Perhaps the most influential approach towards the study of fashion within the social sciences has been that associated with writers such as Veblen, Simmel and, more recently, Bourdieu. In each case, fashion is regarded as a specifically modern phenomenon that acts to express or maintain distinctions between different social groups in a situation where rigid and inflexible social hierarchies no longer apply. Veblen (1970), for example, saw fashionable dress as a form of ‘conspicuous consumption’, a means of demonstrating one’s social status through the acquisition and display of appropriate attire.
This was all the more important in a modern context, not simply because one’s social position was no longer rigidly ascribed, but also because of the increasing likelihood of encounters with relative strangers, and the ensuing need to manage impressions in a situation where the other’s knowledge of one’s class or status could no longer be readily assumed. The fashion cycle, according to Veblen, reflected a more or less steady oscillation between the arbitrary whims of fashion and the subsequent re-assertion of good taste.
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A broadly similar picture was painted by Simmel, who also linked the rise of fashion to the breakdown of rigid social hierarchies and the relative anonymity of the modern urban environment (1997). Fashion also satisfied a simultaneous desire for uniformity and difference, allowing people to express their individuality whilst remaining part of the crowd. As did Veblen, Simmel regarded fashions primarily as class fashions, as symbolic means of differentiating between relatively distinct social groups.