The Fashionable Brain

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Why does fashion have such a hold on consumers’ hearts — and pocketbooks?

by Megan Zborowski · Editorial Assistant

With no plans for the day, Nicole casually flips through a fashion magazine. Suddenly, she spots an advertisement for a designer dress and rips it out, inspired to embark on her favorite pastime: shopping. She begins with her rather lengthy ritual of choosing the perfect outfit for her excursion. Satisfied with a poncho and a pair of vintage designer jeans, she tops off her selection with a chunky brooch and a pair of chandelier earrings. Stepping outside, head held high, she makes her way to the trendiest boutique in town, clutching the ad in her hand.

There are millions of people just like Nicole who spend their free time hunting down the perfect look, the right label, the latest pair of shoes. It’s an obsession that spells big bucks for anyone who chooses to ride the wave of the latest trend. But how did fashion become such an integral part of society? What’s the motivation that fuels this multi-billion-dollar industry?

Illustration by Joyce Hesselberth.

For its followers, fashion is a gateway to developing and maintaining a unique identity. Clothing plays an important role in how people view themselves, helping to define who they are and how they feel. By purchasing clothing that caters to their specific needs and wants, they can feel comfortable and secure with themselves, knowing that they look good.

Fashion can not only create an identity, but change it. Nicole, for example, can go from “goth” to “preppie” overnight. Partaking in a shopping spree — or in Nicole’s case, purchasing a new dress — can be an exhilarating experience, leading to a self-transformation, both mentally and physically. New clothing can go a long way in boosting self-esteem, even if it’s only temporary. It gives people the confidence they may have lost somewhere in the course of life, enabling them to feel special and unique.

Not that fashion has this effect on everyone. Some don’t want anything more from their clothing than comfort and versatility. They might not feel the need to create a “new look” when they’re feeling blue, and they may not feel obligated to follow the latest style. But even if they don’t find current trends appealing, they establish a social identity with the clothing they do choose to wear.

“Whether you are following trends or not, the effect of [using fashion] to code yourself makes people believe in you and your political statement, and makes you feel more comfortable. It is vitally important in today’s societies,” says Simon Ekrelius, a fashion designer based in London.

Fashion is multi-functional and full of contradictions. It can be used to impress or rebel, to fit in or stand out. Fashion is a personal choice, but it is also how people decide to present themselves to the world.

“Fashion is both public — the impression we make on others — and private — the way we explore our own personality and tastes,” says Evelyn Brannon, author of the book Fashion Forecasting. Since the desire to fit in and stand out at the same time can never be fulfilled, people are in constant pursuit of this goal, she adds.

This paradox is the core of fashion’s influence in society. People buy the newest styles to establish themselves as individuals, but the styles aren’t new for very long. Soon they turn into trends, with everyone parading around town in the same clothes. To save the innocent populace from the dire fate of looking like everyone else, fashion designers and marketers evaluate current trends, recognize the minute a trend becomes too boring, and then release a new style onto the market. This cycle allows people to once again purchase a unique item of clothing, re-establishing their individuality.

Brannon has identified four categories based on the relationship people have with fashion. Some are polar opposites on the spectrum. “The Individualist is an innovator and fashion explorer who uses fashion to demonstrate personal distinctiveness.” The Mimic, on the other hand, is “an aggressive imitator who adopts and discards looks rapidly and watches fashion leaders, celebrities, the media, and retail for the newest ‘in’ looks.” Others fall somewhere in the middle. “The Arbiter is a fashion leader, but in a traditionalist style, who sets the standards for appropriateness for others in her personal network. The Follower identifies with social traditions and imitates fashion leaders, preferring mainstream, classic, and traditional styles,” Brannon says.

Where people fall on the fashion spectrum influences how much they’re willing to spend and what brands they’ll accept as their own.

Walking Advertisements


A shirt is just a shirt — until you slap a designer name or logo on it. A “Tommy Girl” shirt takes on a life of its own, turning the wearer into a walking advertisement, free of charge. Why do people pay money for the privilege?

For many, the underlying reason is twofold. Designer labels have the ability to create a sense of self-worth by association. On a personal level, they can temporarily boost the wearer’s self-esteem by creating a connection with a well-known, expensive name. Even though the actual clothing is mass-produced, purchasing these items can make the buyers feel unique and special. The designer label is a status symbol representing who they are and who they hope to be.

At the same time, the buyers’ self-worth is elevated by society — or at least by their brand-conscious peers. In Nicole’s mind, the scenario goes something like this: “I can afford to buy it, and people will recognize it, so therefore I am important.” Nicole can also raise her apparent socioeconomic status based solely on her clothing. That allows her to fit in and feel at ease in situations where she might normally feel out of place.

The association with a particular brand can also lead to a connection with other buyers. “Brands can create a community based on what you have in common, and that creates a bond that helps to identify who you are,” says Michael Solomon, author of Conquering Consumerspace. Buying any item with a Nike logo, for example, brings with it the implication that the consumer is strong, willing to face anything, and will, in fact, “Just Do It.” This person will respond more positively to people with the same outlook on life, creating a bond based on their similarities, including taste in clothing.

Fashion Diffusion

New styles can emerge overnight. What’s “in” today is “out” tomorrow, and trends come and go in a blink of the eye. But the way that fashions are accepted and spread has changed dramatically over the years.

Until the 1960s, fashion entered society through a type of trickle-down effect. Fashion designers created new styles that were either approved or rejected by the upper class. Styles that were accepted eventually made their way to the working class. But once these styles were widely accepted by the public, the upper class discarded them. This left the majority of people to play follow the leader as the upper class dictated what was fashionable.

Times have changed. Many styles are now diffused upward from the public to the designers and their wealthy clientele.

“More designers are getting inspiration from the streets. . . . In general, people are not slaves to [what fashion designers do]. People [who follow] fashion are more proactive; they do not sit and wait to see what comes off the runways once or twice a year,” says Solomon.

Take, for example, hip-hop fashion that emerged in the early ’90s. The clothing associated with hip-hop culture was seen on the streets long before lines like Sean John or Rocawear were invented. Those designers took what they saw on the streets and created lines that catered to a specific group. In the case of hip-hop fashion, the style spread to the suburbs of America and abroad.

The old model of fashion diffusion is still in effect, however. Flip through any fashion magazine or turn on the television and it’s evident. Designers tend to use celebrities, via media outlets, to establish new trends. Consumers may like what they see worn by celebrities or may want to emulate them, and by making the purchase they feel closer to the person they admire or want to be.

“Overall, the general public does follow the trends quite closely, from magazines to the Oscars. . . . Our consumers purchase magazines that dictate certain looks, and people feel as though they have to follow them. [For example,] the metallics that will be big again, as well as the rounded-toe shoes. Our clients are already asking for these items,” says Janine DiLauro, co-owner of Molletta, a designer boutique in Philadelphia.

Clothing makes a statement, and ultimately people are judged by their fashion selections the minute they step outside. Some, like Nicole, choose to wear the latest styles, trying to place themselves among the elite of society. But regardless of whether it’s “in” or “out,” people are conscious of the choices they make. Fashion is a form of expression that allows people to communicate without uttering a word.


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