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How fashion reflects the changing fabric of our world

two women wearing blazers standing against blue sky

We are a culture fascinated by fashion.  

In a nutshell

  1. Fashion holds a mirror up to important cultural forces and contexts.
  2. Humans use fashion to find a sense of belonging. 
  3. Marketers can look to fashion to better understand and reach their audience. 

From the latest designer catwalk, to A-list celebrities on the red carpet, to exclusive streetwear drops, fashion is a multi-billion dollar industry. Splashed all over our magazines, TV screens and social media feeds, fashion is a universal talking-point.  

But what are we really talking about when we talk about fashion? 

A mirror to society 

On an individual level, fashion is often seen as a means of self-expression. We make our fashion choices based on what we value– comfort, function– and how we want to show up in the world – aesthetic, style.  

But fashion goes much deeper than the clothes we choose to put on each day. 

In fact, studying fashion styles and trends serve as valuable cultural commentary about what is going on in the world socially, politically and economically.  

In this way, the changing face of fashion reflects the very fabric of our world.  

Analysing past fashion can give us insight into the cultural context of the time. One example of this is the little black dress – made popular by Coco Chanel in the post WWI era. The elegant simplicity of the garment reflects the economic depression of the 1930s, running as a direct counter-current to the gaudy excesses of the previous decade.  

In the 1960s, the contraceptive pill was made available for public use, and we see a subsequent rise in female empowerment and sexual freedom. At the same time, London designer Mary Quant created the mini skirt – fashion’s most daring hemline yet, and a battle-cry for female freedom and sixties hedonism. 

Taking a closer look at current and emerging trends can also help us to understand the forces impacting the world today – and provide valuable foresight into our future. 

Fashion is often used as a rebellion against past stereotypes or limitations. We see this with punk style - an anti-establishment aesthetic characterised by spikes, studs, leather and denim – but also more recently with a push towards gender fluidity, such as celebrities like Harry Styles or Taika Waititi wearing dresses or skirts on the red carpet.  

A sense of belonging 

Fashion leans into a powerful human instinct – the need to belong.  

What you wear and how you style yourself sends a very overt signal of who you are and what tribe you belong to and the beliefs and values you share. 

We see a clear demonstration of humans using fashion to find belonging in the work of Ari Versluis and Ellie Uyttenbroek, street photographers who have created the style archive, Exatitudes. Spanning decades, the pair captures then groups people thematically – not unlike the market research process. Versuluis notes, “it’s fascinating to observe how people construct their ideas of themselves in this fast changing and very complex social environment we live in nowadays, as well as the influence of the internet and Instagram on fashion”. 

Business of Aspiration author and newly appointed Global Chief Brand Officer of Esprit, Ana Andjelic, writes extensively on fashion and the power it holds to unlock a deeper understanding of who people are. She notes "instead of focusing on individuals, we should focus on their relationships and look at the communities they belong to.” There’s a clear benefit for marketers in insights that show us how particular groups align with certain beliefs, associations and behaviours. Fashion can provide us a fuller understanding of these worlds –allowing us to target our brand conversations with those we want to engage. 

Another example is Alejandro Salgado-Montejo, an academic and market researcher who created a segmentation tool looking at people’s fashion choices and how they align with their tastes across a variety of other aspects of their lives – including their alignment to brands.  

This work is a further demonstration of what we already know to be true – that demographics are a poor indicator of people’s identity, sense of belonging, and who they want to be seen as. Fashion choice, and post-demographic data studies like MindSets, are all better ways of understanding and categorising groups of people. 

A way to understand people 

“Fashion and politics are both, at their core, about cycles of culture and identity,” states Christopher Wylie, the whistle-blower for now-infamous political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. 

Christopher Wylie studied fashion before joining the British political consulting firm and has spoken at length about how the knowledge he gained tracking styles and trends in fashion helped him with the analysis of human behaviour at large. Wylie’s career shift from fashion to data analytics is in itself a great example of the commonalities between understanding fashion and understanding people. 

Designer turned social commentator is Ruben Pater - best known for his book The Politics of Design, studied the social ripples we see within design and clothing. His work revealed that no fashion item or design trend is devoid of human bias and, therefore, cultural messaging. “Designers, communication specialists, and image-makers possess the power to shape visual communication, and with that power comes great responsibility.” 

Pater’s work brings to the fore how misappropriation can emerge when cultural contexts and stereotypes are used without taking time to dig below the surface. It raises the kind of questions all marketers should be asking themselves: Who are the decision makers? Whose experience and context do we need here that sits outside our context? Put simply: who is in the room?  

As marketers these can be tricky issues to navigate –  but getting them right we can gain effective messaging, leaning into cultural signifiers and avoiding cultural appropriation. 

A tool to take your marketing to the next level 

Ultimately, marketers can interpret clothes as billboard with a message to be read – a message about who people are and who they want to be seen to be. We simply can’t afford to overlook the valuable data and insights fashion provides.  

If you want to truly know your audience and the cultural context they live in, then looking to the fashion industry is a great place to start. Think about who people want to be and how they want to be seen.  

Moving forward, here are a collection of questions to guide you as you think about how fashion can improve your work as a brand, organisation or marketer: 

How can your brand acknowledge and connect with who they want to be? 

How does your audience’s fashion identity align with their beliefs, tastes or behaviours? 

How can your brand connect with people through their broader interests and perspectives? 

How can you partner or nod to aligned brands/activities? 

How can your brand connect with the sense of belonging to groups with common identities?  

How can you be seen to hang with their group identity?  

How can you leverage cultural currents like superdiversity, gender fluidity, ageless reboot? 

How can your brand acknowledge the ‘catwalk’ trends while feeling part of local culture?  

How can you adopt the local version of the global signals? 

Get in touch with TRA’s Director of Cultural Insight Laura Mulcahy to find out how your brand or organisation can use cultural foresight.

Laura Mulcahy
Director of Cultural Strategy
Laura is a futurist and trend forecaster. Prior to joining TRA, Mulcahy spent nearly a decade at Nike, USA, most recently as Research Manager leading and executing research across the US, Europe and Asia, which ultimately informed and inspired Nike’s design, brand and business. Prior to that she held the role of Nike’s Senior Trend Forecaster, working alongside the Global Trend team to research and analyse global trends and lifestyle shifts that drive sport and culture.

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