The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

“Fashion” from The Principles of Sociology(1902)

HERBERT SPENCER

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a self-taught Victorian philosopher most well known today for his theory that human societies evolved over time through the increased division of labor. He firmly believed that scientific knowledge could combine into a single, synthetic theory. His Principles of Sociologywas published in three volumes over twenty years (18761896). An eccentric nonconformist, Spencer belonged to an intellectual circle that included John Stuart Mill and Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), whom many assumed he would marry. As journalist he wrote for The Economist until 1853, when an inheritance allowed him to live independently.

Spencer shared the anthropological bent of other nineteenth-century sociologists. He frequently employed examples from non-European cultures to make a distinction between modern society and its supposedly primitive ancestors. The distinction between ceremony and fashion reintroduces the distinction between monarchical and democratic government that Enlightenment thinkers such as Christian Garve thought was so important in understanding the connection between fashion and the freedom of thought. Fashion is produced by societies that allow personal expression and public debate, whereas ceremonies are typical of monarchical regimes that require greater conformity. Spencer, like Garve, recognized different types of conformity. Not all social rituals were the same. The imitation that one sees in modern fashion is fundamentally different from the way traditions are enforced. The enforcement of ancient rituals is not at all like the mass conformity of modern society. Spencer makes the valuable point that social control operates differently in a mass consumer culture than it does in primitive society. This distinction is consciously contradicted by Thorstein Veblen in his Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen perceives a continuity between pre-industrial and industrial society. Primitivism for Veblen exists at the height of civilization, whereas Spencer argues that modern society is organized in a fundamentally different manner. Even if certain

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