Book Review of Georg Simmel's "Fashion"Jun/30/2016
In the 20th century, much was written on fashion, yet systematic, general theories on fashion are few. The best remains one of the earliest: Fashion by Georg Simmel. It is probably the only true attempt at a general theory of fashion. And although this paper is over one century old (it was published in 1895), it is not yet out-of-fashion.
According to Simmel, fashion, as a social fact—that is, the non-cumulative change of cultural features—derives from a basic tension specific to the social condition of the human being: on the one hand, the tendency of each of us to imitate somebody else, and on the other hand, the tendency of each of us to distinguish oneself from others. Undoubtedly, some of us tend more to imitate (thus to conformism) while others tend to distinguish themselves (thus to eccentricity and dissidence), but fashion’s fluxes need both these contradictory drives in order to work. In short, for Simmel, one needs to postulate two radical--and not sociologically produced--drives (given that they are the cause, and not the effect, of social phenomena), which we can thus attribute to human nature: Homo Sapiens is driven, among others, by two instincts—one pushing him to imitate his neighbor, the other pushing him to distinguish himself from him. From one side, he tends to imitate whom he admires, from the other, he tends to distinguish himself from people towards whom he is indifferent or whom he despises.
For Simmel “fashion represents nothing more than one of the many forms of life by the aid of which we seek to combine in uniform spheres of activity the tendency towards social equalization with the desire for individual differentiation and change”. In every social relation there are two forces at work: one pushing us to bind ourselves to others through imitation, and another pushing us to unbind ourselves from each other, to undo the social network, through distinguish ourselves from others. But social life changes in so far as the balance between the socializing force and the de-socializing force is always unstable, provisional. Fashion is an example of how actual social life always includes in some way its own contrary, an asocial life. As Kant said, society is based on the ungesellige Geselligkeit, the “unsociable sociality”.
We can order the two sets of opposites (to which we add our own proposals, indicated by the initials SB) whose dynamic relationship produces fashion:
Heredity Individual Variation
Submission Sense of Power
SB Darwinian Selection Darwinian Mutation
SB Extensity Intensity
SB Event Repetition
SB Accident Meaning
Fashion is the effect of the dynamical play between these two batteries of opposites. But fashion exists only in so far as one of the two poles does not ultimately prevail in the end. Fashion is the effect of an always unstable balance between two poles, from which the self-destructive parabola of fashion derives:
As fashion spreads, it gradually goes to its doom. The distinctiveness which in the early stages of a set fashion assures for it a certain distribution is destroyed as the fashion spreads, and as this element wanes, the fashion also is bound to die. (…) The attractions of both poles of the phenomena meet in fashion, and show also here that they belong together unconditionally, although, or rather because, they are contradictory in their very nature.
Now, the impulse to imitate—and thus to endure, to unify, to equalize—is not directed towards any of our neighbors: we imitate instead someone who is, in one way or another, superior to us. From which follows the Simmelian principle, “fashion (…) is a product of class distinction”. For fashion to exist, society must be stratified, some members must be perceived as inferior or superior—or simply as worthy or unworthy of being imitated. And as far as the “inferior one” imitates his direct “superior” and never viceversa, the conclusion is: “fashion—i.e., the latest fashion [in social forms, apparel, aesthetic judgment, the whole style of human expression]—affects only the upper classes”. For example, say some upper class girls begin to wear a new skirt designed by a prestigious couturier. Soon, the need for lower class girls to imitate them will force the market to supply low-priced copies. Thus, moving down from one level to another, in a short lapse of time this skirt no longer distinguishes the upper class girls, since everyone is wearing cheap imitations. So the girls from the upper classes will once again have to look for something else to distinguish themselves, which will once again be imitated, and so the cycle goes.
Even economists—who sooner or later have to take into consideration fashion phenomena—consider a phenomenon called “snob demand”. From an economical point of view, fashion is a market constituted only of snobs—essentially, a snob is a consumer who stops buying a product when its price lowers too much. Economists talk about a “bandwagon effect” when a product is sold more because of simple imitation. But there is also a “reverse bandwagon effect”, when a “snobbish” consumer stops buying a product because too many others are buying it. Every economic choice is bound not only to the pure computational rationality of individuals, but is influenced by “irrational” factors, i.e. by social imitation and by what Simmel calls the “need for distinction”, which is the contrary of imitation. Except that while in economy the “reverse bandwagon effect” is limited to a specific series of commodities, in fashion this effect is generalized and constitutive of the fashion itself. We can say that what we call fashion—a fast change of cultural features—is basically anything which fundamentally depends on the game of bandwagon and reverse bandwagon, on imitation and distinction. A game which does not concern just a small portion of consumers—the snobs—but all or nearly all members of a culture.
Do we thus imitate persons whom, perceived as superior, we then admire and/or envy? Moreover, does every fashion, in its distinctiveness, display a contempt towards our fellow citizens from whom we are distinguishing ourselves? In other words, does fashion imply a relationship between social envy and contempt? Simmel says: “this quite personal usurpation of the envied property contains a kind of antidote, which occasionally counteracts the evil effects of this feeling of envy”. In short, envy creates a social link—not despite its negative aspect, but precisely thanks to it. I can envy somebody only if I admire her, to the degree that I make her my ideal of behavior or social achievement. Envy marks the distance between myself and my ideal of being or having, when I see this ideal realized in my neighbor. But fashion is also a remedy for envy, because, in imitating the person I admire, I become or appear like her, and thus I identify myself as one who appears admirable. Fashion dilutes envy among individuals by watering it down with social inclusiveness.
But is the distinction versus imitation tension really unshakable? That is, must we absolutely suppose that there exists a small group of person which invent and create certain cultural traits by which they aim only to distinguish themselves from a large mass of people destined, at most, to imitate them?
Yet, at the level of that innovating elite, not only is the drive to distinguish oneself already at work, but the drive to imitate as well. For example, even in the Marx-Engels pair, we can say that Engels in some way imitated Marx. And there are far more examples. The real innovators are few and far between. But the same thing happens in fashion: one distinguishes oneself from the crowd by imitating some admired and envied personality. On the other hand, even the hundred-millionth girl who decides to cut her hair “according to the last fashion” still distinguishes herself: from her mother, or from the girl next door who still dares not do it, and so on.
Distinction and imitation are thus two faces of the same coin: one imitates an idealized other in order to distinguish oneself from the rest, and also by changing imitation. Therefore the fashion tension is not really structurally different in various cultural and social classes; rather, only the extension of the distinction varies. In short, the elite is characterized by the maximal extension of the distinction: the type of hat or the aesthetic taste adopted by the elite is distinct from almost all else, and for a while, the elite does something unique. In the most prestigious and influential fashion shows—in Milan, Paris, or New York—the great designers strive to present cloths so eccentric that nobody will dare to wear them. Someone innocently remarks, “what business sense is there in proposing cloths which nobody, except for a very few snobs—and then only once—will wear?” In effect, these big shows followed by the world press represent a distinctive apex, the peak of a singular, distinctive uniqueness: those famous models may well be the only ones in the world to wear those clothes designed expressly to scandalize the “conventional folk”. Yet the very same designer has available more moderate, and less expensive, versions of the same “idea” which he will sell to a wider market; in fact, he will have available various models with decreasing “shock value”, each fit to the social area which can afford this given style.
Female fashion—like every other—appears like a pyramid at whose top one finds the super-model exhibited in order to be imitated but basically inimitable. Just as the creative genius offers himself to imitation yet remains inimitable in his creativity, so do the goddess-models of our times embody this extreme distinction. The daring outfits they wear do not prevent further imitation, but rather nourish it, offering the unattainable paradigm which will inspire every consumer’s syntagms, that is, her compromise with daily banality.
On the contrary, one becomes less and less elite and ever more a part of the mass as the extension of one’s differentiating ambition narrows: in this ambit, the fashion follower distinguishes herself at the most within her office, her family, at her neighbor’s, or in her neighborhood. Whoever is perceived by her own environment as “one who follows the fashion”, distinguishes herself from this environment, but her social rank is determined by the absolute dimensions of this environment from which she distinguishes herself.
We might then substitute Simmel’s distinction versus imitation opposition with one more general, and hence more rich: the opposition between intensity and extensity, if you allow me. When a novelty is absolute or universal, it has a maximum intensity, in the sense that it creates real, true passions, be they positive or negative: scandal and enthusiasm, disgust and love, anxiety and attraction; it is perceived either as a serious threat to our children or as a salvific revelation. As the novelty gains in extension and loses its novelty, it loses its intensity, and its informative capacity. The theory of information in fact correlates the increase of information with improbability: the more an event is improbable, the more it appears meaningful and thus informative. As a political belief, or the style of wearing of a hat, spreads, an encounter with this hat or this political belief becomes ever more probable, and thus increasingly less meaningful. What I call here extensity is the spreading of a feature which corresponds with a proportional diminishing of intensity.
The lessening intensity (i.e., of information) of this feature owing to its extension is correlated with the extension of the space or environment where this ex-novelty is adopted: as previously mentioned, as a feature propagates itself, it interests more and more individuals who aim to distinguish themselves within an ever narrower social environment or scope. In extending itself, the innovation loses intensity because it is adopted in order to produce intensity (distinction, i.e., information) in ever narrower contexts.
In fact, an idea or custom has its maximal innovative intensity-–its maximal significance—when it is still restricted to a small group. For example, polls and inquiries carried out among the young and students between 1967-1970 in countries where youth and student protest movements were exploding—such as Italy, France and West Germany-–showed that, in fact, quite moderate or even conservative ideas and mentalities prevailed amongst them in this period. Indeed, during these years, the ideas of the protest movements reached their greatest intensity, yet it was precisely because of this that they were not very extended. At that time, Daniel Cohn-Bendit in France theorized on the role of the “minorité agissante”: those big movements which turned France upside-down were carried out by a minority, even among the young. Yet these minorities at the time felt they were riding a wave, and that they were producing great intensities in relation to their context. At that time, in fact, the difference in styles of dressing—not to mention thinking--between the young and the not-so-young widened. This split was especially notable in Great Britain, which produced a type of pop music which marked an epoch probably because it embodied a radical distinction between the old and the young, past and present, and tradition and innovation. Do those English songs appear today as “classics” because of their intrinsic quality? There is nothing more disputable than the intrinsic quality of an artistic creation. Even today, we can listen to those songs—like All we need is love or I can get no satisfaction—with a certain emotion because they carry even today, even if appeased by the impact of time, a certain distinctive force.
When at the end of the 70s–-the “flowing back years” as they were called in Continental Europe—sociologists interviewed the young people of that epoch, they realized that the principles and exigencies of the elite which had played an active role in 1967-1970 had now been assumed by the majority of youth, although in less radical forms.
The theory that fashion creators always belong to the upper social classes is often contested. Instead, it is well known–-and oft said-–that many fashions taken up by snobs come from the humblest origins. For example, blue jeans originated as the humble pants of the American cowboys and gold-miners. And Western-style male dressing–-which comes down to us from the 19th century–-derives from the Quakers’ outfit, not from the Court aristocracy, which means that it derived from an oft-derided religious elite. Much of the slang spoken by some social fringe groups becomes fashionable. The classical French argot was the language of the underworld. Simmel himself realized this when he spoke about the demi-monde, the underworld:
The fact that the demi-monde is so frequently a pioneer in matters of fashion, is due to its peculiarly uprooted form of life. The pariah existence to which society condemns the demi-monde, produces an open or latent hatred against everything that has the sanction of law, of every permanent institution (…). In the continual striving for new, previously unheard-of fashions, in the regardlessness with which the one that is most diametrically opposed to the existing one is passionately adopted, there lurks an aesthetic expression of the desire for destruction, which seems to be an element peculiar to all that lead this pariah-like existence, so long as they are not completely enslaved within.
Gangsters and fringe people have a destructive impulse because they nourish an intolerance—whose origins can be sociological or purely personal—for order, repetition, univocal meaning.
Anyway, historical research shows that these features of the lower or fringe classes very probably become fashionable when they are adopted by certain social elites, that is, by social strata furthest from the fringe. Simmel grasps very well the “exotic origin of fashion”. In some societies and eras, a sub-group might borrow a feature from a completely extraneous society:
Because of their external origin, these imported fashions create a special and significant form of socialization, which arises through mutual relation to a point without the circle. It sometimes appears as though social elements, just like the axes of vision, converge best at a point that is not too near.
When a trendy male wears the American cowboy’s jeans and in so doing “promotes” it as Western dress, he is borrowing a feature which is basically foreign with respect to his higher social class. The snob borrows a cultural feature not from who lies at the bottom of the social hierarchy, but from who appears outside the hierarchy; the snob, in imitating those lying outside his class, proclaims his own extraneity to the social pyramid whose peak he occupies (or aims to). The main fashion agents—such as artists, women, and the young—are probably “the privileged ones” in so far as they represent, in the social whole, the agency of maximal distinction, they represent within that society that other than society, that which most distinguishes itself from society. But in so far as these incarnations of distinction are largely imitated, they carry out the real function of fashion: the incessant re-socialization of the asocial. Fashion—basing itself on the imitation above all of those who do everything possible to distinguish themselves from others—socializes what could disrupt the sociality itself. Fashion is a process by which the society consolidates itself by reintegrating what disrupts it.
4. Fashion is “in the middle”
One aspect of this imitation-distinction dualism, according to Simmel, is the tension between socialism and individualism. In effect, Simmel did not have the experience, as we do today, of mature democratic political systems. Everyone today believes that a democracy enters into maturity when it produces an alternation between ideological forces deriving roughly from a socialism of solidarity on the one hand and from capitalist individualism on the other. This boring alternation usually results in a low voter turn-out. In some way, this eternal oscillation between left and right in our elective democracies realizes what the oscillating cycles of fashion do on the level of clothing and furnishing: in each case, a basic dualism in social life is at work. And like fashion—which often oscillates between two opposite poles—even Western political systems find their stability precisely in a continuous oscillation between contiguous political forces, but which sell themselves as opposed and thus alternative. Democracy beat out totalitarianism because it gives room to government fashions, while totalitarianism must freeze the system and lose flexibility. So fashion offers the model of a social dialectics—between cohesion and fragmentation—which is typical of modern societies.
“It is peculiarly characteristic of fashion”, Simmel writes, “that it renders possible a social obedience, which at the same time is a form of individual differentiation.” Fashion exists because, in conforming, we differentiate ourselves, and in differentiating ourselves, we are essentially conforming. But this is exactly the proclaimed ideal of every modern democracy. Democracy calls on everyone’s opinion, giving room even to extreme, de-socializing and subversive opinions, yet it is precisely in giving space to idiosyncratic ideas that it aims towards social cohesion. This is what has been called, since Adam Smith, the Invisible Hand: order and stability are born precisely from giving a free rein to disorder, the unstable and the fringe. Fashion’s extraordinary and sometimes ostentatious development during these last years can thus be seen as a corollary of the success of the Western democratic model and its values.
The alternation between left and right, typical of mature democracies, is an alternation between two “centers” or “middles”. A left-center dominance is replaced by a slightly right-center dominance, and vice versa. Even fashion is usually centrist or moderate. Except in critical periods involving a violent change of habits—as probably happened at the end of the 18th century when the American and French revolutions rapidly changed men’s and women’s way of dressing, or in China during the Cultural Revolution—fashion oscillations are never radical. The famous couturiers propose extreme designs which nobody will actually wear, but the mass of people will allow themselves to be more or less influenced by this, and will end up wearing milder versions of these extreme proposals. In this way, over the centuries, the manner of dressing changes in quite showy ways, but the intermediate steps are small and oscillating. In fashion as in politics, Revolutions are rare, while the incessant, slow reforming work goes on.
5. Simmel’s theory and Simulation
An essay of this sort has an obvious importance for simulation techniques. Simulation as applied to the social sciences is usually limited to considering imitative aspects: how individuals aggregate together, and under what conditions. Only rarely have simulators sought to represent this dialectic between imitation and distinction which Simmel so rightly pointed out.
Furthermore, Simmel’s analysis goes beyond the albeit wide scope of fashion, and invests all forms of social transmission and change, whenever there emerges not only the need to imitate, obey the rules, or conform to others, but also the opposite: the need to distinguish or individualize oneself. Economists have already found similar phenomena in the field of economic behavior, but we could find that same tension of “imitation versus distinction” in many other aspects of social life. To find a program with which to simulate this dialectic in fact presents noteworthy difficulties, yet the simulative techniques would be making an important advance were they to discover a method of representing this dynamic.
Simmel’s analysis is also capable of making a notable contribution—probably in a critical and negative sense—to a currently expanding sector of study today, that of memetics. As is known, memetics attempts a reconstruction in exquisitely Darwinian terms—that is, in terms of mutation and natural selection—of cultural processes. That is, memetics bets on an isomorphism between processes regarding genetic replicants and cultural ones. As we already pointed out, Simmel’s hypothesis seemingly makes an isomorphism between cultural change and biological evolution emerge: the tension between imitation and distinction recalls the Darwinian tension between selection and mutation. Yet at the same time, Simmel implies the efficacy of a primary instinct—that of distinguishing oneself—of which we are hard put to find an equivalent in non-human species, and which apparently does not ensure evident reproductive advantages to the individual’s genes. In each case, this theory of Simmel—as ignored in the Anglo-American countries as it is famous in Italy—lends itself well to the debate both within memetics as well as to the supporters and critics of the memetic hypothesis. In this way, Simmel’s theory might be able to bridge these two sectors of study—memetics and simulation—which have heretofore not done much in the way of collaboration.
 Georg Simmel , “Fashion”, International Quarterly, 10, n. 1, October 1904, pp. 130-155; “Fashion”, American Journal of Sociology, n. 62, 1957 [Philosophie der Mode, Pan-Verlag, Berlin 1905]. Quotations from this text are taken from the October 1904 translation, and labeled as F.
 F., p. 133.
 F., pp. 138-9.
 F., p. 133.
 F., p. 135.
 Veblen was the first to remark, in 1899 in The theory of the leisure class (Modern Library, Random House, New York 1934), that, in a market, what and whether one buys is determined partially by what and whether many others have bought. In short, demand by the consumer is bound partially to interpersonal effects. On this point, see James Duesenberry (Income, savings and the theory of consumer behavior, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1949); Harvey Leibenstein (“Bandwagon, snob and Veblen effects in the theory of consumer demand”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 64, 1950, pp. 183-207; Beyond economic man: A new foundation for microeconomics, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1976); Mark Granovetter & Roland Soong (“Threshold models of interpersonal effects in consumer demand”, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 7, 1986, pp. 83-99).
 F., p. 140.
 For what concerns Italy, see: C. Tullio Altan, I valori difficili, Bompiani, Milano 1974; L. Ricolfi e L. Sciolla, Senza padri né maestri, De Donato, Bari 1980; L. Ricolfi e L. Sciolla, "Fermare il tempo" in Inchiesta, 54, 1981, pp. 34-43; S. Messina, "I partiti, la famiglia, il lavoro: ecco che cosa ne pensano i giovani" in La Repubblica, 17 giugno 1983, p. 6.
 F., p. 145.
 F., p. 136.
 F., p. 141.