Fashion (from French mode; Latin modus ‘measure’ or ‘kind’, actually ‘measured’ or ‘apprehended’) refers to the rule of doing, designing, wearing or consuming things in a certain period of time that has changed with people’s demands over time. Fashions are snapshots of a process of continuous change. Thus, fashions are usually associated with more short-term expressions of the zeitgeist. Comparatively longer-lived expressions of the zeitgeist that can hold up in positive evaluation over several fashion waves are not considered fashions, but classics. Very short-lived fashions, which often revolve around only one individual product, are referred to in English as fads.

Every new fashion establishes new patterns of behavior, thought and design. Each new fashion thus brings with it new valuations and thus also constantly reevaluates existing phenomena in the human environment. “Fashion” is colloquially often used synonymously with “clothing” as a contraction of the term “dress fashion.” The adjective to fashion is fashionable (“conforming to fashion”), as opposed to “modern,” the adjective to modernity. Colloquially, the term “modern” is often used in the sense of “fashionable.” Examples of the establishment of new patterns of behavior, thought and design would be, for example, the constant shortening of skirt lengths for women since the beginning of the twentieth century, the behavior of showing more and more skin in swimwear and its social acceptance, or for men of Western culture, for example, the wearing of a shirt outside the trousers (which used to be interpreted as sloppiness and nowadays as casual nonchalance).

The term “fashion” includes the following aspects of meaning:

  • something that conforms to the currently prevailing preferred taste or beliefs.
  • something that is currently customary: custom, custom, habit.
  • something that is subject to a constant process of change, a process of change in what is considered customary, prevailing, or in accordance with the taste of the time in a social context.
  • something that narrows down choice


From a sociological point of view, fashion expresses the assignment to certain groups of society – as well as the delimitation – and the adaptation of individuals in a certain period of time, the constant change of this norm as well as the constant questioning and the constant dissolution of existing norms.

Today’s spread of fashions is characterized by mass consumption, with advertising and mass media playing an important role. Globalization tendencies in fashion can also be observed in some areas.

The inhomogeneity of society plays an essential role in the spread of fashions. The interplay between conservative and conformist groups on the one hand and experimental, rebellious and individualistic groups on the other is of considerable importance.

Elements of new fashions are adopted more quickly by groups that are open to new things, that like to experiment, that are dissatisfied with existing conditions, that want to change something, that experience themselves as different from the great masses, that do not want to be lost in the masses and that want to present themselves as independent personalities, i.e., that like to distinguish themselves from the mass of the population or from the establishment. This is particularly true of young people, who also want to distinguish themselves externally from the older generations. For them, the propagated fashions are stimuli for the search for their own style, for the desire for provocation or simply stimuli for fun-making aesthetic play.

Gradually – the more the new trends are experienced in the public sphere – less innovative and experimental sections of the population then also adopt the new fashions, until in the end even extremely conservative and traditionalist milieus are reached, who want to “keep up” and whose fashion behavior is more strongly influenced by the need to belong, in particular by the motif of “integration through assimilation”. For them, fashion is a form of conformity (conformism) with the reference group or society as well as often a form of aesthetic affirmation of existing conditions. By then at the latest, these fashions are no longer of interest to the more innovative and individualistic sections of the population.

Psychology and social psychology of fashion

In connection with a psychology of fashion, the following aspects are often mentioned:

A number of basic needs interact from which fashion phenomena can be psychologically explained: The basic need for attention, to attract attention or interest. The basic need for recognition, significance and to please oneself and others. Further important are the needs for variety and individuality, whereby the latter seems to contradict the desire for conformity.

This explanatory pattern nevertheless falls short, because fashion is a highly complex social phenomenon that has its roots in very different individual and collective needs.

Without the complementary needs of belonging and demarcation, conformism and individualism, expression and camouflage, exhibitionism and veiling, the phenomenon is certainly not explicable.

Nevertheless, this is only a part of the causes of fashion. An incalculable number of individual factors come into play. For example, the personal significance of concrete current fashion themes and images for the individual personality and the corresponding life experience. This becomes particularly clear in clothing fashion: clothing, including fashionable clothing, is often a very personal expression of the individual attitude to life, of a current mood or of longings, dreams and visions. In this respect, clothing is also an everyday role play or role taking, an appropriation of dreamed roles. But this is only one example, which is also applicable beyond the field of clothing.

Fashion historians in the field of sociology are concerned with researching and documenting the cultural history of fashion and certain items of clothing.

Fashion waves

Fashion waves or fashion currents are phenomena of various “fashions” that have a rather short-term or periodic character. The word has a slightly derogatory to humorous connotation – alluding to the easy influenceability and dependence of many contemporaries. Critical voices can cause fads to pass more quickly, but they can also intensify. Fashion waves are often “born” by trendsetters or at major events and functions, but they can also arise spontaneously. Typical examples are

  • the typical skirt length, which often recurs in decade-long waves, or the gender-specific assignment of fine tights as a garment for women.
  • with parts of the clothing, like the hat or shoe fashion, partially own trends developed
  • the hairstyle fashion
  • the preferred vacation spots or the just particularly popular first names
  • in education, long-period changes in values and goals – for example, for about ten years now, authority, which had previously been frowned upon in many cases
  • in art, for example, the music of the Janissaries after the Turkish wars, the change in the style of dance or the neo-Gothic style.
  • in dog keeping, the popularity of fashion dogs.
  • in music, the fashion dance.

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