Fashion Theory: Fields of Fashion

Part 3 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
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Meryl Streep, playing a stereotypical powerful fashion editor in The Devil Wears Prada.

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was known as a sociologist of culture. He was a respected thinker on subjects like culture, taste, class and cultural practices. Born in a small country village to a working class family, one of his key topics of discussion was class. He looked at ordinary rather than high culture, which wasn’t usual for the time. His key work was Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, and he also discusses fashion in the ‘Haute Couture and Haute Culture’ chapter in Sociology in Question. He thought that taste was an arbitrary construction – after all, the dominant taste is the taste of the dominant people.

When Bourdieu talks about fields, he means the field of cultural production. For example, the only way you can truly understand a painting is to locate it within its field – the field of fine art/painting at the time – looking at who was working, who was in a dominant position and what was deemed ‘good’ at the time. So, in the field of fashion today, we would need to ask:

  • What is good fashion?
  • What is good taste?
  • What is in/out of fashion?
  • Who has the power?
  • Who are the players?
  • How do new trends/fashions become legitimised?
  • What are the forces at work?
Kate Moss by Rankin (1998)
Moss has ‘social capital’.

Bourdieu was a systematic thinker, understanding the concepts and then using the theory as a tool. He looked at struggles between individuals – e.g. established players versus newcomers, with different stakes and views on how they should operate. He used a rather sporting vocabulary, with words such as players, struggle, dominant and established. He also talks about capital and why it is important to understand which type of capital is valued in the field you are analysing: cultural capital (i.e. qualifications, knowledge); symbolic capital (i.e. where you were born/studied, status, legitimacy, aura); social capital (connections, networks); and economic capital (money, or course!). In addition, there are also subfields – large scale production and restricted production.

In Bourdieu’s work on taste, he references the Kantian aesthetic. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) had a philosophy on what is beautiful and how we define beauty. He tried to find the parameters for what we define as beautiful. Kant valued the mind over the body, but Bourdieu wanted to dispute this. The Kantian aesthetic valued form over content, disinterest, and “art for art’s sake”. It’s about contemplation – a constructed appreciation of art. Bourdieu argues that this is a cultural construction – this dominant aesthetic has been made dominant by the Bourgeoisie. Bourgeois people are trained to appreciate art this way. The Pure / Bourgeois Aesthetic focuses on the mind, form, restraint, reverence and silence. The Popular / Working Class Aesthetic concentrates on the body, materiality, content and function. This helps us to understand why fashion has a problem being classed as art, because it’s about the body and, well… money! It performs a function other than decoration, which art usually does not do.

Next week, I shall share my lecture notes on Michel Foucault.

2 thoughts on “Fashion Theory: Fields of Fashion

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  1. Thanks for posting this. I didn’t realise that Bordieu was responding to Kant. Much food for thought here. I think the distinction between the pure/popular aesthetic can work in fashion when the two are confused together: High street meeting catwalk, and fashion can become very interesting then, and perhaps terminologically imprecise through the view of culture capital.

    i love this series 🙂

    M

    1. I’m so glad you like the series. I have a couple more to write up, and hopefully will have more time for that now that my first MA essay has been handed in 🙂

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