The role of culture in International Fashion Industry

Presentation (Elaboration), 2009

4 Pages, Grade: "-"


The role of culture in International Fashion Industry

Procedure and Topics

- The term „culture“
- Fashion and fashion history
- Culture and the fashion industry

The term "culture"

"Culture" is one of the terms that vary in their meaning according to the way they are used or defined or the period they were used in. Neither in English nor in German is there a clear borderline between "culture" and "civilization". Freud wrote about "Das Unbehagen in der Kultur" and could as well have spoken of civilization. In the 19th century stress was put on "high culture".

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) regarded culture as "The best that has been thought and said in the world" in the "pursuit of our total perfection". (Zitat: Wikepedia).

In this sense culture consisted in (mostly European) élite activities resulting in outstanding art and classical music. The English anthropologist Edward Tylor defined in 1874:"Culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and other capabilities acquired by man as a member of society." (Zitat:Wikepedia)

In 2002 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) "universal declaration of Cultural Diversity" defined: "... culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs".(Zitat Wikepedia, Artikel "culture".

It must be added that particular cultures came into existence at particular times in particular regions, but from the beginning absorbed external influences. In the history of mankind there has always been an exchange of elements of culture that has increased enormously with the modern means of transport and communication.

As the terms "high culture", "popular culture", "subculture" show us, culture is not only geographic. So the influence of culture on fashion must be considered as the relation of a part of culture to the highly complex whole.

Fashion and fashion-industry

We can say that fashion is as old as mankind, but in the form of constant change it first occurred in the 14th century in central and western Europe. The acceleration of this change that is particular to the Western Civilization came in later on.

Fashion industry is a relatively recent phenomenon. It started with Jean Baptiste Colbert, the minister of Luis XIV who had to find the money for the court at Versailles and frequent wars. He tried to do this by making France independent from luxury imports and promote the export of luxury goods in this way creating a positive balance of trade.

The trick he used has become one of the main principles of industrial production. He introduced the division of labour. Every worker was trained in a limited skill and the product was the result of the addition of these skills.

The role of culture in International Fashion Industry

The fashionable French luxury goods were bought by a small section of European society, the nobility and imitated in a slightly wider scope. The French influence continued with the Émpire of Napoleon´s times. In those days fashion was closely linked to the styles in art and architecture.

With the rise of the bourgeois class in the 19th century larger numbers got access to fashion. This was a result of the Industrial Revolution. Textile machines, railways and publications made a wider participation possible.

In 1858 the Haute Couture was founded in Paris by C.F. Worth. The fashion-products from France were restricted to the very rich. One of the aims of fashion was and still is the distinction and exclusiveness it gives to those that can afford it. Lower income-groups tend to imitate the wealthier classes, so fashion achieved an ever wider impact. In fact fashion is a particular type of rat-race: Whenever a new design has been introduced it loses its newness at the rate at which others imitate it.

When they have caught up and the trend has been generally accepted, the once new fashion is obsolete. On the way to modern consumer society the media took over a decisive part: fashion shows, fashion magazines, cinema films and in the end television. Increasingly actresses, show business and society celebrities became the role-models nobility and royalty had been.

The 20th century is characterized by a succession of trends that accelerates. It started with the abolishment of the fishbone corset and stays and the introduction of more convenient dresses. In the "Roaring Twenties" conventions were overthrown and skirts became shorter. A reaction against this trend set in with the World Economic Crisis and World War II. Post-war economic recovery made a brighter outlook possible and Dior created his New Look. Affluent society really started in the 1950s.

The fashion trends that followed one another came from a variety of sources. The presentations of the great fashion houses every six months gave rise to the imitation of the rich, the so-called social mimikry. Part of the larger firms started to offer more affordable collections, but above all the leaders were copied. Beside Paris places in Italy, New York and later on London became fashion-centres.

The youth-culture of the pop-era, the "Youthquake" and the Hippie-movement inspired trends towards color and ethno-influences. It was no use fighting against the dictate of fashion, even anti-fashion attitudes and outfits were quickly assimilated into new fashion. The changes showed an extreme range.

Towards the last third of the 20th century things became calmer and fashion used the diversity the unrest of the 60s and 70s had brought about. The textile industries of the Western World got into a crisis and only a fraction of them survived.

At the beginning of the 21st century there still exist leading fashion houses, but from more than 100 they have been reduced to about 20 and experts say that only about 300 women worldwide can afford dresses that cost more than € 20 000. Whether high-society teenagers flourishing Prada handbags and yuppies will make up for the losses, remains to be seen. In any case the leading fashion houses and designers have got their "second lines" or "second brands" which account for a big part of the turnovers of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

In high fashion as well as further down, names have become decisive. The brands or labels had always been an important feature of fashion products, but had mostly been kept in the background. Now they are an essential part of the product which must be distinguishable from others. In the world of dresses and accessories they are the base of belief and identification.

Brands have become the moving power of a development that really deserves to be called "fashion industry" with the stress on "industry".

The role of culture in International Fashion Industry

The manufacturers that deliver a new collection of a limited segment to the retail-shops every six months have disappeared or become specialists in a small corner of the market. Since the 1980s the bulk of the fashion industry is represented by enterprises like H&M, Zara or, much smaller Marc Cain. These retail chains make use of the, mostly female, consumers´ trust in a brand or label. They are organized in a highly efficient way. The cycle of fashion change is no longer fixed to the two six-month "seasons". Trends that appear in the marked are quickly picked up, processed by computer-equipped designers and rapidly transmitted to the production-sites in low-wage countries. H&M with its enormous turnover has been able to hire top-designer Karl Lagerfeld to do a collection.

But this is rather the exception. Picking up trends is often based on the fact that intellectual property in fashion is not as strictly protected as in other fields of cultural activities. The main characteristic is the rapidity of supplying new fashion goods. The fashion-chain ZARA with 2700 fashion-shops worldwide uses unconventional practices of production and logistics to supply new goods twice every week.

Culture and the fashion industry

The question of the influence of "culture" cannot be answered easily.

Despite all the changes that have taken place during the last 150 years, and in spite of all the exaggerations in fashion for ladies, the basic pattern of "European" dress still prevails. With some adaptations it has spread all over the globe. This certainly is a strong cultural tradition.

Today there is still a "dress code". It certainly is not as strong as in the 19th century but its validity may even show itself when it is attacked.

Extra-European cultures have had their impact. Showing much more skin was not derived from European customs although the ladies at the court of Versailles already wore deep-necked dresses. Strong colours also can be traced back to the influence of noble savages.

Today excursions into foreign cultures mostly are on the level of folklore and episodic.

A text in Arab on a dress presented by Claudia Schiffer caused indignation in the Muslim World. Neither the designer nor the model had any idea of its religious content.

Under "Fashion" the Wikipedia sums up an important fact: "The habit of people continually changing the style of clothing worn, which is now worldwide, at least among urban populations, is generally held by historians to be a distinctly Western one The fashions of the West are generally unparalleled either in antiquity or in the other great civilizations of the world."

This obvious uniqueness of the phenomenon fashion should make us look at some other unique traits of "European", "Western" or "Occidental" culture or civilization.

There is this curiosity that led to science. It was directed towards nature and the closer or wider environment, the globe man lives on. Science, in one shape or another, was also present in extra- European cultures, but its aggressive application to military and economic ends from the 14th/15th centuries onward was something new. It gave a new quality to the desire, ever present in mankind, to conquer and exploit other people.

European-Western civilization has shown a great inclination to reforms: early capitalism (starting in Italy), Luther´s reform of religion, the American and French Revolutions, the Industrial Revolution(s). There has always been a strong faith in change.

The promise of "liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is the statement of the fact or the illusion of personal freedom. The generally accepted belief is that the individual and his or her freedom and self-fullfilment come first. "Fashion is a non-verbal communication with the rest of the world, through which you can express your personality, your social status and your ideas ”. To choose clothes is to define and describe ourselves. “(Lurie,The Language of Clothes, 1981, zitiert Megan H. in Fashion and Society Paper, May 29, 2001).

The role of culture in International Fashion Industry

Large-scale industrial production, the conviction that change and progress are of absolute importance and the stress on individuality form the foundation of the fashion-business.

A whole industry, advertising in its direct and surreptitious ways, creates wants and desires.

"Women don´t buy because they need something, but because they want to have fun," says Helmut Schlotterer, head of the Marc-Cain-chain. An additional advantage for the fashion-industry is that fullfilment recedes with every fashion-wish that is fulfilled.

Some important aspects of the culture or civilization of the affluent society are described with the term "the American Way of life".

Another question-mark behind culture and civilization?


Excerpt out of 4 pages


The role of culture in International Fashion Industry
University of applied sciences, Neuss
Intercultural Competences
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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425 KB
Culture, International Fashion
Quote paper
Maria Rocío Gall (Author), 2009, The role of culture in International Fashion Industry, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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