The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

“Fashion” (1901)

GEORG SIMMEL

Georg Simmel's contribution is at once the most philosophical and elegant work on fashion written in the last century. Simmel brings the critical tools of the idealist tradition to the question of fashion's place in modern society. He builds his argument on the tradition of German fashion sociology by addressing the problem of personal freedom in mass culture. Whereas Vischer invoked Immanuel Kant to ponder the question of whether fashion allows for personal freedom or whether it produces only numbing conformity, Simmel looked to Hegel to consider the same proposition. Relying on a dialectical mode of argumentation, Simmel explains that fashion operates simultaneously to affirm individuality even as it establishes group identities. Fashion speaks to the common desire for personal distinction, while also creating classes of people who seek the same form of separateness. He argues, for example, that elite dressers will adopt a particular style to distinguish themselves from other people, yet they do so as a group. They share an identity because they are separating themselves from everyone else. This paradoxical collusion of conformity and individualism occurs at many levels of society. It is by no means reserved only for those who wear haute couture. The ordinary consumer, for example, will buy a garment because it appeals to him, says something about him, yet he will find some comfort in the fact that others are also wearing it. He is reassured by his peers that he is not acting the fool. Similarly, women will wear revealing dresses to formal events because they understand that other women will be doing the same. Under different circumstances they would likely be embarrassed to be the only woman to expose herself so completely to the public eye, but at a dinner party the collective understanding makes possible the woman's highly personal appearance. Simmel's brilliance lies in his ability to elucidate this tension between social pressure and personal freedom at every moment in the fashion cycle.

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