In 1957 Vance Packard complained that the manufacturers of typewriters and telephones had recently begun producing models in a wide range of colors rather than in their traditional black. He critically surmised that the sole motive for this innovation was “to make owners dissatisfied with their plain old black models” (Packard 1957, 72). Packard understood that the introduction of color into the appearance of these technologies added nothing to their functionality, that color was ephemeral and external to the workings of these technologies. The ephemeral was merely “fashionable.” That owners of traditional black models might become dissatisfied with their “old” models was, he thought, attributable to the workings of those in the advertising industries who would work their sophistries upon a naïve public.
Technology As Fashion
Packard’s understanding of the role of advertising in consumer culture looked forward to Roland Barthes’s The fashion system (1983), in which Barthes highlighted the central role played by advertising in the construction of cultural meaning. For him, fashion items are never understood raw, as mere material objects, but are always understood through the mediation of media messages. Without the media, there is no fashion.
Packard’s analysis also looked to the work of Thorstein Veblen, who had produced the earliest analysis of the centrality of fashion in consumer culture in his Theory of the leisure class (1994), published originally in 1899. Veblen, like Packard, denied any value to the “aesthetics” or “style” of a product, subordinating these aspects as forms of conspicuous consumption, the raison d’être of any fashion item. The central dynamic of fashion culture, according to Veblen, was conspicuous waste. In order for their users to stay ahead of others, new fashion objects would continually be made to distinguish their users from those lower down the social ladder. Fashion embodied display, distinction, and cultural capital (Bourdieu 1986). Veblen’s -is a “trickle-down” theory of taste in which the less wealthy envy, imitate, and emulate the rich.
Telephone As Fashion
The telephone, originally a product for commercial use and then for the families of the rich, was slowly incorporated into the houses of the middle classes in an increasingly urbanized and disparate population, for whom advertisers proclaimed that “Your Voice is You” (Fischer 1992, 76). Packard’s consumers had seen the practical advantages of telephone use in the home. What Packard failed to observe was that the black phone itself had been considered fashionable, not merely as an “object” but in terms of the values of connectivity that it represented. A culture’s utopian wishes are often located in its most recent consumer technologies. These technologies themselves are barometers or signposts of a culture’s unfulfilled desires. As more people succumbed to the aspiration toward connectivity, they were thus seeking to emulate others. The 1950s was a time of “keeping up with the Joneses,” with consumers striving to keep abreast of their neighbors. The introduction of colored phones, while not adding to the functionality of the device, reflected upon notions of the “fashionable” home in which all contents were color coordinated. The technology of the phone was thus doubly fashionable.
Understanding the role of social emulation was central to the European sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel’s theory of fashion (Frisby & Featherstone 1997). At its core was the dualism of conformity and individualism; thus, telephone users wished to be like others who possessed a telephone (emulation) yet strove to distinguish themselves from others (by purchasing a colored model). Simmel recognized that fashion itself had become the zeitgeist and driving force of modernism, represented by the values of universal change, preferring the new to the old, and “keeping up to date.” The elevation of the transitory over the permanent is embodied in the very definition of fashion as a “continuing pattern of change in which certain social forms enjoy a temporary acceptance and respectability only to be replaced by others more abreast of the times.” (Blumer 1968, 342). Simmel also recognized that fashion had become universalized; “that it has overstepped the bounds of its original domain, which comprised only externals of dress, and has acquired an increasing influence over taste, theoretical convictions, and even the moral foundations of life in their changing forms.” (Simmel in Frisby & Featherstone 1997, 189).
Automobiles As Fashion
Consumer technologies play an increasing role in the economy of fashion. Packard highlighted the role of telephony as fashion; Barthes extolled the cultural significance of the Citroen DS as the ultimate consumer aesthetic object of an age in which the automobile took pride of place. Automobiles embodied the cultural values of movement and individualism, with drivers no longer constrained by the timetables of others, free to travel wherever they pleased. Makes and models were made for differing social strata, so that the automobile became the equivalent of clothing: the aesthetics of speed represented by makes such as Ferrari were, to follow Veblen’s critique, not functional for everyday driving, while the aesthetics of the middle classes were those embodied by the Citroen DS. The aesthetics of durability and power were meanwhile embodied in the emblematic radiator of the Rolls-Royce, symbolizing for Panofsky an unchanged representation of “art nouveau infused with the spirit of unmitigated romanticism” (Panofsky 1997, 166). Yet automobility itself represented an overarching cultural ideal in which most consumers could share.
Technology as fashion differs from clothing as fashion inasmuch as there are recognizable measurements of progress within the development of the technologies themselves. A Ferrari that lacked speed or acceleration would lack the essential ingredients that made it a Ferrari; equally, in a culture in which the values of miniaturization and mobility are paramount, modern mobile phones are considered both more functional and more aesthetically pleasing than their large and heavy forebears. While fashion in dress, music, and furniture has increasingly looked backward in remodeling itself on the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s (Carter 2003), today’s technologies are more resistant to the mass take-up of retro-fashions.
Defining Consumer Technologies Of The Twenty-First Century: Mobile Phone And Ipod
Two defining consumer technologies of the twenty-first century are mobile phones and Apple iPods. These technologies represent two differing modes of fashion appropriation. Mobile phones are possessed by the majority of consumers in the industrialized world, while Apple iPods, despite being a mass-produced technology, are endowed with an aura of exclusivity, style, and status (Bull 2006; Levy 2006). The mobile phone represents the antithesis of Veblen’s trickle-down theory in which the many emulate the fashion of the rich and powerful. Fortunati (2005) has argued that mobile phones became fashionable only when they became objects of mass consumption. They are emblematic of a transformation in fashion that, due to global marketing strategies, is largely simultaneous and democratic in nature. The mobile phone, rather like the automobile, embodies a set of fashionable cultural values, such as “distance, power, status and identity” (Katz 2006, 65), that appeals primarily to the young consumer.
Technology As Fashion
The presentation of the mobile phone to young consumers by advertisers invariably appeals to notions of “youth, modernity and futurism” (Katz 2006, 69), with connectivity being emblematic of contemporary discourses of being “up to date.” Fortunati found that just over one half of young Italian mobile phone users valued the aesthetics of their phones, often allying themselves to brand-name phones such as Nokia or Sony Ericsson – companies that spend millions annually promoting their phones as fashionable to precisely that target audience. However, the perception of mobile phones as fashion objects is not widely replicated among older users, who perceive their phones primarily as functional objects of communication (Katz 2006).
Among those users who do perceive their phones as fashion objects, some engage in customization of them. In doing so they attempt to transform a mass object of consumption into something more individual. Customization has been perceived as the consumer reappropriating the meaning of the consumer object by individualizing it through personalized ring tones or alterative covers, thereby transcending the standard commodified messages embodied in the object. Nevertheless, Fortunati (2005) found that many teenage users of the mobile phone desired forms of “prepackaged individuality,” choosing from a selection of prepackaged ring tones rather than composing their own, for example. When mobile phones have been marketed as Veblen-type objects of conspicuous consumption, such as the Vertu phone, which comes encrusted in expensive jewelry and costs £13,000, they are used primarily as items of jewelry rather than as mobile phones.
Apple iPods were the first cultural consumer icon of the twenty-first century (Bull 2006) and appear to represent a marriage between aesthetics, design, and functionality. Apple products invariably cost more than competitor machines and are marketed largely on their aesthetic appeal. Postrel (2003, 2) maintains that “in a crowded market place, aesthetics is the only way to make a product stand out.” She argues that aesthetics is functional in itself, that the pleasure that consumers derive from the aesthetic design of their iPods gives added pleasure. Central to the marketing strategy of Apple has been an attempt to create brand identification through design and advertising that makes the use of Apple products “a way of life.” They are marketed and interpreted as representing “imagination, design and innovation.” Klein (2000) argues that Apple no longer sells mere products, but the brand itself, embodying consumer hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Apple consumers in their identification with the product often see themselves as living within an imaginary community of Apple users and will often acknowledge other iPod users in the street. They also see themselves as distinctive, or individual, through their possession of their iPods, which are visually recognizable to others. Apple spends large amounts of money to convey these meanings through global advertising campaigns, but the status of such identification with consumer products is a contested one. Writers such as Postrel associate fashion with diversity, liberal economies, and the individual freedoms fostered by democratic nations, whereas others take a more critical view of the role of global industries in the manufacture of what they perceive as “diligently assembled illusions.” (Ewen 1990, 38) in which consumers resemble “Yale locks, whose difference can be measured in the fraction of millimetres” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972, 154). In a global economy in which major brands increasingly control production, the ideological construction of freedom of choice, administered through the advertising industry, becomes paramount: “Fashion and information give individuals the illusion of following the movement of the world. As life is movement, the continual change produced by fashion and information gives postmodern individuals the sensation of being alive” (Fortunati 2005, 44).
- Barthes, R. (1983). The fashion system. New York: Hill and Wang.
- Blumer, H. (1968). Fashion. In D. L. Sills (ed.), International encyclopedia of the social sciences. New York: Macmillan, vol. 5, pp. 341–345.
- Bourdieu, P. (1986). Distinction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Bull, M. (2006). Iconic designs: The Apple iPod. Senses and Society, 1(1), 105–109.
- Carter, M. (2003). Fashion classics: From Carlyle to Barthes. Oxford: Berg.
- Coser, L. A. (1971). Masters of sociological thought: Ideas in historical and social context. New York: Harcourt.
- Ewen, S. (1990). All consuming images. New York: Basic Books.
- Fischer, C. (1992). America calling: A social history of the telephone to 1940. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Fortunati, L. (2005). Mobile phones and fashion in post-modernity. Telektronikk, 3(4), 33–48.
- Frisby, D., & Featherstone, M. (eds.) (1997). Simmel on culture. London: Sage.
- Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. (1972). The dialectic of enlightenment. London: Allen Lane.
- Kahney, L. (2004). The cult of Mac. San Francisco: No Starch Press.
- Katz, J. (2006). Magic in the air: Mobile communication and the transformation of social life. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction.
- Klein, N. (2000). No logo: Taking aim at brand bullies. London: Flamingo.
- Levy, S. (2006). The perfect thing. London: Ebury Press.
- Packard, V. (1957). The hidden persuaders. New York: David McKay.
- Panofsky, E. (1997). Three essays on style. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Postrel, V. (2003). The substance of style: How the rise of aesthetic value is remaking commerce, culture and consciousness. New York: HarperCollins.
- Veblen, T. (1994). Theory of the leisure class. New York: Penguin. (Original work published 1899).