With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the ensuing rise of mills and factories as the centers of production, individuals began to move from rural regions to urban areas. The mills drew vast numbers of people in search of work and created massive swellings of populations in concentrated areas which gave rise to places like Manchester, England, the first industrial city. While the implications of this change in social structure are enormous, the effects on the individual are particularly interesting. We can imagine how the individual moving into a vast, populated city from a much simpler rural environment must have experienced something rather traumatic. The clearly defined ways of interacting with other agents in the social context and familiarity with a relatively small number of other persons began to break down as the overwhelming mass of people began to swallow the singular agent. Individuals simply do not have the time, energy, or explicit structures that allow interaction with hundreds (if not thousands) of people. However, in spite of these circumstances, people still needed to exercise some form of assertion of their individuality and way to interact.
In the face of such massive quantitative stimulation within the city, individuals began to focus on qualitative distinctions to differentiate themselves from the crowd. Fashion became a potent tool in this endeavor to differentiate oneself. Most importantly, these qualitative distinctions achieved through fashion need not serve any purpose but simply exist simply for their own sake. Let us look at the top hat. While its origins are unclear, the top hat first came to prominence in the late 18th century where it was worn by upper class men in European and American cities. While originally associated with high class status, it quickly permeated most layers of the social strata within twenty years. The top hat’s height steadily increased as individuals struggled to maintain some way of displaying personal significance and “self” amid the growing pervasiveness of the top hat as a symbol of uniqueness and standing out from the crowd. It is this exact cycle which defines fashion at its core: a constant struggle of asserting uniqueness in opposition to appropriation of that uniqueness by mass society which transmutes it into sameness.
In an expression of this tendency to highlight uniqueness past any point of functionality that gave rise to groups like the “Incroyables” in France. Their hats reached such heights as to be unable to fit in a cloak room. It wasn’t until the advent of the collapsible top hot in 1812 and its perfection using a spring-loaded mechanism in 1840 that this issue was addressed. In conclusion, not only did the birth of the modern cities give rise to the social and psychological contexts that allowed modern fashion to exist in the first place, the very basis of fashion being possible could only be achieved with mass production, wide availability, and cheapness of goods that were directly a result of the mechanization and urbanization brought by the Industrial Revolution.
Image courtesy of: