MAS 961  ·  Techno-Identity  ·  Spring 2006

fashion, time and status

Fashion signals are signals whose form changes over time while their referent, the quality they indicate, remains the same.  The item “m” that signaled quality “A” at time  t1 no longer does so at time t2 – instead, a new item “n” signals “A”, while “m” now signals “B”.

Fashion signals indicate one’s position 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 (which may or may not be information-based), the signals that indicate one's status need to be frequently renewed because one’s status is subject to change.  If your status was 1 last week it may not be 1 this week; you should be able to signal a status of 1 only if your status has indeed remained 1. The strength hierarchies of the antler-bearing moose are mobile: illness, a bad fight, etc. can change a moose's position from strong to weak 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. Note that not all mobile hierarchies use fashion as a signal – only those based in part on access to information. The examples above (moose strength, personal wealth) are not fashion signals, for while the signals must be renewed frequently to maintain accuracy, the form of the signal itself does not change (moose don’t demonstrate strength with antlers one year and giant tusks the next).  And indeed, they are not signaling about access to information, but about other qualities, such as strength and wealth.

Fashion signals change over time.   Fashion signals indicate the signaler’s access to information because the signaler must have access to current information about the new form of the signal.   Often, this means that fashion is an indicator of social networks and connections. The club fashions that Sarah Thornton describes (the fashions here being where to go and what music is it this week) map the social networks connecting DJs, music makers, club goers. There are fashions in language, such as colloquial expressions, jokes, quotes - these chart social structures as people choose certain models to mimic and particular memes to pass on.

Fashion signals are costly.  It is expensive in time and often in money to continuously reformulate a signal. If I want my blog to feature breaking news and the coolest links before anyone else’s does, I must devote a lot of time to exploring the world to find these items.  If I want my clothing to express my  central position in the coterie of “ladies who lunch”, I must devote not only time, but quite a bit of money, to seasonally updating an expensive wardrobe.

The classic descriptions of fashion (from Veblen (Veblen 1899)  and Simmel (Simmel 1904) – see (Rüling 2000) for a useful summary ) posit differentiation and imitation as the driving forces. Those at the top of a hierarchy attempt to differentiate themselves from those below, who are attempting to imitate those above them.

Yet fashion/information hierarchies are not simple linear structures.  A footrace has a linear structure:  someone is first, which is best, someone else is second, which is second-best, someone is third, etc.  There is no advantage to being in the middle.  In fashion hierarchy, being the front-running trendsetter is risky.  There is the risk of making a mistake, of choosing a novel form of expression that does not catch on or is misunderstood.  Trend-setters are not necessarily even part of the status hierarchy that imitates them. For example, the status hierarchy of a group of high-school girls might involve many shifting changes of clothing and makeup style, based on the similarly rapidly changing styles of a small set of celebrities.  The celebrities are the trendsetters, but they are outside of the high-school girls’ hotly contested hierarchy.  (Suzuki and Best 2003) have a good discussion of what makes a trendsetter.  And Veblen observed that the struggle for social position takes place both within and between social classes.

Fashion can signal both one’s dedication to status in a hierarchy as well as one’s ability to achieve that status.  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.

Once a particular fashion becomes mainstream, it signals conformity, safety, a willingness to be one of the crowd.  Many of the cultural expressions and behaviors that appear mundane today, from wearing jeans, to using email, to listening to rock music, were once avant-garde choices – risky in that one could be labeled as strange or different, a rebel or a hopeless nerd

Also, those who are strongly identified with a particular subculture also pay the opportunity costs that aligning with that group may involve.  These may not be the first trendsetters, whose signals are novel enough to sometimes be ambiguous – and who may not even be participants in that particular status hierarchy, but the front-runners of the hierarchy itself

Required readings

Sarah Thornton    Club Cultures, ch 4
Grant McCracken    Culture and Consumption, ch 5
Fred Davis    Fashion, Culture and Identity, ch 1
Veblen, Thorstein    Theory of the Leisure Class, ch 7
Adar, E., L. Zhang, et al.    Implicit Structure and the Dynamics of Blogspace. (2004). 13th International World Wide Web Conference: Workshop on the Weblogging Ecosystem.

Optional readings

Huberman, Bernardo A., Christoph Loch, and Ayse Oncule    Status as a valued resource. 2004. Social Psychology Quarterly 67, no. 1: 103-114
Georg Simmel   Fashion 1907. International Quarterly 10, 130-155.
Suzuki, Tadashi and Joel Best    The emergence of trendsetters for fashions and fads: Kogaru in 1990s Japan. 2003. Sociological Quarterly 44, no. 1: 61-80
Coelho, Philip R.P. and James E. McClure    Toward an economic theory of fashion. 1993. Economic Inquiry 31: 595-608
Wolfgang Pesendorfer    Design Innovation and and Fashion Cycles. The American Economic Review, Vol. 85, No. 4. (Sep., 1995), pp. 771-792. (there is also an interesting argument between Coelho and Pesendorfer here and here.)



  1. Read the papers.
    • The Simmel and Veblen readings are both classics of sociology; they are the first theoretical discussions of fashion and quite influential.
    • Coelho and Pessendorfer are contemporary economic discussions of fashion which also use (slightly different) signaling model. Both, I think, are flawed by conflating a number of different functions as fashion (Pessendorfer, for instance, conflates fashion with luxury good). But they do represent the economic approach.
    • Davis and McCracken are contemporary socio/anthro approaches to fashion. They are useful for thinking about fashion in a cultural context.
    • Thornton's book on Club Culture, which focuses on fashion in music, deals the most directly with fashion as knowledge, as a way of showing who has access to information, and how this knowledged is controlled and disseminated.
    • Adar et al on blogs is a very interesting look at exactly how fashions spread in an online space.
      Suzuki et al look at extreme fashions in Japan - their work is a close look at the question of where do new fashion ideas come from.
    • I have also included the Huberman et al paper on status, because ideas about status are fundamental to thinking about fashion hierarchies.
  2. Answer these questions:
    • How does fashion function as a signal? What does it indicate? What are the costs and benfits associated with it? Is it reliable? Why or why not? what is the function of continuous change? How does Veblen's view of fashion fit with a signaling model of fashion?
    • There are fashions in many domains: clothing, slang, blogs, research topics, music, etc. The medium in which the fashion signal is embedded affects how quickly it spreads, how easily old signals are discarded, what social hierarchy/affiliation it indicates, etc. Looking at blogs (from the Adar paper and your own observations), music (from Thornton and your observations), clothing (from Davis, Suzuki, and your observations) and one other domain of your choosing, describe how fashion signals function in each domain, discussing the common features and differences between them. What are the features of the medium that affect fashions within it? Are changes arbitrary or are they driven by other forces in addition to fashion? How does that affect how we interpret it as a signal?

Please link your essays by midday on Tuesday.