Fashion, clothing that is in style at a particular time. The concept of fashion implies a process of style change, because fashions in dress, as well as in furniture and other objects, have taken very different forms at different times in history. Thus, when English playwright William Shakespeare observed in the 16th century that “the fashion wears out more apparel than the man,” he meant that clothing becomes unfashionable long before it has worn out.
Back in Shakespeare’s day, only upper-class people dressed fashionably; the mass of the rural peasantry wore simple clothing that hardly changed over many generations. Since the beginning of the 20th century, however, fashions have changed rapidly. We would look strange indeed if we wore the styles our great-grandparents wore. And most people—at least in the West—follow fashion to some extent, because fashion refers to much more than the haute couture, the exclusive and expensive clothing produced by leading designers. Even schoolchildren are aware that fashions exist, and change, in running shoes. Nevertheless, we do tend to distinguish, however imprecisely, between basic clothing, such as blue jeans, parkas, and T-shirts, and the latest trendy fashions created by fashion designers. This article follows fashion in the West from its beginnings in Europe to the present. For more information on everyday clothing around the world.
Fashion reflects the society of which it is a part. It has been influenced by wars, conquests, laws, religion, and the arts. Individual personalities have also had an impact on fashion. Royalty and heads of state have set fashion, and in the 20th-century media, stars have emerged as leaders of fashion. French writer Anatole France said that if he could come back to Earth 100 years after his death and have only one thing to read, he would choose a fashion magazine because that would show him the way people lived.
Fashion also has its critics, who have at times denounced fashion as irrational, frivolous, tyrannical, and immoral. Why should pink be in fashion one season and grey the next season? Why do people follow fashion like sheep when they have enough clothes already? A common accusation is that fashion designers accelerate fashion change to create new business. Yet no new fashion succeeds until people are ready to accept it. The final decision about what to buy, or whether to buy anything at all, belongs to the consumer. Ultimately, fashions change because many people like new and different styles.