On Teaching: The Socio-economic Impact of Clothing

“Fashion matters. To the economy, to society and to each of us personally. Faster than anything else, what we wear tells the story of who we are- or who we want to be. Fashion is the most immediate intimate form of self-expression.” Frances Corner, Author of Why Fashion Matters (2014).

Fashion Matters

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This week I had a student’s parent ask me why fashion matters. I answered her with my normal response of economic impact and the necessity for humans to wear clothing but it got me thinking about the social importance of clothing as well. Clothing tells us the story of people’s lives. It tells us about our history and important events in society. Fashion reflects our culture’s identity. In the book, Dress and Society by Jane Workman and Beth Freeburg (2009), dress is defined as a visual symbol of society’s character and because it is visual, it is difficult to ignore. It is one of the first social cues a person gives off to others. As a symbol, dress expresses abstract concepts such as race, ethnicity, gender, age, occupation and social class. While there is no central hub that dictates the “whole subsection of society dress,” culture is learned, shared and transformed creating norms for attire.

Many times I have fallen back on the financial argument of the importance of fashion, but is the socio-economic impact of clothing just as important? In the last couple of decades, more social scientists have been studying these concepts. While it has been something that has been discussed for longer than that, it appears to have become more of a “main stream topic” in humanities circles. Some have taken the approach of clothing as a code but there is a problem in the lack of knowledge regarding the symbolism of form, color, texture, posture and other expressive elements. In addition, clothing fashions and norms vary from culture to culture or location to location (Davis, 2007). In my observation of this, there is still a large gap in the understanding of the social role and impact of clothing but it is being explored. This means it is important in several intellectual circles.


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Moving beyond the sciences, how can this information impact students and how can we use it to help “outsiders” understand why fashion matters? To tackle the first part of this question, I lean back on my experience teaching students about consumer behavior. This particular course examined how and why people make a choice to purchase something. I reference an article toward the beginning of the course by Collin Campbell titled “When the Meeting is Not the Message; A critique of the consumption as communication thesis (2007).” He quotes John Clammer in this article, stating that shopping is not just purchasing items but rather acquiring an identity (Campbell,2007). As fashion merchandisers, we can communicate what kind of identity a person can have if they purchase a certain brand or trend. As fashion designers, we can express our own identity through the clothing we create and also function in a similar role as merchandisers; someone who purchases our designs is buying into the identity we are creating for them. These are powerful roles to hold. Ultimately, society relies on the fashion industry to reflect who they are visually and communicate important messages of that culture.

In the movie The Devil Wears Prada (20th Century Fox, 2006) there is a dialogue between Miranda Priestly, the Editor in Chief at a magazine, and Andy, her second assistant, that is an impactful contemporary media reference I sometimes refer to in the consumer behavior class. The particular discussion in the movie centers around Andy’s misunderstanding of the importance of a run through for a photo shoot. She says the “stuff” looks the same to her in reference to two different belts with similar features. Miranda retorts discussing how the people and the conversation taking place in the room does impact the lives of almost everyone, including Andy. The color sweater she was wearing was traced back to an exact year, seasonal collection and specific designer, despite Andy’s ignorance to the origins of her choice. This kind of powerful role, to subtly influence even those that claim to have “no interest” in fashion, is superbly important.

devil prada

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Clothing has not been a simple necessity for a long time. It is more than a profitable industry that employs large numbers of people globally and runs economies. Clothing visually communicates whom we are and whom we want to be whether we intend to do that or not. These decisions made, whether consciously or unconsciously, are determined by those in the fashion industry. The preparation to hold this responsibility starts in the classroom. Students must understand this importance and embrace this role they will hold. Of course, fashion and clothing can be beautiful and “flashy.” The gloss of what we do in this industry sometimes blinds people to the important function it holds in our society; however, if we can strip that away and include this in the conversations with those that do not understand, maybe we can help them see more reasons why fashion does matter.

Have you had to engage in this type of conversation before? How do you approach the socio-economic importance of clothing?



Campbell, C. (2007) When the Meaning is Not the Message; a critique of the consumption as communication thesis. Routledge.
Corner, F. (2014) Why Fashion Matters, Thames and Hudson.
Davis, F. (2007) Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion? Routledge.
Devil Wears Prada, 20th Century Fox, 2006.
Workman, J. & Freeburg, B. (2009) Dress and Society, Fairchild Publishing.

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  • Dita May 06, 2016 06.48 am

    Unfortunately this piece relies entirely too strongly on the idea of an economically- based fashion system, promulgated since Barthes, that noone really believes in any more. Is the best definition of fashion we can provide one that is based on dollar values rather than excitement, pleasure, possibility? If students are taught to be part of the market, no wonder they are struggling.

  • Joanne B Eicher May 06, 2016 04.46 pm

    Many good ideas. Thanks much. You may be interested in our 4th edition of The Visible Self Fairchild, 2014) bc we are also devoted to a global view of dress and fashion, not just Western. The world is now so interconnected.


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