Fashion consists of imitating that which has first shown itself as inimitable. This mechanism, paradoxical at first glance, is all the more interesting to sociology in that this discipline is principally concerned with modern, technical, industrial societies and fashion is a phenomenon which historically is particular to these societies. It must be pointed out that there are peoples and societies without fashion, for example ancient Chinese society, where clothing was strictly coded in an almost immutable way.
The absence of fashion corresponded to the totally stagnant nature of society. For civilizations without writing, fashion poses a very interesting problem, though this has hardly been studied. This problem belongs to the sociology of cultural exchange: in countries like those in the new Africa, traditional, indigenous clothing, clothing that is unchanging and not subject to fashion, comes up against the phenomenon of fashion originating in the West.
This results in compromises, especially for women’s clothing. The major ‘patterns’, models and forms of indigenous clothing are often maintained either in the shape and the form of the clothing or in the types of colours and designs employed; but the clothing is subject to the fashion rhythms of the West, that is to an annual production of fashion and to a renewal of detail. What is interesting in this occurrence is the meeting of a vestimentary civilization not based on fashion with the phenomenon of fashion.
It seems that we could conclude that fashion is not linked to such and such a particular Chapter 9 Fashion and the Social Sciences1 86 The Language of Fashion form of clothing but rather is exclusively a question of rhythm, a question of rate in time. Fashion poses a more acute and more paradoxical problematic to historians than it does to sociologists.
The sort of public opinion maintained and promoted by the press and its letters pages etc. presents fashion as an essentially capricious phenomenon, based on the creative faculty of the designer. According to public opinion, fashion is still located within a mythology of unfettered creativity that enables it to evade both the systematic and the habitual, resting upon a rather romantic notion of an inexhaustible abundance of spontaneous creativity. Isn’t it said that fashion designers can do anything with nothing?