What is “fashion”? In contrast to “clothing” and “garments” (words that name the materials that are the basis of fashion) or sewing and tailoring (the processes that produce those materials), “fashion” names a relatively new cultural form. The term originated in the fourteenth century, derived from the French facon (meaning “manner, mode, or appearance”) and the Latin factionem (“making or doing”). In its etymological origin, “fashion” referred to the acts of making and of displaying—to both object and labor—but this relationship has become increasingly obscured in the term’s contemporary usage. A word that once implied both the object produced and the mode of its production is now commonly used to reference only the former, as fashionistas and fashion scholars alike become less concerned with who makes clothing (and under what conditions) than who wears it (and what this might say about their class positions, gender roles, ethnic affiliations, sexual proclivities, cultural zeitgeist, and so on).
Several historical developments contributed to the emergence of this new concept of fashion. Historians cite the introduction in the seventeenth century of the French couturier’s guild, which allowed tailors to create clothing for nonaristocrats, as a key moment (E. Wilson  2003). Once the couturiers set up shop, it became possible for anyone who could afford their services to be a la mode—to buy clothing, made by hands other than their own, that emphasized style rather than simply function. The rise of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, which allowed clothing to be made quickly and cheaply; the maturation in the mid-twentieth century of fashion design as a professional field separate from tailoring and sewing; and the consequent growth of designer brands in the late twentieth century all worked to imbue clothing with value beyond usefulness or even quality (N. Green 1997; McRobbie 1988; Entwistle 2000). These developments contributed to the transformation of clothing into fashion by turning clothing into a cultural object, one whose meaning is understood to be produced and circulated primarily through consumption and display.
Driven by rapidly changing style rather than need or utility, fashion came to be understood not just as clothing but also as a symbolic process. Foundational theorists of this understanding of fashion, ranging from Roland Barthes and Georg Simmel to Pierre Bourdieu and Dick Hebdige, have stressed the symbolic functions of fashion. For Simmel (1957), one of the earliest theorists, fashion serves in large part to maintain social distinctions, particularly class distinctions. Echoing Thorstein Veblen’s earlier comments about the consumption habits of the leisure class ( 1994), Simmel argued that members of lower classes wear certain styles of clothing to imitate those of the upper classes; the latter, in turn, dress to distinguish themselves from the former, often changing styles as they become more widely adopted. Indeed, knowing what is in and out of fashion becomes an important form of cultural capital and social power, in Bourdieu’s formulation (1973).
Subsequent writings have disputed the kind of top-down model espoused by these early theorists, pointing out that fashion can circulate from street to runway, from subcultures to showrooms (Hebdige 1979), and that it can be a democratizing force, as Gilles Lipovetsky has provocatively argued (1994). Despite the different emphases of these theorists, they generally conclude that fashion is primarily about display and is one important way in which we visibly distinguish ourselves as groups and individuals. Fashion, they tell us, links our physical body to a social body and, like other cultural forms, allows us to construct meaning through acts of consumption and presentation. Popular discussions of fashion emphasize as well the importance of display, whether in “makeover” shows such as What Not to Wear, where a change in clothing provides visual proof of a change in person, or in “behind-the-scenes” programs such as Project Runway, where the making of fashion pales in comparison to its parade down the runway.
Yet not all consumers (or producers) of clothing can be fashionable. Almost all accounts of fashion locate its emergence within Western industrialized societies—societies capable, technologically and epistemologically, of change, growth, and modernization. As a result, fashion has become a global form that is primarily understood as being a product of the West—European couture can now be found from Accra to Abu Dhabi. What the non-West has, instead, is garment, dress, costume, and attire, none of which is, strictly speaking, fashion or fashionable. What the non-West makes are either low-end garments for transnational firms or native costumes, neither of which is represented as demanding the input of local designers. In the former instance, the designer resides elsewhere; in the latter, the designer does not exist at all (those garments emerging, presumably, out of a collective tradition). In this sense, fashion is not just a product of Western modernity; it is also an index of the capacity to be modern. Clothing, as opposed to fashion, becomes one of the most visible ways in which a culture gets constructed as unchanging, backward even.
Such ideological distinctions have had the effect of cordoning off certain places and peoples as fashionable, with some important social and economic implications. Consider as an example the early twenty-first-century convulsions around Arab dress. In the first decade of the century, designer labels from Givenchy and Versace to Galliano and Dior all dabbled in so-called Arab styles, sending them down the Parisian runway at the same moment that then French president Nicolas Sarkozy declared full-body coverings “not welcome” in France. Or think about the ways that Western cities—Paris, London, Milan, New York (and much more recently, Tokyo)—are commonly accepted as sites of fashion production and taste construction, while cities in the non-West are embraced only as places for the less profitable or more labor-intensive garment production. As a result, countries such as China get courted as consumers of fashion, even as their own designers find it incredibly difficult to gain a foothold in the fashion marketplace—to be seen as producers of fashion.
When we make claims about fashion, then, about who and what is fashionable or unfashionable, we allow the term to embody a set of social, cultural, and economic positions. Far more than what we put on our bodies, fashion is one of the ways we mark, name, produce, and consume the various forms of difference that animate our social world. As such, fashion indexes much more than how we consume goods or display our identities. A critical approach to fashion requires that we take into account the term’s full meaning, that we consider both make and mode, consumption and production, the symbolic and the material. Indeed, as recent scholars have shown, fashion can reveal how these are all in fact connected (Tu 2011; Paulicelli and Clark 2009; Root 2010).