Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
FASHIONS, Political Economy of. Fashion exercises considerable influence on a number of industries, particularly on those pertaining to clothing and lodging. Every change in fashion is a source of profit to some persons and of loss to others. A man who invents a new design or a new combination of colors in dry goods, or a new style of furniture or of coat, and who succeeds in bringing his invention into fashion, may derive great advantage from it, especially if his right to it is guaranteed him. On the other hand, the individuals who possess a supply of articles out of fashion, experience a loss. It is the same with the manufacturers and workmen who devote themselves to the production of these articles, when the new fashion varies sensibly from the old. "It is well known," said Malthus, "how subject particular manufactures are to fail, from the caprices of taste. The weavers of Spitalfields were plunged into the most severe distress by the fashion of muslins instead of silks; and great numbers of workmen in Sheftield and Birmingham were for a time thrown out of employment, owing to the adoption of shoe strings and covered buttons, instead of buckles and metal buttons" (Principles of Population, chap xiii). Thousands of analogous facts might be cited.
—M'Culloch finds in these disturbances occasioned by fashion an argument for the poor-tax. "It may be observed," he says, "that owing to changes of fashion, * * * those engaged in manufacturing employments are necessarily exposed to many vicissitudes. And when their number is so very great as in this country [England], it is quite indispensable that a resource should be provided for their support in periods of adversity." (Prin. of Polit. Econ., part iii, chap. iv.) We do not wholly share the opinion of Mr. M'Culloch on this subject. How, in fact, does fashion operate on certain industries and on certain classes of laborers? It acts as a risk. Now this risk, which may result in losses to the manufacturers and in stoppage of work to the workmen, must necessarily be covered, so that the profits of the one class and the wages of the other may be in just proportion to the average profits and wages in other branches of production. If it were otherwise, if the risk arising from the fluctuations of fashion were not completely covered, capital and labor would soon cease to resort to branches subject to this particular risk. Then, competition diminishing in these branches, profits and wages would not fail to increase until there was compensation for the risk. This being granted, suppose a law intervene to guarantee to the workman a minimum of subsistence during the time he is thrown out of employment in consequence of the variations of fashion; what will result? The risk arising from that cause being partially covered or compensated, the result will be that the wages of the workman will be lowered by an amount precisely equal to the risk covered, that is to say, by the amount of the tax. How then can the tax be of advantage to the workman, since it will not in reality have increased the amount of his resources? Doubtless the workman might have squandered his wages and have found himself destitute when the fashion came to change, and the consequences of the risk to fall upon him. The poor-tax is nothing but an obligatory savings bank, whose funds are levied from his wages, and on which he has the right to draw when out of employment. But must not a bank of this kind, by freeing the workman from the necessity of foreseeing the critical periods and providing for them, perpetuate his intellectual and moral inferiority? Is it not an insurance for which he pays too high a premium?
—J. B. Say looked at the influence of fashion from a different point of view. According to that eminent economist, frequency of changes in fashion occasions a ruinous waste. "A nation and private individuals will give evidence of wisdom," he says, "if they will seek chiefly articles of slow consumption but in general use. The fashions of such articles will not be very changeable. Fashion has the privilege of spoiling things before they have lost their utility, often even before they have lost their freshness: it increases consumption, and condemns what is still excellent, comfortable and pretty, to being no longer good for anything. Consequently, a rapid succession of fashions impoverishes a state by the consumption it occasions and that which it arrests."
—These words of M. Say are evidently most judicious but we need not because of them, or because of the above-quoted observation of Malthus, condemn fashion from an economic point of view; for if fashion causes a certain harm and certain disturbances, especially when its fluctuations are too frequent, in return, it is one of the prime movers of artistic and industrial progress. This will be apparent from a single hypothetical case. Let us suppose that fashion should cease to exercise her influence; that the same taste and the same style should continue to prevail indefinitely, in respect to clothing, furniture and dwellings will not this permanence of fashion give a mortal blow to artistic and industrial progress? Who, pray, will exercise his ingenuity to invent anything new in the line of clothing, furniture or dwellings, if the consumers have a dread of change, if every modification of the fashion is considered an offense, or even interdicted by law? People, in that case, will always to the same things, and, in all likelihood, will always do them, besides, in the same manner. Let the taste of the consumers, on the other hand, be variable, and the spirit of invention, of improvement, will be powerfully stimulated. Every new combination adapted to please the taste of consumers becoming then a source of profit to the inventor, every one will exercise his ingenuity in devising something new, and the activity thus given to the spirit of invention will be most favorable to the development of industry and the fine arts. It will sometimes happen, doubtless, that ridiculous fashions will be substituted for elegant ones; but under the influence of a desire for change, that butterfly passion, as a Fourierite would call it, which gives birth to fashion, this invasion of bad taste would be transient, and people would continually advance by improvement upon improvement.
—On examining the influence which fashion exercises over the development of industry and the fine arts, one becomes convinced that the vivifying impulse which it gives to the spirit of invention and improvement more than compensates for any injury it causes. Besides, fashions have their limits of longevity, whose average may be easily calculated, and which the experience of producers, in lack of a table of mortality prepared ad hoc, is apt in estimating. Rarely does an intelligent manufacturer produce more of any design or shade than the consumption can absorb before this design or this shade is out of fashion; and if, perchance, his prevision has proved incorrect, if the fashion passes by sooner than he had foreseen, he easily finds some way of getting rid of the excess of his merchandise among the large class of consumers who are behind the times. A certain kind of dress goods or a certain that which has become antiquated at Paris, may yet, after two or three years, delight the belles of lower Brittany or of South America.
—We have just pointed out the influence fashion has on production. Let us now consider briefly its characteristics and the causes which determine its variations. Fashion is not alone affected by the physical influence of the temperature of a country and the moral influence of the taste and character of the population, it is also largely subject to the influence of the social and economic organization. The institutions of a people are reflected in it as in a mirror. Consequently, in countries where the abuses of privilege and despotism permit a class considered as superior to maintain their idleness at the expense of the rest of the nation, the fashions are commonly ostentatious and complicated. They are ostentatious, because the privileged orders feel the necessity of dazzling the multitude by the splendor of their external appearance, and of thus convincing them that they are made of superior clay—"from porcelain clay of earth," as Dryden said. The fashions are also complicated, because the privileged class have all the leisure necessary to devote a long time to their toilet, the sumptuousness of which serves, as has been said, to inspire in the vulgar an exalted idea of those who wear it. But let the condition of society be changed; let the privileged ones disappear; let the superior classes, henceforth subject to the law of competition, be obliged to employ their faculties in earning their subsistence; we at once see fashions become more simple; and the embroidered coats, short clothes, dresses with trains or with paniers—in a word, all the magnificent and complicated apparel of aristocratic fashion—are seen to disappear, to give place to attire easily adjustable and comfortable to wear. In a pamphlet entitled. "England, Ireland and America, by a Manchester Manufacturer," Richard Cobden pointed out, in 1835, with much acuteness and humor, the necessities which had operated within a half century to bring about this economic change of fashion. Mr. Cobden depicted the old London merchant with his magnificent costume and his formal manners, and showed how a merciless competition caused the disappearance of this model of the good old times, to substitute for it a modern type, with dress and habits infinitely more economical. "Such of our readers," he says, "as remember the London tradesman of thirty years ago, will be able to call to mind the powdered wig and the queue, the precise shoes and buckles, and the unwrinkled silk hose and tight inexpressibles that characterized the shop-keeper of the old school. Whenever this stately personage walked abroad on matters of trade, however pressing or important, he never forgot for a moment the dignified step of his forefathers, while nothing gratified his self-complacency more than to take his gold-headed cane in hand, and, leaving his own shop all the while, to visit his poorer neighbors, and to show his authority by inquiring into their affairs, settling their disputes, and compelling them to be honest and to manage their establishments according to his plan. His business was conducted throughout upon the formal mode of his ancestors. His clerks, his shopmen and porters, all had their appointed costumes; and their intercourse with each other was disciplined according to established laws of etiquette. Every one had his especial department of duty, and the line of demarcation at the counter was marked out and observed with all the punctilio of neighboring but rival states. The shop of this trader of the old school retained all the peculiarities and inconveniences of former generations; its windows displayed no gaudy wares to lure the vulgar passer-by, and the panes of glass, inserted in ponderous wooden frames, were constructed exactly after the ancestral pattern. * * * The present age produced a new school of traders, whose first innovation was to cast off the wig, and cashier the barber with his pomatum-box, by which step an hour was gained in the daily toilet. Their next change was, to discard the shoes and the tight unmentionables, whose complicated details of buckles and straps and whose close adjustment occupied another half hour, in favor of Wellingtons and pantaloons, which were whipped on in a trice, and gave freedom, though, perhaps, at the expense of dignity, to the personal movements during the day. Thus accoutered, these supple dealers whisked or flew, just as the momentary calls of business became more or less urgent; while so absorbed were they in their own interests that they scarcely knew the names of their nearest neighbors, nor cared whether they lived peaceably or not, so long as they did not come to break their windows. Nor did the spirit of innovation end here; for the shops of this new race of dealers underwent as great a metamorphosis as their owners. While the internal economy of these was reformed with a view to give the utmost facility to the labor of the establishment, by dispensing with forms and tacitly agreeing even to suspend the ordinary deferences due to station, lest their observance might, however slightly, impede the business in hand; externally, the windows, which were constructed of plate glass, with elegant frames extending from the ground to the ceiling, were made to blaze with all the tempting finery of the day. We all know the result that followed from this very unequal rivalry. One by one, the ancient and quiet followers of the habits of their ancestors yielded before the active competition of their more alert neighbors. Some few of the less bigoted disciples of he old school adopted the new-light system; but all who tried to stem the stream were overwhelmed; for with grief we add, that the very last of these very interesting specimens of olden time that survived, (joining the two generations of London tradesmen whose shops used to gladden the soul of every tory pedestrian in Fleet street), with its unreformed windows, has at length disappeared, having lately passed into the Gazette, that schedule of anti reforming traders."
—From this ingenious and clever sketch we can clearly see the necessity which determined the simplification of the fashions of the old régime. This necessity arose from the suppression of the ancient privileges which permitted a member of the corporate body of tradesmen, or a manufacturing mechanic who had attained the rank of master, to pass his time a his toilet or to meddle in the quarrels of his neighbors, instead of giving his attention to his own business: it arose from the extensive growth of competition, which obliged every merchant, every manufacturer, every head of a business enterprise, to take into account the value of time, under penalty of seeing his name finally inscribed under the fatal heading of bankruptcies. A régime of competition does not permit the same fashions as a régime of privilege; and fashion is as sensitive to modifications arising from the interior economy of society as it is to changes of temperature. This being so, it is obvious that it is wrong for a government to attempt to influence fashion by obliging, for example, its servants to wear sumptuous and elaborate apparel. In fact, one of two results follow. Either the state of society is such that the dominant classes find it to their advantage to display a certain ostentation in their dress; and in this case it is useless to impose it on them, or even to recommend it to them. Or the state of society is such that people in all ranks of society have something better to do than to spend a long time over their toilet: in this case, what good can result from the intervention of government in matters of fashion? If sumptuousness of attire becomes general, if men accustom themselves to accord to dress a portion of the time demanded by their affairs, will not society suffer harm? If, on the contrary, the example given above is not followed, if the magnificence of the costumes of the court and the ante-chamber is not imitated, will not this display form a shocking dissonance in a busy community? Will it not produce an impression analogous to that one receives from a masquerade? A government should then carefully avoid interference in this matter. It should follow fashions, not direct them.
—To recapitulate: Fashion, looked at from an economic point of view, exercises on the improvement of production an influence whose utility more than compensates for the damage which may result from its fluctuations. On the other hand, it is naturally established and modified by various causes, among which economic causes hold an important place. When people do not understand the necessities which determine its changes, they establish artificial fashions, which have the double disadvantage of being anti-economic and ridiculous.
G DE MOLINARI.
Return to top