What is Fashion?


Fashion is a prevailing mode of expression, custom or style in clothing, footwear, lifestyle or accessories. It is often a semiotic distinction that distinguishes the wearer or item of clothing from other individuals in a society, group or culture. A person’s fashion choices can be used as an indicator of their social status, age and personality. Fashion varies over time, across geographic regions and within societies, as the preferences of different groups change. Changing societal and economic circumstances can also impact fashions.

Fashion combines elements of art, science, business and technology. The production of a new style or trend begins with design or creative work, followed by the manufacturing of new garments, accessories and textiles. The resulting products are then distributed, promoted and sold through the retailing of clothing. The fashion industry has many components including designers, manufacturers, retailers, marketers and brand owners. It also includes fashion journalism, which provides editorial critique and guidance on trends, as well as comment and discussion on current, past and potential future styles.

In recent times the emergence of social media and online content have allowed fashion trends to be broadcast and shared globally in a much faster and more rapid way than traditional print or television outlets. The popularity of sites such as Instagram, TikTok and YouTube has encouraged people to share their personal style through these channels with followers all over the world.

The ubiquity of fashion in contemporary life and culture has created both a desire to possess the latest, most fashionable items as well as an intense ambivalence about such consumption. The current fashion system is frequently criticised as favouring financial, cultural and symbolic capital over material, human and natural capital and is often described as a ‘bright cellophane wrapper’1.

It is also commonly argued that the current fashion system is driven by and relies on consumption of goods that are disposable. This consumerist behaviour has the effect of driving up the prices of clothing and accessories that are discarded after a short period of use, and also fuelling excessive, unsustainable fashion production.

This dichotomy of desire and aversion, exploitation and waste is the basis for a rich landscape of commentary on, debate about and study of fashion. Whether it is the discourse on good or bad fashions, ethical analyses of individual brands and their designs, or the increasingly frequent protests by the environmentalist organisation Extinction Rebellion outside of London Fashion Week; these discussions are all informed by an understanding of the complexity of this concept. Fashion can be forcefully beautiful, utterly destructive, both essential and superfluous; all at once. The beauty of fashion is its contradictions.