There is often a misconception that fashion means just clothing. Yet fashion is a whole system of processes that affect all types of cultural phenomena and is, put simply, a code or a language that helps people understand the meaning and symbols around these cultural phenomena.
In the fields of sociology and consumer culture there are several models that describe how meaning is transmitted through the fashion system to the end consumers, and women play a major role in that. Women form a big part of the fashion system, not just as people who help decipher fashion codes (to define what is 'hot' and fashionable now), but also as end consumers themselves. Due to women’s close association to fashion, whether that is clothing, shoes, accessories, hair-styles, make-up and cosmetics, even mundane aspects of dress like underwear, women simply seem to have more choices than men. Fashion provides the raw material for women to express different aspects of their identity in their everyday lives.
Indeed, women are closely associated with fashion, and this association goes back to medieval times. Women were ‘makers’ of fashion, literally by sewing and making clothing at home or metaphorically because of the close link between fashion and societal expectations of femininity. The approximation of dress to the sexual body made women susceptible to societal judgement and often condemnation.
Going forward in history, fashion played a huge role in pivotal changes in society. The development of mass-produced textiles in the early 20th century with new material like nylon, for example, revolutionised women’s dress and everyday activities. The growing role of women in the workplace, politics, etc., is followed by changes in fashion. Expanding on the example of workplace dress and the increase of women in the workplace, fashion followed, giving women more choices. Women tend to wear more tailored suits with waistlines, different types of skirts, and a variety of colours than the usual black, grey, brown or blue male suits, plus accessories which give women a great variety of styling their workplace dress as well.
15th Century stained glass, woman wearing a flower hat. Chapel of St Nicholas, Gipping, Suffolk, England
Women in modern society, at least in the West, have conquered great many roles and use fashion to a great extent to support these roles. Women are workers, white collar professionals, politicians, academics, professional athletes, even priests. They are also mothers, partners, lovers, or girls ‘who just want to have fun’. Women play out different roles in their everyday life, or ‘multiple identities’, and they use various ‘technologies’ to support these identities, fashion being one of them. From being at home, to being at work, at the gym or out and about, women choose what is comfortable, what is fashionable, or just what suits them in order to feel good about their bodies and themselves while playing out these different identities.
The fashion system invents and reinvents styles and trends every season to give women a ‘glamorous’ look, and consumer and popular culture gave birth to reality makeover shows and self-help books that exacerbated the idea that women need to dress in a particular way in order to look good and then feel good. This raises concerns about how these shows maintain the idea that a woman’s looks are part of her social worth. Nevertheless, research has shown that women need to feel comfortable in what they wear, whether that is underwear, clothing, accessories or cosmetics, because their physical comfort affects their psychological comfort very much.
Art by Kula Robbins. For the U.S. Public Health Service. 1943.
In the modern capitalist Western societies of the 21st century, women continue to use fashion to support the identity projects they embark on in their everyday lives, and the fashion system will probably continue to be one of the main drivers of cultural changes, including societal perceptions around the definition of femininity.