Fashion Theory: Trickle-Down

Part 1 of a 6-part series on aspects of fashion theory, specifically cultural studies and object analysis. Written partly to reassure myself that I do understand the concepts and partly to help clarify things for others, this post is based on notes I took during a lecture at London College of Fashion by Dr Agns Rocamora

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts on fashion theory. As I learn about the concepts which form the basis of modern fashion theory, I shall attempt to condense those thoughts as best I can and share them as a blog post. Hopefully this will be a useful way for me to process what I have learnt, as well as being of interest to readers of Rarely Wears Lipstick.

“The Woman of Fashion” by James Tissot

Many historians believe that the late 13th/early 14th Century is when fashion as we know it first began as this is when styles of dress started changing more frequently. The Industrial Revolution in the UK was also extremely important for fashion due to faster cheaper production methods, and new communication technology which brought us the first fashion magazines. These dramatic changes in society were of great interest to sociologists, and a couple of them published their thoughts on fashion in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) was an American economist and sociologist whose book The Theory of the Leisure Class was published in 1899. In the 19th century, there was a great divide between those who had leisure time and those who had none. He was trying to understand the split between upper (leisure) class and lower (industrial) class in the US and was interested in the divorce between the classes. Men in the leisure class tried to distinguish themselves by the acquisition of possessions and one of the key possessions was… a wife! Women of this class served men by the way they displayed their husband’s wealth, and this was often done through fashion. In fact, as 19th Century values required men to wear a rather drab suit, it became the duty of women to display the wealth. However, women were often dismissed as superficial for caring only for fashion, despite the fact that this was what society demanded of them.

Veblen’s principles of fashion highlighted the leisure class’s predilection for conspicuous waste and conspicuous leisure. He commented that they thought ‘dress must not only be conspicuously expensive and inconvenient; it must at the same time be up to date.’ Crinolines and corsets displayed conspicuous leisure as they restricted movement – there’s no way a woman dressed like that could possibly perform everyday tasks without assistance. These garments also constructed the feminine as weaker, and highlighted class differences. The leisure class needed an obvious way to differentiate themselves from the industrial class – hence their ever changing dress. Veblen said that the upper classes would come up with a new style of dress which would become desirable, and then the lower classes would copy… hence trickle-down*.

“The Milliner’s Shop” by James Tissot

Georg Simmel (1858-1918) was a German sociologist and philosopher who was interested in the social changes of the 19th century. At the heart of his work is dualism, and he looked at the tensions between opposites (e.g. stillness/movement, production/consumption). Veblen was very critical of fashion, but Simmel was more sympathetic. He tried to find out which dualism was at the heart of fashion. The main focus is sameness and difference – wanting to be liked and wanting to be different, individuality and belonging. Expressing one’s belongingness to a class and difference from other classes. Simmel was also interested in gender. In the late 19th/early 20th century, fashion was mostly feminine. Fashion was the only way for women to display agency (power) as it was the only thing available to them. Although men told them to dress that way, the women could use fashion to create a sense of identity and expression.

The trickle-down theory, as discussed by Veblen and Simmel, is mostly focused on class and so has less relevance in today’s fragmented lifestyle-orientated society. Despite the fact that some influence still trickles down from the catwalk to the high street, 21st century trends can come from places other than the top of the traditional fashion hierarchy. Almost anyone can become a fashion influencer these days.

*NOTE: Veblen and Simmel never used the term trickle-down. It was coined by a journalist in the mid-20th Century.

4 thoughts on “Fashion Theory: Trickle-Down

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  1. Now this is a very interesting take on fashion that I’ve never considered. I’m currently reading Theory of the Leisure class and I thought it was quite bold how Veblen points out how women (as a wife) are a form of showing one’s wealth.

    This trickle down thesis about the classes reminds me of something I read in Catherine Hakim’s ‘Honey Money’, which I reviewed a while back. Basically when its seen how the well to do classes do something, everyone else wants to take part. I think this is still true today, but what we consider as a well to do class isn’t necessarily the wealthy, which I take to be your point that anyone can be an influencer.

    In other words: who we consider cool can be our influencer, whether that’s an urbane group of stylish men in Croydon or a Hollywood leading actor. I’m trying to dig up where the trickle down metaphor came from in the Hakim text.

    *two mintues later* Norbert Elias’ thesis of ‘civilising’

    Always a pleasure to read you. Now you are encroaching upon my reading interests now! Looking forward to more fashion theory posts 🙂

    1. Thanks for finding where the phrase “trickle down” came from! I had a quick Google for it, but nothing came up. I agree that there is still a certain amount of trickle-down influence these days, but it’s rarely class based. Even Kate Middleton only influences fashion because of her celebrity status – I doubt as many people would care if she wasn’t in the papers.

      I’m loving my lectures so far and have another fashion thyeory post planned for next week, so I’m glad you enjoyed reading this one. Having nefer studied sociology or cultural studies before, this is a whole new world to me!

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