The Sociology of Style: Diffusion and the Status Economy

By: Tori Nagudi

Photos by: Julia Hyacinthe

A lot of media outlets are devoted to selling the latest designs–and capitalizing off your fear of missing the mark. If we look beyond the surface, however, a mystifying question unfolds: what factors into the hype? Where do trends come from, and where do they go? What forces create and destroy the fashion movement?

Fashion, it turns out, can be studied as a sociological concept. Your clothing choices may be determined by personal taste, but abstract one level further and you’ll find that your “personal” taste has many origins. It turns out that fashion, though seemingly temporary, involves many factors that transcend time: evolutionary biology, sociology, psychoanalysis, and even economics.



What is the source of the seemingly-pointless trends that crop up out of nowhere and then fade just as fast? There seems to be no justification for the randomness that fashion injects into our lives; no method to the madness. The arbitrary nature of style patterns is not a figment of your imagination: it turns out that sociologically, pointlessness is the very point of fashion.

Fashion is a vehicle of self-expression, but within societies, it also operates as a secret language that’s continuously changing. Understanding this language is one key to elevating your status among certain circles. This language is designed to convey one thing and one thing only: that you know how to speak it. In other words, fashion is arbitrary and perpetually-transitional because a formulaic nature would be too easy to decipher. This has many evolutionary origins, but the primary purpose is broadcasting your adaptability to others. Trends are elusive, indecipherable, and ever-shifting, but this constitutes the very essence of their value as status markers. The constant fluctuations, in a sense, create a secret society with no official membership. You join by conveying the power of your perception, and adapting to a language that has no meaning.


It’s well-understood that clothing choices are often dictated by individual preferences. But what are the origins of these preferences? A theory called panopticism argues that one can never experience consciousness in isolation; even when you are alone, you’re still considering your identity through the eyes of others. This faculty is often deemed “the sociological imagination.”  


It turns out that our clothing choices, more than anything, reflect the groups that we identify with and the concepts we wish to convey as individuals. Fashion, in other words, is governed by the sociological imagination. It’s entertaining to notice that in every culture, counterculture groups crop up: but they all seem to dress the same. They conform in their non-conformity. Evolutionarily, this conformity serves the purpose of allowing us to identify commonalities in others before we speak to them. You can’t judge a book by its cover, but oftentimes, clothing is an agent of social cohesion. This is not accidental–fashion is a billboard that we use to express, nonverbally, where our loyalties fall.


If you suffered through Intro to Econ, you remember the law of supply and demand. Economics is often called the dismal science, and many of its uninspiring lessons live up to the name. There are a few concepts, however, that provide a fascinating window into human nature. One of these is the diffusion curve, which demonstrates the patterns that predict how fast ideas will spread through society.

Every element of fashion, ultimately, is a concept, and the diffusion curve offers a precise approximation of the trend cycle. It turns out that there’s a science to the way that things become popular. Most of this has to do with the status economy, which, unsurprisingly, is closely intertwined with the economy itself.

This is the diffusion curve. The traditional process of cultural diffusion occurs in the following order, with each group taking cues from the one before it:

  1. Innovators and visionaries, usually high-profile creators with significant visibility, invent trends that stem from their personal inclinations. Sometimes these creators work behind a popular brand.
  2. Early adopters (high-income influencers) pick up on the shift.
  3. Retailers begin to recreate the trend at multiple price points. The shift becomes a movement as the early majority takes notice of the influencers in their community.
  4. The movement becomes a genuine trend. Late adopters, cautious before, gain awareness of the transition and ride the new wave.
  5. Skeptics, previously reluctant to buy into a passing moment, observe that the element has become a permanent part of mainstream society. After the trend has become a staple, they get invested.

While diffusion is useful for decoding the spread of fashion, there are other theories that have fallen into favor lately.

The trickle-up theory claims that some forms of self-expression originate amongst underground subcultures, then are recreated by mainstream society as they move up the socioeconomic ladder. This theory is often used to explain the emergence of streetwear.

Proponents of the trickle-across theory argue that trends are introduced to society by fashion designers, then are replicated at multiple price points simultaneously.

No matter what theory you endorse, it’s undeniable that beyond the surface, style operates mathematically.



The world is simultaneously a status economy and a marketplace for self expression. By understanding fashion as a commodity, we unlock the psychological mechanisms that govern trends and style.

TORI NAGUDI enjoys procrastination via watching makeup tutorials, reading Nietzsche, and drinking ungodly amounts of espresso. Her areas of expertise include spending money, curl maintenance, and Myers-Briggs personality typing. She has not been seen without lipstick since 2009.

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