Vol. 11, No. 1, December 2009

Lost in Transformation? How Class-Based Emotions Shape Fashion Consumption Practice

by Karen Rafferty

Dublin Institute of Technology

In the last couple of decades, transformations in the fashion industry and marketplace have ignited debate about the nature of social class relations today.  Fashion writer Dana Thomas (2007) illustrates how, since the mid 1980s, many luxury fashion houses passed brand management from the family kin to external CEOs, who started to aggressively target the mass, and primarily middle class, markets.  This move was to alter the intrinsic nature of the industry, having been centred upon visually differentiating the elite from subordinate classes for hundreds of years.  In the pursuit of expanding profit, quality and craftsmanship were compromised so lower-priced product lines could make the point of entry for luxury fashion consumption more accessible across class fractions.  Braced by the desire within the mass markets to compete at this level, and the arrival of ‘easy’ credit, sales thrived.  Upon moving productions to low-wage countries, control was lost and almost indistinguishable counterfeits were now being produced.  Highstreet shops also arrived, imitating the luxury fashions but selling at a fraction of the cost.  Followers of fashion had more choice than ever, and according to Thomas (2007), the field of fashion consumerism had undergone processes of ‘democratisation’ as more people had the potential to consume luxury-style fashions. 

Thomas’s work raises interesting questions about the allure of fashion and whether social equality is actually achieved through the exercise of freedom in consumer choice.  Why do some people exhibit such a vast appetite for consuming fashion?  Just how ‘free’ do middle-class consumers feel when making fashion choices?  It is important to acknowledge that low cost production models have made self-fashioning a more accessible practice across class fractions, and that egalitarian principles are increasingly employed to sell clothing and beauty products (the L’Oreal advert tag line “because you’re worth it” springs to mind).  However, I stress that the field of fashion consumerism very much remains today a social space where class discrimination actively continues, though now based upon how the consumer practices self-fashioning rather than their possession of branded objects.  I also argue that, far from being equal, the capacity to practice is constrained in various ways.  Rebecca Arnold (2001) makes a significant point in claiming that despite consumers’ increasing awareness that visual manipulation is used to seduce them into consuming, ‘this knowledge has not lessened their fascination with the promise that [fashion] images hold out’ (Arnold, 2001: 3).  She labels this phenomenon the ‘mystifying allure’ of fashion.  At the outset of my doctoral research, I found myself musing about this mystique, and I questioned whether the field of consumer research has delivered a satisfying answer as to why this allure is so powerful?  Although difficult to discern in the wake of all these transformations, what became evident through my research was the continued relevance, rather than dissolution, of social class structures in shaping the alternative patterns of fashion consumption.  Consequently, I follow a line of argument which contends that the notions of ‘individualisation’ and ‘freedom’ within consumer choices must be theorized adequately by situating them within the context of social structures, whilst still accounting for the relative autonomy of the consuming subject (Bourdieu, 1984, 1990; Holt, 1997; Entwistle, 2000; Warde, 1996).

It is necessary to stress that fashion should not be perceived as a purely commercial force that exerts manipulative power and control over people.  Fashion is, undoubtedly, a far more complex social phenomenon, but it is important not to underestimate the consumer’s agency by framing him/her as easily deceived and lacking any autonomous capacity.  Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of practice is useful in this respect because through the constructs of habitus, cultural capital, and field relations, it overcomes the objectivist/subjectivist false opposition.  Bourdieu (1984) demonstrates that taste in cultural consumption acts as a powerful form of social differentiation which distinguishes different classes of people.  He stresses that while culture becomes embodied, it shapes the minds and bodies of its members in expected, rather than abstract, patterns (Bourdieu, 1984: 25).  Cultural consumption demarcates bodies that can be classed because those people have experienced similar conditions of existence, and have developed similar consumption tastes and habits as a result.  Opinions, taste preferences, and consumption practices all become markers of class, and so they are significant when attempting to understand the how relations occur and movements (or lack thereof) unfold within the social hierarchy.  Following Bourdieu (1984), it can be theorized that many women may both consciously and subconsciously strategise their consumption practices in an effort to position themselves favourably in the ‘games of culture’ (Bourdieu, 1984: 12).

It is important to clarify further what ‘fashion’ is.  Definitions of fashion tend to vary, and so it is clear that ‘fashion’ is not any one definite or stable article.  Rather, it is something which transforms, mutates, diverges, converges, and even regresses over time (Hebdige, 1979; McDowell, 2000; Steele, 2006).  Normative understandings typically relate fashion to clothing, while the most commonly agreed interpretation of fashion within academic literature sees it as a specific (aesthetic) system for dressing the body.  And surely it is both, but the problem with such evaluations is that fashion is prescribed some kind of definite and resolute form, rather than being envisaged as a psycho-social concept.  Consider Thompson and Haytko’s (1997) account of the myriad of countervailing discourses that surround the field of fashion consumerism, each of them promoting value in particular appearance styles while concurrently directly or inadvertently attempting to de-value other styles.  Similarly, my data indicates that the meanings surrounding practices of self-fashioning and forms of fashion consumption are very much disputed amongst women from different class backgrounds, who do so with the intention of serving their own group interests.  For example, the actual notion of ‘being fashionable’ held several divergent and oppositional meanings.  While it was perceived as a favourable label and used by women with lower levels of cultural capital to describe themselves, the same marker was considered to be highly undesirable for those with higher levels of cultural capital.  The latter group saw it as representing a failure to participate at the forefront of fashion trends, or else as indicative of one’s ignorance that consuming classic styles of fashion (quality) was preferable to superfluous and ephemeral fads (quantity).  Instead, spending money wisely on pieces that will have longevity in the structures of taste was seen as a marker of distinction.

Entwistle (2000: 2) argues that when conceptualising fashion, the concept should not be reified.  Rather, she sees fashion as something that has a determining influence on the modes of dressing people assume, and so it becomes ‘translated’ into the everyday dress styles that consumers choose (Entwistle, 2000: 4).  By extending her argument, and regarding fashion as a practice born out of competitive social relations (as George Simmel originally did), it can be conceptualised as a competitive psycho-social mechanism that causes styles of dressing to be revised frequently.  In framing fashion this way, the array of dress styles that people adopt can be understood as different interpretations of what constitutes ‘being fashionable’ or ‘stylish’ at any point in time, depending on different taste preferences.  As a result, I contend that fashion can best be understood as a psycho-social mechanism that has both derived from increasingly competitive social relations and continues to fuel them.  Hence, the nature of self-fashioning is often more temporal and transient than it is stable.  Fashions are consistently redefined as they are evaluated, and then either embraced and valorised, or dismissed and disregarded by divergent sets of collective groups of consumers.  Many women find themselves interacting within competitive social networks, where the desire to advance to a lifestyle offering greater advantages is likely to co-exist with the pressure to avoid shifting further down the hierarchy of lifestyles.  The work of Angela McRobbie (2008) demonstrates this pressure, illustrating how dominant appearance standards are intensified, and social comparison is further encouraged, by the media as it circulates visual representations of ideal appearance codes.  According to McRobbie (2008: 174), in the public sphere of social life many women today feel placed into a ‘spotlight of visibility’, which has the effect of spectacularizing feminine subjectivity.  She argues that this stimulates desires in women to be able to command positive attention via their fashioned appearance, and exerts increased pressure on all classes of women to fashion themselves according to dominant tastes despite many of them lacking the necessary cultural, economic and social capital requirements to do so.

To investigate the allure of fashion, I focus upon the sphere of emotions that surround fashion consumption experiences for women, as well as those that are embedded into the desires, tastes, and distastes they express about fashion styles and choices.  While consumer culture research has recognized the significance of emotions in both the domain of general consumption (Hirschman, 1992; Swinyar, 1993; Gould, 1997), and specifically within the context of fashion consumption (Otnes, et al., 1997; Clarke and Miller, 2002; Jantzen et al., 2006; Roux and Korchia, 2006), attempts to fully unpack the myriad of emotional experiences that prevail around fashion culture, while situating those emotions within the context of competitive social relations, have been underexplored.  Modern thought within the sociological discipline suggests that emotions, when situated within a class-based perspective of the social world, are significant when explaining courses of human action (deSwaan, 1989; Dolan, 2009; Hughes, 2007; Reay, 2005).  The primary underlying assumption here is that many fashion consumption patterns today can most adequately be explained by fully unravelling the psycho-social and affective components of fashion consumption experiences.  Developments in the field of sociology have related class-based emotions to specific sets of social behaviours (deSwaan, 1989; Reay, 2005; Hughes, 2007; Sayer, 2005), though not explicitly to consumption behaviours.  For example, Hughes (2007) establishes the causes of feelings of social envy and reconsiders their legitimacy.  While Holt (1997) and Southerton (2002) argue then that the pre-established tensions that have existed both between women and amongst social class relations continue to be played out, though now they are more difficult to discern.  Being careful not to dismiss emotions as abstract and/or independently occurring ‘moods’, nor to relegate the emotional dynamic of consumption to mere consequences of action, when the psychic and emotive spheres of consumption experience are situated within the context of social class relations connections are found.  For example, feelings of confidence and/or anxiety are linked women’s cultural capital (knowledge and experience of cultural consumption), while feelings of guilt are tied to their awareness of whether their spending habits are in line with the realities of the financial constraints placed upon them.  The psycho-social dynamics at play within competitive female relations influence their conceptions of their moral (self) worth too, which also shapes their consumption practices.  Thus, within this psychic, affective, and moral landscape surrounding fashion consumption, emotions can adequately be seen to hinder, fuel, compromise, or enhance female consumer subjectivity.

Following Bourdieu’s (1984, 1990) theory of practice and extending it with a more overt emotional dimension, a woman’s tendency to assume particular fashion consumption practices can be understood in two primary contexts.  Firstly, they may be qualified as habitual behaviours that feel natural to her although they have in fact been learned over time, via pedagogic or autodidactic processes, after being immersed into a particular culture for some time.  Secondly, her self-fashioning practices are sometimes deliberate, but often less consciously enacted, having stemmed from the woman’s beliefs of how she should assume her feminine identity through her consumption choices.  Those practices are therefore regarded as strategies that are employed to help cope with an often intensely scrutinizing female consumerist environment.  Based on in-depth interviews and using a narrative approach, I found that the positional constraints and/or advantages that are experienced over the course of a woman’s life trajectory shape the type of psycho-affective states that she experiences.  In turn, these states play a crucial role in shaping how women interpret and try to enact their feminine identity through self-fashioning practice.  Self-fashioning practice should thus be understood as inherently social, rather than individual, behaviour.  Research should also recognise the central role that social structures continue to exert in developing many subconscious motivations for fashioning feminine identity, which are experienced as emotion.  In this respect, self-fashioning practice can be understood as a negotiation between the woman’s desires, their perception of their own self-worth, the constraints that they experience, their tendency to think of themselves as individuals, and also their efforts to ‘fit’ into the social world in some way via their appearance.

In work in progress, I examine women’s self-reported experiences of consuming fashion, through which the emotions resulting from social class relations can be ascertained.  For these women, fashion was portrayed as both friend and foe.  They provided accounts where feminine subjectivity is inextricably tied to consumption because, for them, having the ability to consume and fashion their femininity in ways that they consider important produces considerable emotional rewards.  As a result, knowledge of how to consume and self-fashion in the ‘correct’ ways is critically linked to their psycho-affective well being or balance, but when capital resources are lacking, experiences of self-fashioning tend to be shrouded in negativity.  Experiences linked to different class backgrounds and capital compositions produce specific sets of emotions that play a key structuring role in consumption patterning and in the production of categorisations of fashioned feminine identities.  In conceptualizing fashion as a mechanism that operates within the psychic landscape of social (classed-based) relations, it becomes evident that it continues to be used as a tool of distinction and segregation for social collectivities, albeit in increasingly nuanced and less perceptible ways.

Works cited:

Arnold, R. (2001) Fashion, Desire and Anxiety: Image and Morality in the Twentieth Century, London, New York: I.B. Tauris

Bourdieu, P. (1990) The Logic of Practice, Cambridge, Oxford: Polity Press

Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Routeledge: London

Clarke, A. And D. Miller (2002) “Fashion and Anxiety”, Fashion Theory, 6(2) 191-213

DeSwaan, A. (1989) “Jealousy as a Class Phenomenon: The Petit Bourgeoisie and Social Security”, Sociology, 4(3) 259-71

Dolan, P. (2009) “Developing Consumer Subjectivity in Ireland: 1900–80”, Journal of Consumer Culture, 9(1) 117-41

Entwistle, J. (2000) The Fashioned Body: Fashion Dress and Modern Social Theory, Cambridge: Polity Press

Gould, S. J. (1997)An Interpretive Study of Purposeful, Mood Self-Regulating Consumption: The Consumption and Mood Framework”, Psychology & Marketing, 14(4) 395-426

Hebdige, D (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style, London: Methuen

Hirschman, E. C. (1992) “The Consciousness of Addiction: Toward a General Theory of Compulsive Consumption” Journal of Consumer Research, 19 (September) 155-79

Hughes, C (2007) “The Equality of Social Envies”, Sociology, 41(2) 347-63

Jantzen, C., Ostergaard, P., Sucena Viera, C. M. (2006) “Becoming a ‘Woman to the Backbone’: Lingerie Consumption and the Experience of Feminine Identity”, Journal of Consumer Culture, Vol 6 (2) 177-202

McDowell, C (2000) Fashion Today, Phaiden Press Limited; London

McRobbie, A. (2008) “What Not to Wear and Post Femininist Symbolic Violence”, Paper at the ‘Putting Bourdieu to Work’ Conference, Manchester University, May 2008, 173-210

Otnes, C., Lowrey, T. M., and L. J. Shrum (1997) “Toward an Understanding of Consumer Ambivalence”, Journal of Consumer Research, 24(June) 80-93

Reay, D (2005) “Beyond Consciousness?: The Psychic Landscape of Social Class”, Sociology, 39(5) 911-28

Roux, D, Korchia, M (2006) “Am I What I Wear?  An Exploratory Study of Symbolic Meanings Associated with Second Hand Clothing”, Advances in Consumer Research, (33) 29-35

Sayer, A (2005) “Class, Moral Worth and Recognition”, Sociology, 39(5) 947-63

Southerton, D (2002) “Boundaries of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’: Class Mobility and Identification in a New Town”, Sociology, 36(1) 171-93

Steele, V. (2006) Fifty Years of Fashion - New Look to Now, Yale University Press: New Haven, London

Swinyar, W. R.(1993)  “The Effects of Mood, Involvement, and Quality of Store Experience, and on Shopping Intentions,” Journal of Consumer Research, 20(1) 271-80.

Thomas, D. (2007) Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre, London, New York: Penguin Books

Thompson, C. J., Haytho, D. L. (1997) “Speaking of Fashion: Consumers’ Uses of Fashion Discourses and the Appropriation of Countervailing Meanings”, Journal of Consumer Research, 24(June) 15-36

Warde, A. (1996) “Afterword: The Future of the Sociology of Consumption’, in S.Edgell, K.Hetherington and A.Warde (Eds.), Consumption Matters, (1996) 302-12.


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