snakes & ladders
What role do fashion publications play in the game of fashion influence?



Is this small stack of fashion publications anything more than an exhibition of the seemingly random?  For here are academic studies, costume histories, cultural commentaries and coffee table books.  Here are women’s weeklies, laid by ladies journals and style zines … glossies for new men, guides for older new men … trade publications and consumer titles.  Here are biographies on fashion dictators and the reminiscences of factory girls.  Here is the official programme for the Royal Wedding between Prince Charles and Diana; here is a book on self-dressing for the disabled.  A book on football dress codes, and one on cross-dressing.  A book on manners.  And one on chavs.  Is there any system to this apparent disorganisation, a method to the fashion madness?


The fashion system is a particularly complicated instrument of moving meaning, according to fashion historian, Grant McCraken (1). Whereas, he argues, advertising merely appropriates meaning from culture and transfers it to commerce, fashion operates across multiple sources of meaning. 


In the 1960s, French cultural theorist, Roland Barthes (2), insisted that the fashion magazine fixed meaning for consumers.  Although he later repudiated this Structuralist position – because it failed to take account of the role of the reader in bringing meaning to the text – it is still clearly the case that fashion publications play an important role in attaching cachet and gravitas to the garment.


The ‘trickle down’ theory of fashion influence (see philosophers such as Spencer 1896, Simmel 1904 and Tarde 1903) was influenced by the social Darwinism of the nineteenth century and suggested that the lower classes equated dress with social rank.  In the past, sumptuary laws had prohibited the poor from spending on particular styles of clothing (and even styles of tattoo throughout Japan’s Edo period).  With the increased social mobility of the twentieth century, fashion became increasingly affordable to all and many symbols of privilege were threatened with losing their cachet.  Today, many high end labels like Burberry continue to be a battleground for the contest of meaning between the Bond Street fashionista and the housing estate chav.


But the increased wealth of the poor also enabled a wider contest for meaning, particularly by those who deployed dress to challenge their subordinate cultural position. New cultural groups like the teenager embraced their own marginalisation and dressed to accentuate generational distance (much of which, nicked from the dress-up box of the past, was tinkered with and restyled).  Sexual outlaws declared dress code wars while many immigrants also refused the melting pot of fashion. Mass production led to cheaper clothes for all and the net of fashion was cast ever wider in the competition for the latest new look.


Popular taste appears to have gained from what Levi-Strauss (3) calls ‘hot-societies’, that is, systems undergoing radical change.  In the new consumer culture, fashion influence was percolating up from the streets.  Although these styles were red hot, by the time they reached the dizzy heights of the fashion supply chain, their meanings had diffused considerably.  For the masses, Cool gear was exactly that, appropriated and re-appropriated, drained of any sense at all other than a fashion one.


At all stages of the apparent ‘bubble up’ process, cultural interventions are taking place which continue to move (and sometimes mobilise) meanings.  There’s the designer who steals back the robber’s mask, gives it spin and authority (exactly the skills that made a fashion dictator of the Victorian tailor, Charles Frederick Worth).  There’s the stylist who mixes and mashes meanings, and the academic who commentates, dressing the design in a discourse analysis. 


Then again, according to Levi-Strauss (ibid) there can be no original director of fashion. Meaning may only be fashioned out of the cloth at one’s disposal.  Nothing’s truly original. Everyone is a bricoleur: the journalist, the fashion historian, the consumer.  You name it.  All of them are rolling the fashion dice and moving the meaning along a few squares, where it may snag the head of another snake or the foot of another ladder.


I was once stopped in the street by a market research team armed with flip-boards and cameras.  Where did I get that hat (in fact, it was a sweater)?  Next year, they (re)assured me, everyone would be wearing it.  I was an early adopter.  What was my hat (sweater) about?  What was my influence?  It’s just me, I said enigmatically.  Street style confers authenticity which, according to fashion commentator, Ted Polhemus (4), everyone wants a piece of.


Of course, there is never a single direction to fashion, or a single fashion, come to that.  The trend analyst, Peter York (5), described the opinion makers of the 1950s and 1960s as a fashion Vatican.  He meant Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar as much as Dior and Balenciaga.  Today, styles looks and directions have multiplied along with the media that promote and commentate on them.  The House of Dior … Vogue magazine …these institutions remain influential.  Add to their ranks the philosophers and scholars mentioned above, the swelling libraries of online and offline fashion blogs and publications.  The increasing number of oracles, serious and frivolous, that fix your fashion faux pas and leave you with a body complex.


The consumer is ever in need of help and direction when it comes to the meaning of fashion.  Not because dress hegemony specifically trickles down or bubbles up, but because the intelligence on fashion direction is over-whelming and it always needs updating.  A vast and endless game of snakes and ladders … this is surely a better metaphor for explaining fashion influence.  While it is often true that the 1950s consumer was a victim of the fashion dictatorship, today one is torn in all directions at once, unable to make a final decision. Luckily there’s a publication or two to help.


Snakes and Ladders, a speculative game of fashion power and influence. 1st Oct – 15th Nov 2009, The Information Environment Research Unit, London College of Communication, Elephant & Castle. London SE1 6SB




1. Grant McCraken (1986), Culture and Consumption: A Theoretical Account of the Structure and Movement of the Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods in Journal of Consumer Research 13(1)

2. Roland Barthes (1967), Système de la mode (The Fashion System), London : Jonathan Cape (1983)

3. Claude Levi-Strauss (1966), The Savage Mind, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

4. Ted Polhemus (1994), Street Style: from Sidewalk to Catwalk, New York: Thames & Hudson

5. Peter York (1984) Modern Times, London: Futura




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your comments
A very interesting collection of books and publications that study all areas of fashion influence. The term Snakes and Ladders clearly links and describes the constant change of fashion.
I think the arrangement of different fashion substances makes the display case interesting. Instead of just recent fashion magazines, this display case has a wide arrangement of fashion information. From academic studies, to costume historians to table top coffee magazines. This display case does not just target women and high fashion. It targets men and women over a wide age range also. You do not have to be a certain type to take a second glance at this exhibit because there are more than one subjects of interest here and they all do not scream FASHION!
the book dressing matters seems to be at the center of the collection. its about how someone disabled dress, yes? is because you are saying we all need to be told how to dress?
The use of wonder women of america is powerful and sassy but why has the classical wonder women image not been used?
I wouldn't have related drags and transvertites to fashion until I saw this display then I realised the extent of the influence of fashion.
I thought 'Quant by Quant' and 'scooter boys' can be next to each other because of the time period.  I also felt that those are more close connections to the top right section of the exhibition. Overall i find interests in relationship between fashion and social movement. 
It sure looks swell
I think the variety of books is great, and I also think relating fashion to a game of Snakes and Ladders is an unexpectedly appropriate metaphor.  I love the idea of 'rolling the fashion dice'.
This article brings up several interesting points. While I feel magazines such as Vogue and Harpaar's Bazaar try and pass off fashions that have clearly been influenced via the 'bubble-up' method (since they have historically recycled 20s, 80s,etc. influences) and taken what was once worn as street fashions that had been influenced by high fashion at one point, but then try and make it sound entirely new. However, works such as I-D magazine and the book 'the Making of Club Culture' instead embrace the in-depth influences these counter-cultures and sub-cultures have on high-fashion. I think our generation is moving towards an equilibrium.
Very interesting read.