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Collective Selection Theory and Class Differentiation

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2464 words Published: 16th Aug 2018

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Selection” argues that fashion as a force in culture, collective selection substitutes class differentiation as a motive for its dynamic change. The elites (buyers and designers) are the ones that move but do not affect the fashion system thus causing collective selection. This occurs because buyers and designers are intertwined in a mesh of a uniform culture where they read the same trends and have the kind of influences to each other. The collective selection forms part of a new movement towards newer tastes with driving forces of fashion being historical continuity (newer fashions arising from older ones), modernity, collective taste from social interaction and finally psychological motives which Blumer (1969) acknowledges but does not favour. From his examination, he observes fashion as a central force that affects cultural sociology. His form of fashion is semi-autonomous which responds to but it is not influenced by opinions and taste of elites. This was a first attempt by sociologists to take the topic of fashion seriously. Georg Simmel in his 1904’s class analysis of fashion had given a casual examination of the topic.

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Fashion is among the most creative and important industry in the world. Everyone participates in development of the fashion industry to a certain degree. Fashion is a subject that periodically rediscovers itself and it is fascinating in its dynamics of humanities and social sciences. Social thinkers over time have treated the fashion industry as a window for social change and social class. Fashion has been viewed to embody characteristics representing modernity and culture. Some sociologists argue that it is hard to fathom a social life be it in arts, sciences, politics, entertainment, academia, business, law or morality without exhibiting elements of fashion in one way or another. Society tend to flock to styles, ideas, methods and practices that appear new and exciting to them, and after a period of time, the intensity of the fascination diminishes when newer ones emerge. The need and desire to be in fashion is manifested mostly in dressing. This is characterized by a pull of the society’s or inividual’s continuity and the also the push to adopt new innovations.

A cultural analysis of fashion is essential in understanding the dynamic shift in trends over time. Unlike the trickle down theory by Georg Simmel in 1904 which did not observe fashion first-hand, the Blumer’s collective selection theory gives attention to the whole process of meaning to society with focus on practices that are contemporary. An observation is made from the above two theories that fashion setters are the ones who mainly benefit from the intertwined relationship whereas followers benefit a little bit. Blumer asks fellow sociologists to take seriously the topic of fashion. He argues that this is so because fashion is more than clothing. Fashion is natural as it did not appear to society that in history as fashion but achievements that were up-to-date. He further states that fashion is important socially because where it operates be it in philosophy, business or science, it assumes a central position. Blumer asserts that fashion is a behavior that is rational. Fashion has its respectability because people respond to its character that is of distinction and propriety.

Simmel’s (1957) view of fashion as style in his trickle-down theory provided insights such as the relevance of prestige in fashion operation and the proper identification of the realm of fashion as a form of change which is natural as opposed to aberrant. This analysis however falls short of catching the real position of fashion as a wider social happening. Simmel adds that fashion is taken up by social elites for the reason of classifying themselves from the other lower class. The lower group or class adopts the style of the upper group. When new fashions emerge, the upper class shifts to flee from their counterparts hence causing a continuous trickle-down effect characterized by the need for the upper class to distinguish themselves. In a nutshell, fashion is influenced by need for social stratification and social mobility. Though there has been wide criticism of the social class theory as being simplistic and also one-dimensional, it has had broad influence on today’s fashion because observation of fashion trends of many consumers show that high status people and the wealthy set the trend in fashion. For instance fashion magazines show images of items that are highly priced and outside the reach of lower class group, this cause a drive for the ordinary group to imitate and emulate the rich. However, it is not the wealth and prestige of the elite that makes the very design fashionable, but it is the design’s potential fashionableness that allows the elite’s prestige to be attached. This is possible because the elite, rather than set the trends/fashion, they struggle and strive to follow its direction. This is based on the fact that people will consume fashion but not because of their wealth or prestige of their social class but just to show fashionability. Moreover, the elite have to make a decision of choosing between competing trends in fashion and that the choice they make is not always dependent on prestige of the innovator of the same fashion. In addition, class structure of the 20th century was different from the subsequent centuries. The contemporary society’s class has a diversified structure and puts emphasis on fashion modernity.

Zeitgeist theory

Blumer (1969) expands on the views of Simmel by outlining all the societal conditions of fashion appearance because fashion emanates from societies. On the theory advanced by Herbert Blumer, fashion comes from a process that is collective where people adopt collective tastes expressed in trends in fashion. The driving force of fashion is not always imitation of the higher class people per se, rather they follow trends in fashion because of their desire to be fashionable. Consumers make a choice among various options available in the fashion market. People think of choices of their fashion as personal style and expressing individuality. As the selection goes on at individual level, it also occurs in aggregation into tastes that are collective.

As selection and aggregation process in fashion goes on, a zeitgeist theory of trend is reflected. Individual choices in fashion spark a movement which has collective character implications on society. For example a style observed by a public figure may manifest the zeitgeist trend. The theory is a critique of the trickle-down effect of imitation of people of high status. The theory views fashion and trend as a collective or aggregation of choices of individuals in the society. It emphasizes not imitation or copying, but the desire by an individual to be fashionable. For instance, the desire to be in fashion does not necessarily mean emulation of values, lifestyle, or status of the group that sported the style first. Such individuals may opt to be in a collective moment which does not require imitation of what others are wearing. A status theory in trends might suggest that joining a trend is copying. Moreover, fashion rises as emulation then follows by a decline when early adopters try to stratify themselves from the masses by adopting new style. It then follows that, if one tries to equate joining a trend with copying, then the conclusion is that copying is a driving force for fashion. However, the trickle-down effect or status theory does not completely exhaust all the motivations for trends in fashion. According to the zeitgeist theory, imitation of elites and copying does not completely define fashion. Therefore, the theory disaggregates fashion from copying and that it moves not because the market is saturated with copies. In a nutshell, copying in fashion change may play a small role but it is not the engine without which the industry’s innovation would stagnate.

Social construction element of fashion in a society

Blumer argues that fashion as a form of change is not linked to any field arbitrarily but it may affect or influence the content of that particular field which it operates. Fashion is the linkage to the past, the present and the future of the followers of fashion. Blumer (1969) gives six features which are basics of fashion which underline the function played by time in the whole fashion process. First is the readiness and willingness to change particularly in the area and the people through their practices, beliefs, attachments and they must also be ready to accept new forms of social order which thrusts them into the right direction in the future. The assumption and presupposition is that the area of fashion change is in passage, it will responding to changes around it and it is geared towards remaining abreast of current and new developments.

Secondly, new proposals or models compete for them to be adopted and embraced. The models for adoption should be diverse by covering a range of viewpoints, themes, doctrines, practices, lines of preoccupation and artifacts use. Thirdly, there has to be relatively free room or opportunity for making a choice between the proposals or models. Fourthly, the selection should be made based on response to the interplay or incipient taste rather than rational considerations, merit or utility. This brings the difficulty of determination of merits because the guiding principles of fashion are not utilitarian or considerations that are rational.

Fifthly, is the topic of presence of figures who are prestige and who espouse upon themselves the competing proposals. Blumer (1969) adds that what is perceived to be up to date is better than mere promotion of trends in fashion of certain figure that is prestigious (actor, organization, individual). The sixth element or feature is the area of applicability of the fashion. It should be open to emerging new interests in response to effects of outside situation/events, new participants being introduced in the fashion area and shift social interactions. Blumer argues that a course of fashion development must be present so that a given model is solidified and socially lifted which is important for a certain time frame (Blumer, 1969: 288). According to Meyer and Rowan (1977) as fashion comes and goes within the context of institutional environment, as long as they are accepted and institutionalized as standards in behavior, they can be regarded as institutions.

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A critique of fashion mechanism features

Viewing fashion mechanism from the perspective of a continuing process of fashion that is of collective selection in a competitive model brings a different picture of social analysis. The elites in fashion form part of a collective process which responds to a shift in sensitivity and taste. Features such as historical continuity, modernity, collective taste and psychological motives which affect fashion mechanisms are discussed below.

Historical continuity

Fashion grows out of predecessors. The innovators of fashion always consider prevailing fashion for purposes of embracing, elaborating or departing from it. A continuity line is thus formed which typically has a trend. This continuity means that no extreme change occurs. On the other hand Blumer calls the popular adornments which lack “successor” as “fads”.


Blumer refers to modernity as zeitgeist. Fashion is modern and seeks to remain abreast of modern times. Fashion is always sensitive to changes in developments. Fashion becomes responsible and responsive to trend, to developments in ornamentation, fabrics, and fine arts.

Collective taste

Collective taste is a force that ensures a process which selects, sets limits and provides guidance and also undergoes refinement through attachment to social forms. Taste is tri-fold in nature. It operates like a selector by giving basis for rejection or acceptance. It is also an agent which guides the growth of action lines and by shaping objects for the purposes of meeting demand. Fashion change occurs frequently in societies where there is more interaction between people and where the newness of the change is most valued rather than feared. Fashion is also not individual but social in nature.

Psychological Motives

Earlier scholars have traced fashion to be desires for notoriety and personal prestige. For instance, some define it as the effort towards increasing the self attractiveness under conditions that impair one’s integrity of the ego. According to Blumer (1969), such explanations are shallow as they singly or either collectively, has been unable to account for trends in fashion because they do not show how the different feelings lead to fashion process. The definitions fail show fashion as a collective selection process as it is. In summary, there are many factors influencing fashion change. Fashion change is selected collectively through interplay between public taste that is dynamic and desire by the elite group to shape modernity which is part of the public. Fashion, according to Blumer (1969) appears as a collective class or grouping for the near future than a movement that is laid down by the prestige figures.


Blumer’s (1969) analysis of fashion as being social rather than individual in nature is a holistic attempt by a sociologist to explain the topic. Blumer (1969) concludes that fashion helps individuals and society in general to deal with the dynamics and potential complexities of modern world. Through the process of collective selection, social order is achieved. Fashion brings into fore a measure of uniformity and unanimity in a market that would have been fragmented. It introduces some order in the present. It does so by establishing a model that limits variability hence ensuring uniformity. Secondly, fashion serves at detaching the grip of past events in a dynamic world. This calls for option to move towards new directions hence it cannot be referred to as old-fashioned or out-of-date. Finally fashion operates as preparation that is orderly to the future. It offers elites the chance to give their models and at the same time adopts the ones that withstand collective selection. The above three ways help society move in a unified and orderly manner. Fashion should be viewed as a pivotal mechanism which informs social order in a modernized society. Sociologists should strive to analysis fashion without irrationality and inconsequential behavior.


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