6 Fashion Theories

Module Learning Objectives (MLO)

In this chapter, you will learn how to:

  • MLO 7.1 Identify foundational concepts and theories related to fashion, identity, appearance, and dress. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 7.2 Identify the basic tenets of fashion theories and how they help explain dress and appearance. [CLO 1]
  • MLO 7.3 Explain how marginalized communities in the United States use dress and appearance to express their identities. [CLO 2]
  • MLO 7.4 Examine how dress and appearance of marginalized communities in the United States are represented in the fashion system (e.g. advertisements or retailers). [CLO 3]
  • MLO 7.5 Examine social justice issues related to dress and appearance of marginalized communities in the United States. [CLO 2]


Fashion refers to the idea of what is popular or on trend. Another way of thinking about fashion is the idea of what is “in flux” in a particular time and place. Fashion undergoes a process of dynamic change: within a fashion system, there is a continuous change in what is on trend, or in fashion, over time. It can be extremely difficult to trace the origins of a particular fashion trend such as a motif, design, or silhouette (Reilly, 2012). Because multiple cultures and communities are co-existing across the world and even in regional locations, it can be almost impossible to be certain that a style came from a specific time and place or to define a fashion trend’s true origin.

A black and white photo of a model in a short dress with knee high stockings.
Diabolo minidress at a Mary Quant fashion show in Utrecht, March 1969. Image Source: Dutch National Archives, CC BY SA

The mini skirt is an example of a fashion trend that is thought to have developed in one place and time, yet conflicting evidence is provided by various scholars as to some of these claimed origins. Mary Quant is a British fashion designer who is often cited as the person who introduced the mini skirt into fashion in London in the 1960s during the “youthquake” movement. However, according to Ford (2015), the mini skirt is credited with developing out of Tanzania. Haya Rinoth, a South African fashion designer, argued in Drum magazine that history was incorrectly written and this new style developed out of Africa, not the United Kingdom. This example highlights some of the social justice issues or the power imbalance in history where oftentimes European history is prioritized, a term frequently referred to as Euro-centric.


Fashion is a social process

Fashion is not just a set of trends but a social process, which refers to a way of behaving that is temporarily adopted by a discernable proportion of a social group, and which is perceived to be socially appropriate for the time and situation. This last point is particularly important since something that might be considered fashionable for one situation (i.e. for a class lecture) might not be fashionable in another situation (i.e. a business office).

Taking this broader definition of fashion into perspective, there are other products which have fashion components, such as:

  • Cars and car interiors
  • Appliances
  • Computers and other technological devices
A gaming computer with colorful LEDs and backlit gaming setup
Image Source: Sharad Kachhi

Style versus fashion

We have mentioned style throughout this chapter and will continue to do so. However, style and fashion are not synonymous terms. A style is defined as a combination of lines, shapes, and forms. A type of fabric or pattern (i.e. plaid) may be a component that defines a style. Fashion, in contrast, refers to a specific style that is “popular” at some point in time.

Because its definition hinges on popular use, fashion requires an aspect of consumer acceptance. In other words, there has to be an audience and consumer base for a style to be considered “fashion.” Two people wearing similar outfits is not fashion; there must be multiple people wearing a look, exhibiting a collective behavior, for a style to be “fashion.” The reasons why someone decides to buy into a fashion can differ widely, though. Both individuality and conformity are necessary in the process, with some consumers using fashion as a way of trying something new and “stepping out of their comfort zone,” while others might use fashion as a way to follow trends and fit in with others.

Fashion Diffusion

As new fashions are introduced to different cultures or communities, they go in and out of style. This diffusion of fashion usually results in a bell-shaped curve.

Of note is that the curve never represents 100% of consumers. In this bell curve, in the early innovation stage, the fashion innovators create new styles. Fashion leaders then pick up the styles after they are introduced and are often seen as influencers. Today, Instagram hosts a number of fashion influencers that make a tremendous impact on the industry promoting various styles. After the leaders begin wearing the style, typically the style is worn by what is referred to as early adopters, then late adopters. Late adopters do not necessarily feel comfortable wearing new or innovative styles until they are viewed as on trend. Finally, fashion followers adopt a style when it is near obsolescence or when it is phasing out or seen as an old trend (Reilly, 2012).

Prescious Lee is a highly influential fashion model who has significant following on her Instagram page.

Characteristics of fashion opinion leaders

Lady Gaga performing in a black leather vest and bikini with gold belt and accessories.
Image Source: Eva Rinaldi, CC BY SA

Fashion opinion leaders, like the fashion influencers on Instagram and TikTok, tend to have a similar set of characteristics. They will:

  • communicate about dress a lot
  • make themselves socially active and visible
  • profess an interest in high fashion
  • portray themselves as self-confident
  • showcase taste and social sensitivity
  • influence choices others make in their dress

Examples of famous fashion opinion leaders include Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Beyoncé.

Fashion items that are not trends:

Fads and classics describe concepts, styles, or ideas that are different from fashion trends. Classics are items that have prolonged lives and that do not necessarily go out of fashion. Examples of classics include: the little black dress, Converse sneakers, denim jeans, black suit jackets, a shift dress, a white button-down shirt, or a trench coat (Reilly, 2012). Some brands such as The Gap are famous for selling classics in addition to more fashionable items. Items that are fads quickly go in and out of fashion. Fads are defined in contrast to classics. Examples of fads could be glitter eyeshadow in the 1990s. Another example is the Google Glass eyewear. It was quite popular when it came out in the 2000s, but it did not last very long at all.


Who determines what is fashionable?

Gatekeepers are individuals who influence what is fashionable at a particular time. Examples of gatekeepers include people in marketing, designers, buyers, or others in the fashion industry to make fashions available. In particular, the fashion industry has great control over what is available on the market and thus is considered a major gatekeeper in aesthetics, styles, and fashions that we see in communities and cultures (Reilly, 2012).

Fashion Theories

A theory is used to explain phenomena. Therefore, fashion theories are used to explain how and why styles and fashions diffuse across time and across cultures.

Trickle-down Theory

Trickle-down, or Upper Class Theory, is one example of a fashion theory (Simmel, 1904). This theory is based on ideas related to social class. In this theory, the explanation is that individuals of higher socio-economic status set the trends and then those in the lower socio-economic statuses follow these trends.

A light green overdress with gold embroidered details over a cream gown.
This 18th century Robe à l’Anglaise, were developed by upper class French ladies after styles developed by upper class dressmakers in England and Spain before them. Image Source: The Met Museum

The Trickle-down Theory is particularly limited in that it assumes we live in a pyramid-shaped society, one in which fashion information is available only to upper classes originally, who are able to consume fashion in order to show off their wealth. Further, this theory assumes that fashion innovators are only found in the upper classes, and that upper class individuals do not want to look similar to those in the middle and lower classes. In reality, fashion and fashion trends are much more complex than that, particularly after the invention of the Internet.

Trickle-up Theory

A second theory is Trickle-up Theory, or the Subcultural leadership model (Sproles, 1985). This theory supposes that style ideas start with “lower classes or non-prestigious groups,” which are then picked up by middle and upper classes and incorporated into mainstream fashion. For example, Lolita styles that emerged in Japan in the 1990s began on the streets of Japan and then trickled up into haute couture or high-fashions. In fact, Harajuku street fashion continues to innovate and inspire high-fashion trends today.

A young Asian person wearing a purple dress, black boots, and a hooded coat. They are bald and appear masculine.
Image Source: Dick Thomas Johnson, CC BY

Unlike Trickle-down Theory, this theory does not argue that the individuals innovating are doing it to create a trend. Instead, Trickle-up theory states that subcultures create fashions to respond to unmet needs, and only after media legitimizes their subcultural style by featuring it and getting the public used to seeing it will a style spread (Hebdige, 1979). The originators of the style often get no monetary benefit from being featured in this way, and might not be recognized as the originators of a style at all. This information is expanded on in more depth in our book’s “Subcultures” chapter.

Finally, there is Trickle-across theory (King, 1963). In this theory, fashion trends or styles can appear and spread across any social class.

Overall, there are many theories can help explain how and why styles or trends move or change, but these three theories are some of the basics. It should be noted though that they explain fashion at the broader societal level. There are theories that help explain theory on a more individual and micro level.

Fresh Dressed is a film that chronicles the history of hip hop fashion and how to evolved. It demonstrates how these styles diffused throughout US society.


Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The meaning of style. London: Methuen.

King, C. W. (1963). Fashion adoption: A rebuttal to the “trickle-down” theory. In S A. Greyser (Ed.), Towards Scientific Marketing (pp. 108-125). Chicago: American Marketing Association.

Reilly, A. (2012). Fashion as a dynamic process. In S. A. Miller-Spillman, A. Reilly, & P. Hunt-Hurst (Eds.), The meanings of dress (pp. 43-51). London: Bloomsbury.

Simmel, G. (1904). Fashion. International Quarterly, 10, 130-155.

Representation of thinking and ideas being generated. Two black heads face eachother. One has question marks above the head. The other has yellow light bulbs above their head.

Fashion Theories Case Study

Step One: Become familiar with the case study

  1. The case study attached below is a word document and can be downloaded. It includes the task, evaluation, and template for the case study:

Fashion Theories Case Study [DOC]

Step Two: Submit your complete assignment on Canvas

  1. Format your document.
  2. Reminder to check the submission against the rubric.


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Dress, Appearance, and Diversity in U.S. Society by Kelly Reddy-Best is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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