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"Fashion" in Women's Clothes and the American Social System

Author(s): Bernard Barber and Lyle S. Lobel

Source: Social Forces, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Dec., 1952), pp. 124-131
Published by: Oxford University Press
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for sociologists to explore. In the second area,
analysis of the national economy as reflected in
factory systems, we need to restudy such phe-
nomena as rationalization, work discipline, the
fixed status of the worker, and boredom, as these
impinge upon worker-manager relations. Marxian
students were the first to point to these character-
istics of industry, and sociologists have tended to
accept the Marxian descriptions as valid empirical
statements, and also to accept the explanation that
these characteristics create conflict. Actually, there
are only a few empirical investigations of these
institutional characteristics of factories. Last, in
studying the relationship of economic institutions
to the larger society, there is a great need for cross-
cultural studies dealing with industrialization. We
still have no adequate studies of workers' values
and orientations towards the industrial world."7 We
know little about the stages of industrial develop-
ment as revealed by cross-cultural comparison and
know little about the relations between workers
and managers outside the factory. All of these gaps
then point to a vast area of inquiry on which
sociologists can bring to bear their concepts about
group and institutional life.
Wilbert Moore's recent volume, Industrialization
and Labor (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University
Press, 1951), is a start in this direction.
Barnard College, Columbia University
Harvard University
J N SOCIAL science usage, "fashion" is still
an overgeneralized term. One writer lists
the following "fields of fashion": values in
the pictorial arts, architecture, philosophies, re-
ligion, ethical behavior, dress, and the physical,
biological, and social sciences. "Fashion" has also
been used in reference to language usages, litera-
ture, food, dance music, recreation, indeed the
whole range of social and cultural elements. The
core of meaning in the term for all these different
things is "changeful," but it is unlikely that the
structures of behavior in these different social
areas and the consequent dynamics of their change
are all identical. "Fashion," like "crime," has too
many referents; it covers significantly different
kinds of social behavior.'
The description of "fashion" behavior suffers
also from treating "fashion" as socially "irra-
tional." "Fashion" is usually grouped with "fads"
and "crazes." Robert Merton has shown how many
kinds of patterned social behavior have latent, or
unintended, as well as manifest, or purposed, conse-
quences for the social systems in which they exist.
This distinction, he says, often "clarifies the
analysis of seemingly irrational social patterns."2
We shall confine ourselves to "fashion" in Ameri-
can women's clothes and show that this behavior
is not at all socially "irrational" when seen in rela-
tion to the American class structure, age-sex roles,
and economic system.3
The field of "fashion" in American women's
clothes is an area of rich, accessible, but still
Cf. E. H. Sutherland, White Collar Crime (New
York: The Dryden Press, 1949).
R. K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure
(Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1949), p. 64 and Ch. 1
We ignore the psychological dimension of "fashion"
behavior. The writer of the following Wallach's Store
advertisement in Tuze New York Times is obviously
playing on this theme: "Psycho-analysis has helped
some men to overcome obstacles and gain new con-
fidence. So has good tailoring."
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largely unexploited empirical materials.4 Our data
have been taken primarily from a rough content
analysis of "copy" in several women's "fashion"
magazines. "Fashion copy" is part successful social
analysis, part unexamined social sentiment; and
its dual nature reflects and successfully affects, all
at the same time, the social structuring of "fashion"
We have studied the "fashion copy," the ad-
vertisements, and some of the stories in Harper's
Bazaar, Vogue, Ladies' Home J ournal, and Woman's
Home Companion for the 20-year period, 1930-
1950. Mademoiselle (for college girls and young
white collar women workers) was studied from its
first issue, in 1935, to 1950. Seventeen (for teen-
agers from 13 to 17) was studied from its first
issue, in 1944, to 1950. Harper's Bazaar and Vogue
are written for "the trade" and for the higher
reaches of the social class system: upper middle and
upper; Ladies' Home J ournal and Woman's Home
Companion are written for the middle and lower
parts of "the middle classes." We shall see that
these magazines define "fashion" differently from
one another.
In all societies, the clothes which all people
wear have at least three (mixed latent and mani-
fest) functions: utilitarian, esthetic, and symbolic
of their social role.5 In all societies, clothes are more
or less useful, more or less handsome, and more or
less indicative of their wearer's social position. We
shall be primarily concerned here with the inde-
pendent role-symbolic functions of clothing, but
this will require us to see the interdependence of
these functions with the utilitarian and esthetic
ones. "Pretty" clothes for the teen-age girl in
American society, for instance, are defined by her
social role, especially by her presumed sexual
J ust a few comparative illustrations of role-
symbolic functions of clothes may be useful. In
France, during the centuries prior to the Revolu-
tion, when class position was clearly defined as a
matter of law, there was detailed legal prescription
of the relation between social rank and style of
dress. Silks, traditionally an emblem of elegance,
could be worn only by princesses and duchesses;
ladies of high rank alone were permitted to wear
muffs of fur or fine materials. When it wanted to
abolish all class distinctions, during the Revolution,
the General Assembly abolished all laws relating to
distinction in dress.6 Or, to take one more example,
in Classical China, the mandarin showed his class
position and his abstention from manual labor by
his ankle-length gown and his long fingernails.7
It should be noted, in passing, that the symbolic
function of clothes in society is only a specific
phrasing of the more general sociological fact about
all consumption. As Talcott Parsons has put this
fact: "Though the standard of living of any group
must cover their intrinsically significant needs,
such as food, shelter and the like, there can be no
doubt that an exceedingly large component of
standards of living everywhere is to be found in the
symbolic significance of many of its items in rela-
tion to status."8 This general point is, of course,
the rationale behind Chapin's living-room equip-
ment scale for social class status.9 The clothing
style which is considered serviceable, appropriate
and becoming in one social role and "style of life"
is not so for every role and life pattern.
We may now give a preliminary definition of
4For some excellent sociological journalism on the
economics of the "fashion industry," see: Fortune
Magazine, "Cloak and Suit," (J une 1930), pp. 92-100;
Ibid., "The Dressmakers of the U. S." (Dec. 1933),
pp. 36-41; Ibid., "Adam Smith on Seventh Avenue"
(J anuary 1949), pp. 72-79.
5 For a general discussion of these three types of
functions of any culture-object and a specific applica-
tion to a different area of behavior, see Bernard Barber,
"Place, Symbol and Utilitarian Function in War Me-
morials," Social Forces, 28 (1949), pp. 64-68.
E. B. Hurlock, The Psychology of Dress (New York,
66. See also, Elinor G. Barber, The Position
of the Bourgeoisie in the Class Structure of 18th Cen-
tury France, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Rad-
cliffe College, 1951, esp. Ch. 5, The Bourgeois Way of
Max Weber, The Religion of China. Trans. and ed.
by H. H. Gerth (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1951),
pp. 156, 161ff.
Talcott Parsons, Essays in Sociological Theory
(Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1949), p. 180.
9 F. S. Chapin, Measurement of Social Status by the
Use of the Social Status Scale (Minneapolis, 1933). Also
on the symbolic function of house furnishings, see
Irving Rosow, "Home Ownership Motives," American
Sociological Review, 13 (1948), pp. 751-55. Despite its
limitations, Veblen's analysis of this sociological prob-
lem is still very much worth reading. See. A. K. Davis,
"Veblen on the Decline of the Protestant Ethic,"
Social Forces, 22 (1944), pp. 282-286. On Veblen, see
also Merton, op. cit., pp. 69-70.
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"fashion" for present purposes, a definition which
will be expanded by the rest of our analysis.
"Fashion" in clothes has to do with the styles of
cut, color, silhouette, stuffs, etc., that are socially
prescribed and socially accepted as appropriate for
certain social roles, and especially with the recur-
ring changes in these styles.
A. The functions of consumption in the American
class system. The American social class system ap-
proximates the open-class "ideal type" of insti-
tutionalized class structure, in which moral ap-
proval is placed on mobility from lower to higher
social class. The primary criterion of a man's
social class status (and that of his wife and de-
pendent children) is his occupational position.
Occupational achievement is the primary determi-
nant of social mobility. One of the chief, but by
no means the only, index of relative rank of occupa-
tional position and achievement is money income
and capital wealth. Hence the great symbolic
significance of all consumption in American society.
At least on first glance we all apply the following
social equation: consumption equals wealth or
income, wealth or income equals occupational posi-
tion, occupational position equals social class posi-
tion, and, therefore, consumption equals social class
position. Even when this consequence is not in-
tended by any particular consumer, his consump-
tion has this latent function. The kind of house a
man owns, the kind of car he drives, where he
sends his children to college, etc., etc., all have
symbolic significance for his social class status.
In the American class system, women take their
class status, by and large, from their relationship
to men: unmarried young women from their
fathers, adult married women from their husbands.
Hence the symbolic significance of women's con-
sumption. The way a woman furnishes her house,
the clothes she wears, "put in evidence," as
Veblen said, "her household's ability to pay."10 Not
wholly, but in important measure, it is the "office
of the woman to consume vicariously for the head
of the household," that is, the adult male job-
holder.11 However, this is not at all the passive,
uncontrollable function it is often alleged to be.
Women can perform the consumption function in
general, the buying and wearing of clothes in par-
ticular, more or less effectively. Not only can a
wife's good taste enhance a little her family's
social status, but her skill in maximizing the
number and quality of the clothes she acquires on
a given budget also counts. We shall see that some
women know devices for such maximization that
others do not: making their own clothes, buying
"seconds" and manufacturers' overstock, and pa-
tronizing "bargain" stores.
Despite the stereotyped complaints and ridicule
in jokes and cartoons about wives' conformity to
fashion, there is good evidence that husbands as
well as wives know the functions of women's
clothes consumption. A poll conducted by the
Woman's Home Companion (April 1947) yielded
some comments which indicate this. One woman
says, for example:
My husband says I don't spend enough and don't
represent him fairly.
Certainly the writers of "fashion copy," ever
sensitive to the sentiments of their readers, take
the class-symbolic functions of women's dress for
If at first you don't succeed, change the way you
Clothes for climbing, or what to wear on your way
up the ladder; to build that graciousness which leads
first to charm and eventually to financial advance-
ment, proper, attractive clothes are a sound invest-
In American society, all but a few groups are
oriented to social mobility and therefore also to
the functions in women's clothes "fashions" for
mobility. So at least we may infer from the vast
volume of "fashion copy" addressed to the
American people. In all newspapers there are pages
of advertisements for women's "fashionable" cloth-
ing, editorial "fashion" pages or columns, and, in
the large cities, the newspapers periodically issue
"fashion supplements." The general circulation
magazines, like Life, pay a great deal of attention
to "fashion"; almost every issue has something
directly or indirectly about it. Several magazines
specialize in "fashion" and all the general women's
magazines maintain regular "fashion" sections or
features. The general women's magazines stress
Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class
(reprint, New York: The Modern Library, 1934), p.
Ladies' HEome J ournal (November 1934), p. 32.
Mademoiselle (J uly 1939), p. 71.
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that "fashion" is available to all. In its regular
"How America Lives" series, for instance, the
Ladies' Home J ournal portrays the "fashion" con-
sciousness of the relatively poor (a woman whose
family has an income of under $2,000 a year) and
of the ordinary farm family.'4
B. The dilemma of equality and
in the
class system. In concrete social fact, American
society has been a relatively close approximation
to the "ideal type" of an open-class system. A
great deal of social mobility actually exists, so
that social class boundaries, especially as between
any few adjacent. social classes, are somewhat
vague. The American class system is a finely-
graded continuum of strata rather than a series of
sharply separated ranks with little mobility be-
tween them. The result of this kind of class struc-
ture, in combination with American egalitarian
values, has been the possibility of asserting the
equality and similarity of everyone in the society,
despite the actual class differences which exist. The
ideology of equality and the social fact of difference
are not so obviously inconsistent that they cannot
seem to square with one another.
"Fashion" in women's clothes plays its part in
helping to resolve this dilemma of equality and
difference. Marked dress differences are not ap-
propriate in the American class system, so one
strong tendency in "fashion copy" is to stress the
similarity of appearance among women of all class
levels. Here are some typical expressions:
There goes an American . .. the classless way they
dress. Filing clerk and company president's wife, the
same nylons, little hats, tweed suits, navy-blue dresses.15
A democracy of government achieves also the only
democracy of fashion in the world.16
In women's clothes themselves, the most easily
observable characteristics of what is currently
"new"l are provided for all social levels. For ex-
ample, hem length, one of the most noticeable
characteristics of a dress,
is always the same for all
social classes. Many women can easily raise and
lower hem length as it fluctuates from year to
year and thus stay "in fashion." But to have the
"fashionable" silhouette, fabric, and color, the aid
of the "fashion industry" is necessary, and here is
where difference as well as equality enters. The
"fashion industry" is founded upon the "trickle
down" pattern, which makes possible both gross
similarity and subtle difference in "fashion, and
thus helps resolve the dilemma of equality and
difference in the class system. As usual, "fashion"
writers know the social score:
In fashion ... a "trickle" system exists; a silhouette
starts in the couturier collections, slowly trickles down
through all the strata of ready-to-wear . . .17
This is how the "trickle" system works. When
Paris couturier "openings" are held each season,
American "fashion industry" representatives are
present, together with those few American women
who buy their clothes in Paris and serve as "style
leaders" for the whole society. American designers
immediately adapt the newest Paris couturier
"fashions" for the very high-priced ready-to-wear
market. It should be noted that American dresses
sell in a price range from $1500 to less than $5.
The true mass production dress, priced under $25,
is cut out by the hundreds. Fewer copies are made
of the medium- to high-priced dresses, cut and
finished individually. At the highest price, relative
exclusiveness is possible and is offered:
Fashions, cut one at a time, but ready for you to
wear. Limited editions. She wears a ready-to-wear
"name" dress with the same pride that a Frenchwoman
has made to order a "name" dress . .. upper bracket
ready-to-wear ... enough ahead of the general fashion
to assure long wearing.18
As the new styles, set by Paris and first imitated
by the designers of expensive "limited editions,"
gain wider favor, the designers of each lower price
range include the new "fashion" points as best
they can in the lines they create, in response to
actual or anticipated demand from those on lower
class levels. As the "fashion" trickles down, fabrics
become cheaper and mass production necessary.
But even at the lower price and lower social
levels, there is an attempt to avoid complete uni-
formity. Manufacturers try to distribute their job
lots over a wide geographical area, including only
a limited number of dresses of the same style,
fabric, and size in a shipment to any one city, any
one retailer. When a general style has "trickled
down" through all levels, the "fashion" must
change. The universalization of what started out as "4Ladies' Home J ournal (September 1940), p. 62;
(March 1945), p. 132.
1" Vogue (February 1, 1950), p. 125.
Vogue (February 1, 1938), p. 87.
Harper's Bazaar (February 1949), p. 112.
Vogue (February 1, 1948), p. 184.
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distinctive cheapens its symbolic value. A new
change, a new "fashion" symbol, is necessary.
For the most part, the "trickle" system does not
result in a progressive imitation of exact models in
all the strata of ready-to-wear. There are real
differences. For example, to indicate
reliance is often put on patently expensive
You won't see them elsewhere, for both fabrics are
exclusive with us.19
However, American technical proficiency is con-
tinually producing good imitations of the finest
fabrics, so there is a continual search for the
obviously better and more expensive. Despite real
differences, the lower-priced stores are driven to
advertise the identity of their goods with the best.
They may even claim, "An exact Molyneux copy."
This encourages the lower social strata to buy what
is "trickling down," but it also encourages the
upper strata to look for something new, something
"more fashionable." The following tale is probably
a modern myth, with important functions for the
"trickle" system:
... we parted with approximately four weeks' salary
for a little sheaf of fine wool with crepe. It was distinc-
tive, expensive, original. We were distinguished, ele-
gant, proud. Two weeks later we saw the sheaf-
cheapened but very recognizable, on Sixth Avenue (at
a price!), and in subsequent weeks we followed it on
its downward path all the way to Fourteenth Street
and a raging popularity at six-ninety-five. Result: dis-
card ....20
The "trickle" system is perpetutated because the
American class system makes some women con-
tinually seek for symbols of their difference from
those just below them in the class system and at the
same time makes other women continually seek for
symbols of their equality with those just above
them in the class system.
C. Social class differences in definitions of
"fashion." We must abandon the stereotype of
complete standardization in American women's
"fashions." Although there is a certain similarity
at all class levels, there are also important differ-
ences. Let us consider some of the different phras-
ings of the "fashion" theme that are used in
"fashion copy."
At the top of the American social class system
are those families where lineage, or family connec-
tions extending back one or more generations,
counts in addition to present occupational position.
These are the "old money" families with estab-
lished preeminence of social status. At this top-
most level, where there is little need to compete for
status through consumption, women may even
maintain a certain independence of current change-
ful "fashion." Their quality clothes can remain
roughly the same for several years. They can stress
the esthetic functions of clothes somewhat at the
expense of "fashion's" dictates.
Individualists ... Mrs. Byron C. Foy ... who even
in this era of wide skirts is seen at night in severe,
high-waisted dresses... 21
At an extreme, one may even be queer and eccen-
tric in one's dress, like the old ladies on Beacon
Street in Boston. A woman in this highest social
class position might have written:
There is grace and charm in continuity. There is
vulgarity in sudden, constant change.22
So far as it is uniform, the taste of these women is
more British than French. It runs to tweeds,
woolens, and it avoids the "daring" so character-
istic of French fancy dress. This symbolic identifi-
cation with the British upper classes reveals a
concern for birth distinction and English heredity
as against the distinction of occupational achieve-
ment. Advertisements appealing to this taste stress
adjectives like "aristocratic," "well-bred," "dis-
tinguished," or phrases like "a fox and hounds
flare at the hip."23
In the social class just below the "old money"
families we find most of the "high fashion," Paris-
conscious style leaders whom we have already men-
tioned. Their clothes symbols are related to wealth
and high living rather than to family connection.
Cosmopolitan, Parisian French styles express their
values better than do conservative British modes.
Yet, since they are aware of the class above,
perhaps trying to gain entrance into it, these
women seek to combine opulence with "quiet
elegance." "Fashion copy" for this group stresses
the pose of assured distinction, effortless superi-
ority, and inbred elegence. The recurrent symbols
Saks-Fifth Avenue Store advertisement in Harper's
Bazaar (J anuary 1931), p. 8.
Mademoiselle (J anuary 1936), p. 64.
Vogue (May 15, 1938), p. 262.
arper's Bazaar (J une 1947), p. 100.
Harper's Bazaar (November 1946), p. 180.
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of prestige are sophistication and chic; the word
"glamor" is never used, for "glamor" is "cheap."
These women read Vogue and Harper's Bazaar,
where they can at once learn about "high style"
and get advice about displaying some of the
"aristocratic" clothes symbols effectively. Espe-
cially they are cautioned against the nouveau riche
sin of obvious ostentation:
No woman of taste wishes to appear as though she
had spent a great deal of money on her clothes....
The desired effect is price-tag anonymous....24
That is, one must actually spend a great deal on
clothes, but one must not too obviously appear to
have done so. This is a lesson which these women
can also learn from a good "fashion" store. Witness
the comment of an executive of one such store:
New millionaires from the oil fields of East Texas
came to Neiman-Marcus (in Dallas). Their tastes began
to be molded and shaped by the clothes they wore and
the furniture and decor selected for their homes, and in
a relatively brief period it was difficult to distinguish
them from any "old" money group in America.25
In the middle and lower middle classes, the
groups that read the Ladies' Home J ournal and
Woman's Home Companion, "fashion" has a differ-
ent meaning. There is a distaste for "high style,"
for what is "daring" or "unusual." When the
Woman's Home Companion polled its readers on
the question, "Are women interested in Paris
fashions?", there were many negative answers.
"Too extreme," said some; "not the kind of clothes
you can P.T.A. in or afternoon shop in-they would
be laughable in our community," said others.26
"Respectability" is the standard, not "breeding"
or "effect." Clothes are conservative but "smart,"
and "smart" is what everyone else in one's social
class is wearing. "Everybody is wearing it" would
never be a selling point in Vogue, but rather, "The
elite are wearing it." The Ladies' Home J ournal
prefers the former appeal:
Popularity plus.... Like an album of popular tunes,
these clothes and their near cousins are sweeping across
the country. The simple fact that thousands of women
are choosing them for important spots in their ward-
robes indicates their rightness, their universal becoming-
At first sight, then, it may appear incongruous
that their magazines refer all the time to "glamor"
and especially to "Hollywood glamor." But it
turns out, on closer view, that "glamor" does not
mean "slinkily sexy" but only "femininely pretty."
And Hollywood movie stars are appropriate clothes
models because Hollywood does not set "fashion."
The Hollywood stars usually wear clothes that are
"in fashion" and not ahead of it.
We can compare upper with middle class defi-
nitions of "fashion" in another way, by noting the
appropriate role models that are used in "fashion
copy." For the higher classes, socially prominent,
sophisticated, chic women like Mrs. Harrison
Williams (a perennial "style leader") and the
Duchess of Windsor are featured. These women
have the "New York look," they are cosmopolitan
symbols. For the middle classes, the wives of well-
known businessmen or politicians are more suitable
models: women like Mrs. Earl Warren, Mrs.
Thomas E. Dewey. These ladies are attractive;
they go to church; they are concerned with the
cares of home, husband, and raising a family. The
clothes they wear picture:
A wardrobe for a busy life: house-wife, mother-an
all-purpose glamor wardrobe to use as a working plan-
kitchen, bridge, P.T.A., Sunday church, "dress up"
The various meanings of "fashion" are defined
not only by the class system but also by American
age-sex role structuring. Girls become aware of
this, for instance, when they struggle with their
parents for permission to wear their "first black
dress," a symbol to both mothers and daughters of
an age-sex role in which sexual enticement is
permissible. Hence the unsuitability of such a
symbol to young girls.
A. College girls. "Fashion copy" for college girls
is written with an overwhelming emphasis on the
appropriateness of "casuals" and "classics" in
clothes styles. This seems to be a reflection of the
college girl's temporary but socially structured re-
moval from the need to display her social class
status. It is no social accident, for example, that
Vogue (October 15, 1945), p. 87.
H. S. Marcus, "Fashion is My Business," Atlantic
Monthly (December 1948), p. 44.
Woman's Home Companion (May 1949), p. 12.
Ladies' Home J ournal (April 1947), p. 60.
Woman's Homne Companion (October 1948), p. 22.
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the extremes of "casualness"-blue jeans, shorts,
rough outdoor clothing-are found at the Eastern
women's colleges, where there is relatively great
social class homogeneity and where there are no
potential mates to impress. Nor is it chance that the
same girls who are "casual" on weekdays are pain-
fully or beautifully "in fashion" when they engage
in weekend, oft-campus dating. "Style leaders" and
models come from within the college girl group
itself. Each year, for this reason, Mademoiselle
sponsors contests for clothes designs created by
and for college girls. Each August, a "college
board" takes over the production of the fall college
issue of Mademoiselle. Department stores also set
up "college boards" at this time of the year, and
they hire college girls to sell other college girls the
"fashionable" uniform.
"Fashion copy" for college girls frowns on "sexy"
clothes even for dating. Feminine attractiveness in
this age-sex role is defined by such terms as
"romantic," "demure," "pert," and "simple."
Look natural. Your man expects to see you, not a
clothes horse. A simple, becoming dress is preferable to
something vampish, shoot-the-bank roll, or high fash-
Clothes should bring out a college girl's softness,
femininity, intelligence, and good companion
B. Teen-agers. Many of the same features hold
for precollege, teen-age "fashion" behavior:
High school girls of America: your clothes are pretty
but not too different from the other girls' . . .30
How to be a heart-breaker: Put on your prettiest
smile, your palest pastel-skirt soft, full, and feminine,
the little sleeves draped, the bodice embroidered with
sweet posies . . .31
Physical sexual appeal is not "nice" for teen-agers,
says the "fashion copy" written for them. In a
story appearing in Seventeen, for instance, a tale is
told of the success of a girl who wears a dress with
"simple neck and cunning little sleeves" and who
"looks her age": innocent, sweet, and young at a
dance where the other girls have tried to look older
than their years.2 At this age, sophistication con-
notes "cheapness." Seventeen campaigns against it
with parables like this one:
Sixteen years old apiece. Connie's so lovely it hurts
but Gloria weighs more with her makeup on-her
tortured pompadour, dowager jewels, and sophisticated
femme fatale gown will land her on Wallflower Row.33
The twelve-to-seventeen-year-olds are at an age
when "fashion," in its most usual loose meaning, is
not at all "fashionable." They must be taught to
suppress their incipient interest in adult women's
"fashion" for the time being and conform to the
appropriate symbols of their own age-sex role.
One notable consequence of the treatment of
"fashion" behavior as "irrational" has been the
neglect of its connections with the American
economic system.34 We shall only touch briefly on
a few relevant points.
The most obvious thing to be said is that it is
American mass production which makes "fashion"
available on all social class levels.
But, note, mass
production is not an independent, one-way
"cause": there is an interaction of social structures
here. That is, the class structured and pervasive
desire to stay "in fashion" has encouraged the
"fashion industry" to develop its technical and
organizational virtuosity. Mass consumption, in
women's "fashion" as in other things, is cause as
well as effect of mass production. We can see this
the more clearly if we compare the United States
with France. In France too there is "conspicuous
consumption," but it is "fundamentally different"
from the American pattern.35 French women's
clothes consumption stresses quality of goods,
personalization of the relation between producer
and consumer, and individuality. This requires
French textile manufacturers to make vast num-
bers of different materials, and each woman selects
her own material carefully and makes it up herself
or has it made for her by a small dress-maker. In
this way, individualized consumption makes mass
production of materials or clothes impossible. This
is the typical situation for most French industry.
American industry has a more favorable situation
for its mass production because of the existence of
Mademoiselle (J uly 1945), p.
30 Seventeen (September 1944), p. 46.
31 Mademnoiselle (J anuary 1946), p. 108.
"First Formal" (May 1945), p. 167.
Seventeen (October 1944), p. 34.
But see references in footnote 4 above.
35 David Landes, "French Business and the Business-
man: A Social and Cultural Analysis," in E. M. Earle,
ed., Modern France (Princeton: University Press, 1951),
esp. pp. 343ff.
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socially structured mass consumption. Of course,
as compared with other American industries, the
American "fashion industry" is not at all highly
organized for mass production.36 The demand for
women's "fashion" is much less standardized than,
say, the demand for automobiles or men's suits or
canned foods. But, as compared with its French
counterpart, the American "fashion industry" is
based on mass production. The relative degree of
individualization of consumption is always im-
portant for the possibility of more or less mass
There are other examples of this interdependence
between "fashion" behavior and the American
economic system. For instance, at all income levels
but the very highest ones, women need to get the
most for their money so that they can maximize
their claim to social class position. For this reason,
women's magazines at all class levels include regu-
lar advice on how to make a limited clothes allow-
ance secure as much as possible of what is currently
Even your best friends won't know how few clothes
you've got if you plan at least part of your wardrobe
around separates.37
She dresses on an allowance, and people wonder
how she does it. She competes successfully with any
woman in the room, and her answer is that she makes
her own.38
Each magazine provides its readers with the benefit
of its own shopping expeditions, marking its dis-
coveries variously: "Lots for Little," "Scoops of
the Month," or "The Well Spent Dollar." For
what Walter Firey has called the "shopping pat-
tern" is a much more common practice, probably,
than "making one's own."39 American women
spend a great deal of time "shopping," that is, in
comparing the clothes sold by different store in
order to get the most for their money. One of the
aids to the "shopping pattern," and one of its
consequences at the same time, is the concentration
of retail stores in an accessible location so that
comparisons may be made efficiently and in the
shortest time.
For some women, especially those in the large
cities, there are still other ways of maximizing the
returns on one's clothing allowance. Some women
can shop at out-of-the-way stores which undersell
their more accessible competitors who are paying
more for rent in central locations. In New York,
for example, Klein's and Ohrbach's, which are
in less costly locations, which offer none of the
more expensive customer services, and which have
a very large volume, sell "fashionable" clothes to
the energetic and the knowing at the lowest pos-
sible price. Some women can buy "seconds"-
clothes with a slight damage that is usually un-
noticeable but which still cannot be sold in more
respectable stores. In Boston, Filene's Basement
Store specializes in "seconds." Or, finally, some
women can buy at stores which are known to be
outlets for manufacturers' surpluses. Filene's Base-
ment does this kind of merchandising also, and so
too do such stores as Klein's and Loehmann's in
Brooklyn. In these several ways, the women who
know what the current "fashion" is, either from
reading the magazines or first "shopping" in
better stores, can get clothes which would other-
wise be beyond their means. This is part of what we
meant when we said above that the American
woman's share in "conspicuous consumption" was
not a wholly passive one.
"Fashion," we may now say in summary con-
clusion, is not socially "irrational." It means
several different things, even in regard to women's
clothes alone; and all its different meanings are
socially and culturally structured. "Fashion" be-
havior has functions, latent as well as manifest, for
many different aspects of the American social
Fortune Magazine, "Adam Smith on Seventh
Avenue" (J anuary 1949), pp. 72-79.
Woman's Home Companion (J anuary 1946), p. 54.
38 Vogue (February 1, 1938), p. 89.
Walter Firey, Land Use in Central Boston (Cam-
bridge: Harvard University Press, 1947), pp. 254-259.
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