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Fashion Ed: Fashion Flow Theories

Today I want to discuss the theories of Fashion Flow: Downward, Horizontal, and Upward. You probably have heard these terms before but I want to go into further detail as to what they mean and the difference between them.

Downward Flow Theory ( Trickle - Down)

This theory is the most widely known and the oldest theory of fashion adoption. The basic definition in short-to be identified as a true fashion, styles must first be adopted by those at the top of the social pyramid, then the style is eventually accepted at the lower social levels. This theory assumes that there is a social hierarchy in which lower income people seek to identify with more affluent people. Because those at the top want to disassociate themselves with the lower social level, once the fashion or style has flowed to the lower social level, the upper classes will reject it and move on to the next new fashion. The phrase "that is so last season" comes to mind when I think of this theory. Again, I feel that this video clip from The Devil Wears Prada sums up this theory perfectly.

Though this theory does have validity because some fashions first appear among the social prominent,  it assumes that only the wealthy and those with position are considered fashionable and that those with lower income only accept the fashions passed down from them. With our society as it is today there are many social groups and many directions in which fashion can and does travel, so this theory does not stand as strong as it did in the past.

Horizontal Flow Theory (Trickle - Across)

This theory claims that fashions move horizontally among social groups on similar levels than vertically from one level to another. It cuts out the assumption that there is a single, homogenous fashion public in this country when in reality there are a number of distinctly different groups that make up the fashion public. Each group have their own characteristics and ideas as to what fashion means. Examples would be: celebrities, socialites, musicians just to name a few.

Kenzo Sweatshirt 
Ashley Madekwe in a Topshop sweatshirt

ASOS Sweatshirt

All social groups know of fashion innovation at the same time and fashion is accepted at a faster rate. As soon as signs of an interesting new style appear, manufacturers mass-produce lower priced adaptations or copies that many consumers can afford. The mass market does not await the approval of the "class" market before it adopts a fashion.

The horizontal flow theory recognizes that what wealthy society people are wearing today is not necessarily what middle-class suburbanites, college students, or office workers will either wear tomorrow or wait until tomorrow to accept. It can be looked at regionally as well. What New Yorker's wear and find fashionable will differ greatly from those who live in Miami or the west coast. This theory acknowledges that there are separate markets in fashion goods as in any other type of merchandise.

Upward Flow Theory (Trickle - up)

This is the newest of the fashion adoption theories and reflects social changes that have occurred over the past five decades. It holds that the young of low income families and those in higher income groups who adopt lower income lifestyles are quicker than any social group to adopt new and different fashions. Fashion adoption begins with the young of lower income groups then moves upward to higher income groups.

Dior T-shirt

A great example of the upward flow theory this has been the T-shirt. In its short- sleeved version, it has long been worn by truckers, laborers, and farm workers. In its long-sleeved version, it was the uniform of local bowling and softball teams. In the 1970s, the T-shirt became a message board and sprouted a brand new fashion cottage industry. Since then the t-shirt, once a fashion for the streets has transitioned to couture.

Another illustration of upward flow fashion that is making a comeback in 2013: the grunge look. Following the fashion statements of the grunge rockers of the early 90s, youth were dressed in ripped worn-out denim and plaid flannel shirts to imitate fashions from bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and because fashion is cyclical, we see that this 90s look is once again back in style.

2013 Grunge Look

90s Grunge Look

 Fashion will never flow in only one direction. Of course, customers will always exist for high fashion and for conservative fashion. But producers and retailers must now accept that they will be doing a considerable proportion of their business in fashions created or adopted first by the lower  income young and by those who choose to be allied with them. 

Thanks for reading!


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