Fashion and its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing (review)
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Fashion and its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing. By Diana Crane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. x plus 294 pp. $20.00/paper).

In Fashion and its Social Agendas, sociologist Diana Crane takes on a comparative study of “fashion and clothing choices” (2) in the United States, England and France over two centuries. Crane argues that in the nineteenth century, class and gender hierarchies structured fashion practices and their diffusion. In the twentieth century, consumer identities constructed by leisure activities and “conflicted gender hegemonies” (240) produced a “more amorphous and unpredictable” fashion system in which “styles and fads originate in different class [End Page 539] strata, but their trajectories vary” (246). In tracing this shift, Crane first draws upon two fascinating and little known studies of French working-class clothing purchases conducted between 1857 and 1928, and working-class family budget studies conducted in the United States from the 1870s to the 1890s. For the second half of her book, Crane interviewed approximately 100 fashion professionals and 45 female consumers, the latter via questionnaires and focus groups. She also consulted numerous fashion histories, archival photographs, and a wide range of secondary works.

Crane’s study provides both new information and interpretations, especially for the earlier period. In her focus on nineteenth-century working-class clothing, for example, Crane analyzes working-class fashion both in regard to sociologist Georg Simmel’s well-known 1904 top-down theory of fashion diffusion as lower-class imitation, and competing claims by later scholars that democratization best describes changing fashions in industrializing nations. With this approach, she draws a nuanced portrait of working-class clothing, demonstrating that working-class people made choices about which middle-class items of clothing they found appealing and incorporated. Crane also found greater attention given to fashionable clothing by working-class husbands employed in skilled jobs than by their wives who remained largely at home. Crane then contextualizes Simmel’s field of vision itself, suggesting his conclusions might be skewed because he unwittingly limited his observations to those working-class people most often visible to the middle class: skilled male and unmarried female workers. Crane also argues for the importance of public space in spurring fashion diffusion. Urban working-class couples who wished to engage in leisure pursuits such as strolling needed appropriately fashionable dress to do so comfortably.

Crane’s innovative formulation of nineteenth-century middle-class women’s “alternative dress” as a middle ground between oppositional and dominant fashion is a significant rethinking of gendered fashion in this period. Less challenging to prevailing female fashion than overt dress reform styles such as the 1850s Bloomer Costume, alternative dress provided a means for women to resist conforming fully to the hegemonic femininity represented by fashionable dress. Women borrowed jackets, ties, hats and other styles from menswear to construct less frilly and ornamental ensembles. Inspired by working women’s clothing, by sports dress—such as riding costumes—and by other activities that took place outside fully public realms in which women were subjected to disapproving male gazes, this look became further legitimated in the late nineteenth century with the popularization of the shirt-waisted Gibson Girl.

As comparative studies inherently rely upon well-established bodies of specialized literature, it is perhaps unsurprising that Crane’s contextualization of the more recent period is not as fully realized. While throughout the second half of her book she expertly marshals an impressive array of topics, their relevance to her larger argument is not always clear. In chapter five, for example, Crane discusses market globalization and the transition “from class to consumer fashion” (132). Structural changes in the fashion industry materially affect changes in fashion diffusion, which Crane, in concert with previous studies, asserts becomes more complex. However, the significance of such topics as fashion designers’ self-promotion as art patrons, artists or craftsmen, to which Crane devotes extensive attention, is not fully explained. [End Page 540]

Considering Crane’s central focus on gender analysis in this book, it is disappointing that her discussion of twentieth-century sub-cultural styles is limited to the chapter on constructions of masculinity, foreclosing discussion of female participants. However, Crane...