Fashion Theory

Dec 12, 2011: Clothing, Fashion, & Style Defined Further + Table of Contents

It’s been a while since I posted in the Theory section, and I apologize for that… The blog is just getting to cover so much that I can barely handle it!! That’s why some content more focused on the Chinese fashion industry will be posted on China Fashion Collective, while the more anthropology/theory stuff will be posted on chinesepeoplehave[no]style? 吗.

Anyway, I’m writing this post because of a comment I got from Susan Tiner, who has some interesting thoughts on the definition and origin of “fashion”. Here is a quote from her blog from Judith Thurman, who makes an interesting connection between Neanderthals and fashion:

“They [Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens] coexisted for some eight thousand years, until the Neanderthals withdrew or were forced, in dwindling numbers, toward the arid mountains of southern Spain, making Gibraltar a final redoubt. It isn’t known from whom or from what they were retreating (if “retreat” describes their migration), though along the way the arts of the newcomers must have impressed them. Later Neanderthal campsites have yielded some rings and awls carved from ivory, and painted or grooved bones and teeth (nothing of the like predates the arrival of Homo sapiens). The pathos of their workmanship—the attempt to copy something novel and marvellous by the dimming light of their existence—nearly makes you weep. And here, perhaps, the cruel notion that we call fashion, a coded expression of rivalry and desire, was born.”

This is much earlier than when I first identified “fashion” in Western civilization (probably around 1000 A.D.), but I do agree with this interesting notion. I think fashion goes beyond a simple “coded expression of rivalry and desire”, but it does sum up “fashion” pretty well… Or at least what it originally was. It has since then morphed into something different, with style becoming an important element of this system… I did a historical derivative in my thesis, and after re-reading it I know I have some editing and tweaking to do on my definition, but I think there are some important points in it. I hope all of you keeping up with this section will appreciate this definition, and I would highly encourage your comments and feedback so we can come to the best definition possible!!

Defining Fashion and Style [from my senior thesis, so it needs a lot of editing still]

Fashion can thus be considered as an industry that includes and employs runways, models, ad campaigns, brand image, magazines, and aesthetics to sell its own products and generate profit. Fashion exists in an “imaginary” sphere (for lack of a better word) because images are contrived, aspirational, and hyperbolic to create an ‘artificial’ brand image. Fashion is highly objective, as truly novel ‘fashion’ is compromised for a mass aesthetic; business is profit-motivated, and thus the transferability of objects is essential to selling considerable quantities of product. Thus, fashion is objective because it is able to be transferred from person to person and carry the same meaning [106]. In this way, fashion is imitative and adoptive (meaning adopted as opposed to adapted) as it conforms to artificial trends and tastes of current ‘arbiters of fashion’; furthermore, it depends on an economic imperative in order to be able to conform to fashion arbitration. Lastly, fashion is self-referential in that it has to be conscious of its own past in order to progress [107].

is only related to fashion in that it utilizes the products of fashion in order to exist outside of fashion’s imaginary realm; the goal is to create a truly unique (meaning subjective) visual manifestation of an individual’s psychological schema. Thus style occurs in the “street” sphere, as it originates by utilizing the structural component of the fashion sphere [108] in order to exercise autonomous choice and perform/create personal expression within the “street” sphere. Style does not conform to fashion arbitration, and similarly does not go “in and out of fashion”. Most importantly, style is highly subjective as it is possible to eradicate any form of imitation in favor of a singular visual expression of the self (all individuals are ‘different’). Single garments interact with both other garments and the individual’s physical and psychological attributes to create an entire manifestation of a very specific construction of personal identity formation and thus any single component cannot be transferred and carry the same meaning to another individual.109 Style thus depends most heavily on a strong psychological schema in order to create a truly individualized “style” and manipulate fashion to visually display such a construction of identity. Lastly, style is not self-referential, although style inspirations can be more numerous than fashion inspirations; style is less ephemeral and is not limited to a temporal context when being considered “stylish.”110

Thus, fashion and style have mutually necessitated but undermined each other’s existence. Digital democratization of fashion in particular has served to perpetuate the emergence and existence of both concepts globally, and the discordant relationship between fashion and style in emerging fashion markets such as China has created unique manifestations of both concepts. This unique functioning of the concepts of fashion and style has helped to propel conspicuous consumption of peripheral goods by major Western fashion houses and has rendered China as the largest emerging market for designer products [111], but the most potential has been realized in conspicuous peripheral fashion goods.

106 However, certain perceptions of particular juxtapositions direct the entire understanding of the individual.
107 Lehmann, Tigersprung, pg. xvii.
108 This usually means storefronts, although digital designer retail is expanding consumption possibilities.
109 This is similar to the “commutation test” in linguistics and applies readily to style as style is a visual language through which one constructs a personal expression of identity. Style is similar to linguistics in that changing one component of the entire structure changes the meaning of the whole. “Linguistics offers the commutation test: Suppose we have a structure given in its entirety. The commutation test consists of artificially varying one term of this structure and observing whether this variations introduces a change in the reading or the usage of the given structure.” (Barthes, Roland. The Fashion System. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983, pg. 19 – 20.)
110 Style can exist outside of the artificial constructs of trend and taste, but style is apathetic to such social constructs.

And just in case you were wondering, this was the title of my senior thesis, and my Table of Contents is just below so you can see how I organized my work. Again, I’d appreciate any feedback on improving this!!

Aug 22, 2011: Clothing, Fashion, & Style Defined + Works Cited

After the WWD Article on and my other main project China Fashion Collective earlier this month, I got some really positive feedback on both the blog and the agency, particularly from Chinese Americans; However, I also received some negative feedback, mostly about how scarce this Fashion Theory tab is in terms of, well, theory. I have to admit that I don’t tend to this page very often (you can see the last post was in January, and I’ve only made two posts in total), but Fashion Theory is central to understanding the premise of my blog, so it’s definitely time for a substantial update.

First, I wanted to explain the difference between clothing, fashion, and style. This took me 56 pages in my senior thesis to historically derive and define; however, most English speakers can understand the nuanced difference amongst the words although they are used interchangeably in press and media today. Here are the most concise definitions I could come up with:

Clothing = Modesty or Survival – First appeared 170,000 years ago, and it depends on your point of view to determine if “clothing” was originally intended for reasons of modesty or practicality, such as keeping warm. Today “clothing” doesn’t exist in it’s original form in most societies.

Fashion = Clothing + Emergent Functions (Adornment, Social Stratification, and Imitation) – Later Fashion became the industry which produces all “clothing” which can now all be considered “fashion”

Style = Fashion + the Self – With “style”, everyone is a creator. An individual takes what “fashion” offers it in terms of garments and accessories, considers the self (given attributes like hair color, skin color, body shape, etc.), and creates an individual “style” in the real world (street style).

Style is the most advanced form of clothing, while fashion itself can be seen as a bit dated of a concept but continually transforms itself to remain the ultimate expression of modernity. However, style is timeless and more personal than commercialized and hyperbolic fashion, and this is what people must understand… Right now China consumes mainly fashion, but can’t translate it into their own style. It’s getting there though, and this is the premise of my blog.

And the blog all started with my thesis, which started with books written by some pretty smart people… Here is my Works Cited with all the references I made in my 137 page thesis, so I hope this helps those of you interested in fashion theory find what you’re looking for (the ones in bold are particularly good).

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Fashion System. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

Bell, Quentin. On Human Finery. New York: Schocken Books, 1978.

Benjamin, Walter, and Rolf Tiedemann. The Arcades Project. Cambridge, Mass. u.a: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Benstock, Shari, and Suzanne Ferriss. On Fashion. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

Boucher, François, and Yvonne Deslandres. 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1987.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.

“China.” 19 Mar. 2009. CIA. World Factbook. 15 Feb. 2008 .

China’s middle-class set to boost success of luxury brands.” Press release. TNS Global Website. 12 Mar. 2007. TNS Global, China. 3 May 2007 .

“Cinema Vérité Vuitton.” 29 Jan. 2008. FWD Dispatch. 28 Feb. 2009

Crane, Diana. Fashion and its Social Agendas : Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

DeJean, Joan E. The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour. New York: Free Press, 2005.

Didi-Huberman, Georges. “The Imaginary Breeze: Remarks on the Air of the Quattrocento.” Journal of Visual Culture 2 (2003): 275-89.

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge illustrated history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Finnane, Antonia. Changing Clothes in China : Fashion, History, Nation. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008

Focillon, Henri, Charles Beecher Hogan, and George Kubler. Vie Des Formes. English; the Life of Forms in Art. New Haven, Yale University Press; London, H. Milford: Oxford University Press, 1942.

Flugel, John C. The Psychology of Clothes. New York: AMS Press, 1976.
Gendlin, E.T. “The Primacy of the Body, Not the Primacy of Perception.” Man and World (1992): 341-53.

“Gucci: In the business of selling ‘dreams'” Interview, Robert Polet, Gucci Group CEO. Insead: The Business School for the World. 30 Dec. 2008. 5 Mar. 2009 .

Horyn, Cathy. “Citizen Anna.” The New York Times 1 Feb. 2007. Fashion and Style. 1 Feb. 2007 .

Horyn, Cathy. “Q & A: Nicolas Ghesquiere.” Weblog post. New York Times Blog. 29 June 2007. 15 Nov. 2008 .

Horyn, Cathy. “Q & A: Alber Elbaz.” Weblog post. New York Times Blog. 17 June 2007. 15 Nov. 2008 .

Kan, Yue Sai. Television Entrepenuer Personal Interview. E-mail interview. 21 Sept. 2008.

Kessous, Guila C. “An Overview of French Fashion Culture.” The French Fashion Industry. Center for European Studies, Cambridge, Massachusettes. 3 Feb. 2009.

Kondo, Dorinne K. About Face : Performing Race in Fashion and Theater. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Kun, Lu. Interview. 4 Aug. 2008.

Kynge, James. China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future and the Challenge for America. Boston: Mariner Books, 2007.

Lehmann, Ulrich. Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2000.

Marx, David W. Going Ape: ‘A Bathing Ape’ Street-Wear and the Culture of Fashion for Japanese Youth in the 1990s. Thesis. Harvard College, 2001. Cambridge: Harvard University, 2001.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media; The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton. “LVMH – 2008 Annual Report.” Annual Report. LVMH. 5 Feb. 2009. 15 Feb. 2009 .

Morning Sun. Dir. Carma Hinton and Gereme Barmé. Prod. Jane Balfour. DVD. NAATA, 2005.

Myerson, Rebecca M. The Psychological Impact of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Thesis. Harvard College, 2007. Cambridge: Harvard University, 2007.

Ortiz, Fernando. Contrapunteo Cubano Del Tabaco y El Azúcar. English; Cuban Counterpoint, Tobacco and Sugar. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Pan, Lynn. Shanghai Style: Art and Design between the Wars. San Francisco: Long River Press, 2008.

Pasols, Paul-Gérard. Louis Vuitton. The Birth of Modern Luxury. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005.

Pfanner, Eric. “Vuitton Ads Venture onto Television.” 29 Jan. 2008. International Herald Tribune. 28 Feb. 2009.

Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. The Princeton Economic History of the Western world. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Ribeiro, Aileen. Fashion in the French Revolution. London: B.T. Batsford, 1988.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 2003.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.

Simmel, Georg. “Fashion.” The American Journal of Sociology 62: Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1957, 541-58.

Stelter, Brian. “YouTube Videos Pull In Real Money.” New York Times Blog 10 Dec. 2008. Media and Advertising. 8 Jan. 2009 .

Tang, Mimi. Gucci Group Asia CEO Personal Interview. E-mail interview. 12 Aug. 2008.

Wright, Terence. The Photography Handbook. Media practice. New York: Routledge, 1999.

“TNS Says China to More Than Double its Share of Global Consumption of Luxury Goods by 2016.” TNS Global Website. 3 Dec. 2007. News Centre, London. 5 Nov. 2009 .

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2007.

Wang, Jing. Brand New China: Adverising, Media, and Commercial Culture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Wen, Chihua, and Bruce Jones. The Red Mirror: Children of China’s Cultural Revolution. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995.

“‘Where Will Life Take You?’ A Major Screen Premiere for Louis Vuitton.” LVMH Magazine. 6 Mar. 2008. LVMH. 27 Feb. 2009

Wilson, Eric. “Gorbachev Made Me Buy It.” 26 July 2007. New York Times. 25 Feb. 2009 http:/

Zhang, Aileen. “A Chronicle of Changing Clothes.” Trans. Andrew F. Jones. Positions: East Asia Culture Critique 11 2003: 427-41.

Jan 12, 2011: Conspicuous Consumption and Leisure

Economist and Sociologist Thorstein Veblen in Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) introduced the important concepts of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure (the Wikipedia definitions are actually not the best, but it definitely explains the basic ideas and some important details).

At chinesepeoplehavenostyle, the thing I despise most about sartorial practices in China is what I call “primitive consumption“. This is a result of Chinese people only wanting to consume conspicuously (as they have experienced new wealth), and only wearing the most conspicuous pieces from big (expensive) designer brands (i.e. Burberry Tartan, LV Monogram, etc.).

What’s even worse about the Chinese situation is that Chinese people are doing it with not only the real thing but also with counterfeits!! Someone, please make it stop!

But as theory predicts, as China creates a class of consumers that have had wealth for a long time, there will be more and more wealthy consumers that will consume inconspicuously (and hopefully as a result, there will be less of a propensity within society to imitate this “style” of dress)… Like the well-seasoned fashion consumer in the West, they won’t be so tasteless as to declare their social status so loudly. It will become more insinuated and nuanced, and I can’t WAIT for this to happen.

Here’s one page from Theory of the Leisure Class that I really like that introduces some ideas about conspicuous leisure:

If you want to read more Theory of the Leisure Class by Veblen, download it HERE

If you want to see a funny way conspicuous consumption occurs in China, look HERE

Nov 27, 2010: Imitation

FINALLY! Some basic but essential fashion theory for you all to sink your teeth into:

Of particular importance here is the concept of the dualistic nature of man… On one hand, he wishes to be an individual, but on the other he wants the comfort afforded by conformity (conformity is certainly more attractive to the average Chinese consumer).

So if you want to read the entire article (and I encourage that you do), you’ll have to follow the link below:

Published: December 1, 2010