Social Psychology

Chapter 6: Fashion

Edward Alsworth Ross

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Fashion is not progressive

FASHION is a series of recurring changes in the choices of a group of people which, though they may be accompanied by utility, are not determined by it. The fact that the new departure is not made because it is better differentiates the changes that constitute progress from those which constitute fashion. Fashion is marked by rhythmic imitation and innovation, by alternate uniformity and change, but neither of these phases obeys the principle of utility. The prevalence of fountain-pens or alarm-clocks is due to utility. The telephone and the cash register are universal, but not fashionable. The ornamental tiles of a fireplace may be a fashion, but not the tiles of a bathroom floor. Progress follows the line of advantage, substituting always the better adapted; it never returns on itself, never substitutes fish-oil for kerosene, horse-cars for trolley cars. Fashion, on the other hand, moves in cycles. Could we run the successive fashions of woman's hat or sleeve or skirt during a century through a biograph rapidly, what a systole and diastole we should see, an alternating dilation and contraction like the panting of some queer animal!

A style is a uniformity of practice, but it may or may not imply a psychic uniformity, i.e., an agreement of belief or feeling. So far as the hoop-skirt is believed to be the best possible garment, or is felt to be becoming and

Outward conformity usually betokens an inward conformity

(95) feminine, its vogue concerns social psychology. But so far as women without illusions about it wear the hideous thing to avoid being conspicuous, or to get the prestige of "stylish," the practice has no psychic plane behind it, and it does not interest the social psychologist. In general, Veblen is right when he says: " So long as it is a novelty, people very generally find the new style attractive. The prevailing fashion is felt to be beautiful. This is due partly to the relief it affords in being different from what went before it, partly to its being reputable. . . . The canon of reputability to some extent shapes our tastes, so that under its guidance anything will be accepted as becoming until its novelty wears off, or until the warrant of reputability is transferred to a new and novel structure serving the same general purpose. That the alleged beauty, or 'loveliness,' of the styles in vogue at any given time is transient and spurious only is attested by the fact that none of the many shifting fashions will bear the test of time. When seen in the perspective of half a dozen years or more, the best of our fashions strike us as grotesque if not unsightly."[1] "A fancy bonnet of this year's model unquestionably appeals to our sensibilities to-day much more forcibly than an equally fancy bonnet of the model of last year. . . . The high gloss of a gentleman's hat or of a patent-leather shoe has no more of intrinsic beauty than a similarly high gloss on a threadbare sleeve; and yet there is no question but that all well-bred people (in the Occidental civilized communities) instinctively and unaffectedly cleave to the one as a phenomenon of great beauty, and eschew the other as offensive to every sense to which it can appeal. It is extremely doubtful if any

(96) one could be induced to wear such a contrivance as the high hat of civilized society, except for some urgent reason based on other than aesthetic grounds." [2]

Fashion springs from the passion for self-individualization

Whatever the illusions it may create, the ultimate raison d'etre of fashion is the passion for self-individualization. It is eagerness to distinguish one's self from one's fellows that makes even savages so fond of ornament. This is one secret of the enormous profits of trade with unsophisticated peoples. If their vanity is shrewdly played upon, they will strip themselves of everything valuable they possess in return for small quantities of bright beads, tinsel, gaudy ribbons, and prints, which may serve them as means of self-individualization. On some of the South Sea Islands early travellers found that while no one would give anything for new kinds of fowls, domestic animals, or useful devices, "a few red feathers would buy the whole island." At first the mark of distinction most preferred is a trophy of the chase or war -head-dress of eagle's feathers, necklace of bear's teeth or claws, girdle of scalps, bracelets of the jawbone or clavicle of one's foes. These document one's prowess. The trophy, to have any virtue, must be genuine - an evidence of the wearer's prowess, and not of the prowess of another. Hence trophies bought or inherited confer no honor. Eventually the idea of embellishment arises, and with it a host of objects which are not trophies come to be worn. These artificial ornaments are at first attached to the body, and hence evidence how much pain the wearer has consented to endure. Labrets and noserings, like the honorable face-scars the German student duellist is so proud of, show one's grit. With the growth

(97) of dress, ornament attached to the person gradually yields to ornament attached to the dress, the more painful ornament-carrying mutilations being abandoned first. This shows that man is not, after all, quite an irrational being; occasionally he evinces a scintilla of common sense. The greater conservatism of woman makes her persist in ornament, even mutilation (car piercing, waist pinching), after man has totally abandoned such folly. but in such conservative relations as warrior, officer, or courtier, man still wears ornaments. Starr finds that "ornament dwindles with progress toward a true civilization," that " there is no place for ornament in a true democracy," and that "a revival of ornament indicates a retardation of democratic ideas."

The self differentiating impulse is still powerful

The passion for inequality lies very deep in human nature, and we Americans have our share. Brooks says:[3] " The lack of sympathy with heroic and unselfish attempts to realize equality is itself evidence of the common dislike of equality. One of the later experiments, at Ruskin, Tennessee, for which great hopes had been felt, has met disaster. I have gathered many opinions from the press, but among them all no kindly note of appreciation. Has the world at heart a fixed, unconscious hatred of equality? "

" Heraldry now is a charmed word for multitudes of very humble people. Librarians are suddenly plagued by the importunity for genealogical evidence of distinguished ancestry. Daughters of this and daughters of that; clubs, coteries, everywhere springing into life, bound to discover proof that they are not quite like other people. I saw a Colonial Dame flushed with delight be

(98) cause on a great occasion in another city her badge had given her showy precedence over certain of the Daughters of the Revolution, who at home never failed to let her feel her social inferiority. She said, 'In all my life no minute ever gave me a joy like that.'[4] The women need have no shame, they cannot outdo the men in this pursuit. Scarcely a town that is not gay with embellished orders stamped with every display of royal and knightly nomenclature. Read the list of officers from the Sublime Grand Master down, and ask what aristocracy in history ever went farther in its hunt for feathers. Two or three years ago there was a gathering of three or four orders in Boston. From a single copy of the Herald I take the following modest titles, - Grand Dictator, Grand Chancellor, Supreme President, Grand Vice Dictator, Supreme Warden. This outbreak is a- droll commentary upon a society that has found so much to ridicule in the 'haughty infirmities' of the Old World. It has sprung, however, straight from human nature.[5] We have won wealth and some leisure that have brought us into contact with foreign sources of distinction that we lack. No people ever displayed the passion for inequality more greedily than we. One builds a yacht, and if he can dine an English prince at the Cowes races, or entice the German emperor on board at Kiel, this single breath of royal atmosphere at once endows the enterprising host with

(99) the rarest social privileges at home. Every circle breaks at the touch of the king's hand.

" This craving to index one's self off from others, by any mark that can be hit upon, is not very vicious, perhaps not always bad, but it is the essence of inequality and shows how rooted an instinct it is within us. I asked the head of a fashionable city school about the parents that brought their daughters to her. 'It is,' she said, ' so unusual as to surprise me when a parent shows any other real anxiety than to secure for her child certain social connections. Education has no meaning except as it furthers this end.' If this is snobbish, what is it for working-girls' dubs to exclude household domestics? I have known Boston shop-girls at their dances to put up a placard marked 'No servants admitted.' No social group that can be named is free from this itching."

Democracy recognizes certain kinds of inequality

The healthy democratic spirit does not deny that there are important worth-differences among people, nor does it frown upon the passion for self-individualization. Its point of insistence is that the worth-degrees recognized by society ought to relate primarily to intellect, character, and achievement, rather than to apparel and equipage. The idea is that the attributes taken as the basis of social distinction should be deep-lying rather than superficial, important rather than trivial.

The fashion process has two movements

Fashion consists of (I) imitation, (2) differentiation. In imitation, the inferior asserts his equality with the supe- rior by copying him in externals. But this endeavor of the inferiors to assimilate themselves upward is countered by the effort of the superiors to differentiate themselves afresh from their inferiors by changing the style. The prompter the imitation of the inferior, the more frequently

(100) must a new fashion be launched. The death of a fashion is seen when feather boas go out as soon as the domestics have come to adopt them; when ladies renounce the bicycle because the servant girl has one. The terms " gentleman" and "lady" are abandoned as soon as common people employ them profusely.[6] Then it is remarked how " noble " are the ancient terms " man " and " woman " ! When the barber and the fortune-teller call themselves " Professor," the members of the college faculty discover the " simple dignity " that lies in the appellation " Mr. " The impulse to differentiate has been stimulated by the disappearance of class costume and the coming in of democratic competition. The fountains of the great deep have broken forth, and the artisan's wife on the frontier of civilization follows closely the Paris fashions. Thus Bryce[7] observes: "I remember to have been dawdling in a bookstore in a small town in Oregon, when a lady entered to inquire if a monthly magazine, whose name was unknown to me, had yet arrived. When she was gone I asked the salesman who she was and what was the periodical she wanted. He answered that she was the wife of a railway workman, that the magazine was a journal of fashions, and that the demand for such journals was large and constant among women of the wage-earning class in the town. This set me to observing female dress more closely, and it turned out to be perfectly true that the women in these little towns were

(101) following the Parisian fashions very closely and were, in fact, ahead of the majority of English ladies belonging to the professional and mercantile classes."

The suppression of competitive consumption

There have existed societies in which the inferior were not allowed presumptuously to vie with the superior. "In old Japan," says Hearn,[8] "sumptuary laws probably exceeded in multitude and minuteness anything of which Western legal history yields record." " Every class of Japanese society was under sumptuary regulation." " The nature of them is best indicated by the regulations applying to the peasantry. Every detail of the farmer's existence was prescribed for by law, - from the size, form, and cost of his dwelling, down even to such trifling matters as the number and the quality of the dishes to be served to him at meal-times." "A farmer with a property assessed at twenty koku (of rice) was not allowed to build a house more than thirty-six feet long, or to use in building it such superior qualities of wood as keyaki or hinoki. The roof of his house was to be made of bamboo thatch or straw; and he was strictly forbidden the comfort of floor mats. On the occasion of the wedding of his daughter he was forbidden to have fish or any roasted food served at the wedding feast. The women of his family were not allowed to wear leather sandals: they might wear only straw sandals or wooden clogs; and the thongs of the sandals or the clogs were to be made of cotton. Women were further forbidden to wear hair bindings of silk, or hair ornaments of tortoise-shells; but they might wear wooden combs and combs of bone -not ivory. The men were forbidden to wear stockings, and their sandals were to be made of bamboo. They were also forbidden

(102) to use sunshades, or paper umbrellas." "In Izumo I found that, prior to Meiji, there were sumptuary laws prescribing not only the material of the dresses to be worn by the various classes, but even the colors of them, and the designs of the patterns. The size of rooms, as well as the size of houses, was fixed there by law, -also the height of buildings and of fences, the number of windows, the material of construction."

The disappearance of sumptuary laws

Certain restrictions on the consumption of the lower classes prevailed in Europe during the later Middle Ages. Long since, however, these bulwarks to upper-class pride have been swept away, and there is now no station in life from which a person may not aspire to resemble those of a higher station.

Caste inhibits competitive consumption

In immobile caste societies the inferior does not think of aping the superior, and hence the superior is not obliged to devise new styles. Says Veblen:[9] "Certain relatively stable styles and types of costume have been worked out in various parts of the world; as, for instance, among the Japanese, Chinese, and other Oriental nations; likewise among the Greeks, Romans, and other Eastern peoples of antiquity; so also, in later times, among the peasants of nearly every country of Europe. These national or popular costumes are in most cases adjudged by competent critics to be more becoming, more artistic, than the fluctuating styles of modern civilized apparel. At the same time they are also, at least usually, less obviously wasteful; . . . They belong in countries and localities and times where the population, or at least the class to which the costume in question belongs, is relatively homogeneous, stable, and immobile. That is to say, stable

(103) costumes which will bear the test of time and perspective are worked out under circumstances where the norm of conspicuous waste asserts itself less imperatively than it does in the large modern civilized cities, whose relatively mobile, wealthy population to-day sets the pace in matters of fashion. "

Acceleration of the fasion process in a commercialized democracy

In our society acquired social values prevail over hereditary social values. The phrase "in the swim" gives a hint of the unstable medium in which one must support one's self. The style of living, therefore, quickly affects social standing, and we have no reason to marvel that so much rivalry is centred in this sphere. In feudal society one did not enhance his good repute so much by profuse expenditure as by scrupulous abstinence from all productive employment - "the performance of leisure," as Veblen aptly terms it. But when, with the prosperity of the towns, the principal incomes come from city commerce rather than from country estates, the basis of social grading comes to be conspicuous consumption rather than conspicuous leisure; for merchant princes and bankers, unlike rent receivers, must attend to business. They cannot delegate their affairs. Hence commercial aristocracies - such as those of Venice, Genoa, Florence, and Antwerp - are distinguished for a sumptuous manner of life, far more splendid than that of the feudal lords. It was they, in fact, who taught the feudal lords to dismiss their useless retainers and surround themselves with luxury. Now, ours is a hustle civilization, in which ostentatious idling enjoys no such social consideration as it did in the decadence of feudal society. Hence, a cut-throat competition for distinction is concentrated on style of living. Social racing, the endeavor of the inferior to ape

(104) the superior and of the superior to elude him by side, stepping or setting a hotter pace, becomes ever more frantic and taxing.[10]

Why fashions are becoming less stable

Fashions, consequently, are becoming less and less stable. Once fashion changed slowly. " Patching " stayed in a century, so also did the pointed shoes of Richard II. But, owing to the great abundance and cheapness of textile materials, the imitative power of the inferior has been greatly augmented. The wealth of society is great enough to permit the waste of fashion. A larger and larger share of its resources may be squandered in vying for social distinction. Formerly, garments were handed down from parents to children, and putting them aside in obedience to fashion would have been quite too prodigal; even now fashion staggers at fine lace, cashmere shawls, Persian rugs, etc. Again, the technique of imitation has improved. Says Sombart:[11] "It is one of the master tricks of our manufacturers for making their wares more salable to give them the appearance of those objects which enter into the consumption of a higher social stratum. It is the greatest pride of the clerk to wear the same shirts as the capitalist, of a servant girl to put on the same jacket as my lady, of Mrs. Butcher to own the same plush furniture as Mrs. Privy Councillor. This striving is as old as social differentiation, but never could it be so gratified as in our time when there are no longer limits to clever imitation, when, whatever the costliness of the material

(105) or the elaborateness of the form, a counterfeit can soon be put on the market at a tenth of the original price.

"Again, note the promptness - thanks to newspapers, fashion journals, travel, etc. - with which a new style becomes known to everybody.[12] When, a few years ago, the drummer unpacked his sample case in some out-of-the-way town, a circle of gaping spectators formed, and one exclamation of admiration after another escaped their lips. Now it is, 'Excuse me, but I recently read in my paper of such and such a style, you don't seem to have it here at all, my dear sir !' So, scarcely has the long ladies' paletot (Cost $20) penetrated to the knowledge of the belles of a provincial town, before the local merchants will be offering 'the same thing exactly' at $7.50. When with much trouble is devised a summer-shirt style that not every young fellow can afford, - the unstarched colored shirt with the attached cuffs, - the next summer

(106) every shop will carry fancy shirts of just the same pattern at 25 cents apiece. One who, in the possession of a walking-stick with silver-mounted handle, feels at last secure from the rivalry of the vulgar sees the next day the same thing with a cheap pewter handle offered at a quarter. Thus springs up a veritable steeplechase after new patterns and materials. This rapid vulgarization of every novelty forces those who take a proper pride in themselves to think constantly on devising new styles. This mad hunt for novelties becomes wilder and wilder with every advance in the technique of production and distribution."

Distinctive features of modern fashion

The characteristics of modern fashion as distinguished from earlier fashion are: -

1. The Immense Number of Objects to which it Extends. - It touches cravats, umbrellas, walking-sticks, visitingcards, note-paper, toilet articles, docking horses' tails, the high check-rein, the pug, the exaggerated bulldog, the German poodle "raised under a bureau," "a dog-and-a-half long and half-a-dog high !"

2. The Uniformity of Fashion. - In the Renaissance period fashion was limited to a single city or class. Now it knows no territorial or class limits. There is only one fashion at a time. The women look to Paris, the men look to London. If the Prince of Wales forgets his watch and shows himself in his opera box with no chain, every watch chain in the house disappears by the close of the first act.

3. The Maddening Tempo of the Changes of Fashion. A wave of fashion passes downward through all ranks and outward to the rim of the Occident with ever greater speed. Hence the waves must be more frequent if the superiors are to differentiate themselves successfully, and

(107) so the pulsations are ever swifter. In ladies' fashions there are sometimes four or five changes in a season.

The rebellion against rebellion

But there are influences undermining this tyranny. People may conform to a fashion to assimilate themselves to the superior, or in order not to be conspicuous. The latter class change as tardily as they dare and as little as they can. Their influence, therefore, is against extravagances of style and against frequent changes. They are always on the rear slope of the wave dragging it down. Since the number of such people of independent judgment, good taste, and appreciation of health and comfort is increasing, they will in time outnumber the pace setters, conformists, and fashionables. Already we have dropped such irrational badges of social standing as feet pinching, nose-rings, labrets, check slits, flattened crania, and other mutilations. Choking collars, high heels, trains, and face painting[13] will likewise go. The plane of intelligence and good sense is rising. From 1855 to 1865 all the women, including as sweet women as ever lived, wore the crinoline. Twice since then its return has been decreed, and twice the monstrosity has been beaten back into limbo. Not that we are to look for any immediate let-up in social competition; but the growing body of independent people will reduce the instability, tyranny, extravagance, hideousness,

(108) and irrationality of fashion, and thus cause social distinc. tion to be sought and won in other ways. A growing loathing for allotting social esteem according to purely factitious and superficial tests and an increasing respect for achievement and inner worth will blunt the keenness of the struggle for external conformity. It is not to be forgotten that up to the nineteenth century men were more slaves of fashion than women. They were emancipated by the democratic movement, which broke the back of male fashionableness by inducing the upper classes to accept the plain frock-coat of the bourgeoisie.

Liberalization of costume

Much can be done by association in dress reform. By cooperating radicals can keep one another in courage and countenance. The growing resort to athletics by women accustoms to unconventional and comfortable costume for gymnasium, tennis, rowing, cycling, and bathing, and thereby narrows the sway of fashion. The male competition that must be sustained by business and professional women also compels the rationalizing of dress. Reform will probably come, not by the general adoption of some costume in flat contrast to fashionable apparel, but by adding to the number of occasions on which rational costumes already devised may be worn.


Fashion springs from the desire to individualize one's self from one's fellows.

It consists of a succession of planes in respect to some feature or features of consumption.

It embraces two distinct processes - imitation and differentiation.

Fashion does not appear in a caste society and may be restrained by sumptuary regulations.

Democracy, when it is materialistic in spirit, stimulates competi. tion along the line of fashion.


Conformity to the fashionable style is more prompt and general than formerly, and the changes of fashion are more frequent.

The growth of intelligence causes the desire for self -individualization to seek satisfaction in other ways than fashion.


1. Trace in detail the route by which a Parisian style reaches our neighbors.

2. Why do all fashions tend to the extreme?

3. Who are more responsible for fashion absurdities-the women who wear them or the men who are pleased by them?

4. Why is it that among the animals it is the male that exhibits the iridescent plumage, comb, wattles, antlers, ruff, crest, or peacock tail, while among us it is the female that displays the gorgeous feathers?

5. Show that the fashions, far from refining taste, actually debase it.

6. Why is rivalry in consumption less pronounced among farmers than among people of corresponding means in the city?

7. Is a religious leader to be commended for requiring his followers to renounce the extravagances of fashion and to dress simply ?

8. Show that the imitating of superiors instead of ancestors in point of costume tends to the equalizing of social classes.


  1. "The Theory of the Leisure Class," 177
  2. "The Theory of the Leisure Class," 131.
  3. "The Social Unrest," 233-236.
  4. She calls to mind the lady who assured Herbert Spencer that the consciousness of being perfectly well dressed gave her "a peace such as religion cannot give."
  5. "When a man has discovered why men in Bond Street wear black hats, he will at the same moment have discovered why men in Timbuctoo wear red feathers." - CHESTERTON, " Heretics," 143,
  6. To a Baltimore hospital was brought a negress with a bad bite on the back of her neck. While dressing it the surgeon remarked: "I can't imagine what animal made this wound. It is too large for the bite of a cat or dog and too small for the bite of a horse." "'Deed, sub," exclaimed the patient, "it wa'n't no animal at all. It wuz anudder lady !"
  7. "The American Commonwealth," II, ch. CIV.
  8. "Japan: An Interpretation," 182, 184, 186.
  9. "The Theory of the Leisure Class," 75.
  10. I When more than half of San Francisco was wiped out, it was noticed that many did not feel their losses as much as might have been anticipated. One reason was that the losses were so universal that the losers suffered in creature comforts but not in social consideration. All were in the same boat, so there was no place for envy.
  11. " Das moderne Kapitalismus," II, 343-344.
  12. I Says Miss Moss (Atlantic, 94, p. 265): "Addison's Spectator tells how 'a fashion makes its progress much slower into Cumberland than Cornwall. I have heard that the Steenkirk (a military cravat dating from the battle nineteen years before) arrived but two months ago at Newcastle.' In sober truth, it took longer for Edinburgh to hear the news of Waterloo than it now does for Freeland, Pennsylvania, to learn that white was worn at the Grand Prix. After that Freeland also wore white until an English duchess came out in scarlet, upon which, by some magic tour de force in the dry-goods trade, Freeland immediately turned geranium color. Formerly, even in great cities, a fashion required some time to permeate the masses; now a fresh mode strikes the whole continent broadside, reaching all classes simultaneously. The Plaza, Madison Avenue, the Tenderloin, and Rivington Street all wear the same costume at Easter, varying only in fineness of material, not a whit in general effect. The cunningest Heloise or Annette in her Fifth Avenue 'Petit Paris,' strive as she may, cannot keep her one-hundred-and-fifty-dollar 'confection' one little move ahead of apparel marked 'Four ninety-eight' in Fourteenth Street, and 'One ninety-eight' on the Bowery."
  13. After all, we have come some distance from what Mrs. Bent saw in Arabia. "I never saw such dreadful objects as the women make of themselves by painting their faces. When they lift their veils one would hardly think them human. I saw eyes painted to resemble blue and red fish, with their heads pointing to the girl's nose. The upper part of the face was yellow, the lower green with small black spots, a green stripe down the nose, the nostrils like two red cherries, the paint being shiny. Three red stripes were on the forehead, and there was a red mustache, there being also green stripes on the yellow cheeks."-" Southern Arabia," 123.

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