Just in case you thought academia had abandoned clothes, style, and all things fashion, there are even MORE smart people concerned with fashion. In fact, there are so many smart people that wrote about fashion, I’ve decided to break it down into two other blog posts.
Man of the day? Georg Simmel.
Simmel, (1858 – 1918) was a German sociologist (one of the first German sociologists, at that!). His biggest question: What is society?
Society, according to Simmel, society is an association of free individuals, made up of the interactions between these individuals. The size of the group where social interaction takes place is very important in understanding the group. In a small town, relationships are built over time. Often, families remain friends and impressions are passed down from generation to generation. Romeo and Juliet knew what Simmel was talking about. Their relationship was doomed from the start because their families hated each other.
So, I’d like you to use your imagination just for a moment. How do people dress in a small town rather than a large city? (Just remember, when Simmel was around, fashion was not as accessible as it is today. Ever heard the term country bumpkin? Yeah, it was coined for a reason.) Just in case you forgot how to use your imagination, I included some images.
The increase in the size of a group increases individual freedom. This is because the group gets larger and the unity is diluted. There is a no way to enforce ridged codes of conduct or dress. The Metropolis is the location where the greatest individual freedom is experienced. Yet the individual can have difficulty asserting his or her own personality.
Why? Well, here are a few reasons:
- Increasing number of people in the city
- Brevity of interactions with others
- Scarcity of human contact
In short, the increased population and level of activity reduces the amount of time spent with other people. The individual is fragmented from a group identity. This is both good and bad. There is such an increased level of personal freedom, that everyone is able to express themselves without ridicule. The downside? That developing and maintaining an identity as a group member, and identifying with other like minded people becomes challenging. (Hmm, I wonder what Simmel would think of Southern California . . .)
So how exactly do individuals assert their personality?
By adopting different
Than those around them.
So in the Metropolis, contact with other individuals is very brief. It often occurs while traveling or working. Lasting impressions must be made in minimal time. In a small town, relationships are built over time. It’s not like the small town, where family reputations mean everything. The individual must make an impression in 30 seconds or less, or will be dismissed with the passing of the crowd.
Never underestimate the power of first impression. You never get a second chance to make one!
Therefore, fashion develops in the Metropolis. Fashion allows social mobility and expression of personality and personal values all while following social norms. Most styles gravitate towards each other and are not extremely radical, with a few exceptions of course. Social norms and individuality must exist at the same time, or else neither exists at all. Each would be meaningless without the other.
Some other smart people that read Simmel went on to say that fashion creates self-awareness:
Fashion provides the best arena for people who lack autonomy and who need support, yet whose self-awareness nevertheless requires that they be recognized as distinct and as particular kinds of beings. (Ashley and Orenstein, 314)
The Metropolis & Mental Life was one of Simmels published works that explored sociology in the city and just how overwhelming it all can be. (Maybe you should check out the short story I wrote about riding the train home in NYC.)
So what’s this book all about?
In every age, the same fundamental battle is being fought: the resistance of the individual and his/her fear of being leveled. Metropolitan individuality is constructed on an intensification of emotional life. This is due to the continuous exposure to stimuli. (Think of crowded cities! How many people are you exposed to in a single day? A single subway ride? In one subway ride I read a book, heard a lecture on death by the iPod, and gave advice to a fugitive criminal. Talk about exhausting!) The Metropolis creates its own psychological conditions. Fashion is a medium to express identity, attract like-minded people, and deal with all of the insanity that is constantly bombarded at you.
So is shopping then a form of therapy? If so, I like where this is going . . .
Sort of. Shopping, fashion, and the need for beauty are all attempts to be remembered. Why? Because:
Man is a creature whose existence is dependent on differences . . . his mind is stimulated by the difference between present impressions and those which have preceded. Lasting impressions . . . consume less mental energy that rapid telescoping of changing images.
Simmel was giving a prototype for the Von Restorff effect.
The Von what?
The Von Restorff Effect is the increased likelihood of remembering unique or distinctive events or objects versus those that are common. (Universal Principles of Design, 204) Still hazy? For example look at the picture below. Which is the most unique and easy to remember?
The star is easiest to remember because of the difference in context to the squares surrounding it.
Or, more simply put: DIFFERENCE ATTRACTS ATTENTION AND IS BETTER REMEMBERED.
Fashion allows a social relationship because individuals can conform to a visual membership. This membership allows some to be individual by deviating from the norm. This deviation is only very slight, because those that reject the idea of what is fashionable at the moment create a new standard that in turn creates a new group. Group membership and individuality must co-exist. One without the other would be meaningless. Fashion also allows fragmented members of the metropolis to assert their personal values and personality to the external world, where they are removed from small town, emotionally intimate relationships.
In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different. – Coco Chanel