Monday, February 15, 2010

Fashion as Law

by Diana Vassar


The fashion magazine has become something of a fashion rule book but there are times that fashion reaches across all people, acting as an aesthetic law.



Importantly a law is something to which all must answer. The law is the highest system for all people. As a system of "good taste" and Western aesthetics, fashion sometimes acts as a law for all. However within particular cultures or subcultures fashion is really a system of rules, smaller codes than law that only exist within the system. A rule means nothing outside the subculture.



Agnes Brooks Young, “Fashion Has Its Laws”
Agnes Brooks Young (1898-1974) was an author of both novels and literature on fashion and costuming. She was born and raised in Cleveland, where she graduated from Cleveland School of Art before continuing education at The School of Arts and Design at Columbia University in New York City and later at l’Ecole Francais in Paris. In her post-graduate years she returned to Cleveland and became the costume director at the Cleveland Play House. During her tenure as a professor at Case Western Reserve (1930-1932) and a few years following, she published her work on fashion,Stage Costuming and Recurring Cycles of Fashion, 1760-1937. The essay, “Fashion Has Its Laws,” is an excerpt from Recurring Cycles of Fashion, 1760-1937, published in 1937.

It is important to review the historical context of Young’s book, considering that fashion is often directly correlated to social history. After reading the excerpt, I was particularly struck by the difference between 1895 and 1910 in Young’s sketches of style silhouettes. I researched the historical events during this time period in hopes to shed light on the apparent drastic change in fashion.

1895-1910: America experienced the largest wave of European immigration. 1890 marked the beginning of Progressivism and issues resulting from modernization (muckraking, environmentalism, and social justice). In 1908, Ford introduced the Model T and the assembly, thus beginning the second wave of industry. Products were mass-produced and people began culminating large amounts of “stuff,” including clothes. Closets began to grow. With new accessibility to variety comes a “craving for novelty”.


The title of this excerpt from Agnes Brooks Young’s book, Recurring Cycles of Fashion, 1760-1937, explicitly states the excerpt’s premise: “Fashion Has Its Laws.” According to Young, fashion is and must always be changing; however, contrary to “universally accepted beliefs,” these changes are not fickle and spontaneous. In other words, fashion is not “lawless,” but rather a process of slow and continuous modifications on a central type.

Young begins her argument, that fashion has laws, by refuting the counter-argument, that fashion is lawless. She contends that studies supporting fashion’s lawlessness are at fault because they focus primarily on the outliers of fashion, the most elaborate costumes worn by a select few, and neglect to recognize the trends, the typical fashions worn by most. Comparable to the economic market, fashion has trends and often works in cycles. These trends are more revealing than selected individual items since these individual items are very often exceptions to the “rule”. By studying the typical annual fashions between 1760 and 1937, Young identified the trends and discovered that these trends were widely indicated by the contour of European and American women’s skirts.


The central types of skirts fit into three categories: back-fullness, tubular, and bell-shaped. Young found that each category dominated for a total of approximately thirty non-consecutive years across the 178-year period and therefore concludes that fashion trends are not only continuous but also cyclical. Over the course of time, small changes in garments add up to produce larger changes. As seen in Ulrich Lehmann’s essay, “Benjamin and the Revolution of Fashion in Modernity,” the fashion product contains a history in each of its pieces and in each of its folds. It is only natural then for the culmination of changes to reveal a final return to a previous dominant style.

Variations visible today


If fashion has laws, then the real question is: who dictates these laws? By definition, a law is a “rule of conduct imposed by an authority.” According to Young, the fashion laws are determined by the world and its acceptance of the styles displayed by the “fashion dictators in Paris.” These “fashion dictators,” or Paris designers, do not wield enough power to determine what will be fashionable – that power lies in the hands of the people. If the world does not accept what these designers propose, then the propositions become outliers to the trend and are eventually forgotten.

While intellectuals before her time neglected to recognize the popular trends, Young seems to focus too much on the center and, as a result, neglects the branches of fashion that stem from the norm. This creates a strong argument, but an argument nonetheless that is clearly more relevant to the 1930s than it is today. Put in context today, her argument is not withstanding. The art of fashion has grown immensely throughout history – most obviously in the fact that women no longer wear only skirts. I am not a fashion expert, but I cannot imagine it to be possible to centralize “the” fashion trend into one central vein given the endless number of styles throughout the world today.

Notable Trend forecaster, Li Edelkoort


French trend agency Promostyle



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