Essentials of Social Psychology

Chapter 7: Suggestion-Imitation Phenomena (continued)

Emory S. Bogardus

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4. Fashion Imitation. A fashion is a new way of acting or thinking which only a small percentage of the group has been able to choose because of the attendant competition and other limitations. The field of fashion ranges all the way from breakfast foods or styles of dress to philosophic theories. If markedly different from the conventional and customary, a fashion is classified as freakish. If it is adopted somewhat generally for a period of time, the competitive elements tend to disappear, and it becomes a convention. If it proves widely useful and stands the test of time it becomes a custom. Herein are the bases of fashion imitation, convention imitation, and custom imitation.

The social psychology of fashion reveals eleven different elements.[1] (1) There is the imitation process itself through which fashion becomes current. By imitating the example of others, the individual follows in the path along which others are going; his interest in social adaptation is satisfied; and union with other individuals of his class is established.[2] The forces of

(139) unconscious and conscious imitation lead one easily and often against his common sense to adopt the prevailing fashion.

(2) The individual is frequently drawn into the fashion vortex through the fear of social disapproval if he does not conform. Large numbers of people remonstrate against a new fashion, but presently they are seen to have adopted it—because of social pressure unwisely exerted. It is now an axiom among many persons that one might as well be out of the world as out of fashion. This pressure is especially powerful upon women in matters of dress. Men continually feel and give in to its force.

(3) An opposite element is the desire for individual differentiation. The desire to give oneself an individual stamp and the impulses toward variation and social contrast are gratified through fashions. A new mode, especially in dress, which permits endless slight variations is at once at a premium. No one wishes to be considered mediocre or like the average. Everyone believes himself to be different from the mass, and fashion enables him to flatter this belief. Fashion is used to gain for oneself the appearance, although not the reality, of genuine individuality. A shrewd observer has remarked that it is feathers which set off peacocks, turkeys, pheasants, and roosters from one another, and that without the differentiating feathers, these birds would present a similar appearance. It is erroneously assumed that the adoption of a fashion automatically raises one to a higher social plane than that occupied by non-conformers.


Fashion not only unites, but it separates. It satisfies at one and the same time the demand for unity and for segregation. It meets simultaneously the needs of class unity and of individual distinction. Fashion inequality often defies democracy. When social status is determined by one's ability to waste money on expensive and useless fashions, democracy is undermined and patriotism is challenged. In another way fashion imitation enables the lower classes to imitate closely the higher groups, and to approach them in appearance. Fashion imitation is a leveller-up, and hence to a degree democratising. Even subject peoples rise through imitation, chiefly fashion, toward the levels of their ruling-nations.

(4) Fashion thrives upon novelty. In those countries, of course, where customs are worshipped, the novel gains prestige with difficulty. But where fashion imitation has gained standing, the prestige of the new takes on an unwarranted glamor. The importance that is attached to the new increases concomitantly with the development of fashion imitation itself —one movement accelerates the other.

(5) Invention is a necessary fashion antecedent. Without invention there would be no new things to imitate and to become fashionable. Every epoch of fashion imitation is also a period of invention. It is true that many inventions do not extend very far beneath the surface and consequently are often worse than useless. But out of much inventing, an occasional invention will prove valuable, and through the sifting processes of time will become separated from the passing fashions of the day and receive permanent

(141) adoption.

(6) Reputability furthers fashion. The current knowledge that people are imitating a new style, or are ready to do so, gives the fashion a first-class endorsement. Many fashions live for a time entirely upon reputation and prestige. The fact that one's acquaintances have endorsed or adopted a new idea implies that this idea must have worth. When a petition is presented for my signature, I will sign more readily if the names of some of my friends are already attached. The larger the number of such names upon the list, the more readily do I add my name. Each of my acquaintances, however, may have signed the petition because some one else had done so, and the first signer may have been moved merely by the importunity of the bearer of the petition, through misunderstanding, or by purely personal or selfish motives!

(7) Fashion thrives upon the spectacular. Brilliancy, high lights, flash and fire—these are conspirators with fashion, because they give prestige in the eyes of many, because they attract widespread attention of the whole multitude. When the hat with peacock plumage passes down the aisle there is a craning of all necks and a whispering of tongues, wise and silly. Sensationalism in fashion also gives individuality and distinction—the value of which is overestimated by the sensationalist. The preacher with the spectacular methods captures the crowds and personal distinction.

(8) The commercialized activities of designers and promoters strengthen the reign of fashion. There are people who have become expert in creating new

(142) styles which appeal to the fashion pace-setters and clientele. Before one style has been put on the market, others in the same commercial field are being designed.

Then there are the professionals who work in conjunction with the fashion designers and whose business it is to create wants—both false and true—that will drive people to buy the new fashions which the designers have prepared. Many advertisements and fashion shows produce a wasteful, competitive consumption of goods. Fashion shows also stimulate many people to buy beyond their means and thus undermine thrift. Fashion shows also create unsatisfied and unsatisfiable wants in the minds of the less fortunate classes. The worthy and unworthy alike, where economic tension exists, are made dissatisfied to an uncontrollable degree. The walking fashion plates are a chief cause of the spirit of Bolshevism. A ten thousand dollar motor car is handsome and elegant, but creates social unrest wherever it moves.

The professional promoter of fashion must succeed in creating an atmosphere of expectancy and of favorable anticipation among the people who can afford to buy and also among those persons in the class just below those who are financially able. For this reason, the professionalist often uses the serial, accumulative advertisement—and the unsuspecting public unconsciously begins a campaign of talk and of publicity in behalf of the new mode that is about to appear.

(9) Fashion appeals to freedom. The cry of every new political party is: Be free from the "bosses" of the old parties. The new religious sect sends out the invitation: Come out from the yoke of past religious

(143) dogmatism. Every economic panacea flings out the banner: Free yourself from the slavery of the industrial master class. The call to freedom which new movements of all types use in order to win the populace makes a fundamental appeal to the individualistic impulses of human nature. So strong is this pull that people rush to the support of this or that propaganda without carefully examining its intrinsic nature. The call to be free from old inconveniences or slaveries prevents people from seeing the yokes of serfdom which may be hidden in the new.

(10) The counter stimulations of fashion enthusiasts increase fashion imitation. The vicious circle of fashion imitation should be thoroughly understood by all the devotees of fashion. The pace-setter [3] leads off with a new style in a given field. Other persons immediately follow—in order to be taken for the pacesetter and to share in his prestige. Still others copy in order not to be conspicuous. As soon as the mode becomes somewhat widely adopted, the originators of it and the pace-setters devise and introduce a new style by definitely modifying the initial fashion or by turning to an opposite extreme. They set the pace in a new direction, and immediately discard the original fashion. In this manner fashion imitation acquires a faster and faster speed. The pace-followers try to overtake the pace-setters, while the latter wildly seek a new style in order to "sidestep" the pursuing multitude. To this process, which always assumes insane and wasteful proportions, E. A. Ross has applied the

(144) term, "social racing." Perhaps "fashion racing" would be more accurate. The high cost of living is partly due to fashion racing. Many articles that people buy are purchased, not because they are needed or because they are beautiful, but because neighbors or friends own similar fashionable goods. Fashion racing with its process of endless counter stimulations unduly accentuates fashion.

(11) The spirit of progress gives life to fashion. Progressiveness is willingness to take chances with a new idea or method. Progressiveness expects that some new methods will prove useless, but in order to discover worth-while inventions, it will take wide risks. Because of this risk-taking on the part of progressiveness, many fashions secure patronage.

The craze and fad are exhibitions of exaggerated fashion imitation. The craze is characterized by a large degree of excitement. Under such a spell, people will temporarily adopt almost any irrational scheme. If the necessary excitement can be created, the result in terms of imitation can be predicted with a fair degree of accuracy. Financial speculation has been perhaps the chief field of crazes. At this writing the morning newspaper on my desk contains several quarter-page advertisements of oil wells that "are about to produce." I notice that these oil wells are more than a thousand miles distant—where I cannot investigate them—and that the drills are going down and the prices of shares are rapidly rising. Within ten days the price of a share of stock will positively go up from three to five cents or from fifteen to one hun-

(145) -dred dollars. In fact, I am told that a gusher may be struck at any moment, in which case the value of stocks will increase beyond the most generous anticipations and I, if I own sufficient shares, will find myself a millionaire. The very prospect excites me. Then I remember how many drills have gone down without reaching oil, how many persons have invested their money in oil and lost, how little I really know about the proposed investment,—and then my excitement passes and I continue with the writing of this chapter.

Excitement breeds crazes, not only in the financial world of speculation, but in other phases of life, particularly the religious. As the greatest financial craze perhaps was that which occurred about 1720, when the slow-moving, conservative English mind was seized with the excitement attendant upon the financial prospects of the South Sea Company, so the greatest religious craze was probably that known as Millerism, which developed in the United States between 1840 and 1845. William Miller went about preaching the end of the world. As a result of a large number of addresses, he secured thousands of followers who, upon the appointed day, donned their ascension robes and went out into the open fields. Although the end of the world did not come at the appointed time, a new date was set and the undaunted followers of William Miller increased in numbers.

The "pogroms" in Russian Poland under the régime of the Czars illustrate crazes. The peasants become frantic under the extortions of the Jews, who in turn have been compelled to pay large sums of money

(146) regularly to the Russian authorities for relatively meager privileges. In blind rage a "pogrom" is started. Often aroused against the Jews by the Russian authorities and instigated in part by the Church, the peasants start to wreak vengeance upon the Jews, the class directly above them, and who they are easily led to believe are the cause of all the harsh conditions of peasant life. But the "pogrom" does not stop with destruction of property. The frenzied peasant-mobs tear helpless children from helpless parents and brutally slay them before the eyes of those parents. The aged are mercilessly tortured and then killed. The excitement spreads from village to village, and then after a few days subsides, and the peasants return to their accustomed tasks, without having improved their conditions in the slightest.

The fad is a closely related phenomenon which arises in connection with peculiar forms of novelty, rather than with excitement. Something conspicuously new and having a semblance of attractiveness appears, and because of the prestige which is accorded to novelty and to superficial attractiveness, people adopt the innovation, without considering its worth. Any fashion of the hour that is based on novelty will serve as an example of fad.

Every urban community in our country at any time harbors several fads, ranging from purely local interest to nation-wide appeal. But groups are exceedingly fickle in their courtship of fads. One month popularity may center upon the carrying of kewpies upon automobiles; a few months later the kewpies will

(147) be displaced by the American flag, and then by Allied flags; shortly all have disappeared. The Charlie Chaplin fads have passed in waves over the country, rivalled only by Mary Pickford curls, and jokes on the Ford.

The social psychology of dress and clothing throws additional light on the nature of fashion imitation. Among animals passive adaptation results in the growth of feathers, fur, or other protective covering of the body. Protection is the primary need which clothing serves.

Sex differentiation, for example, in the feathers of birds, indicates another purpose of body coveringadornment. The female bird chooses her mate. The males with the most beautiful plumage and the singing voice are chosen. Males without feathers that are resplendent possess less chance of sex selection, fail to reproduce, and die out.

At the beginning of the human scale clothing serves the same two purposes as among the higher animals —protection and sex-ornamentation. Passive adaptation is partially supplanted by active adaptation, and natural feathers and fur are displaced by clothing that is made from the skins and furs of animals and from fibrous plants. Feathers are artificially used for sex and prestige ornamentation. The male, who is chosen by the female, resorts to all sorts of ingenious though often painful devices in order to increase his attractiveness. Ornamental scars are made upon the dark-skinned body. With the light-skinned early peoples of the temperate zones scarification, not easily dis-

(148) -cernible, is displaced by tattooing. Indigoes and similar dark substances are used to make permanent ornamentations upon the white skin. Ornamental purposes are further served by attaching rings, through perforations, to the ears, nose, lips, and by fastening them around the arms and ankles. Fantastic forms of male hair dress develop and beads of all colors are used to enhance bodily beauty.

With the development of clothing for protective and ornamental purposes a third causal element appeared —modesty. Ornamental clothing often tended, and still does, to sex stimulation. Consequently, clothing not only caused modesty, but modesty in clothing acquired a tangible status. Three purposes, thus, are served by clothing—protection, ornamentation (chiefly on sex planes) and modesty.

With the rise of wife-capture, the warrior-state, and the patriarchal family, man became the wooer and woman the wooed. When woman was sought for by male courting and when her restricted sphere of work with its monotony and routine demanded variation, she concentrated attention on her clothing not primarily from the protective or modesty bases, but for purposes of ornamentation. The more beautiful she could make her appearance, the greater her chances of attracting the competitive glances of suitors. Woman has assumed a heavy load of sex-ornamentation. This burden has weighed her down and greatly hindered her mental progress.

Among the hereditary leisure classes husbands sometimes encourage their wives; and parents, their daughters to dress luxuriously—for mere display purposes.

(149) By such conspicuous and wasteful consumption of goods, husbands and parents are enabled to advertise their wealth. Thereby women are unwisely encouraged to place far more emphasis upon the ornamental than upon the more substantial elements of protection and modesty. There is truth in the assertion that man, among certain classes, has made woman an ornament and kept her in a doll's house. The display emphasis, on occasion, becomes so exaggerated that the protection in clothing which is demanded by health considerations is openly ignored, while sex immodesty is vulgarly flaunted.

So extensively has woman of the hereditary leisure classes given attention to dress (ornament) as distinguished from clothing (protection and modesty), that some women secure the height of enjoyment out of surpassing other Nvomen in gorgeousness of attire. At an afternoon gathering of leisure class women, each subtly observes how the others are gowned. At a men's club, on the other hand, men's wearing apparel is rarely a topic of conversation, since matters of more objective interest, such as business or politics, engage the attention.

Men have not entirely escaped from the customs of primeval days when they were the ornamented sex. Kings and courtiers still dress in pompous regalia. The Scotch kilt is a survival of early male embellishments. Members of large fraternal orders indulge yearly or biennially in a reversion to the days of the gorgeous plumage of the male. On such occasions the women are outdone.

The present circumstances attendant upon dress

(150) have brought to sane-minded women several problems. (r) The question of economic cost is serious when so much stress is placed upon expensive materials, upon having a new gown for every formal occasion, and when styles swing from one extreme to another in rapid succession. It has been shrewdly observed that the cost of a "fashionable woman" is beyond computation. It has been well said that a marriage proposal means much more today (when spring and fall hats each cost twenty-five dollars) than formerly (when the young wife wore a shawl for head covering, which she had made herself).

(2) The mandates of modern fashions in dress have enslaved woman. Women are often nonplused by the search to find that which is , in style and yet pleases. A tremendous amount of energy is expended in the consumption of dress goods. This energy might well be released in productive mental activities.

(3) The rapid shifting in styles and the prestige of the mere novel arbitrarily set aside a beautiful style before it has had a chance to be fully appreciated. If the struggle were for increasingly beautiful clothing, a worthy cause would be honored. But under commercialized control there is little if any increase from year to year in the artistic quality of dress.

(4) The extremes in woman's dress continually verge on the immodest and sexually vulgar. It is these extremes which attract the most attention and which cast undue discredit upon the sex. Newspapers give wide publicity to these abnormalities, which without publicity would tend to disappear.

(5) Efforts by women to establish a Dress Reform

(151) League have never been far-reaching. Such a protection against the tyrannies of fashion in dress is needed, but attempts of this order have proved futile because of woman's lack of experience in organizing, her lack of training in doing good team-work, the tendency of leaders of dress reform to impose "mannish" styles of clothing upon women, and the failure to get nationwide action.

There are many evidences that fashions in all things which are so subject are changing more rapidly than ever. The pace is increasing, due to improved methods of communication, the development of a "hustle" civilization, and inexpensive methods of making imitations of all kinds. With the return of peace, there has come in certain quarters increased fashion frenzy. A buyer for a well-known American dry goods house reports to the writer that he is unable to buy goods expensive, extravagant, and wasteful enough to meet the demands of the wealthy patrons of his store.

On the other hand, the opposition to the tyranny of fashion is gaining ground. Not only is there an increasing number of independent voters in our nation but there are also growing groups of independent thinkers with reference to fashion absurdities. In the lead are the business woman and the athletic woman, but the former sometimes hinders the cause by her mannishness and the latter sometimes by her slouchiness and disregard of the esthetic. There are, fortunately, increasing numbers of individuals who place worth of character above willingness to become slaves to fashion imitation.


In conclusion, it should be said that the chief merit of fashion is that it contributes to progress. Fashions are the experimental laboratory of progress. As the chemist tries a hundred experiments before he finds a useful new combination of elements, so society tries out a hundred new ideas or styles in order to find one fashion of utility. Every invention in any field must stand the test of fashion imitation. If it is worth while, as now and then is the case, it becomes widely adopted, its adoption achieves a degree of stability, it passes from a competitive to a non-competitive basis, and changes its status from the fashionable to the conventional.



1. Why has Paris been the center from which new fashions in woman's dress have emanated?

2. Is it true that nothing is fashionable until it be deformed?

3. How do you account for the fact that fashions tend to the extreme?

4. Is it true that any particular fashion "can never be generally in vogue"?

5. Is the cash register fashionable?

6. Illustrate the difference between fashion and progress.

7. Do fashions change now more rapidly than formerly?

8. Does extensive fashion imitation refine or debase one's tastes?


9. Why is the high gloss of a gentleman's high hat considered more beautiful than "a similarly high gloss on a thread-bare sleeve" ?

10. Why is a given fashion often considered beautiful when in style, and unsightly when out of style?

11. Are things beautiful in proportion to their cost ?

12. Who are the more subject to fashion changes, persons guided by their feelings, or by their reason? Why?

13. Explain: "One might as well be dead as out of fashion."

14. "Who are more responsible for fashion absurdities, the women who wear them, or the men who are pleased by them?"

15. Do women give particular attention to dress in order to please themselves, other women, or the men?

16. To whom are the fashion shows the greater benefit, the merchant or the customers?

17. Who are to be blamed the more for useless fashion expenditures, the consumers racing for distinction or the manufacturers and merchants racing for profits?

18. How would you explain the fact that there is less rivalry in consumption of goods "among farmers than among people of corresponding means in the city" ?

19. Why is it easier to save money in the country than in the city?

20. Is it true that the standard of living rises so rapidly with every increase in prosperity "that there

(154) is scarcely any let-up in the economic strain"?

21. Give an illustration of a craze that you have observed.

22. Who are more susceptible to craze, "a hopeful, prosperous people" or "a hopeless, miserable people" ?

23. Is a dynamic society more craze-ridden than one that moves along the lines of custom?

24. Why do many young men upon graduating from college "engage in moustache contests"?

25. Make a list of the five leading fads in your community at the present time?


Aria, E., "Fashion, its Survivals and Revivals," Fortnightly Rev:, 104: 930-37.

Biggs, A. H., "What is 'Fashion' ? " Nineteenth Cent., XXXIII 235-48.

Foley, C. H., "Fashion," Econ. Jour. 111: 458-74.

Howard, G. E., Social Psychology, (syllabus), Sect. XI.

Linton, E. L., "The Tyranny of Fashion," Forum, III: 59-68.

Patrick, G. T. W., "The Psychology of Crazes," Popular Science Mon., LVII: 285-94.

Ross, E. A., Social Psychology, Chs. VI, XI.
——, "Acquisitive Mimicry," Amer. Jour. of Sociol., XXI: 433-45.
——, "The Principle of Anticipation," Amer. Jour. of Sociol., XXIII : 350-58.

Shaler, N. S., "The Law of Fashion," Atlantic Mon., LXI: 38698.

Simmel, Georg, "Fashion," International Quarterly, X: 130-55.

Tarde, Gabriel, The Laws of Imitation, Ch. VII.

Veblen, Thorstein, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Chs. III, IV, VII.


  1. Six of these factors have been presented by E. A. Ross in his Social Psychology, Ch. VI, and in unpublished lectures.
  2. Georg Simmel, "Fashion," International Quarterly, X:133 ff. Cf. Tarde, Laws of Imitation, pp. 244 ff.
  3. See the discussion by E. A. Ross, Social Psychology, pp. 99, 103.

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