Saturday, November 21, 2009

The (Frightening?) Function of Fashion

While I’m on the subject of color, allow me to turn for a moment to the topic of fashion or style—a topic I personally find to be simultaneously fascinating and vaguely disturbing, not to mention yet another excellent illustration of some of the points I’ve been trying to make about the nature and influence of culture on the human experience.

Color plays an often-central role in the distinguishing of different styles or fashions in modern American society (I have no doubt it does so in other societies as well, but I’m going to limit myself to speaking of areas with which I have some personal familiarity). Certain colors are associated with specific seasons, years, or decades, and clothing, décor, and items whose coloration fails to align with the current chromatic expectations is immediately deemed “out of style.”

Of course, color is not the only element that identifies something as being in or out of style. Size, shape, and outline are some others, as will become apparent if you compare the cut of clothing, the contour of cars, and the construction of couches that are produced from year to year. I find it fascinating that it is possible to identify the decade, and sometimes even the year and month, in which an article of clothing was created to be worn just by looking at it. Or to look at toys currently being sold and to see how distinctly different they look from toys with the exact same functions (a dollhouse, a swingset, a baby bouncer) being sold back when I was a child.

The thing I find vaguely disturbing about this phenomenon is that it is one of the most blatant ways in which I see culture being mobilized to trick people into doing things they otherwise wouldn’t be inclined to do, in ways that just happen to benefit the people who are perpetuating the trickery. When we become convinced that “style” is a necessary concern when it comes to the various products we employ (rather than focusing purely on functionality), then we can be enticed to purchase a new sweater/backpack/refrigerator even though the one we currently possess is still perfectly capable of performing its designated task, and to do so as often as the people who make these products (and thus benefit from increased demand for their purchase) choose to alter their color or shape and thereby proclaim previous shapes and colors to be hopelessly demodé.

I distinctly remember when I first took note of this phenomenon. Back when I was in high school, stick-straight hair was considered far superior to any other style, and I watched many a girl not naturally endowed with such tresses spend weeks saving up to buy a ceramic straightener, beg her parents for de-frizzing gels and conditioners, and even undergo the painful and expensive process of chemical straightening. A few years later soft, wavy curls became the rage, and not only did the once-fortunate straight-hair girls have to go out to buy diffusers, mousse, and curlers to achieve the coveted look—so did the once-naturally-curly-haired ones who had undergone permanent straightening. Even then I marveled at the brilliance of this marketing ploy.

Now, I am not here making the argument that fashion and style are inherently worthless and evil things with which we shouldn’t be at all concerned (not that I wouldn’t make that argument if asked; simply that this is not the place for me to do so). But what I am concerned about is the way that the assumption that style is a valuable consideration when it comes to the products we purchase and employ has come, through cultural imposition and imitation, to be taken for granted and left utterly unquestioned.

This is one of the (many) reasons I think a more attuned awareness to the anthropology of the everyday is worthwhile to pursue. It helps us to see the way that culture can be used to control us, and allows us to decide for ourselves, more thoughtfully and consciously, what factors and considerations are really important in guiding the way we live our lives.


  1. I like the phrase "production of desire" to talk about these things---it gets around people's tendency to think about desires as innate or natural. Desire for straight or curly hair is a product!

  2. eh, I think - although more and more what you say is true (that trends are consciously fabricated to create a market rather than the demand for something different creating it itself) - fashion is not some new thing only come into being since slick marketers came up with it, it pretty much developed as soon as basic things like decent clothes and the like began to be within the budget of ordinary people, so that the middle classes terrified of being mistaken for common oiks had to invent new styles to distinguish themselves.

    I actually heard that the "scientific revolution" was one such trend that resulted from more widespread literacy and the need to prove that you were still more educated than the hoi polloi.

  3. I think you're completely right that this phenomenon is one that is by no means limited to the present era, nor to clothing fashions. What I was trying to point out here was that this is one of the ways that culture can be seen to manipulate people's choices and behaviors—now as well as in countless moments of the past.


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