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Sartorial Tender: Fashion as Leveraged Social Capital

The fashion cycle is an Ixion’s wheel of value extraction requisite for rigid class hierarchy.

If we wanted to, could we ever rid ourselves of the burden of fashion — the incessant recycling of the past, the duplicitous claims of innovation, the pointless obsolescence, the simpering frivolity, the worship of pseudo novelty, the studied superficiality, the iron hierarchies of taste? We could liberate ourselves from the needless insecurity that comes from the certainty that one will be publicly assessed on the basis of arbitrary, ever-shifting criteria; but to do so is to consign ourselves to an equally unappealing fate. We are therefore either unfairly judged despite our ignored personal qualities, or we become fashion victims, conspicuously over-invested in managing its cycles.

So imagine there’s no fashion. It’s easy if you try. Or is it? According to German sociologist Georg Simmel’s 1904 essay (jstor), fashion stems from the universal human need to resolve a fundamental contradiction between two inescapable desires: we want to belong, and we want to be unique. “Fashion represents nothing more than one of the many forms of life by the aid of which we seek to combine in uniform spheres of activity the tendency toward social equalization with the desire for individual differentiation and change.” Simmel points out that “it renders possible a social obedience, which at the same time is a form of individual differentiation.” By subjectively pursuing the imperatives of elaborating our identity, we in fact articulate the social order.

Fashion’s collusion with the social order is perhaps its most distinctive feature, a fact that was obvious in earlier centuries but has been lost in its recent association with youth culture. Simmel argues that because fashion divorces the process of cultural change from any “material justifications,”  it permits material culture to naturalize a decidedly unnatural social hierarchy.

In fact, that hierarchy, then, may be considered fashion’s midwife, bringing it into being. Simmel undermines his claim for fashion’s universality when he invokes the imitation thesis of fashion dissemination:

Social forms, apparel, aesthetic judgment, the whole style of human expression, are constantly transformed by fashion, in such a way, however, that fashion — i.e., the latest fashion — in all these things affects only the upper classes. Just as soon as the lower classes begin to copy their style, thereby crossing the line of demarcation the upper classes have drawn and destroying the uniformity of their coherence, the upper classes turn away from this style and adopt a new one, which in its turn differentiates them from the masses; and thus the game goes merrily on. Naturally the lower classes look and strive towards the upper, and they encounter the least resistance in those fields which are subject to the whims of fashion; for it is here that mere external imitation is most readily applied.

Simmel pronounces the lower classes’ imitation of upper-class manners to be “natural” with a tossed-off adverb, but the issue shouldn’t be dismissed so readily. What he takes to be natural is actually fashion’s ideological achievement, reiterating in another register the myth of class superiority and providing another field in which that alleged superiority can be made manifest and operational. Only in a class-ridden society will the natural conflict between belonging and individuation take the form of fashion.

Only in a class-ridden society will the natural conflict between belonging and individuation take the form of fashion.

Many theories of fashion rely on a notion of imitating an aristocracy and are redolent of sumptuary laws and servant’s livery, of a rigid hierarchy with clearly defined schemes of tastes. Such a view suits capitalism’s nascence, when fashion served to articulate the distinctions between old and new money and help preserve the structure of a society in the process of becoming more open. But with the project of modernity completed — capitalism has successfully globalized, classes are submerged in putative democracy in the world’s benchmark consumer markets — the role of fashion has changed.

No longer mediating the transfer of social capital from aristocrats to bourgeoisie, fashion is now a global industry with its tentacles extending throughout the various levels of various societies, capable of overriding local configurations of social and cultural capital and imposing instead the prerogatives of carefully managed multinational brands. At the same time, internet-driven interactivity and communications have cleared away some of the old hurdles of access, allowing more and more fashion innovation to be driven by amateurs from anywhere — from the “street” evoked by all revolutionary lore.

Fashion no longer merely marks status in a static field of consumption. In postmodern economies, consumption and production have merged, goods and services have become harder to differentiate, acts of consumption produce informational value that capitalists have learned to capture. Fashion seems to change less by a top-down, linear process than by an  assimilation of a variety of inputs, some of which augment one another, some of which cancel out. Some are legacies of moribund seasonal rituals, some are aspirational notions inspired by an open society, some are echoes from assimilated foreign cultures, some are regurgitations of a past made digitally present. But strict class-based imitation no longer seems to drive the direction fashion takes; fashion now plays a more subtle role in demarcating society’s winners and losers. A theory of fashion more appropriate to an information-driven economy that lionizes its financial sector for appearing to master a bewildering variety of data flows and transform them into profit.

Such a theory can be found in this essay about fashion, by economist Jason Potts. He likens fashion cycles to business cycles and argues that fashion allows consumers to assume risk the way that entrepreneurs do. Potts asserts that “fashion seems to be an expression of risk culture on the consumer side, just as entrepreneurship is on the producer side of the economy” and “that a rational, open society… requires [fashion] as a mechanism of competitive advantage and productivity growth.”  Potts’s “rational, open society” is basically a euphemism for “consumer capitalist society,” one in which rationality and openness play out in the realm of consumer choice where fashion expresses itself. A society that “accommodates” fashion and lets it dictate the terms what constitutes open and rational is a consumer society.

Fashion is the “creative destruction” of our tastes in things.

Consumerism clearly requires fashion to sustain its growth, which depends on continually expanding markets for goods. If consumers lack the will to “explore new consumer lifestyles,” as Potts puts it, they may fail to spend and begin to save, thus crippling the necessary demand. Fashion is necessary to make us discontented with what we already have and regard it as obsolescent. Fashion is the “creative destruction” of our tastes in things. It undermines the cultural capital that exists in the tastes that currently reign, Potts suggests, and puts new cultural capital up for grabs. Enticed by the opportunities evolving fashion presents, Potts suggests, consumers (at least the commendable entrepreneurial ones) voluntarily assume the risk of buying unnecessary goods in a speculative attempt to garner cultural capital. And like the end of the spin of a roulette wheel, each turn of the fashion wheel presents a moment in which winners can’t be paid off and losers can regroup, Potts claims:

When a fashion cycle comes to an end, those who placed unfortunate bets during it are put back on a more nearly equal footing with those who were successfully fashionable. To be fashionable in the next cycle, fashion victor and fashion victim alike must pay the price of tooling up again in line with the latest trends.

That sounds sort of egalitarian, as though we can all try our luck facing the same odds. But it seems to wildly distort how fashion actually operates. Each turn of the fashion wheel does not wipe the slate clean for participants. People who “bet wrong” on fashion don’t start fresh with the same amount of credibility as they had before. Fashion mistakes have a cumulative weight: Misjudge trends and people will ignore you the next time. And if you keep changing fashions in an attempt to hit a winning one, you run the increased risk of digging a deeper and deeper hole, like a liar who is trying to salvage earlier lies by piling on new ones.

And people enter the playing field of fashion with vastly different levels of social and cultural capital to begin with. Some inherit a habitus that translates into fashion acumen — they have the wherewithal to concoct a socially functional aesthetic sense and the comportment to pass it off as natural; some have luxuries of time and money that make success in adopting fashions much more likely.

Rigged by design: fashion fashions us as risk-taking cultural entrepreneurs.

Fashion, then, is not an expression of preexisting class differences, as it had been in aristocratic society. Now it is a means to leverage various forms of capital and make them effective in expressing status, in positing it while seeming merely to reaffirm an essential and inherent superiority.  It allows for the translation of a nebulous status difference into unambiguous preferential treatment. And fashion is a field in which the rich get richer: those with fashion sense can shape future iterations of fashion to suit their own general strengths and assure that fashion can be made to suit their broader aims. They can make fashion’s frivolity pay ultimately in a more respected currency. Trends may bubble up from the street or from amateurs, but amateurs cannot validate their innovations culturally. They need to be sanctified by the fashion industry; they need to become sellable.

Calling fashion “entrepreneurial,” however, exposes the ideological force that makes it effective and compelling — it de-naturalizes it, exposes it merely as a fresh name for the capitalist process of circulation. Goods must circulate so that capital can be “valorized,” as Marx put it. Of course, fashion has always been programmed. In the past it was anchored to seasons, to the rhythm of the year and various folk celebrations that marked changes. But these rhythms proved inadequate to the demands of continuous capital accumulation. Fashion has thus come to perform the necessary function of calibrating that circulation; those who can prove that they can work the controls will be lucratively rewarded.

While those who are trusted to push through fashion changes benefit, consumers who must accommodate the change suffer. While it’s easy to see what risk this accelerated rhythm presents to manufacturers — they must continually crank out product that has at least an illusory novelty to it; many new products will fail — consumers shoulder the risk as well. At risk for them is status (social and cultural capital, as well as the ability to reliably convert between them and convert them to money) and, perhaps more significant, self-esteem.

Fashion, Potts claims, is “a mechanism to periodically liquidate certain elements of a consumer lifestyle, triggering the incentive to learn about new things and to demand new goods.” Potts views this “social pressure” as an inherently good thing. As things go out of fashion we are prompted to engage with the world to discover what has become fashionable, thus expanding our “flexibility in consumer lifestyles” and allowing us to experience the “sublime pleasures of risk-taking” — kind of like what the subprime crisis did for the financial sector.

Fashion is the means by which we are exploited for surplus-value extraction as consumers, to complement the way it is extracted when we are wage workers.

Like the Austrian economists, Potts regards entrepreneurial risk-taking as inherently good, a necessary trait for everyone: “Fashion is part of how economies evolve, not of how they decay. It is another name for consumer entrepreneurship: and the more we have of that, the better.” But that assumes people are like businesses — the brand of self — that need to constantly grow, and that analogy is, in my opinion, false. The notion of an ever-expanding, limitless identity is certainly a construct that suits consumerism (it is arguably the sort of identity that is constituted in us by capitalism), but is it not an inherent human capacity. Identity can and does have limits; recognizing those limits brings peace of mind. The ever-changing, ever-growing self that is perpetually unsatisfied with itself . Potts argues that “consumers who opt out of social competition for the ‘quiet life’ fail to develop their ranges of experience and capabilities.” Perhaps, but nothing about a “range” of experiences makes it preferable to the experiences themselves, even if they be limited in number.

Everything that Potts regards as positive about fashion pressure for the economy is probably not so good for individuals:

Fashion effectively functions as a mechanism to induce and accelerate learning in complex lifestyles, enabling these lifestyles to become more complex still, thus improving their productivity in generating valuable consumption services…. Fashion is good for the economy because it is a mechanism to promote experimentation, learning, and re-coordination.

The valuable consumption services come at we the consumers’ expense: our lives become more “complex.” In other words, fashion is the means by which we are exploited for surplus-value extraction as consumers, to complement the way it is extracted when we are wage workers. For consumers, fashion does not “promote experimentation” — it makes us the subject of experiments. It doesn’t promote “learning and re-coordination” so much as anxiety and confusion and disorientation that makes “learning” a desperate necessity.

Fashion tells you that you are a fool to prefer the experiences to the range, and it applies “social pressure” to make you change your view. By following fashion and disseminating its dictates and by innovating on its terms, we create additional value for the retailers of fashion-oriented products — a description that is coming to embrace virtually everything that can be bought and sold. All we gain for what we have risked is an enlarged but more tenuous sense of self — it’s an identity bubble, with an inflated value that’s rooted in a superficial expansion in knowledge of trends. But it could burst at any minute by a blast of existential angst. What does it all mean? Nothing. It means you have to keep changing for the sake of change itself or else confront the emptiness.

Rob would love to hear from you. Drop him a line at horninggenbub [at] gmail.com.

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