THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
Before the Industrial Revolution, Fashion functioned solely as a tool for the ARISTROCRACY to signify their class position in society, through elaborate displays of Wealth and Opulence.
This functioned to reinforce societal class boundaries through what GEORGE SIMMEL theorised in 1902 as the TRICKLE DOWN EFFECT…
‘Fashion was created by an elite in societies where mobility forms part of the social fabric and meant that trends “trickle down” from high status groups in society in order to be emulated by lower status groups who want to climb the social ladder. Once the higher status groups begin to feel threatened by their lower counterparts their fashions changed in order to differentiate themselves and maintain their alleged distinction’ (Vestoj, 2011)
At this point ‘Fashion’ was highly undemocratic, as tool of Material Culture which operated to keep people in their place. Only the richest in society could mark themselves as ‘FASHIONABLE’.
Fashion Historians mark the INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION as the first major catalyst triggering the democratisation of fashion. This is due to mass-production which allowed for the quick production of the latest styles at affordable prices.
This destabilised class boundaries, opening up ‘fashion’ as ‘a mode of expression for the masses’; something which has evolved to form the FAST FASHION we understand today.
However as WILSON (1985) highlights this democratisation only ‘operat[ed] as far as style was concerned…for differences in the quality of clothes and the materials in which they are made, still strongly mark class difference’.
Wilson’s argument challenge the long-held assumption of the democratic nature of fast-fashion. Rather rigidly defining fashion on the opinions of a few stakeholders season upon season reinforces class boundaries as only the wealthiest can access the the authentic design, quality craftsmanship and creativity which constitutes ‘true fashion’. The rest of the population are conditioned to consume poor-quality, watered-down carbon copies, which continue to mark difference.
The youth quake in the mid twentieth century, alongside many other challenges to the dominant culture, brought about a new way of spreading fashion, one that ensured that the “bubble up” effect was as important as the ‘trickle down’ one’.
A second moment in history, which scholars understand as integral to fashion’s democratisation, is the 1960’s Youthquake Revolution (Lobenthal, 2009).
YOUTHQUAKE elevated ‘Street Fashion’ to wrench dominance away from the Parisian Couture houses which held the monopoly on fashion up until this point, producing fashion exclusively for ‘kept women…[with a] snobbery designed to make everyone feel inferior’.
Fashion was democratised by YOUTHQUAKE, through the evolution of ready-to-wear clothing, created by designers of this generation which produced a different, original and affordable interpretation of ‘fashion’ for popular culture and the mass population.
It’s powerful influence as a counter-cultural movement is clear in it’s legacy; ‘Street-style’ has served as key source of inspiration for those contributing to the discourse of ‘fashion’ ever since.
However, as Lobenthal (2009) highlights, it’s democratic value lessened as the boundaries between couture and the high-street were eroded by Ready to Wear, evolving into the Fast Fashion system currently structuring the industry. This has re-confined the definition of ‘fashion’ to the hands of a select few, again excluding lower income groups from ‘true’ fashion.