4 Dec 2015

Paper presented at the symposium "New Design, New Historians, New Histories of Design" Stichting Designgeschiedenis Nederland

From collective things to individual devices. Irene Maldini and Ragna Manz


Academic perspectives on fashion have been traditionally based on theories of identity, understanding sartorial practices as a permanent negotiation between social imitation and differentiation. These perspectives are mainly grounded on late 19th century and early 20th century analyses of modern society and they can still be seen at play today. However, we can recognize that sartorial practices and the role of fashion have changed since then. This article argues that a renovated theoretical and methodological approach can be useful to identify some of the aspects that have shifted; it specifically complements Georg Simmel and Gabriel Tarde’s theories of identity with Albert Borgmann’s philosophy of technology. Through this framework and using ethnographic methods we examine the sartorial habits of two groups of young women living and working in Amsterdam during the 1950s and 2010s. During the 1950s, when clothing was flexible and individual in its material construction, consumers’ articulation of identity was closely linked to explicit fashion trends. It was, to some extent, unidirectional. Today, we argue, clothes have become materially static artefacts and they are therefore less able to respond to the multidirectional construction of identity stressing individuality that characterises contemporary consumers. In sum, by combining views of clothing as social objects with perspectives of clothing as material artefacts, and exploring the potential of this approach through a case study, we are able to move beyond more traditional approaches to fashion and to uncover a paradoxical contemporary history of dress.