From the first days of mankind, men and women alike have been conscious of their appearance. They were quite right in doing so, for what is not related to it? Finding a partner and friends, success in business, the overall image of one's personality and many other important things are facilitated by an agreeable appearance. Don't tell me you never judge a book by its cover!
I am deeply fascinated by the communicative quality of consumption. Does not each and any of us use consumer goods - especially clothing - to tell others who we are or who we would like to be - or not to be? People dress to please, to impress, to attract, to stand out, to protest, to conform, to kill... Truly, clothing is the most important of consumer goods when it comes to expressing one's personality, probably because it's so close to our person, followed by jewellery and similar accessories we keep close to our bodies.
But what is it that tells us what exactly a certain clothing style is meant to express? It's relatively easy with some subcultural styles such as punk or grunge as soon as they have become widely known and as long as they are used consistently, but there are no dictionaries of the language of fashion. It was once easy to judge, by the quality and amount of fabric or the amount of labour-intensive lace and embroidery, the social status of a person, which only knew the dimensions of "up" or "down". But nowadays there are many more dimensions to consider, e.g. progressive or conservative, high or low educational level, high or low ecological awareness and more. They all seek expression through consumer good, not the least of all clothing.
Fashion has been likened to language, but there is a vast gap between the two. Language has grammar; the sequence of words plays a part in its meaning. But clothing is perceived as a whole at once, not as a sequence, and there is no grammar. Are there no misunderstandings? Does the "reader" always get the impression intended by the wearer? How can the wearer make sure? What if a typical trait of a certain style is mixed with traits of other styles? Many a page has been written on this, uncovering facets of the human soul and society that many people would rather have covered.
I first came in touch with fashion (viewed like this) when I attended a lecture on consumer sociology, and later fashion sociology, a few years back. Many goods can be used for impression management, as the sociologist calls it, but clothes, being so close to the individual all the time, are the most obvious and important ones. Coming in boundless variations, as boundless as the variations of character and lifestyle, they are the most feasible goods for the expression of identity.
One of the most interesting books I've read on the social meaning of consumer goods is
McCracken, Grant, Culture and Consumption : New approaches to the symbolic character of consumer goods and activities, Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1988
Apart from a highly interesting variation of the most influential of fashion theories, the trickle-down theory, it gives great insights into how consumer goods can be used to create an image of oneself, to make statements about how we see ourselves or what we would like to be. Just think of the fancy cars some people drive in order to be admired! I had to stop reading every now and then thinking, Oh dear, that's exactly the same with me! (Well, except when it comes to fancy cars...)
A webpage is not the place for reviewing all the important theories, so if you want to know more about the social functions of fashion and the mechanics of fashion change, about why skirts are sometimes long and sometimes short, you should go to a library. Here is a list of books and articles - some classics and some younger ones whose literature indexes will help you to find more. Many of the books are also listed on my costume books page, with the opportunity of online ordering.