7 Fashion Theories

Module Learning Objectives (MLO)

In this chapter, you will

  • 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]
  • MLO 7.6 Deconstruct your own perspectives and approach to understanding the dress of others. [CLO 4]


Fashion refers to the idea of what is popular or on trend. One can also think about fashion as  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 coexist across the world and even within regions, 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 miniskirt is an example of a fashion trend that is thought to have developed in one place and time, yet various scholars provide conflicting evidence for some of these claimed origins. Mary Quant, a British fashion designer, is often credited for introduing  the miniskirt into fashion in London in the 1960s, during the “youthquake” movement (FIT, 2021; V&A, 2021). However, according to  Ford (2015), the miniskirt developed out of Tanzania. Haya Rinoth, a South African fashion designer, argued in Drum magazine that this new style developed in Africa, not the United Kingdom, as history had recorded. This example highlights some of the social justice issues or the Eurocentric power imbalance in history,  where European history often is prioritized (Pokhrel, 2021).

Fashion Is a Social Process

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

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

  • 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. A style is a combination of lines, shapes, and forms. A type of fabric or pattern (e.g., plaid) may be a component that defines a style. Fashion, in contrast, refers to a specific style that is “popular” at some specific time.

Because its definition hinges on popular use, fashion requires an aspect of consumer acceptance. In other  words, for a style to be considered fashion, there has to be an audience and consumer base. Two people wearing similar outfits is not fashion; multiple people must be wearing a look, exhibiting a collective  behavior, for a style to be fashion. The reasons someone buys 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 use fashion to 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 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, often seen as influencers, then pick up the styles. Today, Instagram hosts a number of fashion influencers who make a tremendous impact on the industry promoting various styles (Barker, 2021). After the leaders wear a style, the style is typically worn by what are 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).

Precious Lee is a highly influential fashion model who has significant following on her Instagram page (Precious Lee, 2021).

To view a transcript for the video above, download this file: Precious Lee Runway Compilation Video Transcript [DOC]

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

Characteristics of Fashion Opinion Leaders

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 do not necessarily go out of fashion. Examples of classics include the little black dress, Converse sneakers, denim jeans, black suit jackets, shift dresses, white button-down shirts, and trench coats (Reilly, 2012). Some brands,  such as The Gap, are famous for selling classics in addition to more fashionable items. Fads, which quickly go in and out of fashion.  are defined in contrast to classics.  Examples of fads include the 1990s’ glitter eyeshadow. Another example is the Google Glass eyewear (Doyle, 2016). 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 include people in marketing, designers, buyers, or others in the fashion industry. 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; 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. It explains that individuals of higher socioeconomic status set the trends, and then those of lower socioeconomic statuses follow these trends.

A light green overdress with gold embroidered details over a cream gown.
The 18th century Robe à l’Anglaise was 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 initially available only to upper classes, which 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. This is especially true 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” and are 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 (V&A, 2021). 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.
Harajuku street fashion. Image Source: Dick Thomas Johnson, CC BY

Unlike Trickle-down Theory, this  does not argue that the individuals are innovating to create a trend. Instead, Trickle-up Theory states that subcultures create fashions to respond to unmet needs, and only after media legitimizes a subculture’s 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. (See chapter 6, “Subcultures” for more information.)

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

Many theories 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. Other theories help explain fashion on a more individual and micro level.

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

To view a transcript for the video above, download this file: Fresh Dressed Trailer Video Transcript [DOC]


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. Remember to check the submission against the rubric.


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Dress, Appearance, and Diversity in U.S. Society Copyright © 2020 by Kelly Reddy-Best is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.