Fashion & Its Social Agendas

Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing 

In her book Fashion and Its Social Agendas, Diana Crane examines the history of fashion as a social indicator of class and gender. By examining theories of diffusion, class stratification, and adoption of fashion, Crane offers new ways to consider fashion – most notably as a terrain and text where many meanings, social markings, codes, and identities reside. Crane traces fashion’s evolution into its current mass market incarnation, by looking at Europe (the U.K. and France) and the United States, with a specific focus on clothing that connoted class distinctions, how clothing came to be used, and how certain members of society, used clothing to usurp or subvert commonly held constructions of gender.

In the Introduction of her book, Crane attempts to explain, what Simmel calls diffusion – a model whereby less fashionable (and less rich) individuals, generally those denied the stratosphere of the uber-rich and elegant, learn how to be fashionable, or adopt styles of the rich. Crane’s explanation is far more detailed and academic, than what I can offer, however, the perfect example of this theory is from the movie The Devil Wears Prada.In a memorable scene, Andy gets a “dressing down,” from Miranda (played by Meryl Streep). Not only is it wonderful acting, but it encapsulates Crane’s book. 

 Crane’s book is extremely well-researched: it is clear that she has done the work necessary to write about her topic. What works less well, is that the book appears to be compiled from a series of academic essays, which results in a less cohesive text.  Crane, as many sociologists are trained to do, keeps her writing fairly flat, unemotional, and relies primarily on the conclusions of the experts she cites. As a reader, this at times  felt disengaging – I had no sense of the author’s voice or own theory. It was as if Crane seemed reluctant to take her clearly well-researched conclusions and extrapolate more broadly. The book became weighted by data and citations – when it could have soared with astute observations and more historical and even sociological theory and analysis. Lastly, Crane ignores race, until the final chapters, where her references are discordant with the rest of the text. When she does begin to discuss race, she seems to do so as an after thought – and she neglects to build on the work of other sociologists (like Patricia Hill Collins) who’ve written extensively about the intersection of identity and perceptions of gender hegemony and beauty. In fact, Crane grossly misunderstands and generalizes cultures of color and the approach to the aesthetic and fashion – there’s an uncomfortable embedded intellectual assumption that people of color do not have a “real” aesthetic which is unique to their cultures. Even when discussing zoot suits, Crane misses the nuances of the aesthetic, beyond rebellion and bright colors.  Instead, Crane ends with a poorly integrated information on how Black womyn (no Latinas, Asian, or Arab womyn represented) and white womyn differ in their readings of fashion text.

The fashion history provided in the book is strong, and I certainly enjoyed learnign about the development of fashion – particularly Simmel’s theories in contradiction to Crane’s own evidence and research.  The thoughtful attempt to draw the connection between popular culture, particularly the music industry, and the diffusion of fashion styles, trends, and meaning, were interesting – and timely, consider our current fashion moments, where starlets are most likely to be the harbingers of trends. As interesting as Crane’s book was – I think Devil Wears Prada, says the same thing – with more verve, style (the second belt!), and excitement.

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One Response to “Fashion & Its Social Agendas”

  1. […] in my recent posts about fashion (“Can Topshop Cure my Fashion Malaise?”   and “Fashion and Its Social Agendas”) where I am trying to articulate what Reina Lewis explains, (via Mimi’s post), […]

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