Understanding the Concept of Fashion


Fashion is a complex system of signs and symbols that conveys a wide range of personal, cultural and social meanings. The elements of clothing style, color, pattern, fabric, accessories and brand all communicate meaning – from personal identity, status and age to historical and political context, mood and emotion, group membership and life stages. The concept of fashion is a highly contested one, as it can be perceived to embody either conformity with dominant norms or individuality and creativity.

Fashions change over time, influenced by culture, history, location and era. They can also vary within a culture, as different age groups, classes and sexes have their own established fashions.

In recent decades, media coverage of fashion has increased significantly – fueled in part by social media. This has led to a greater awareness and discussion of fashion as an important aspect of human culture.

Historically, the way people dress has been seen as a mirror of society. For example, the dress collection at the V&A reflects the social attitudes of a particular year and provides a snapshot of what was considered fashionable. This is a very misleading mirror, however, as fashions are constantly changing and what may be fashionable one day can be viewed as old-fashioned or outdated the next.

The distorted reflection of society is even more apparent in the way that clothes and accessories are marketed to consumers. The brightly packaged, perfect and auratic products on display in shops and on screens obscure their origins and supply chains as well as the skills of their makers and their contributions to the world’s stock of natural capital.

It is not just the sartorial choices of musicians and pop stars that are influencing what we wear today, as politicians, royalty and even business executives are wearing the latest styles. The fashion industry has become so interconnected that the newest trends can be seen on the streets of Paris, in shops of London and New York and in the pages of magazines.

It is no longer necessary to be a member of the upper class or wealthy to have access to and wear fashion, which has resulted in the increasing popularity of high street brands and fast-fashion stores. This has also accelerated the rate at which trends appear, with many popular styles quickly becoming out of date and replaced by new, updated versions. This rapid turnover of fashions can be unsettling for those who prefer a more timeless approach to their style. It is, therefore, essential to understand and respect that not everyone can be a ‘fashionista’ – the term used for those who slavishly follow the latest trends.