ONLINE DOSSIER: DIANA CRANE, LAURA BOVONE »APPROACHES TO MATERIAL CULTURE: THE SOCIOLOGOY OF FASHION AND CLOTHING«
Crane, Diana, and Laura Bovone. »Approaches to material culture: The sociology of fashion and clothing«, Poetics, Volume 34, Issue 6, pages 319-333. 2006. ISSN 0304-422X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.poetic.2006.10.002.
»The neglect of the study of fashion and clothing by sociologists is similar to their disinterest in the study of consumer goods in general (Zukin and McGuire, 2004). Both derive from negative associations attributed to consumption as a form of capitalist manipulation of the public by Marx, members of the Frankfurt School, and other Marxist authors (for a recent example of this approach; see Langman, 2003), as well as the association of consumption with women’s pursuits.« (p. 319–320)
Definition of Fashion:
»Because the concept of fashion has a variety of meanings and connotations both for academics and for the general public, the term tends to obscure rather than clarify the processes that underlie the phenomenon. The concept is often used to refer to the manner in which specific forms of culture disseminate (Simmel, 1957). It is most frequently used to connote highly visible styles of clothing and, less often, other types of material or immaterial culture that are highly valued at a particular moment in time. The term is also applied to systems that produce new styles of clothing and attempt to make them desirable to the public.
Alternatively, fashion can be conceptualized as an example of a broader phenomenon, the creation and attribution of symbolic values to material culture. From this perspective, the sociology of fashion is linked to the sociology of consumption as it intersects with the sociology of material culture, and to the history and sociology of cultural production in which new interpretations of symbolic values are created and attributed to material culture. The ‘object turn’ in the sociology of consumption, which has its origins in anthropology (Appadurai, 1986; Douglas and Isherwood, 1979) focuses on the role of objects in generating and conveying cultural meanings (Woodward, 2001), rather than macro analyses of the role and significance of consumption in Western societies. In these studies, the consumer is conceptualized as creating meanings from material goods, particularly after purchase (p. 120). According to this approach, ‘‘objects occupy a similar position to space, time, and bodies: they are foundational media through which social life is experienced (p. 130)’’. Consumption of material goods can be seen as an expression of certain types of symbolic values (Dolfsma, 2004, p. 356), as opposed to economic values. Material goods express values; consumption of these goods is a means for the consumer to communicate messages about the values she holds.« (p. 320)
»The study of values has been largely neglected by sociologists for several decades (Hitlin and Piliavin, 2004) and, as a result, there is little consensus about how to define, study, or interpret them.2 When sociologists use the concept, they tend to assume that values are primarily associated with social statuses, such as social class, gender, and ethnicity. Values are considered to be the result of socialization and to be relatively stable and unchanging (Hitlin and Piliavin, 2004, p. 7, 21). In sociological studies, values are generally associated with people and only secondarily with material objects.
Consequently, sociologists tend to ignore the potential of the vast supply of material culture, in which we are embedded, as a medium for cultural change through its capacity to embody symbolic values and to change or reinforce those values in consumers when they acquire and use material objects. For example, clothing can be a vehicle for socialization and social control or, alternatively, for liberation from cultural constraints. The former is exemplified by the important roles that uniforms perform in education, religious organizations, and the military (Craik, 2005; McVeigh, 2000); the latter can be seen in the profusion of sub-cultural clothing styles in the past half century (De La Haye and Dingwall, 1996; Polhemus, 1994). One of the reasons that the relationship between material goods and symbolic values is understated in the sociological literature is that sociologists tend to conceptualize values in terms of cultural ideals such as security, conformity, and universalism, rather than as preferences for specific states of being or for self-enhancement.
Clothing as a form of material culture is especially suitable for studying the relationship between personal values and values attributed to material goods because of its close association with perceptions of the self. Clothes both affect and express our perceptions of ourselves. Ruggerone (in this issue) suggests that clothing has a special character as a material object because of its location on our bodies, thereby ‘‘acting as a filter between the person and the surrounding social world.’’ Values have also been interpreted as being ‘‘intimately tied to the self’’ and as forming ‘‘the core of one’s personal identity’’ (Hitlin and Piliavin, 2004, p. 382).« (p. 320–321)
»Material culture can be seen as a type of text that expresses symbols and contributes to discourses and to cultural repertoires. The question of interpreting the meanings that are attributed to clothing as a form of material culture is controversial. Although it is clear that clothing does not fit the criteria for classification as a type of language, it can be interpreted as a type of visual text, comparable to photographs and advertisements. For example, clothing worn by youth subcultures, counter cultures, metropolitan tribes, and gay cultures contributes to our understanding of how values associated with specific social identities are expressed through clothing and how perceptions of social identity by members of these groups change over time (see Bovone, this issue).« (p.321)
Symbolic values in fashion photography:
»In contemporary fashion, images in the media that attribute symbolic values to clothing styles have become as important as the clothes themselves. Through advertisements for their products, clothing brands transmit sets of values that imply an ideology and specific life styles. Editorial pages in fashion magazines, advertisements, catalogues, and programs on television and cable disseminate images of clothing more widely than the products they depict. The communication process in fashion magazines and fashion advertisements relies on specific and sophisticated techniques to redefine the symbolic values attached to styles of clothing, including the use of very young, very thin models, often presented in demeaning positions (Goffman, 1976). The values expressed in these types of photographs tend to be subversive and unconventional (Crane, 2000).
In this issue, Ruggerone examines fashion photography as an example of the attribution of values associated with masculine hegemony to fashionable clothing in advertising campaigns. Photographs of women in fashion magazines are constructed as if they were intended for the young male spectator’s gaze and embody his expectations of women and of male–female relationships. The goal of her study was to understand how fashion photographers and their associates in Milan perceived the images they created and their consequences for female publics. Ruggerone found that most of these professionals were concerned with the aesthetic aspects of fashion photography and oblivious to its social consequences.« (p. 322–323)
»How do values attributed to material goods shape our conceptions and perceptions of ourselves and of our identities? How are values expressed through choices and uses of material goods? The values that consumers attribute to fashionable clothing have generally been characterized as those that are associated with class, life styles, or subcultures. Each of these types of consumer identities has different implications for the ways consumers perceive and use clothing.
Clothing has usually been interpreted as a means for the expression of social differentiation, particularly class distinctions (Bourdieu, 1984). In the last decades of the 20th century, relatively homogenous class cultures largely disappeared in Western consumer societies and were replaced by numerous ‘‘niches’’, in which consumers have quite different tastes and habits, in spite of having similar socioeconomic backgrounds (Wellner, 2003; Wasserman, 2002; Waldrop, 1994). The variety of choices in lifestyles available in contemporary society liberates the individual from tradition and enables her to make choices that create a meaningful self-identity (Giddens, 1991). According to Bovone (2003, p. 208), following Goffman (1961),
‘‘Dress is a fundamental element in … the moment of interaction when the actor defines which person she wishes to be, freely opts for one of her ‘‘multiple self- identifications’’, or rather, decides which self-identification to favor in that particular situation.’’
The third type of clothing consumer is a member of a youth subculture or a tribe, a group of young people who share cultural tastes and symbolic values, which are expressed in their clothing. In contrast to other types of consumers, members of these groups actively seek to attribute new symbolic values to clothing by altering them or by combining specific items in new ways. While in the postwar period, certain subcultures adopted specific items of clothing that constitute a specific style, with which they were closely identified (Clark, 2003), most groups in the new millennium are more likely to fit the definition of ‘‘tribes’’ which are eclectic in their choices, changing their appearance in response to what is happening in their lives and in their environment (see Bovone, this issue). As a result of the enormous variety of mediated styles and forms of culture in contemporary society, ‘‘post-subcultures’’ are more diffuse and differentiated in their tastes and less concerned with making political statements or expressions of resistance than their predecessors (Weinzierl and Muggleton, 2003). According to one observer (Thornton, 1995, p. 12), ‘‘class is willfully obfuscated by subcultural distinctions.’’ Instead they are more interested in demonstrating their status as ‘‘hip’’ and ‘‘cool’’. They are also more likely to participate in ‘‘the niche marketing of their identities’’ as small entrepreneurs in the fashion industry.« (p. 323)