Transformations of Fashion: On the rise of a new democracy in fashion and its consequences
Department of Sociology University of Vienna Vienna, Austria
In my talk I want to discuss two intersecting processes taking place in the realm of fashion: on the one hand, the slow disappearing of the labels ?high? and ?low? in fashion, and on the other hand the dissolving of boarders between fashion design and art. With Bourdieu?s theory of class distinction and his approach to the artistic field in mind, I will investigate the consequences of these transformations.
The growth of low-priced fashion-chains such as H&M, Mango, Zara, etc., has lead to what I want to call a ?democratization? of fashion. Due to very short production cycles and the use of low-cost materials, the dominant fashion-chains can make apparel affordable for everyone that is very similar to that seen on the ready-to-wear-shows of Paris and New York accessible to a mass market. This tendency of copying high-fashion has changed the clientele of fashion-chains throughout the last years, which now consists of customers of a broad socioeconomic spectrum. My thesis is that this process results in the attenuation of class distinction in apparel, or to speak with Veblen, in the decrease of fashion?s ability to serve the purpose of ?conspicuous consumption?.
Because of this development, today high-end fashion labels have to directly compete with cheap clothing-chains. Expensive fashion companies seek to preserve their brand essence, which is the aura of uniqueness and luxury attached to their products. The best example for such a strategy is the one pursued by fashion designer Marc Jacobs, currently creative director of the French luxury label Louis Vuitton. He has collaborated with several performing artists, such as Richard Prince, creating Louis Vuitton handbags in limited editions. Ownership of such a handbag is - following Bourdieu?s theory of class distinction - an act of social distinction, giving the owner the feeling of exclusiveness. When the handbag is created in part by an artist and is, similar to ?conventional? art, available only to a limited clientele, the fetish attributed to art is conferred upon the fashion accessory which thus becomes a super-exclusive medium of distinction.
Further theoretical implications on these developments will be outlined in my contribution.