Fashion and its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing

Fashion and its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing – Book Review

Jill Fields

By Diana Crane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. x plus 294 pp. $20.00/paper).

In Fashion and its Social Agendas, sociologist Diana Crane takes on a comparative study of “fashion and clothing choices” (2) in the United States, England and France over two centuries. Crane argues that in the nineteenth century, class and gender hierarchies structured fashion practices and their diffusion. In the twentieth century, consumer identities constructed by leisure activities and “conflicted gender hegemonies” (240) produced a “more amorphous and unpredictable” fashion system in which “styles and fads originate in different class strata, but their trajectories vary” (246). In tracing this shift, Crane first draws upon two fascinating and little known studies of French working-class clothing purchases conducted between 1857 and 1928, and working-class family budget studies conducted in the United States from the 1870s to the 1890s. For the second half of her book, Crane interviewed approximately 100 fashion professionals and 45 female consumers, the latter via questionnaires and focus groups. She also consulted numerous fashion histories, archival photographs, and a wide range of secondary works.

Crane’s study provides both new information and interpretations, especially for the earlier period. In her focus on nineteenth-century working-class clothing, for example, Crane analyzes working-class fashion both in regard to sociologist Georg Simmel’s well-known 1904 top-down theory of fashion diffusion as lower-class imitation, and competing claims by later scholars that democratization best describes changing fashions in industrializing nations. With this approach, she draws a nuanced portrait of working-class clothing, demonstrating that working-class people made choices about which middle-class items of clothing they found appealing and incorporated. Crane also found greater attention given to fashionable clothing by working-class husbands employed in skilled jobs than by their wives who remained largely at home. Crane then contextualizes Simmel’s field of vision itself, suggesting his conclusions might be skewed because he unwittingly limited his observations to those working-class people most often visible to the middle class: skilled male and unmarried female workers. Crane also argues for the importance of public space in spurring fashion diffusion. Urban working-class couples who wished to engage in leisure pursuits such as strolling needed appropriately fashionable dress to do so comfortably.

Crane’s innovative formulation of nineteenth-century middle-class women’s “alternative dress” as a middle ground between oppositional and dominant fashion is a significant rethinking of gendered fashion in this period. Less challenging to prevailing female fashion than overt dress reform styles such as the 1850s Bloomer Costume, alternative dress provided a means for women to resist conforming fully to the hegemonic femininity represented by fashionable dress. Women borrowed jackets, ties, hats and other styles from menswear to construct less frilly and ornamental ensembles. Inspired by working women’s clothing, by sports dress–such as riding costumes–and by other activities that took place outside fully public realms in which women were subjected to disapproving male gazes, this look became further legitimated in the late nineteenth century with the popularization of the shirt-waisted Gibson Girl.

As comparative studies inherently rely upon well-established bodies of specialized literature, it is perhaps unsurprising that Crane’s contextualization of the more recent period is not as fully realized. While throughout the second half of her book she expertly marshals an impressive array of topics, their relevance to her larger argument is not always clear. In chapter five, for example, Crane discusses market globalization and the transition “from class to consumer fashion” (132). Structural changes in the fashion industry materially affect changes in fashion diffusion, which Crane, in concert with previous studies, asserts becomes more complex. However, the significance of such topics as fashion designers’ self-promotion as art patrons, artists or craftsmen, to which Crane devotes extensive attention, is not fully explained.

Considering Crane’s central focus on gender analysis in this book, it is disappointing that her discussion of twentieth-century sub-cultural styles is limited to the chapter on constructions of masculinity, foreclosing discussion of female participants. However, Crane does offer intriguing analyses of changes in men’s clothing choices with the twentieth-century development of two distinct sets of styles for men, one for work and one for leisure. She argues that the meanings of the former, especially the business suit, “have been relatively fixed,” while those of the latter “have been subjected to continual redefinition” (172). Yet the boundaries between the two arenas are not always so distinct, as her example of blue jeans makes clear. First utilized as work clothes, jeans in the twentieth century began also to be worn by marginal groups, such as bikers and artists, and then by the middle-class when dressing for leisure activities. Moreover, Crane finds in the contradictory meanings of jeans–in representing conformity, rebellion, classlessness and privileged access to designer luxury–evidence of clothing as “open” texts subject to revision, a reversal of their status as “closed” texts in the more rigid social structures of the nineteenth century. But were they more rigid? Although the larger narrative told here–a transition from class to consumer identity–is not controversial, Crane’s specific arguments regarding fashion would benefit from investigating the important and difficult topic of the changing nature and meanings of class formation and consciousness in the twentieth century. Crane notes how ideologies of social mobility and women’s construction of alternative dress mitigated rigid class and gender identities and “closed” systems of signification. It would thus also be fruitful to explore life-style consumption ideologies in regard to the significant development of middle-class consciousness to more closely track the relationship between the declining symbolic value of working-class identities and the development of “open” systems of meaning. This line of inquiry would more fully connect changes in markets with changes in meanings.

Overall, Crane provides a wealth of information on fashion practices, and shows that despite national differences, such as Parisian dominance in setting women’s styles, English in men’s, and Americans’ earlier access to sewing machines, industrialization and the new consumerism provided a unifying context in which larger trends were duplicated in all three countries.

Jill Fields

California State University, Fresno

COPYRIGHT 2003 Journal of Social History

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group