Lecture 7: Fashion

Central Questions

  • How do consumption theorists approach the case of fashion?
  • How might classical theorists approach this case?
  • How might contemporary theorists approach this case?

Mears Video 1

  • Editorial vs Commercial Modeling: Editorial modeling refers to the inside of a magazine, where all images of models need to be attractive. Commercial modeling refers to modeling for a brand such as Diet Coke, McDonalds, a department store (it is common and the model does not look different)
  • However, Mears differentiates between the two in his work


  • The fashion modeling industry has long been criticized for using excessively thin and exclusively Anglo looking models in advertising and runway shows. How do fashion producers make decisions to hire models, and why is the fashion model aesthetic defined so narrowly? Based on participant observation and interviews with modeling agents and clients in New York and London, the current study explains how producers in the modeling industry weigh their decisions on two publicly polemical issues, slenderness and racial exclusion
  • Mears points to slenderness and racial exclusion which can be seen through editorial modeling
  • Critics point to the persistence of excessively thin and exclusively white models as evidence of sexist and racist production practices in fashion. As feminist and intersectionality theorists have long argued, gender and race are powerful and connected social forces in cultural representation, reflected in media as diverse as fashion advertisements and political campaigns
  • Commercial market (beauty) vs editorial market (edgy)
  • Research Question: How do ideas of race and femininity inform practices in the fashioning model market?
  • As part of a 30-month long ethnography, Mears observed the Fashion Week catwalk circuit from New York to London and interviewed modeling agents, known as ‘‘bookers,’’ and their clients. She wanted to know how producers talk about contested definitions of femininity, what their own roles are in defining femininity, and how they make potentially unpopular decisions to hire—or overlook—certain models
  • Mears observed the gatekeeping practices of bookers and clients, who face intense uncertainty as they look for the right models in the high-end segment of the fashion market, where the stakes of impressing elite consumer tastes are high. Under pressures of uncertainty, producers defer to conventions, they rely on racial stereotypes, and in the end, they reproduce distorted representations of women
  • In commercial modeling, the look is a cultural product, which is more social than physical
  • Additionally, this evolves around three factors. Subjective evaluation, unknown accuracy (no hard, fast way of telling), and market in flux (how the fashion market for commercial marketing is changing over time). Thus, due to this ambiguity, they rely on conventions
  • Commercial models, affectionately referred to by bookers as ‘‘money girls’’ are just that. They tend to look like, and earn, a million bucks. They wear sizes 2-6 and work in catalogues and commercial print advertising, jobs that pay the bills for models and agents alike
  • In contrast, editorial modeling involves wearing sizes 0-4. Although editorial sizing is smaller, it can overlap with the money girls (commercial models)
  • Editorial Look: Women are seen as “clothes hangers” (it is not so much about the beauty of the woman, but instead the shape of her body). Thus, slenderness is crucial. In contrast to the ‘‘boring’’ commercial look, an editorial model is ‘‘unique.’’ She is ‘‘not your everyday smiley catalogue girl.’’ Editorial models have an unusual - or to use a term that comes up often in modeling—an ‘‘edgy’’ look
  • However, there can be difficulties in diversifying for editorial boards because the looks tend to be conservative. Unlike the commercial market, which is more in flux (changing over time). Thus, these editorial boards are relatively fixed
  • Questions in what makes a good ethnic model laden with presumptions
  • Beauty World vs Beauty World Reversed: While the commercial world is driven by a functional imperative to sell to mass consumers, producers in the editorial world are attempting to awe and inspire each other. They choose models principally because they do not have anything in common with the average shopper. This world is driven by its own insular taste picking up on idiosyncrasies of elite producers who play off each other. Editorial fashion is both the ‘‘economic world reversed’’ in Bourdieu’s terms, and in a sense it is the beauty world reversed. It is disengaged from mainstream reality in attempts to construct an imaginary world to which high-end brands belong

Mears Video 2

  • The video explains how commercial modeling is ongoing and is more widespread than editorial modeling. Models can be hired from different places, thus it is more accessible
  • Unlike editorial modeling where there is an emphasis on a specific market. Editorial boards seek a specific look

Rafferty Video 1

  • In the video, Victoria Beckham provides multiple tips for women on how to shape your own style (dress for yourself and not for others) (Ex. Buying a nice pair of jeans, good size hang bag, and a pair of sunglasses)
  • For her, fashion differentiates for each individual, but it requires investment by having multiple outfits for different occasions (Ex. Date night, going to the office)
  • Higher cultural capital tends to have certain themes behind it, such as conservative style and accessorizing


  • Rafferty examines individuals who transformed through the acquisition of borrowed cultural capital from upper-middle class advisors. Resultant transformation has significant emotional impacts on individuals
  • The emotional state they experience with the transformation is short lived without continued help from advisors, which means that the individual will go back to dressing the way he / she originally did
  • Furthermore, Rafferty claims a notable gap in consumer research, linking emotions surrounding consumption process to explanations of how agency unfolds within the social structures
  • The article tries to bridge the relationship between class relations, emotion, consumption and sense of well being
  • Rafferty argues that fashion is a competitive psycho-social mechanism that causes styles of dressing to be revised frequently. It is understood to be perceived, interpreted and hence valued differently by women depending on the social class position they were born into
  • Judgements of fashion practice depend then on the culturally specific taste preferences upheld by divergent sets of people
  • Passing down of emotional dispositions also likely to happen in habitus, despite Bourdieu's lack of focus on emotions in his work. Through his concept of habitus, Bourdieu (1984) demonstrates how dispositions, interests and pursuits that are routine to the lifestyles of particular class fractions are passed down through generations and enacted in ways that are often far from conscious awareness or manipulation
  • Bourdieu shows the illusory widespread acceptance of superior or refined taste as that which is legitimized by the dominant groups who hold societal power and advantageous lifestyles (Ex. The women who discussed smart shopping practices were of an upper-middle class status. These women have found a route through which they feel they can buy themselves into the upper social class taste distinctions that would otherwise have been denied to them)
  • Class positions often correlated with sense of worth and so certain feelings likely to be experienced more less frequently depending on position in hierarchy. When she speaks about high cultural capital, it refers to dressing for yourself. However, at the same time, she argues that it is not about dressing for just comfort, but it’s dressing for a more refined version of yourself. This allows to have material security within high class
  • Illouz discusses that the concept of emotion explains how consumption is anchored in culture and cognition on the one hand and the motivational structure of drives within the body
  • Intimate and cherished relationships help to establish well-being. inquire about how practices of self-fashioning as a form of cultural consumption can grant access to spheres of well being by facilitating or negating a sense of meritocracy
  • Smart Shopping: Adoption of consumption strategies that look for affordable ways to access rare goods which will retain value for longer periods than high-street fashions. Getting maximum benefit from money spent refers to smart shopping, where you purchase a product that lasts for a long period of time, instead of a trendy item. This allows high cultural capital individuals to preserve their individualities
  • Women who are higher in cultural capital resources may be more inclined to place significant value on protecting individuality with fashioned appearance
  • Lower class takes strides for high street items. This is evident from one of the participants (Charlotte) who comes from a lower-middle class position and takes the consumption of high-street items far more seriously, primarily because the lower prices are fundamental to her capacity to ‘keep up’ with the social demands for regular revision in her fashioned appearance. She reveals how her spending habits got out of control as a result of her perception about how important it was to participate in fashion consumption at a relatively high frequency

Rafferty Video 2

  • In this video clip, the woman provides suggestions on how to mix and combine trendy pieces with classic pieces (Ex. Having multiple trendy items in an outfit will make you look out of place)
  • She reinforces Victoria Beckham’s advice, which is to have classic items in your wardrobe, and buy trendy items around those. That way, you are not out of place

Gray: Why are Women willing to Spend so much Money on Workout Clothing?

  • Why so much money spent on sports clothing?
  • Marketing practices aimed to women’s insecurities
  • Clothing that was not embarrassing to other women
  • Active-wear shopper is the young, female, willing to spend, fashion-forward
  • Product placement at local yoga centres
  • Takes place as women’s wages increasing
  • Women typically spend hundreds of dollars on workout clothing such as sports bras, yoga pants, skin-tight “breathable” tanks because retailers like Lululemon market their apparel to appeal to women’s insecurities. Specifically, they capitalize on these instincts where women can feel “stylish”, even when being drenched in sweat
  • Furthermore, it is not men that they are trying to impress with their high-end workout clothes, but instead, it is other women
  • However, this goes beyond female competition, insecurity or even impressing others, because single women are on the path to out-earn their male counterparts. Thus, brands today are eager to quickly roll out new merchandise because the core active-wear shopper is the ultimate consumer: female, relatively young, fashion forward and willing to spend money
  • Women in their 20s and 30s aren’t just spending money on workout gear because they feel a need to impress their peers. They are spending the money because they can
  • Furthermore, commercials sell women the cars and financial products they can now afford by presenting those big ticket items as tools for celebrating their independence rather than attracting a husband
  • Advertisers are learning that the way to women’s wallets is acknowledging their strengths rather than exploiting their weaknesses, by appealing in part to their awareness of their own power, which is earning power
  • Thus, Lululemon’s approach seems to be working, which is why several major retailers including Gap, Target, Victoria’s Secret and Under Armour have created similar women’s athletic-wear lines over the last decade to compete

Classical Theorists Comparison

  • When speaking about high street items for fashion, this can be related to Veblen’s idea of conspicuous consumption where individuals prefer to showcase their social status in public (Ex. In rap videos where rappers show off jewellery, cars, houses)
  • In Rafferty’s work, there is an idea of imitation where upper class indicate to the lower class how to dress like them
  • In terms of Mears’ discussion of commercial modeling, this can be related to Adorner and Horkeimer, and their argument of culture as being a mass production

Contemporary Theorists Comparison

  • Rafferty’s discussion on high culture focusing on a classical look can be related to inconspicuous consumption, which is quiet and not flashy
  • Furthermore, Peterson and Kern’s discussion of omnivoureness can be related to Gray’s discussion of women purchasing work out clothes, where individuals with high cultural capital also purchase work out clothes, and are not limited to classic attire 

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