The Psychology of Fashion
The Fix Magazine, The Editorial Issue, Spring 2017
This world is, now more than ever, a world of visual images. If one’s eyes are open, they are likely to be consuming imagery via a smartphone, television, laptop, or other device; it is therefore not outrageous to suggest that one’s personal image--especially as it relates to social ideals and norms concerning attire--is considered of increasing importance both by individuals and by the society in which they reside.
The self-image held in such high esteem by contemporary society is informed by online and print fashion publications, which define--as they have for the past 150 years--the ‘ideal’ attire of the moment. Their doctrine of dress is conveyed to the general public not through official orders or notices, but through images so aesthetically hip, so subliminally seductive, that the public is apt to forget that fashion’s primary objective is not to promote a heightened cultural appearance, but to propagate its own fiscal bottom line and--though perhaps not consciously--to fortify its historical roots in the subtle art of female subjugation.
Fashion publications have never been separate from financial motivation. They emerged in England in the 1870s, a time of significant social change, specifically for women and their place in society and in commerce. An increased literacy rate combined with a decrease in production and distribution costs for printers resulted in a wider and more class-comprehensive consumption of magazines; middle-class women gained access into the world of mass media, and could henceforth engage more deeply in both social affairs and in the marketplace. This was not lost on publishers and merchandisers, who, as Christopher Breward states in his 1994 article, Femininity and Consumption: The Problem of the Late Nineteenth-Century Fashion Journal: “[realized] that feminine culture, or fashion, was a marketable commodity”. Fashion journals began collaborating with merchandisers to covet this newfound target market; their efforts resulted in the mass distribution of printed engravings, and later photographic images, depicting finely-clothed female figures both in the home and in the act of shopping. In addition to subtly defining certain spaces as ‘appropriate’ for women, these images simultaneously provided women with a visual example of an ‘ideal’ attire, and their captions provided them the opportunity to purchase it.
Feminine publications purveyed a new concept of womanhood, where one’s duties to their family included homemaking, housekeeping, and representing the quality and social status of their household through their clothing and demeanor (as is true today, clothes have long been telling symbols of an individual’s social identity, and not mere pieces of fabric). A woman’s position as a consumer was therefore not an autonomous one, but rather one that served and further established her status as the centerpiece of her home, an object to be seen and appraised by those with the authority of appraisal: men.
Indeed, though female consumers had gained increased access to the commercial marketplace and to literature produced for a female audience, “women's magazines were still operating within a paternalistic superstructure, and paid obvious allegiance to that system through an underlying dictat that, whilst enjoying an engagement with fashion, woman's prime duty was to dress for man” (Breward 81).
This confusing mix of apparent liberation grounded in systematic patriarchal fuckery has stood the test of time; contemporary fashion imagery continues to function for the (often male-dominated) marketplace and can be found in the latest issue of any fashion publication.
In addition to functioning as devices of advertising and female subjugation, fashion magazines and online websites are, as were the earliest issues of feminine journals, an easily-accessible means of mental refuge from the drudgery of the everyday; they were, and remain to be, portals into a realm of expensive, exotic fantasy. As Breward states, “fashion journalism encouraged an engagement with a luxurious fantasy which bore no obvious connection to the material reality of the majority of readers, beyond responding to their desires and drawing them further into a language of consumption” (89). Through alluring imagery, fashion magazines in contemporary culture similarly ensnare their readers in an illusory world that, because it is presented alongside a brand name and price tag, appears to be almost tangible.
Today, the illusory world presented by fashion magazines is not centered on the attainment of high-fashion attire, but of a lifestyle or an identity; brands featured in fashion publications aim to promote not the purchase of a single item, but of an entire aesthetic that corresponds to the brand’s proclaimed values (sexy, hip, edgy, etc.). Brands promise consumers that they, too, can be defined (by themselves and by society) in the chic terms of these culturally-exalted, institutionally-propagated values--so long as they buy the brand’s latest products.
Just as late-19th century women were expected to represent their family’s social status through their clothing, people today feel pressure to represent their own social identity through their attire and the brand values associated with it. The insurmountable quantity of images that plague life in the digital era facilitate this perceived need to dress in accordance with the socially upheld ideal; social media platforms make encounters with images extolling this ideal inescapable and constant, and additionally provide users with a means to post and share media documenting their own embrace of this ideal, or their personal identity. The version of an individual’s personal identity as it appears online is a self-image in the most literal sense of the term, and is an image that is disseminated infinitely on a global scale. A particular individual’s self-image, defined as it is by popular fashion imagery, is nearly indiscernible from any other person’s self-image.
Perhaps, in addition to being the result of a long-running and systematic exploitation of female consumers, the contemporary individual’s careful attention to their self-image is not just an attempt to be defined favorably in the context of the cultural ideal, but an attempt to remain visible at all.
Breward, Christopher. “Femininity and Consumption: The Problem of the Late Nineteenth-Century Fashion Journal.” Journal of Design History, vol. 7, no. 2, 1994, pp. 71–89.,