A commonly found definition of fashion could be described as follows: “a popular trend in, especially, style of dress, ornament, behaviour and/or any cultural production”. The term “fashion” can thus be applied to a multiplicity of endeavours, including design, literature, clothing, art, music and even dating practices. In popular usage, however, it has come to denote the clothing design industry, and this article will focus almost exclusively on “the fashion industry”.
Historically, fashion trends evolve most rapidly during times of economic change or social upheaval: conflict, it would appear, breeds creativity. In contemporary times, however, Western society (and the increasingly global culture) has made a habit out of continual evolutions in clothing design. This habit has in turn led to the creation of an industry that looks beyond the mere practical need to clothe oneself, to one based on self-expression, identity signification, and consumer culture. Fashion trends have traditionally been set by the wealthy elite, often as a sign of their wealth and social status, which were then closely followed by the bourgeoisie and lower classes: the need of the elite to remain ahead of the curve, so to speak, could perhaps be seen as a primary motivating force in the need for continually changing fashion trends.
Prior to 1850 (a very general date), most clothing was custom made either in home production or through an order placed at a dressmaker or tailor. The latter option was usually only open to those who could afford the labour and materials of a professional, making fashion a prerogative of the wealthy classes. The mass production that characterises the twentieth century fashion industry can be seen to rely of three factors without which the industry would not exist as we know it today: the emergence of the factory system of production out of the industrial revolution; the invention of technologies that sped up the time it took to produce materials and garments (e.g. the sewing machine and loom); and the rise of capitalism. Another factor paramount to the creation of the modern day fashion industry is the selling platform that makes fashion items accessible to the market (that is, outlets and retail stores).
The modern fashion industry is often said to have begun, officially, in 1858 when the English born Parisian, Charles Frederick Worth, opened the first truly Haute Couture fashion house. The advent of the fashion stores and design houses has consequently led to the rise of the fashion designer: a figure who in contemporary times is held by the industry in high regard, and is often seen as an inspired savant who has the ability to both create original garments that express his/her interpretation of the zeitgeist (the often indefinable “spirit” of the times), and to create garments that point towards future trends. In terms of the former image of the designer, high fashion could be seen as an art form that produces social commentary and interacts with the world in a meaningful and considered way.
Design, however, shouldn’t be seen to be the sole domain of fashion: if you intend, for example, to buy an iPad, every aspect of its aesthetics has been considered by a design team, as has the aesthetics of every piece of notable architecture, all home appliances, every flyer, your Xbox 360, every single example of the multitude of laptops for sale, and every poster or image-orientated advert has similarly been graphically designed. Design is multidisciplinary, but the principle of giving an object within the imagination a physical realisation remains consistent throughout all of its various manifestations.