MAS 965 · Signalling identity
Instructor: Judith Donath

04.01 · signals in time: fashion and the decay of information


notes on fashion

One of the key aspects of fashion is that it changes over time - the underlying qualities that it signals do not change, but the signals do. The item "m" that signaled quality "A" at time t(1) no longer does so at time t(2) - instead, it signals quality "B", while item "n" now signals "A".

Generally speaking, what fashion signals is one's location in a mobile information based hierarchy. When we speak of fashion here, we are not talking only about clothing, but about any changeable, information based expression. There are fashions in clothing, music, language and ideas.

In a mobile hierarchy, the signals that indicate one's status need to be frequently renewed because this status is subject to change. The fact that one could signal a status of 1 last week does not mean one can do so again this week, unless one's status is indeed still 1. There are many such mobile hierarchies, not all of which are about information. The strength hierarchies of the antler-bearing moose are mobile: illness, a bad fight, etc. can chnage a moose's position from strong to weak quite quickly and the antlers, not being permanent, will bear this out. Similarly, the wealth hierarchies in many human societies are quite mobile, and signals that require repeated expenditures (rather than a single big expense) ensure that the representation is an up-to-date assessment of the underlying quality. Examples include hosting elaborate and expensive parties, or owning items that require a great amount of upkeep, such as an immense lawn or a yacht. Yet none of these (the antlers, the parties or the lawns) are fashion signals, for they do not change over time, they merely repeat.

For fashion to be necessary, the hierarchy must be in some way based on access to information. Often, this means that fashion is about social networks and connections.

The club fashions that Sarah Thornton describes (fashions here being where to go and what music is it this week) reflect a set of social networks, among djs, music makers, club goers. There are fashions in language, such as colloquial expressions, jokes, quotes - these reflect social structures as pople choose certain models to mimic and particular memes to pass on.

The classic description of fashion (from Veblen and Simmel) posits differentiation and imitation as the driving force. Those at the top of a hierarchy attempt to differentiate themselves from those below, who are attempting to imitate those above them. The signaling/information model of fashion is not in opposition to this - it is complementary. Our model focuses on what qualities are signaled by fashion and why. The imitation/differentiation model highlights the issue of reliability: as new signals are created, there is a constant push of imitators making those signals increasingly unreliable. Yet they must be reliable for at least some time, hence their existence. Here, with the signaling model, we look more closely at the elements of time and information access as the keys to signal reliabilty.

The speed at which informaiton is disseminated depends on the communication channels. When we look at the earliest days of fashion in clothing, around the 14th century, there were slow changes, over the course of years, as news traveled from Venice and Paris over slow and dangerous routes to more provincial courts [Braudel]. Today, information travels almost instantly. And some fashions change nearly that fast - e.g. links and topics in weblogs.

Fashion signals co-exist with other types of signals. Fashion in clothing, for instance, reflects not only information, but also wealth, physical condition, etc. These other signals can slow the rate of change considerably. That is one reason that looking at signals that are more purely informational (hit music, web links, etc) is interesting, for they are not limited by the constraints of material representation.

In the 14th c., the problem was access to any information at all. Relatively little news traveled about, and access to what there was was a key marker of status. Today, there are innumerable and competing sources of information. The problem is sorting out from this "plenitude" (McCracken) of information which is the right information.

Fashion is also a signal of one's devotion to the hierarchy. The fact that the signal must be continuously renewed and refreshed means that one cannot rest on one's laurels, on one's past signalling efforts. Time and energy must be repeatedly spent in obtaining and displaying the new signal. At the top of a fashion hierarchy one must spend considerable time maintaining contacts who provide one with access to the newest of things. As things move down the hierarchy and become mainstream, less effort is required to know about them.


1. Read the papers listed above. There will be some additional background information and some questions to answer posted here in a day or two (an email will alert you to this).  But you can get started on the readings now.

2. Answer these questions about fashion:

3. Write a proposal for your final paper. This paper should address some aspect of the question of how identity is presented and interpreted in the online world and in real life. Your paper should touch on some aspect of signaling theory, either by using it to investigate the topic you have chosen or by critiquing its use, i.e. explaining why it is not useful for the topic you have chosen.

4. If you have time, write a response to these optional essay questions:

Please submit the URL of your essay by Tuesday evening April 29.