The Genteel
March 7, 2021


What can an academic theory reveal about fashion design and the shaping of society's style? (Source:

Whether it's Ingrid Brenninkmeyer discussion of societal metaphors (The Sociology of Fashion, 1963), Quentin Bell's psychosocial analysis of the reasoning behind personal fashion choices (On Human Finery, 1947), or Diana Crane and Laura Bovone's application of symbolic value to fashion consumption (Approaches to Material Culture, 2006), there is no shortage of serious academic theories on the often whimsical and capricious world of fashion. 

One of the most well-documented principles in fashion is the "trickle-down theory," originally introduced by Thorstein Veblen in 1899 (The Theory of the Leisure Class). Veblen theorized that new technologies and consumer goods initially come into the market at a price point that only the elite can afford. Over time, other companies manufacture their own, more affordable versions of such products, and the lower classes begin to purchase them. Over the last century, the trickle-down theory has been picked up by a number of disciplines (among them, political science, sociology, psychology and economics), and one of the first applications of the theory was to fashion.

Georg Simmel

Several years after Veblen introduced the theory, Georg Simmel applied it to the fashion industry and personal style (Fashion International Quarterly: Issue 10, 1904). Simmel theorized that the lower classes emulate the clothing and symbology of the upper classes in their attempt to achieve upward socio-economic mobility. Accordingly, trends and innovations form at the top of the social and economic pyramid and trickle downwards. The theory was an accurate representation of fashion at the turn of the century, but a modern reader may doubt Simmel's theory when considering the success of independent design. If the theory is still applicable, how have smaller, independent designers managed to create design trends and influence large, established houses?

In his revision of Simmel's theory, Grant McCracken (Culture and Consumption, 1988) accounts for the influence of distributors, investors, starting clout of designers, location, etc., thereby expanding the depth of the theory and its applications to the fashion industry. McCracken modifies Simmel's key point: it's no longer the richest individuals or the upper classes who are emulated, it's the most powerful and influential. Influential independents are featured at Milan/Paris/New York fashion weeks and have strong worldwide distribution, without (in some cases) huge financial backing, and their templates, cuts, and patterns are also being duplicated. Original trickle-down theory (Veblen and Simmel) accounts for the importance of pricing and the attention by the upper class to the large fashion houses, but McCracken's version helps elucidate the influence of these smaller but powerful designers - for example, Rick Owens and Ann Demeulemeester. 

[Simmel] theorized that the lower classes emulate the clothing and symbology of the upper classes as they attempt to achieve upward socio-economic mobility.

By aggregating the theories of Veblen, Simmel and McCracken, one can get a good picture of how fashion design works today. When an influential fashion designer releases a collection, a chain reaction begins that may take several years to complete. A high-ticket item is released one season, a middle-of-the-line equivalent could be produced by a less pricey brand the following year, and basic departments stores may carry a similar piece to the middle-tag product the year after that. Prada's designs may be modified by Zara or Club Monaco, which may later be re-purposed by Aldo or Payless. Many popular designs from several years ago can end up in the seasonal lines of brands sold at the local shopping mall. It's just a matter of who picks up which lines to adapt to a wider consumer audience, at an affordable price.

The affordability aspect of the trickle-down theory is still highly applicable in modern fashion, as most people can't afford Owens or Robert Geller originals costing thousands of dollars. Instead, the masses wait for a comparable piece to come out from Religion or All Saints in upcoming seasons. It is simply a matter of how much one can spend. Many fashion enthusiasts can't afford a Tom Ford suit, Guidi boots or a Chanel jacket, but they will happily search for comparable pieces within their price range, without being offended by the fact that the item is based on another brand's design. 

Many of the middle-of-the-road (price-wise) brands rehash older templates and patterns from more exclusive designers. Avid fans of high-ticket or obscure designers may denounce this practice, but the choice to indulge is really up to the consumer. Many consumers are interested in experimental designs, yet to actually wear such pieces, they may require a more practical, less avant-garde approach. Further, designers are inspired by what they observe. Often, it's not a case of thievery or misappropriating someone else's work; one can find inspiration in another's work and give their own interpretation of it. This may not be the case with many low-ticket items but designer-to-designer relations often function in this manner.

Comparison of the Lam/Trump wedge

However, a line has to be drawn somewhere, as some design teams go from reworking a piece to simply ripping it off. This year, Ivanka Trump's label blatantly misappropriated the design for Derek Lam's Ayami wedge to the point where there were only shades of difference between them (literally). Similarly, Urban Outfitters is regularly accused of stealing designs, such as the jewelry of Stevie Koerner (imakeshinythings) and the shirt design of Brien K. It's important not to confuse the adaptation of designs and trends with outright copying, however, this phenomenon (along with the knockoff industry) is also in accordance trickle-down theory, as less wealthy consumers can purchase exact replicas of higher-end items.

In reality, the trickle-down theory in fashion accounts for a fair amount of what is happening within the fashion industry. Although the theory has been modified throughout the years, it isn't simply a scholastic endeavour; the theory has been directly applied to the realities of everyday life. Just as the fashion industry has changed and adapted over the last century, so too has the trickle-down theory been modified to better explain the top-to-bottom approach of the fashion industry.



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