclude the lower classes. Thorstein Veblen observed in The Theory of the Leisure Class that admission to the leisure class was at least partly through the culture of fashion.

The institution of the leisure class acts to make the lower classes conservative by withdrawing from them as much as it may of the means of sustenance, and so reducing their consumption, and consequently their available energy, to such a point as to make them incapable of the effort required for the learning and adoption of new habits of thought. (204)

Interestingly Veblen discussed the role of imitation clothing in society:

We all find a costly hand-wrought articles of apparel much preferable... to a less expensive imitation of it, however cleverly the spurious article may imitate the costly original...the offensive object may be so close an imitation as to defy any but the closest scrutiny; and yet so soon as the counterfeit is detected, its aesthetic value, and its commercial value as well, declines precipitately. (Veblen 169)  

A quarter of a century after the origin of the American leisure class, The Great Gatsby (1925) depicted the clash of "new money" and "old money" in part, through the use of fashion. F. Scott Fitzgerald's character, Jay Gatsby, represented the unprecedented consumerism and the lightness of "The Jazz Age" which arose after World War I. Before the war, Gatsby was unable to marry Daisy Buchanan because of his low social standing. Later, after Gatsby became wealthy, he emphasized his changed position in his dialogue with Daisy: "It makes me sad because I've never seen such-such beautiful shirts before" (Fitzgerald 98). Even though the publication of The Theory of the Leisure Class predated the rise of the modern American nouveau riche, many of Veblen's theories of class selection applied to Fitzgerald's exposition of the style of "new money" and "old money."

The presumption, therefore,  is that the farther the community, especially the wealthy classes of the community, develop in wealth and mobility and in the range of their human contact, the more imperatively will the law of conspicuous waste assert itself in matters of dress, the more will the sense of beauty tend to fall into abeyance or be overborne by the cannon of pecuniary reputability, the more rapidly will fashions shift and change, and the more grotesque and intolerable will be the varying styles that successively come into vogue. (Veblen 178)

Over the course of seven centuries many fashion designers have refined the concept of a signature style to obtain name recognition, thereby increasing their own value in society.  Modern designers generally work within a social niche, although occasionally their garments are transformed by other groups for their own purpose. One example of this is the Burberry trench coat, which was developed for the officers serving in the trenches of World War I, but later became a symbol of Hollywood fashion. Thomas Burberry created the trench coat as a functional wartime garment. It was made of his signature waterproof fabric called gabardine, and had detachable epaulets that transformed into a rifle strap, D-rings for belt loops that could double as grenade hooks and generous pockets large enough to hold maps and extra ammunition. Also, the coat had design features specific for rainy conditions; the gun flap deflected water away from the underlying layer of fabric and the wool-lined collar could be turned-up and the belt tightened to keep out the rain.

The trench coat was transformed into a symbol of Hollywood glamour in the 1940s movie sets of Katharine and Audrey Hepburn. The coat became more form-fitting since it no longer had to double as a battlefield blanket- although Burberry still incorporates the wool liner for year-round wear. Katharine Hepburn's preference for a trench coat paired with jeans and a black sweater was considered masculine at the time. Thereafter, Audrey Hepburn furthered the trench coat's popularity in Sabrina (1954), Funny Face (1957) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). Admirers of these stars purchased a trench coat to project their identification with the Hollywood glamour lifestyle.

Black tights, black turtleneck, and a trench coat- that's what we wanted to wear to knock around in, even though we were doing our knocking around in Levittown instead of the Left Bank. Audrey may have preferred the creations of Givenchy in her private life, but she made the beatnik look respectable, workable, and elegant. (Smith 154)

One of the reasons for the continued success of the Burberry trench coat is that it has been continuously modified to keep it fashionable.  And with these changes, and the influence of Hollywood stars, it is more popular now than when it was first created.

Although in the past several decades fashion designers have seen a broadening of their appeal, haute fashion is still dominated by the wealthy.  However, recent adoption of token fashion articles for social levels other than the very rich has complicated the role of haute fashion brands.  These less well-to-do used to rely on consignment purchases of older fashions, or knock-offs, but now have created their own short-cut to upper-level fashion.  Given the forces that drive fashion trends, it would be expected that this wide consumer base, which ultimately devalue the value of haute fashion brands, will effect new changes in the future.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. New York: Bantam, 1964.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925.

Kawamura, Yuniya. Fashion-ology. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2005.

Purdy, Daniel L. The Rise of Fashion: A Reader. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 2004.

Smith, Nancy MacDonell. The Classic Ten: The True Story of the Little Black Dress and
Nine Other Fashion Favorites
. New York: Penguin, 2003.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions.
New York: Macmillan, 1912.


Ashrainy's picture

i still dont understand very

i still dont understand very much what it means. could someone please summarize it for me? thanks! :D

Paul Grobstein's picture

Fashion as a case study in evolution

I very much like the idea of fashion as evolution, driven, like biological evolution, by a drive to innovate?  But there's more here that might usefully be compared.  Is there any equivilent in biological evolution to class distinctions?  to name brands?