A Matter of Taste examines how and why fashions and tastes in things like baby names change over time.
Stanley Lieberson is a Canadian sociologist and research professor at Harvard University. Besides first names and fashions, he has studied language conflicts, race and ethnic relations.
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When we hear the word fashion, the first thing that springs to mind are catwalks and designer labels. But the term describes far more than that. Fashion is a phenomenon that can be found in all aspects of society.
Changes in fashion usually happen for novelty’s sake, not to enhance or alter an object or concept. In other words, a fashion is something new for the sake of its novelty as well as aesthetic reasons: last season’s sweater still fits and keeps you warm, but you’ll buy a new one anyway simply because it’s the latest “thing.”
However, we don’t only buy new things because of fashion: we’ll also buy something because it’s objectively enhanced, e.g., a smartphone with a longer battery life. This doesn’t qualify as a fashion since the change hasn’t occurred purely for novelty’s sake.
It’s also important to distinguish fashions from customs – though customs can develop into fashions.
Different cultures may have distinctive habits of dressing, furnishing, etc. that aren’t “purely utilitarian,” but as long as these habits don’t change regularly, they’re customs and not a fashion. For example, the kimono might be a distinctive clothing style that doesn’t serve a direct purpose, but for a long period of time it was the traditional dress in Japan, hence it is a custom rather than a fashion.
But if at some point the kimono makes a comeback among Japanese designers, it would be considered a fashion. That's because dressing habits first become a matter of fashion when there's a regular change in styles for the sake of novelty.
Finally, fashion also has an influence on non-material things. Fashions change over time and an actress’s hairdo or a piece of music from the early 20th century no longer have the same impact on an audience today. Even Beethoven’s most famous symphony that enthused a whole generation isn't played in every concert house today.