Fashion and Class

In a new blog post on the CommsWomen platform, Emma Tanner, a student at the University of Alabama, College of Communication and Information Sciences, analyses an article by Georg Simmel on fashion.

In an insightful article published in The American Journal of Sociology, sociologist Georg Simmel delves into the intricate dynamics of fashion, providing a timeless analysis that continues to resonate in today’s ever-evolving fashion culture. Simmel’s work, though written in the early 20th century, offers a profound understanding of fashion’s social functions, its role in individual identity, and the nature of trends.

Simmel argues that fashion serves as a form of social equalization and differentiation. On one hand, it allows individuals to conform to group norms, promoting social cohesion and a sense of belonging. On the other, fashion enables personal differentiation, helping individuals express their unique identities within the broader social framework. This dual function of fashion, according to Simmel, is fundamental to understanding its enduring presence in society.

One of Simmel’s key contributions to fashion theory is his analysis of the nature of trends. He suggests that fashion trends emerge, gain popularity, and eventually fade away, only to be replaced by new ones. This constant change is driven by the tension between the desire for conformity and the need for individual distinction. As a trend becomes widely adopted, its uniqueness diminishes, prompting the fashion-forward to seek out new styles, thus starting the cycle over.

Simmel also explores how fashion acts as a tool for social stratification. He notes that the upper classes often initiate new fashion trends, which are then gradually adopted by the lower classes. As a trend becomes widespread, the upper classes abandon it in favor of new, exclusive styles. This process not only reinforces social hierarchies but also drives the continuous evolution of fashion.

Beyond social dynamics, Simmel delves into the psychological aspects of fashion. He suggests that fashion provides individuals with a means of coping with the uncertainties of modern life. By adhering to prevailing trends, individuals gain a sense of security and acceptance. Simultaneously, the pursuit of new fashion trends offers a way to assert one’s individuality and navigate the complexities of social interactions.

Simmel’s analysis holds significant implications for the contemporary fashion industry. In an era where social media and fast fashion dominate, the principles he outlined are more relevant than ever. Brands today must navigate the delicate balance between catering to mass trends and fostering a sense of exclusivity. These two things are very different but are vital for a successful brand. The rapid dissemination of fashion trends through digital platforms accelerates the process described by Simmel, making it crucial for brands to stay ahead of the curve. Moreover, Simmel’s insights into the role of fashion in social stratification shed light on the ethical concerns surrounding modern fashion. The accessibility of fast fashion allows trends to be adopted quickly by a broad audience, but it also raises questions about sustainability and the exploitation of labor. As consumers become more aware of these issues, brands are compelled to address them, aligning with Simmel’s notion of fashion as a reflection of broader social dynamics.

Georg Simmel’s article in The American Journal of Sociology provides a timeless framework for understanding the complexities of fashion. His exploration of fashion’s social functions, the nature of trends, and its role in social stratification offers valuable insights for both scholars and industry professionals. As the fashion world continues to evolve, Simmel’s work remains a crucial reference point, reminding us that the dynamics of fashion are deeply intertwined with the fabric of society itself.

The full article can be found at this link.


Simmel, G. (1957). Fashion. American Journal of Sociology, 62(6), 541-558.

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