Fashion Design and Social Change: Women Designers and Stylistic Innovation

By Crane, Diana | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Fashion Design and Social Change: Women Designers and Stylistic Innovation


Crane, Diana, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Women's fashion is always a statement about women's roles and how they are or should be performed. Therefore it is appropriate to ask whether, in their capacities as fashion designers, men and women interpret women's roles differently. To what extent does fashion express the experiences of most women? In the nineteenth century, fashionable clothes were intended to be worn for the social activities of upperand upper-middle-class women but were generally unsuitable for the everyday lives of other women. Gradually, in the twentieth century, simpler types of clothing, appropriate for women at all social class levels, appeared, but they often began outside the "fashion worlds" in which fashionable clothes were created. While women have always been dressmakers, only in the late nineteenth century did a few women become fashion designers and, in that capacity, begin to have the possibility of translating their experiences as women into clothing for women.

While one might suppose that women would dominate the field of fashion design for women, in fact, women designers have been in the past and continue today to be outnumbered by male designers in the field of fashion design for women.1 In the area of fashion design for men, they are definitely a minority.

Fashion design, as a type of cultural hegemony in which certain aspects of gender roles are favored rather than others, can be understood in part as the outcome of organizational structures and the constraints on behavior they necessitate. Social change which disrupts these relationships sometimes provides female designers with opportunities to challenge existing interpretations of female roles as they are embodied in fashionable clothing. In this essay, I will explore the differences between men and women fashion designers in the contexts of the fashion industries in three countries, England, France, and the United States.2 Using a typology of roles that fashion designers perform, I will compare the activities of men and women designers in those roles.

Based on Howard Becker's analysis in Art Worlds of the relationship between crafts and arts, the roles performed by fashion designers can be characterized as craftsman, artist-craftsman, and artist. Craftsmen and artist-craftsmen produce their work to order-for clients or employers. For craftsmen, utility is the major factor in evaluating their creations while artist-- craftsmen stress beauty and aesthetic qualities (27476). According to Becker, artists attempt to produce works that are unique-totally different from other objects. When artists use the skills of craftsmen, the objects they make are neither useful nor beautiful. Instead, they are deliberately created so as to subvert these values. Here Becker identifies the role of the artist with the avant-garde. In the fashion industry, the mass-market designer is likely to be a craftsman, while the luxury fashion designer is generally an artist-craftsman and, occasionally, an avant-garde artist. A contemporary equivalent of the avant-garde is the postmodernist, who violates standards of good taste through incongruous combinations of themes and motifs from past and present styles. An additional role that is not included in Becker's typology is that of innovator, specifically, a designer, either in the mass market or the luxury market, who creates styles that produce major changes in women's clothing.

Fashion industries vary by country in the extent to which they provide favorable environments for particular roles. The behavior of both men and women fashion designers is affected by the nature and echelon of the fashion industries in which they are employed. The situation of the French fashion designer is influenced by the long and prestigious tradition of haute couture, made-to-order clothes for upper-class customers. The French luxury fashion designer is revered as an artist-craftsman. Well-integrated in the upperclass social milieu whose members they clothe, these designers are seldom avant-garde.

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