[This essay may be regarded as an expansion of the brief comments on fashion in Eclecticism §3].
Fashion is an equivocal word. It applies to three distinct sysems, which have in common only that they determine what clothes are worn. For brevity I will call them fashion1, fashion2, and fashion3. In Western history they succeed as periods. Fashion1 spans the Renaissance to WWI; fashion2 spans WWI to the 1980s; and fashion3, in the first world, is ongoing. In parallel I distinguish three adjectives: fashionable1, that is, new; fashionable2, that is, popular; and fashionable3, that is, safe.
Fashion1 depends on the artisan tailor. In short fashionable1 meant what tailors know how to make—reading, by the usual metathesis of the time, tailors as the best tailors, and the best tailors as the best tailors of the best cities, and the best tailors of the best cities as the king's tailor. Fashion1 was slow to spread—from the court to the city to the country—both in time, as the idea of fashion filtered down early in the period, and in space, as the tempo of technology picked up and the center was reflected everywhere.
(Of course there were court fashions before this—tall pointy hats and long pointy shoes—but we are concerned with fashion only after the decay of sumptuary class distinction.)
The transition from fashion1 to fashion2 was due to mechanical reproduction, but not directly. Fashion succeeded in subordinating mechanical reproduction for centuries. No other art could embrace mechanical reproduction without change in its system of values. Fashion was, after all, the only art openly aspirational—"the clothes make the man" was an old saying while others arts still served patrons—and fashion was the only art which no philosopher, ancient or modern, had bothered to established standards for, or attributed any metaphysical or spiritual import to—the only art whose neglect, among those friendly to art in general, had been supposed to be spiritually improving. And it was the first art to be industrialized—the textile mills were the first factories—fashion had plenty of time to adjust.
Even so, the balance of power between artisanship and reproduction did eventually upset. The necessities and shocks of WWI—textile shortages, government regulation of collar widths and skirt lengths—delivered fashion utterly to industry. This is fashion2, with the paramountcy of reproduction.
The interest of this change is that even in ascendancy mechanical reproduction's effect on fashion was paradoxical—the opposite of its effect on all other arts. Other arts became reducible (of course they were not always reduced) to signs and tokens: the art on the wall; the music on the roll, the platter, the disk; the very buildings on the street. All came to be employed as instruments, impersonal expressions of the kind of person that one was or meant to be.
But fashion2 was not about wanting to be a kind of person; fashion2 was about wanting to be a specific person. Fashion came to be dominated by vital personalities just as other arts ceased to be. Walter Benjamin himself (coiner of "mechanical reproduction") posited an aura to the work of the artist, one removed by reproduction; but it was in reproduction that fashion gained aura for the first time, in artifacts—not a jacket, but so-and-so's jacket, not jeans, but so-and-so's jeans—and in styles—you-know-who's nails, you-know-who's hair.
Since fashion has always been the least self-consciously artistic of all the arts, if one is in search of the influence of industry on culture in general, fashion is not the anomaly but the control—the one area of study almost unpolluted by contemporary theorizing.
Communism never managed to create a fashion—in retrospect this seems pathognomomic. What could communism possible contribute to the world, if all it could do was clothe its own people in crude versions of the capitalist fashions of five years before?
Fashion3—the kind called post-industrial—is of interest as the most general approach to the class of phenomena that can be prepended with "post-". In fashion we may observe and judge its real salience: first, that it was a real change; second, that it was shocking to those who lived through it; and third, that it was not, in the long run, particularly important.
But what was the change? Suddenly everything became cheaper; suddenly cheap became chic; suddenly the urgency of investing the clothes dollar in something fashionable was relaxed; suddenly, after a long suspensions, the personal principles of choice and taste were restored. It is understandable that the first generation that had the chance to exercise would be very far out of practice: how variously and persistently they overdid and underthought does not need to be rehearsed.
But consider the years since; and ask what it means for fashionable3 to mean "safe." Safety in fashion is safety from costume. In the presence of limitless choice costume is the one limit, the one failure. You may wear whatever you like as long as you do not go through with it. "A is a great look, try wearing it with B." "X is a classic, but bring it up to date with Y." (Where B and Y are generally blue jeans. Ask the alien, "What color are human legs"? Comes the answer, "blue.")
Fashion is never just a matter of personal expression. When you dress, you judge. A suit among T-shirts says "slobs"; a T-shirt among suits says "stiffs." To favor a look is one thing; to commit to it is another. Mere favor maintains free choice; commitment exercises it only to renounce it. And to renounce choice is to reject those who have it—is to say "soft", to say "weak", to say "cowardly."
This analysis is easily extended if costume is substituted with religous conversion or political commitment or artistic style. But fashion is the perspicuous case.
It may be thought absurd to concentrate so much attention on clothing. Who thinks about clothes except people who are fit to think about nothing more? But dressing is the one art everyone practices, the one branch of criticism in which everyone is qualified. It is civilization in its most urgent, personal, and portable form. Certainly no philistinism meets quite so much resistance as going naked. And no other art shares clothing's power to encapsulate civilization. Consider C.D.Friedrich's "Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog", where the frock coat is the synecdoche of all that civilizaton can contribute to the education of a man.