I just finished reading Patrik Aspers’ Orderly Fashion (disclosure: I was given a review copy of the book by Princeton University Press), which analyzes the global fashion industry from a sociological point of view. Aspers begins by observing the relatively high amount of order among branded garment retailers (e.g. H&M) and their consumer base. He problematizes this ordered relationship, and ultimately situates the order in the context of social identities. Now, it’s not a huge leap to realize that the perceived value of fashion is socially constructed and socially entrenched. However, Aspers manages to zoom out to the industry as a whole to confront these dynamics at a deeper level.
Aspers argues that markets can either be ordered by status or by standard. Status ordering occurs in the consumption end, as the reflexive identities of both the retailers and the consumers interact. These identities are termed reflexive because they are concerned with internal desire, and can have dimensions ranging from the superficial (sheer looks) to the ethical (labor conditions). Under status ordering, the commodities exchanged derive meaning from “the interaction between the commodity and its wearers.” The status of both the consumer and the retailer is relevant.
Under standard ordering, more objective measures of quality and price are relevant. These play into status in the consumer market, but are most important on the production end, where a complex process leads to relationships between the retailers and the garment factories. Aspers doesn’t dig too deep into the distinctly capitalist production conditions, but accepts them as a given, and tries to explain how the wide range of producers and working conditions come to exist in relation with the retailers.
Aspers argues that the partial order within this production market interacts with the partial order in the consumption market, which both interact with the broader order in the capitalist market as a whole. However, he doesn’t delve too deep into this superstructure, and takes it as a given. Nor does he delve into the extent to which the fashion industry tends to reinforce the class and consumption structures within capitalism. What we have here, then, is a case study. Although superficial at times, I think it points economic sociology research in a useful direction by acknowledging micro-level social embeddedness as a starting point. Ultimately, though, this type of research will be more useful as it zooms out to the capitalist superstructure, and imagines alternative arrangements of consumption and production. I do hope that economists read this book and realize the potential that such descriptive analysis holds.