The Study of Fashion: Is fashion more than just clothes?

In a new blog post on the CommsWomen platform, Kaitlyn Dinwiddie, a student at the University of Alabama, College of Communication and Information Sciences, analyses an article on the object of fashion by Giorgio Riello, published by the Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

When you think of “fashion”, what pops into your head? Do you picture a piece of clothing? If you do, you wouldn’t be alone. The majority of the public, mass media, the press and academics see fashion as something tangible. While clothes represent fashion in its physical form, the study of fashion isn’t just about what we wear. 

Giorgio Riello, from the Department of History at The University of Warwick in Coventry, United Kingdom writes about the three primary approaches surrounding the study of fashion in their article: The object of fashion: methodological approaches to the history of fashion. The three primary approaches encompass the study of dress and costume, fashion studies/theory, and the material culture of fashion. Understanding the distinction between fashion as a material object versus a concept is crucial for how we approach the study of fashion. Hearing that there is more than one approach to studying fashion is likely a new concept, but luckily for us these approaches often complement each other.

To begin understanding these approaches it’s important to get the idea out of our head that fashion is more than what we wear. Fashion is not limited to tangible items; it includes abstract ideas like behaviors and ideas. Consider something that is fashionable? Take smoking for example, once a fashionable activity seen as chic, and associated with sophistication, but now public perception has changed due to the awareness of the health risks, aka smoking is no longer considered fashionable. This example reflects how fashion isn’t just about clothes, it’s also about behaviors and ideas that evolve with society’s values.

Let’s explore these approaches, starting with arguably the most familiar one, the study of dress and costume. This approach can be compared to visiting a fashion museum full of archival pieces. This approach would analyze the craftsmanship, style, and historical context of defining fashion trends of the physical clothing itself. This theory scholars would be interested in concepts like how clothes were made and their historical development. 

We’ve officially arrived at our second approach, fashion studies. This approach argues that physical clothing isn’t essential for analysis. Fashion studies examine objects not for their design but for the stories behind them. It explores how fashion influences are influenced by larger societal and cultural factors.

The name of the third approach is the “material culture of fashion”, this name may seem verbose, but this term is intentional as it bridges the gap between the physical piece of clothing and the broader social history associated with it. Riello explains it best, “Material culture is not the object itself (which as we saw is at the center of dress history), but neither is it a theoretical form (which dominates the approach of fashion studies). Material culture is instead about the modalities and dynamics through which objects take on meaning (and one of these is that of fashion) in human lives.”

Within Riello’s article, he has demonstrated three different approaches in which fashion can be analyzed. No matter what approach is used to study fashion, each offers valuable insight into its social and historical significance. Understanding the depth of fashion’s broader implications allows us to deepen our appreciation for the significance of clothing. Which study of fashion theory interests you the most?

The full article can be read using this link.


Riello, G. (2011). The object of fashion: methodological approaches to the history of fashion. Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, 3(1).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *