Fashion and Anxiety
Alison Clarke and Daniel Miller
In as much as the study of individuals and their relationship to their clothing becomes subsumed within the study of fashion, there is a temptation to privilege the commercial arenas within which the clothing is produced as the foundation of fashion studies. Yet we want to open up the possibility that fashion may not be merely the result of its own system of production (contra Fine and Leopold 1993: 93-137,219-237), but rather the result of much larger forces that influence the mass of consumers to behave in ways which sometimes, but not always, concur with the interests and intentions of commercial interests. Fashion as the practice of the people (and in this paper we restrict ourselves to women's fashions and the female consumer) may emerge despite, rather than because of, the fashion industry. But this does not mean that fashion is an expression either of some simple desire or requirement of the wearers of clothing. Rather we want to develop in this paper a theory of fashion that stems from the contradictions and problems that beset us and seem to determine much of what we ultimately do with clothes. At the same time we will repudiate the proposition that such a focus upon consumption must lead us to a primary concern with the psychology of the individual, or even as Simmel (1997) argued in one of the most influential attempts at a theory of fashion, that fashion emerges largely from a tension between creativity and conformity. Although we certainly concede there is a case for the study of such aspirations for individual expression through clothing, and indeed the study of attempts by manufacturers to construct or collude in such constructions of identity, instead we consider how in practice it is the larger social context that determines clothing choices. On the basis of ethnographic evidence we will suggest that at present the individual female in Britain tends to experience this social pressure primarily as a form of anxiety over potential social embarrassment. In short, we will suggest that it is above all anxiety that determines what people actually wear.
While other volumes deal with the ways in which the fashion industry mediates social change and anxiety (Arnold 2001) our concerns are markedly different. We are trying to develop a theory about the relationship between women and their clothing based upon an ethnography of shopping for clothes that found it was constantly being turned into a study of anxiety and social embarrassment. In contrast to treatments which premise the fashion industry itself, to account for our findings we turn both ethnographically and, in our conclusion, theoretically to the social context of wearing clothes. . Clearly the fashion industry is a complex and highly differentiated force, but we want to at least open up the possibility that the dilemmas for women choosing clothing might have little to do with either the industry or its associated journalism. It is natural to try and account for consumption from the perspective of production (since production processes - appear to explain the 'origins' of clothing and styles) but this study examines clothes from the other end of this relationship. We start from our observation of the fears of shoppers when considering more adventurous or diverse clothing, and the various relationships and institutions they use to alleviate this fear. When considering the limited range of clothes that most people actually wear it is entirely possible that such a restriction on the field of potential purchases might suit some high street retailers. But we also want to consider the possibility that this is the result of a process of refusal by shoppers who are not seduced by the potential of post-Fordist manufacturing and distribution within the industry which might have favoured the very diversity the shoppers feel unable to encompass. Our major concern however, is not whether it is the high street or the shopper who should be considered the prime mover in determining what is worn. Instead we are motivated by our evidence that the primary experience of most women in relation to their clothing consists of the individual confronting her wardrobe or shopping experience with the problem of `what on earth should I wear'? If this is the case, then there are grounds for suggesting the same experience should be central to a theory of fashion.
We recognise that an emphasis on the larger social context for fashion choice is hardly a new observation. Many textbooks on fashion (e.g. Wilson 1985; Entwhistle 2000) incorporate such concerns within more general discussion about topics such as sexuality, the relationship of women to their bodies, and transformations in gender and identity. Nevertheless, we find it extraordinary, given the descriptions that follow below, how many works on fashion seem almost entirely to ignore the centrality of anxiety and embarrassment in women's relationship to their clothing. In this paper we want first to use ethnography to establish the evidence for anxiety and the intensive search for the normative in fashion choice, and then, in the conclusion we will briefly attempt to account for our findings in terms of longer and shorter term trends.
Our starting point is the social rather than the individual context that is responsible for what may be termed taste or fashion choice. The obvious precedent within anthropology for such an argument is the work of Pierre Bourdieu. What we take from Bourdieu's Distinction (1984) is his evidence that matters of aesthetics, taste and style, clearly transcend the idiosyncrasies of individual agency, instead operating as manifestations of socialisation and power relations in the form of 'cultural capital'. The kind of sociological analysis, however, seems to imply that individual taste is constructed only in relation to the larger social space and distinctions such as class. In contrast to Bourdieu, however, the ethnography that follows is used to argue that the social setting of individual choice does not just operate at this more abstract level, i.e. as a reflection of class position, but has to be considered at the moment of everyday aesthetic choices made by shoppers. What we found was that even where individuals are highly knowledgeable about matters of taste and clothing, they find the everyday encounters of aesthetic choice ostensibly fraught. They might resort to a wide range of mechanisms from accompanying friends during shopping trips, to consulting external agencies to reassure themselves about the selections to be made. That is to say in many, if not most cases, individuals do not really know what they like, or what their taste in clothing is, at least outside of various social and institutional supports that give them the confidence that they do know. The fieldwork upon which this paper is based was conducted for a year mainly around a single street (called here Jay Road) in North London (for the setting see Miller 1998, 2001, Clarke 2000, 2001). The research methodologies included participant observation relating to both formal shopping (Miller) and informal provisioning (Clarke) and supplementary interviews.
The Anxiety of Taste: Mothers, Daughters and Floral Print Dresses
The anxiety generated by the pressure of 'knowing what to like' is evident in Sharon's desire to completely re-evaluate the contents of her wardrobe and change what she views as a consistently unsatisfactory relation to fashion. Although few women can afford to completely re-assemble their wardrobes (as encouraged by image consultancy companies discussed later in the chapter), the desire to 'chuck out' clothing was commonly referred to by women either 'emerging' from their roles as young mothers, or entering a new life stage involving (or desiring) a new set of social relations (though see Banim and Guy 2001). The re-formulation of a wardrobe or a cosmetic 'make-over' often marks a rite of passage (or desire to prompt such a transformative event) into a new or unchartered stage in a woman's life. Sharon, for example, is reaching her fortieth birthday and sees this as a watershed in terms of consolidating her appearance and her wardrobe, for she is 'fed-up with getting it all wrong';
It's my fortieth next month and so I thought if I don't do it now then when? I've just coloured my hair and I'm going to lose some weight this year and chuck out all my old clothes. The girl next door sells Mary Kay [cosmetics] so I'm going to look after my skin and stuff with some of them things.
Sharon, a full-time mother of three children living on a council estate (public housing), contrasts herself with a close friend who, she comments 'could wear a piece of rag and look gorgeous'. But the desire to re-design herself and her wardrobe is not merely indicative of a stereotypical mid-life crisis. Rather she considers herself as the victim of a succession of events in which 'fashion', and what she considers to be her inept relation to it, has badly let her down. Sharon's 'fashion disasters' (as she refers to them) culminated in a recent incident at a family party organised to celebrate her mother-in-law's seventieth birthday. The female kin of her in-laws have a reputation for dressing extremely well, in the latest classic fashions, whereas Sharon prefers to wear casual leggings in the winter and lurid 'scrunch-up' sun dresses in the summer. As the party, organised in a prestigious local venue, spanned both lunch and dinner Sharon had been advised to bring outfits appropriate for both day and evening wear. Desperate to 'fit in', she sought the advice of her mother-in-law in the making of a long evening skirt to wear at the party. She also spent several days looking for a top to perfectly match the evening skirt. As the party wore on, Sharon nervously went to change into the long skirt to pre-empt the transformation of the other guests. However, after returning from the Ladies' Room, and waiting several hours, Sharon realised that she was the only person who had bothered to change into evening dress and that, despite 'looking like a dressed up tart!', she could not insult her mother-in-law by removing the skirt she had kindly helped her to make. She therefore spent the entire evening feeling let down by her in-law's fashion advice and too self-consciously 'over-dressed' to join in the festivities.
On another occasion Sharon set off by car with her family to attend a niece's Christening taking place fifteen or so miles away from her house on the other side of London. After driving for over thirty minutes, Sharon had a 'change of heart' regarding the appropriateness of the dress she had chosen to wear and persuaded the entire family to turn back to North London so that she could dash to purchase an alternative item she had seen previously in a high street shop. Although the garments, blue cotton summer dresses, when placed side by side were barely distinguishable from each other, for Sharon the significance of their stylistic detail warranted this drastic action. In the course of the journey she had been pondering whether or not the 'T-shirt' style neckline of her chosen outfit might be deemed 'too casual' by the family and guests at the Christening. After a long internalised debate with herself, she finally opted for the more expensive option of buying a replacement with a 'less-T-shirt' style neckline.
The examples of Sharon's anxieties may at first seem extreme and may be attributed to some deeper insecurities regarding her familial relations. However, the incidents she describes are fully indicative of a broader ambivalence expressed by almost all women around fashion and clothing choices at some point in their lives. Indeed in many ways, Sharon was an unusually confident informant in self-deprecatingly 'laughing off' such dilemmas and embracing her 'fashion disasters' as an integral part of her biography.
While Sharon laments her lack of stylistic maturity, Charmaigne, a highly fashionable eighteen-year-old who is extremely self-conscious of her 'ideal' figure (she dances in videos for vanguard pop music), excels in choosing items which she considers most appropriately draw attention to her body. While relishing her youthfulness she is also aware of herself becoming older and the pending problem involved in placing herself in relation to the symbolic relationship between clothing and age. Until recently she has tended to favour clothing which might be regarded as more childlike, since she looks a good deal younger than she is. However she is no longer sure if she wants to continue within a `girl' genre, or start wearing clothing intended more for her own age. These dynamics are played out in young women's clothing shops such as Topshop and Kookai, each of which provides a particular aesthetic of dress sense and niche in terms of these dynamics and tensions of age.
Like many younger women shoppers in North London at the time of the ethnography, Charmaigne will tend to buy as fashion garments 'any item as long as its black'. She, as most such women, is aware of the processes that lie behind this lack in the exercise of choice. Black fashion wear is understood to be less individualising or expressive than some alternative choice, so that wearers are often both more secure in their sense of the approval of others, but disappointed by their failure to attempt a more ambitious projection in the world. The problem with any alternative to black is that it presents a much greater risk at the same time that it provides for greater possibilities of creative self-expression in the buyer as fashion 'artist'.
This particular shopping trip, however, is dominated by Charmaigne's concern to buy a floral print garment. After several weeks gestation of the idea she has come to feel a potential affinity with the floral print as an aesthetic concept she might like, and a sense that she could perhaps afford to become a little more adventurous in the range represented by her wardrobe. Clearly though, the success or otherwise of this broad concept of a floral print depends upon the particular item chosen, not just dress or skirt, but the particular print. During the course of the expedition we encounter hundreds of possible floral prints. The issue of cost is not raised, only of suitability. There is not the sense here, as sometimes occurs, that the goods on offer are all the same and there is a lack of choice, rather the concern is only that she should be able to have the confidence to select the particular item that might forge a relationship between her and this genre of garment. The presence of others, such as her mother and the researcher is a constant sounding board upon which to exchange opinions, with the sense that our approval might be seen as much as evidence against as for the garment in question. Even with all this support the difficulty that was evident for Charmaigne, again and again, was knowing whether she actually liked a print or not and therefore being able to determine what her taste was or could be. The mere discrepancy represented by choosing a particular print as opposed to a simple colour is enough to make her feel unable to make a choice. Material culture here becomes part of a larger array of objects that include the actuality of other persons and the fantasised image of those persons as `internal objects'.
Charmaigne is an acknowledged expert on subtle matters of fashion and style, where her sense of the slightest nuance of cut and design is prodigious. She could tell the shift in the growing or diminishing acceptability of a particular colour on the dance floor to within a week. Yet despite this immense confidence in knowing about style, such knowledge does not in and of itself tell her what she 'likes', because to know what one likes is knowing who one wants to be in relation to others, and how others will react to what you are doing, not merely a knowledge about what the possible range is. One can have a fine sense of the nuances of language without knowing what one wants to say. Each array of objects provides its own constraints. Buying the first flower print is important since it may determine the relation to a whole genre.
Further along Jay Road, Katie, the mother of six year old Johnnie, is also striving to transform her wardrobe. In the course of the ethnography, Katie described suffering from mild depression which she aligned with more general feelings of inadequacy regarding her father's perception of her failure to pursue a career and her choice to be a 'stay-at home' mother living on a restricted budget. This ambivalence manifested itself, in part, through Katie's desire to re-think her taste in and attitudes towards her clothes;
I've got to get rid of so much stuff. If I'm not wearing them why have them there crowding up everything? I've reached an age where I realise there are only seven days in the week and whereas Jim [husband] spends a quite large proportion of money on suits, he does need them for work.
The paring down of Katie's wardrobe is part of a broader move towards the paring down of the couple's household economy in an attempt to counter the debts they are trying to manage. However, despite Katie's feeling that a large part of her clothes are redundant (she rarely socialises and does not go out to work, her wardrobe is testament to a kind of cyclical dynamic in which she periodically tries to summon up the confidence to rejoin what she describes as 'the mainstream'. After bouts of clearing out her wardrobe and donating the contents to charity shops, Katie has indulged in clothes shopping which she feels forced to conceal;
I mean, I have in the past bought clothes that I didn't think I should buy, you know? When we're paying off these debts or saving up for something, and I've hidden them. I've put them in the wardrobe and haven't displayed them and showed them like you usually do - and I've made sure he [husband] couldn't see me bring them in and then I sort of appear in them three weeks later and lied about it - I've only done it a few times as I actually feel guilty about it.
The linking of compulsive or inappropriate purchases with depression, guilt and uncontrolled emotions was prevalent in discussions around the acquisition of clothing and cosmetics. Women most often located this practice in relation to internalised feelings about themselves, their own self-esteem, which they viewed as being qualitatively different from anxieties regarding external factors related to their families, work or broader concerns as illustrated in the following extract from a discussion with Linda;
If you feel a bit down on yourself particularly, you'll go out and buy something to make yourself feel better. I suppose it's image, isn't it? You feel, I suppose you feel, if you feel you look good you might feel better about yourself. That's why you're down on yourself, not necessarily what's going on in life, not if I'm depressed, I'm depressed like when we were moving. I was anxious about moving. I don't think that made me go out and buy clothes, if I'm feeling particularly down on myself about something then I'm more likely to do it.
It would be very misleading, however, to associate such anxieties with the 'compulsive clothes shopper' or 'shopaholic'. Rather what emerged from the ethnography is the ubiquity of anxiety in relation to clothes shopping as the normal condition for most women. Although our research was on the topic of provisioning, we also had plenty of encounters and anecdotal evidence that these fears and uncertainties are a daily experience when faced with the question of what to wear out of a wardrobe when people get up in the morning or have to go out in the evening. Rather than piling on examples of anxiety over the self or fear of social embarrassment, however, we want to turn to the various negotiations that women employ to overcome these problems. In particular, we focus upon the varied array of supports that women find, ranging from social relations to the use of commercial bodies, that take the place of actual persons in this regard. Just as there are varieties of physical 'under wiring' and other techniques that support women's bodies because of anxieties they have about their physical selves so there are a range of often barely visible social and psychological supports that allow women to purchase such goods.
Genres of Support
Elia (30) and her mother (women of Greek Cypriot origin living together in their family house) share an uncannily similar taste in clothing. Despite their age difference they are regularly drawn to identical garments as potential purchases and pre-empt each other's preferences in matters of style. So profound is their understanding of each other's taste that they have generated a form of syncretism - a frequent manifestation of which is the duplication of garments as gifts, as described by Elia's mother Maria;
Once I saw a top in DH Evans and a skirt but I thought it was too expensive so I thought 'no I'm not going to buy it'. And Christmas, when I opened the present - my daughter was living in Manchester at the time - when I opened the present in the morning, the present from my husband it was the top that I saw. He just bought me this top so I went out and bought the skirt. But my daughter was living in Manchester at the time so she didn't know that I saw this suit and liked it but she came down for that day she came down on Saturday and she went and bought it [the skirt] for me.. and another time I bought her a watch for Christmas morning and she bought me one and I bought her a Marks & Spencer cardigan in grey and she bought me the same one in blue! Oh yes! And she bought me a waistcoat from Next I bought her a small one she bought me a large one! We bought each other the same things!
In the case of Elia and her mother, both women view their conflation of taste as a positive indication of their close relationship born from consistent attention to each other's preferences or, as Maria puts it, 'this is how you know, when you go out together all the time, you know what the other person likes'. The numerous shopping trips that Elia and Maria have shared as mother and daughter sustain their 'joint' taste even when they are physically separated and shopping as individuals. Elia is a highly sociable young woman with many friends in the locality yet the taste relation she proudly maintains with her mother is seen to take precedence over those with her younger more 'fashionable' friends.
In Elia's case it might be easy to assume that the prominence of the mother/daughter relation in issues of aesthetics is merely indicative of their sharing the physicality and provisioning of the family home. However, the mother/daughter relation proved highly relevant, in the course of the ethnography, even for women with their own established families and partners, as a means of measuring the appropriateness of given articles or aesthetic choices. In many cases the 'mother' might be present as a voice or an external 'other' against which choices might be judged. In Sandra's case even in situations where she is '100%' sure of her judgement she would rather forego a purchase and 'save it' for her mother's opinion;
If it's something that's caught my eye and I've felt absolutely 100% that I know that I will look nice then I don't need another opinion, Š. I can always hear my mum's voice saying 'oh, it really suits you' or 'it doesn't do anything'. So usually I will wait, except my mum lives in Australia, so I have to choose my moments and wait for her to come back and then I'll take her back with me [to the shop] and try it on for her.
This somewhat idyllic sense of taste as an expressive practice within sociality, and through specific relational configurations, is perhaps more unusual. More often ethnographic research brought out the tensions within relationships and a strong sense of ambivalence rather than consensus. Indeed mothers can exemplify the problem faced as much as the solution as in the following example:-
My mother's a shopaholic, she's bordering on being quite dangerous, she spends money like there's no tomorrow and her's is always clothes. She's always buying things for herself, she's got so many clothes I think she could wear a different outfit every day of the year and she just goes on and on and on buying.
It is not just that certain relationships are found to be supportive; this very activity can help build the relationship or test its compatibility. Consequently most relationships within couples reveal both support and tensions.
Janet and Robert are an established married couple with children. In some areas they have clearly developed a sense of themselves as `we'. In food, for example, most of the things purchased are because `we' rather than `I' like them. But consider the following discussion regarding dressing for a social meeting with her husband's friends:-
Janet: Well, we don't entertain them but we do go out with them, you know, to a restaurant occasionally. And that's when I feel really, you know, that I haven't got anything to wear [laughs]. Because they're usually really well dressed. And have, you know, are much better off.... I mean one of them's single so he hasn't - I mean he just hasn't got the responsibilities, he still lives at home and he's 35, he still lives at home with his mother. Irons his shirts and takes his suits to the cleaners and - And his girlfriend works for Benetton [clothing chain] and is very sort of, you know, very trendy. So I always feel really scruffy and [laughs] like I haven't worn the right thing when I see them. But they're very nice. It usually passes off.
Question: Do you think your husband would like you to be more 'dressy'?
Janet: Yeah, I think he would, yeah.
Question: But you're obviously not comfortable in those Š
Janet: No, I'm not actually. I always feel - I always make the mistake when I go out of trying to live up to that kind of thing and then I don't feel comfortable in what I'm wearing. And last week we went out with them - admittedly we didn't go to a very smart restaurant, we went to a fairly casual restaurant, and I just thought I'm going to wear what I feel comfortable in, to hell with it, you know. And that's what I did and I felt much more comfortable. I just think, you know, be yourself.
Question: You wouldn't want to be that sort of person?
Janet: Well, there is part of me that would, yeah. But I think it's - you know, I can't be and there's no point in even trying to think really.
At first glance this seems to assert that Janet is an individual with her own independent taste, coming to a point where she chooses to assert this in defiance of accepted canons of dress sense. But the ethnographic context allows for a more subtle interpretation. A longer acquaintance with Janet suggests that what is being called `casual' here is not actually Janet's core sense of comfortable dressing with which she identifies. In other contexts she could be observed working in exactly the opposite direction, in effect asserting her relatively expensive and dressy clothing against those she interacted with who had neither the money nor the desire to dress up to the same degree. In short, of all the informants Janet was amongst the most commonly disdainful regarding other people's preference for, what would commonly be called, `casual' clothing.
Understood within that larger context the conversation reveals that in this case she is simply unable to compete in a contest in which she would usually consider herself a major player. Instead she backs down with dignity and good grace from a competition she perceives as offering her little chance of winning. Taken from this perspective the taste preference is not an assertion of individualism but rather a form of taste, and a definition of 'casual', that is created by the set of relationships.
Catalogues and Colour Me Beautiful: Domesticating the Chaos of Choice
The cases described so far suggest that aesthetic preferences for material culture most commonly emerge out of the routine workings of the family and relationships where people are constantly bearing others in mind. It is often where this process is failing to operate along normative lines that the evidence is most compelling. One can see into, as it were, the fissures of normal expectations as the cracks open up for people whose relationships are not seen as satisfactory or who are without the relationships they ideally desire. In such cases individuals may feel they lack the basic condition of alterity - that is a firm sense of an `other' in relation to which the concept of the self with a given opinion is most commonly formed. This may lead people to seek alternative sources of opinion.
Where there is no clear subject against which the sense of taste can be constructed there is no shortage of commercial institutions that are only too willing to perform this role. Much of this relates to issues of convenience and knowledge, but there are other uses of catalogues as sources of advice that seem to suggest more subtle relationships being constructed between the persons concerned and the source of information. One of the major contentions for many women is the transition, after child-rearing, back to the work place. Clothing catalogues are often used as less risky forms of purchase and knowledge accumulation used to mediate the transition from home to workplace culture. Similarly the ethnography highlighted informant's concerted efforts to obtain a sense of `what's going on out there' (as one informant put it). Women talked of consciously scrutinising passengers they identified as `career women' or non-mothers, while travelling on public transport, to re-acquaint themselves with the latest or most appropriate styles of dressing. Having lived in a confined world of childcare and its concomitant social relations, women returning back to full or part-time work regularly sought the advice of their mothers or working female relatives regarding fashion and dress. While the mother, through her extended taste relations with the daughter, provides a kind anchoring advice (in which garments are understood in relation to the daughter's trajectory of clothing in general), women friends or acquaintances provide a type of advice more in keeping with the 'general' styles or clothing mores of the moment. Entwhistle (1997) provides a case study around power dressing of such anxieties and forms of reassurance in the world of work.
For a couple of years now Jacqui, a mother of three young children, has been toying with the idea of returning to work as a clerical assistant. Despite securing an interview for a position at a local office, she laments that she has yet to feel fully confident about the proposition:
But if I get this job I don't know what I'd wear. For five days running I'll have to go out and buy myself a few things because I haven't really got any 'officey' type clothes left. Even I couldn't think I'd be wearing things that I wore 11 years ago. Oh God.. the thought of it. My Mum's away on holiday for the next week and I won't be able to bend her ear on it. I'll have my nervous breakdown.
In an attempt to prepare and inform herself, Jacqui borrowed a Next Directory mail order clothing catalogue (known for its high quality `classically' designed separates) from a working, middle class mother living in an adjacent street. She finds the thought of re-investing, emotionally, aesthetically and financially in fashion as a daunting, even traumatic, prospect. Fashion knowledge formed an integral part of her relationships when she was a single sociable working woman but after motherhood that previously acquired knowledge has been made redundant. While middle class mothers on and around Jay Road might be identified as 'clothes conscious' this particular consciousness revolves around an aesthetic generated through the particular locality of their social relations as mothers. While Jacqui may, therefore, be fully versed in that particular aesthetic she is fully aware that it will not transfer to a different set of relations demanded by a new workplace.
Now, as well as having to re-familiarise herself with high-street fashion styles, Jacqui has to operate with an unfamiliar concept of `officey'; a style formulated around the ideal of fitting in, neutrality and the avoidance of offending convention as against the expression of individual taste. Despite practising with her clothing during a preliminary training course (throughout which she was prepared to admit she `managed to sort of turn out looking respectable'), Jacqui desperately seeks consensus over a suitable appearance. As Carrier (1990) suggests in his analysis of catalogues, many of such publications deliberately illustrate commodities in the form of goods that have already been integrated into the lives of potential purchasers (here represented by models). As such they provide the kind of re-assurance that such objects can be appropriated as part of people's lives. This is clearly directed to just the kinds of concerns being expressed by Jacqui.
As noted in Clarke (1998) mail order catalogues have a strong historical link with British working class credit provision, a cultural association challenged in the early 1980s with the introduction of the Next Directory clothing catalogue; a limited edition publication costing £5 featuring the product range of the exceptionally successful high street fashion retail outlets of the same name. The Next Directory (and later catalogues, La Redoute , Racing Green and Land's End), while offering a credit instalment scheme, promoted fashion catalogues as a convenient but more exclusive form of mail order aimed at a middle class market. During the first years of its launch, the Next catalogue, in particular, used contemporary graphics and design in order to distinguish the publication from traditional forms. Catalogues such as Next, Racing Green and Land's End, unlike mainstream mail order publications built on their reputation for providing wearable 'classics' as opposed to highly temporal fashion items. Staple garments include white linen blouses, generously cut swimming costumes and classic cut chinos. In this sense, such catalogues are ideally appropriated as a 'safe' means of moving aesthetically from a child-centric life stage to a more public one. Although such catalogues are generally consulted in the context of social relations (passed as they are between friends, neighbours and family) they constitute a form of distanced objectivity as regards the navigation of a daunting and temporal fashion world. They do not simply provide images of succinctly categorised dress types ('work', 'evening', 'leisure', etc.) and the safety of the tasteful 'classic', they act as an objective, shared medium through which the vagaries of fashion have to some extent been filtered and processed.
Cathy, like Jacqui, is contemplating applying for a new part-time job after six years working full-time as a parent. Although she is aware that she needs to familiarise herself with the latest 'work-wear' she is also very wary of over-investing in this proposition as she is, as yet, unsure as to the ramifications of her returning to work in general;
My friend who lives across the road has just got the Next Directory and she asked me if I was interested in ordering anything through that. And I've not actually had the time to look through it yet but I'm probably in a better financial position than Rachel [neighbour] but we're still, you know, when you're on one income, you know, she looks for things for herself for going out to work in the Next Directory. I just think that probably it's a bit too pricey for me.
Many middle class informants regularly used catalogues such as Land's End and Racing Green (both of which promote the use natural fibres and neutral colours and styles, such as crew neck jumpers and polo shirts) but disassociated this practice entirely from 'traditional' mail order purchase (and its credit schemes). Instead they use terms indicative of the 'rational' shopping associated with department stores such as John Lewis, in which value for money and 'sensible' styling prevail as expressed by a Flora, a part-time working mother;
I don't use catalogues in a traditional sense, but I do use Land's End. I buy a lot of stuff through them. I wanted to buy myself a sort of canvas brief case and a friend of mine had one and I asked him where he got it and he said 'Land's End' and I thought he meant the end of the pinnacle - but then I realised, because my husband told me, it was a catalogue and I rang up. It just happens to have things I like. Like this skirt [pointing to skirt worn], for example, it's a nice length and good quality, I sound like a saleswoman don't I? I just think it's quite convenient to buy that way but it's a bore if you have to send it back so I tend to be quite cautious about what I buy.
Outside of this use of the catalogue, particularly -as a guide to work-related apparel many people want still more support in their search for their own taste. Jacqui, for example, has a fantasy of another voice that will help her determine what she should have or be `I could really do with someone coming in and saying "you need this and this and this".' It is this demand that has led to commercial institutions going well beyond the conventional representations of the mail order catalogue to provide active advice in the form of both personal help and a cosmology within which a person can understand themselves to be located. The most vivid example of this phenomenon that emerged during the fieldwork is the company Colour Me Beautiful (CMB) which, since its introduction to the United Kingdom in the early 1980s, has developed as a prominent direct sales concern addressing women in relation to issues around their appearance.
Georgina is one of a number of keen clients of Colour Me Beautiful encountered during the ethnography. As an image consultancy CMB specialises in using colour and style advice to enhance the confidence of women. Although CMB incorporates the terminology of the fashion industry, referring to 'seasonal palettes' and contemporary accessories, the company promotes a form of anti-fashion to its clients. It advocates instead, what it claims to be a rational calculation of appropriate individual style. CMB operates in a similar fashion to party plan direct sales systems (such as Tupperware) in which a consultant or salesperson creates a network of clients (ostensibly through word of mouth) and then promotes the company to women informally gathered as a party. This allows CMB to combine professional advice with sociality and the building of consensus amongst a woman's friends and family. Out of what may seem the chaos of fashion choices, CMB claims to offer objective advice and the skills which will ensure that `whatever you buy is making the most of you' (CMB 1998).
Georgina is part of a nuclear family with a secure middle class income and, in general, expresses contentment about her life. Nevertheless, as in most such families, there are tensions and unresolved aspects of relationships that emerge on closer acquaintance. In this case the couple themselves can be properly be termed happily married, but this contentment masks some basic incompatibilities between the partners which they have learnt to live with. This emerges out of the discussion of the objects in the home.
The husband is a professional artist with strong views on art and many other aesthetic matters. This makes it difficult for the aesthetics of the home to become the medium for expressing their relationship, which Georgina knows would and should include far more compromise and shared forms that are likely to emerge within a sphere where his opinions are so clear and strong. She would have liked romantic pictures such as Pre-Raphaelite prints, he is tending towards minimalism. As a result, there are no decorations on the wall. Pictures lean (as if in anticipation of finally being hung on the walls) against the skirting boards around the living room, evidence of the yet unresolved 'stale-mate' which defines the couple's taste. Instead, Georgina creates spaces for objects that represent the fortuitous results of relationships, such as gifts and souvenirs. By ending up with objects as tokens of relationships (with friends, relatives and neighbours) they avoid potentially acrimonious disputes about aesthetics.
By the same token Georgina's husband, whose views tend to the ascetic and austere, cannot be the basis from which she builds up her confidence to know what she likes in the field of clothing and fashion. Considering her return to work she initially relied, unsuccessfully, on mail order catalogues for fashion guidance; 'I have used a catalogue to buy clothes with little success' she comments; 'It was a black dress [I sent back] it was absolutely vile' Instead of using her partner (or an inanimate and untrustworthy catalogue) Georgina has found another solution through the influence of her mother. It was her mother who initially attended a CMB meeting where, for a fee, the company's consultant will inform a subject about the colours they 'ought' to like: using seasonal definitions as a way of distinguishing 'colourings'.
Just like Jacqui, Georgina was nervous about returning to work, in this case as a banker expected to confidently meet clients in a competitive and commercial domain. She felt unequipped in every sense. While she found other forms of direct selling such as Tupperware parties embarrassing and patronising, she had no such feelings about CMB. The procedure used is intended to give the aura of a rationalised criterion for making aesthetic choices - a range of colour swatches are put next to the face of the customer in front of a group of other women who sanction sometimes controversial suggestions - such as yellows described as 'mustard' and 'watermelon.'
Chua (1992), in her observational study of clothes shopping in a Singapore designer store, describes how women use the experimentation of trying on different clothing and 'looks' as a form of self-display and narcissism in which the boutique is incorporated as a stage. In the presence of shop assistants and overseen by their male partners, women actively work on themselves as objects in direct relation to the 'male gaze' (the male partner, Chua argues, invariably acts as the ultimate voice of veto). In contrast, the all-female context of the CMB party entirely negates the power of the 'male gaze' in preference of rationalised system which also takes into consideration the localised context of the social relations in which it takes place. The opinions of husbands and partners are rarely alluded to, and most frequently cited in disparaging, rather than constructive, terms.
CMB is promoted as a rational form of budgeting as one can adhere to prescribed colours therefore avoiding expensive fashion mistakes; `It's actually very helpful when you're flitting around sales and things as you know what colours are going to suit you' as one 'converted' informant commented. Taste decisions are reduced to an objectively selected range of options based purely on colour and naturalised through the notion of seasons. `You are a season and can relate to other women's seasons on this basis. What you might think as bad taste is actually legitimate taste for another woman ', commented Georgina. In this way, women are offered simultaneously the individualism of a specific colour palette and the comfort of a broader, consensual sanctioning of its associated aesthetics.
CMB demands a new set of skills in deciphering a complex array of colours as clients are given a colour chart and swatches of colour to practice their choices after the initial consultation. The colours are graded in suitability and also aligned to specific parts of the body. `The woman who did it with us had the other girls commenting as to which one they thought was right' recounted Georgina. `I mean I was a bit worried because the coloursŠ I'm not terribly keen on, and the winter ones were things like black which I like a lot', she continued. The account reveals subtle differences in the way an individual identifies with their given colours. `Reds aren't pillar box reds, they've got to be bluey reds, more scarlet red, and sort of the royal blue. That electric royal blue's very good.' This agreement need not be total; `I actually disagree with some of it, because I don't actually like ice lemon another yellow that was 25%. That was sort of a real 'no no' in my colour range.' In the course of this specific consultation, the ambivalence expressed by Georgina was remedied with a reassuring statement coalescing the individual's preference with the company's recommended choices; 'you're the only season that can wear black and that your probably a winter anyway', concluded the consultant.
Like similar female-based direct sales concerns (see Clarke 1999), the CMB party plan works ostensibly through word of mouth recommendation and relies on the social network of women within specific social groups. Many women of thirty-five years and upwards, on or around Jay Road, have been invited to at least one CMB event. As consultants are usually local women (recruited through attendance of a party) they offer not only a corporate interpretation of aesthetics but one which is mediated by the relations of the specific locality. The formal advice of the image consultant is also melded with that of significant relations such as that between mother/daughter. Even in circumstances were mother's lived hundred of miles apart from their daughter's as in the case of Chloe, who after hearing of her mother's transformation, booked her own party;
My mother was designated by Colour Me Beautiful as 'an autumn'. It was all the colours she had never worn before and she looked a million dollars - she chucked out most of her wardrobe and she's a real success story - she now wears mustard and watermelon!
Impressed by her own mother's transformation, following her own CMB consultation, Georgina had a big clear out of her clothes taking everything to the Oxfam charity shop. She felt transformed by the confidence of finding her own colours, and began to practice the technique on her friends with a new found aesthetic perception; `It's funny once you leave one of those things and you've worked out what your colours are and what's good on you, you start looking round your friends and you think no, that's the wrong colour for you mate!' Georgina also felt that this newly found aesthetic principle in fact supplanted her previous values; `I used to spend a heap of money on clothes and loved clothes, very beautiful clothes, but a lot of them are completely crap. So there you are.' Cut, fabric, style, designer labels are all replaced by the primacy of colour choice which freed the consumption process up.
In this case, CMB provides an ideal solution for the absence of effective and immediate social relations. Just as in the choice of living room objects Georgina comes to apply the alternative strategy of using the fortuitous detritus of events and relationships, in this case CMB provides the highly acceptable alternative of a façade of rationalism. For, as against the hazards of fashion in constructing aesthetic choice, and as against the sheer level of work involved in obtaining knowledge, from magazines and peers about fashion (Evans and Thornton 1989; Winship 1987), CMB provides a certain form of stability and certainty. Once one knows one's colours this stands for longevity in a field of material culture defined by its fickleness. Within this new regime one can identify with `classics' without the need of designer labels and a couturier's knowledge of fashion and cut. Garments in the wardrobe can be re-appraised according to a new consensus - publicly sanctioned and ceremonially acknowledged, during the sessions held by the company in women's homes. This appeals particularly to older professional women who would normally pride themselves on their relative knowledge and experience and yet, with respect to fashion, are faced with a field of knowledge in which younger woman are advantaged. Of course, not everyone who uses CMB will actually reduce themselves to its proclaimed rationalism, rather such strategies are incorporated into a range of other, often contradictory, relations with fashion and style.
Conclusion: The Roots of Anxiety
The evidence presented here suggests that the relationship of individuals to fashion is socially mediated. Individuals are frequently too anxious about the choices to be made to proceed without various forms of support and reassurance. Where possible support involves close friends and family who are trusted to give advice reflecting care and concern. Where these forms of support are themselves too fraught or are unavailable there may be recourse to catalogues and commercial advice or finally to fully structured regimes of clothing advice such as provided by CMB. In practice, individuals may use a combination of such supports. Certainly, we do not wish to deny the existence of women who do not resort to any of these devices and who are, indeed, relatively unanxious about their clothing choices. Nevertheless generalisations appear to be warranted about a pervasive and, we suspect, increasing anxiety around the evaluation of any particular choice of clothing alongside an intensive concern to know what the normative fashion choice should be.. The term normative appears appropriate in that it is used to infer both a tendency to return to an imagined homogenising norm (e.g. the little black dress) but also a vague, but present, sense of morality associated with this. Indeed even where individuals make an effort to be distinct, they seem just as concerned to properly establish what it is they are being distinct from.
The reasons for the contemporary stress on normativity are too complex to be dealt with in any detail here, but, as in most nuanced understandings of particular trends they amount to a combination of longer and slower historical processes together with particular and more recent ones. Since the writings of Braudel (1981) we are aware that there exists quite slow historical shifts that can be studied in part through the changes or lack of them in material culture such as clothing. In this case our primary source for an account of the move to normativity might be a trajectory of social analysis that develops from Durkheim (1961 , 1987 ) see also Giddens 1971) to Habermas (1987). Over two centuries we have seen a progressive emancipation of individuals from many more structured forms of `collective conscience' such as religion and more immediate moral authorities imposed by, for example, the Victorian family. Given an increasingly differentiated society a new form of moral consolidation is sought. But as Habermas (1987) has noted with respect to modernity more generally, under conditions where we no longer respect the authority of institutions and rules that determined how we should act, we become, as individuals, increasingly burdened with the task of creating normativity for ourselves. This is even more difficult given our increasing self-awareness, that this is what we are engaged in. We can no longer say this is our 'custom' or our 'religion' instead we have to face up to the degree to which we are making up our own moral rules. All of this pressure to create our own normativity in turn produces a tremendous desire for self-reassurance (for details of this argument see Miller 1994: 58-81). Many of these tendencies are the negative results of otherwise welcome transformations such as a genuine rise in democracy, equality and work for both genders, and most relevant here, the successes of feminism such that there are fewer clear distinctions within which women have to see themselves as merely positioned.
Such philosophical and sociological characterisations of long term change need to be grounded in the specific experiential evidence of our daily lives. Fortunately this evidence for an intensive search for the normative is overwhelming. Why else, when flooded with advertising, should women spend money on buying yet more magazines largely consisting of advertising-like copy showing how they, their homes, their food, and their children might look in relation to others? This complex dialectic between the aspirational and the actual leading to a restless search to determine the normative is just as evident in the task of house decoration in North London as it is with clothing (see Clarke 2001). Not surprisingly the same phenomenon can be seen even more acutely in areas such as bringing up children where Parker (1995) maps a relentless concern with how other mothers and their children are coping. Indeed almost any form of shopping can be understood in relation to the importance of establishing normativity in kinship. Shopping is used to resolve the discrepancy between how we feel parents, children and siblings ought to be and how our particular ones actually are (see Miller 2001: 17-56).
With respect to the world of fashion and clothing, we can see all these general trends and their consequences exemplified in microcosm. The last three decades have seen a clear decline in what had become the traditional form of fashion authority that is an authoritative claim as to what fashion is for a given year in terms of lengths of skirts or colours of the season. This went together with a democratising of individuals' relationship to fashion and greater freedom to create particular niches by the population of consumers rather than merely the industry; a trend manifested in punk and other sub cultural movements. All of this produces precisely what Durkheim predicted in terms of increased anxiety and, as Habermas argued, an intense desire for self-reassurance. These exacerbate long term changes. So that a tendency for women to be anxious about clothing choices that may well be at least as old as anything we can reasonably call fashion has been accentuated by recent changes that have acted in some ways as the culmination of these longer trends. Furthermore, the short term specific trajectory of fashion, sloughing off commercial control over normativity, follows and articulates with the long term trajectory of modernity and its search for the experience of freedom. When the two are considered together, we may have found the underlying historical dynamics that might account for what has been found in the ethnography. Individual's anxieties over fashion choices are seamlessly integrated into their anxiety over relationships to people more generally. The result is an overwhelming sense of fear that an individual - even one with extensive fashion knowledge - may not actually know what they themselves like. They can only determine what the desired garment is and, beyond this, what is the right thing to buy or to wear through searching for a social support. This might manifest itself in in the form of a friend who comes shopping with you, or the reassurance that a colour is all right since it is really `the new black', or a return to a structured `authority' such as CMB consultancy.
In conclusion, it is important to recognise that what we see around us cannot be reduced to any simple moral agenda, since what has been presented here is inherently contradictory. You cannot have democratic liberty and equality without a concomitant sense of anxiety that is the precise result of that experience of freedom. It is above all the emancipation that was achieved through feminism that has left women with this huge burden of freedom and this further accentuation of much older fears and concerns over social embarrassment. But if the alternative is a return to those older forms of authority; of the constraints of officially sanctioned sartorial codes, and an unwarranted respect for the voice of industry elites about what fashion 'is', then it may well seem that an anxiety that requires still more shops to be visited before making a choice, or that makes a full wardrobe appear to have `nothing in it', may, on reflection, be a price worth paying.
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