The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

“Economy and Fashion: A Theoretical Contribution on the
Formation of Modern Consumer Demand” (1902)

WERNER SOMBART

Werner Sombart's career ran between the two extremes of German ideology. Born in 1863 in the Harz Mountains, Sombart studied political science and economics in Berlin and Rome. He shared the same mentors as his academic rival Max Weber, with whom he carried out a frustrated, lifelong competition. In his earliest writings Sombart was considered a Marxist, one of the first bourgeois thinkers to employ Marxist theory in the academy. He was frequently denied teaching posts because of collegial opposition to his political views. His Socialism and Social Movements in the Nineteenth Century (1896) made him the most renowned historian of left-wing politics in Germany. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, Sombart published numerous works on the history of capitalism, all of which were meant as responses to Weber's theories about the rise of capitalism. In the late 1920s Sombart began work on an anthropological project that was meant to systematize the racist theories of the period. At the end of his life, this hygienic-racist project brought Sombart into the orbit of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists. Sombart died in Berlin in 1941.

The selection included here shows Sombart as an economist still concerned with the issues Marx raises in Capital; however, Sombart writes very much as an academic, not a revolutionary. He seeks to define consumer culture as it exists with a mass economy. Fashion, he understands, is no longer an elite phenomenon. Its cycles of shifting tastes pass through millions of consumers and therefore have major economic consequences. He points to the orthodox Marxist claim that fashion is merely a trick employed by manufacturers to convince consumers to buy new goods they don't actually need, thereby increasing their own profits. Like a good economist, Sombart insists that economic forces determine social behavior. Education, or cultural progress, is not nearly as important as the need to sell goods. Here he takes direct aim at old idealists such as Friedrich Vischer, and we see the coalescence of the German tradition of fashion commentary, which reached up to Walter Benjamin's work

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