To What Extent Are Modern and Post-Modern Consumers Similar or Different?


The consumption of fashion to a certain extent has always been present in the society because clothes perform the basic function of covering up the human body. However, over the centuries the process evolved and became more complex, thus transforming into the idea of consumerism. The following phenomenon is defined as a social and economic order and ideology that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts. The two basic points of references for the research are modernism and post-modernism because these time frames are best to illustrate the process of changes in consumer behavior as well as the remained similarities. Therefore, the research will explore the effects of the industrialization, second-hand stores, trickle-down and bubble-up effects, the democratization of fashion, the power of labels, semiotics, neo-tribalism, psychological classifications and consumer loyalty to answer the question, “To what extent are modern and post-modern consumers similar or different?”

Modernity vs. Postmodernity

A German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas states, “The project of modernity formulated in the 18th century by the philosophers of the enlightenment consisted in their efforts to develop objective science, universal morality and law, and autonomous art, according to their inner logic.” As a result, modernity can be viewed as an approach and a lens through which people viewed the world. It is obvious that the process of changing happens gradually, however, the beginning of post-modernism is considered to be in 1979. A French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard was the first one to give this name because he noted a change of approach in the worlds of science, art, and literature. In terms of fashion, the difference is hold in the rapid consumption and production rhythm that is currently present, illustrated by the fast fashion stores, semi-annual sales, outlets, etc. Moreover, in the postmodernist period, there is a significant shift from a rational to a symbolic system. (Venkatesh 1992: online) Lastly, a great individualism and fragmentation also enter the concept of postmodernism, which are concepts that did not exist before. (Raaij and Schoonderbeek, 1993, p. 479-484)

Industrialization In Fashion & The Second-Hand Phenomenon

During the period of modernism, closing indicated one’s position in the society. Not only was the way of dressing demonstrating gender and social class but also occupation, regional origin, religious beliefs and other details. (Ewen 1985) Additionally, clothes were considered valuable assets that frequently replaced gold because the pieces were hand-made and expensive, so they were never thrown away. Instead, the valuable property was willed to relatives and servants. (Stallybrass 1993, p. 37) The ancient household even hired the figure of the wardrobe keeper, which took care of the dresses and fabrics. Oftentimes the clothes were passed to the lower classes, which is the concept that still exists today in the form of the second-hand stores. According to Roche (1994, p. 87), a poor man could only own one set of clothes and among the 278 people arrested in 1780 in the area of Paris, just twenty-eight had more that one outfit. However, it was the Industrial Revolution that diminished the value of clothes since machines made them, so the garments had a much lower production cost.

The Origins of the Trickle-Down Effect

As described in the book, Fashion And Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, And Identity In Clothing (p. 3), “Changing in clothing and the discourses surrounding clothing indicate shifts in social relationships and tensions between different social groups that present themselves in different ways in public space.” Thus, in the time of modernism the boundaries between social classes were highly defined and the main fashions were set up in the courts and trickled down to the masses, which is a phenomenon that is accurate nowadays too; only the trends are set on the fashion runways. In the times of Marie Antoinette, the large volume and hair decorations were synonymous of wealth and status. Interestingly, in the past, the sumptuary laws were common, which were rules that specified the material and ornament that was allowed to be worn depending on the social class of the person. (Hurlock 1965, p. 295-301)

Democratization of Fashion in the Period of Modernity

According to the historians, it was the nineteenth century when clothing was democratized, because all social classes adopted similar ways of dressing. (Steele 1989, p. 69-91) Additionally, some “argue that this transformation was most pronounced in the United States because of the character of its social structure”, mentions Crane. Therefore, late nineteenth century marks the point when clothes transformed from a luxury into a widely available consumer good, which changed the perception for fashion. For the first time it was used as a mean to “blur” the constraints of social classification and fake the belonging to the higher society. (Crane 2000, p. 3-5, 67, 134)

Charles Frederick Worth and the First Label

One of the major differences that arrived with the democratization of fashion was the invention of the concept of the label by an English designer Charles Frederick Worth. He was the first one in history to have shifted the value from the actual material and craftsmanship to the brand name. While in the past the consumer’s aim was to purchase a certain look, the twentieth century focused more on purchasing a product from the brand. In fact, this shift was a major step in the transitioning towards the post-modern society.

From “Class” to “Consumer”

In her research, Diana Crane talks about the transition between the two eras as the passage from “class” to “consumer”. She writes, ““Class” fashion necessitated a centralized system of fashion creation and production in which there was a high level of consensus among designers.” The model mentioned above was popular throughout the first half of the twentieth century, where a small number of designers were to reach a consensus and define several “fashionable” styles that would have gradually and consistently evolved throughout the seasons. In other words, the fashion market was bounded by strict rules of how to wear a garment and what to pair it with. (Crane 2000, p. 3-5, 67, 134) The book, What We Wore: An Offbeat Social History of Woman’s Clothing, gives an example, “Each occasion, each ensemble, had only possible, one correct glove.” The rules went as far as dictating the specific colors for the given season and, lengths of hemlines, behavior and even sexual identity. (Melinkoff 1984, p.134)

Post-modernistic society, however, evolved and came to the conclusion that one model only is not able to suffice the demand and different needs of the buyers, so the “consumer” fashion offers more variety and stylistic diversity. Nowadays, the market is divided into three categories: haute couture, prêt-à-porter and fast fashion that correspond to luxury fashion design for the elite, industrial fashion produced in standardized sizes and street styles. The following division allowed the emergence of the bubble-up effect, which is the contrary of the trickle-down theory, meaning that the new trends are born on the streets and the designers interpret them.

The author of Fashion And Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, And Identity In Clothing draws a similarity, stating “Both designers and clothing firms offer a wide range of choices from which the consumer is expected to put together a “look” that is compatible with her identity.” The following observation is aligned with the characteristic of the modern consumer, which views himself as an individual within a group. Additionally, in the twenty-first century, the selling point became an image that is built and evolved in the media culture that is drawn from influencers, actors, etc. (Crane 2000, p. 3-5, 67, 134)


As it was already established before, consumption is directly related to the creation and production of a sense of self. Moreover, the majority of products are marketed to the consumers with a greater significance than what their primary purpose may be. “Today, it is virtually impossible to buy any product not embedded with certain symbols of identity acquired by the buyer knowingly or otherwise,” states the study of the University of Hawai’i at Hilo. The studies conducted explain that the symbolism within the products not only helps to develop the sense of identity but also to regulate where we fit within the society. This observation implies that consumerism should be viewed as both, an economic system and a way that the society functions. (Todd 2011: online)

Neo-Tribalism of the Post-Modern Consumer

Neo-tribalism is the result of “a spirit of excess, of shared passions and rituals” declares Vivian Bradford, as opposed to the characteristically modernist faith in the individual. The following phenomenon signifies that consumers prefer to express their individuality within the safety of groups, which is something that was never present in the past. As written in the studies, Consumer Behaviour, “this is the logical blending of an extension of individualism and group conformity.” Therefore, the most common characteristics of the postmodern society include lack of commitment, hyperreality, and fragmentation. On one hand, there exists a hypothesis that the current society is composed of isolated individuals, while on the other hand, “we join with others on the basis of sharing common passions, feelings and interest,” known as a ‘tribe’. (Evans and Foxall 2009, p. 281) The concept explained above is particularly relevant for teenagers, who are in a “search for identity and belonging.” (Davidson, 2003: online) As a result, products gain their value when they are able to make one enter the desired ‘tribe’.

Post-modern Consumers: Classifications

The most drastic difference between the modern and post-modern consumer lays in the fact that now people are given a chance to choose with which group they want to be identified. Therefore, the process of consumerism makes it possible to move freely between the areas of the society, mainly disregarding the aspects of race, birth, or gender. Advertising as one of the most powerful marketing tools encourages the thought of transformation through the means of consumerism, intending that the goal of the modern buyer is to remain dynamic. One of the best examples is presented in the letter (written in 1985) from the world famous fashion and beauty magazine, Glamour, which says, “If you’ll give me just a few minutes of your time now, I honestly believe that I can help you change almost anything about yourself that you want to.” (Stromberg 1990: online) The designers understood the tendency, hence why it is common to categorize types of women and styles, for example, Classic, Sporty, Bohemian, Woman Boss, etc. (Crane 2000, p. 3-5, 67, 134) Logically, it is fair to conclude that these classifications lead to the formation of ‘tribes’ that were discussed earlier and they play on the human sense of belonging and security.

Lack of Loyalty

Nevertheless, the phenomenon described above is rather short termed because with the fast rhythm of the consumption market the fixity cannot be assumed. People constantly want to change themselves and the way in which they want to communicate with society, which implies the lack of loyalty. In fact, the post-modern consumers of the twenty-first century are no longer the passive receivers of advertisements and marketing. The rise of social media platforms allowed a two-ways interaction, where the consumers are free to interpret the marketing strategies and brand philosophies, giving them new meanings. Thus, ”by acknowledging we are not defined by what we own we can look consumerism in the eye and say, “this is what I am because I chose it.”” (Todd 2011: online)


After the conducted research, it became possible to draw a conclusion that the modern and post-modern consumers share some similarities as well as differences. Unlike in the past, the post-modern consumer is able to choose which group he or she wants to be identified with, while before clothing used to be the fixed mean of representing one’s position in the society. Furthermore, in the times of modernism the fashion was set up in the courts by the highest class of the society and then adopted by the masses. The following represented the concept of the trickle-down effect, however in the post-modern society there also exists the bubble-up phenomenon, where trends are born on the street. As it was established, some historical milestones like the Industrial Revolution and the creation of the first label by Charles Frederick Worth contributed towards transitioning between the two eras because they encouraged consumerism. Lastly, some drastically new concepts have emerged in the post-modern society, such as the psychological specialty of the human behavior known as neo-tribalism, classification of fashion and as a result, its consumers as well as the lack of brand loyalty due to the rapid rhythm of lifestyle and production.

Being aware of the changes that are happening in the consumers’ mentalities as a result of historical events is crucially important to be able to understand fashion. As stated in The Lure of Fashion: Communicating Contraries (p.150),” “It is good to keep a distance to fashion, to take a detached attitude and consider it as just one possible course of action. This will help to ensure that fashion does not gain a monopoly on guiding our consumption choices.”


Bradford, V. (2002) Style, Rhetoric, and Postmodern Culture. Philosophy and Rhetoric [online] Available at: [Accessed 02.03.17].

Crane, D. (2000) Fashion And Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, And Identity In Clothing. 1st ed. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, Print.

Davidson A. (2003) From Why to Z, Research Live [online] Available at: [Accessed 02.03.17].

Evans M., Jamal A. and Foxall G. (2009) Consumer Behaviour. 2nd ed. Trento: A John Wiley and Sons, Ltd., Publication, Print.

Ewen E. (1985). Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side, 1890-1925. New York: Monthly Review Press. Print.

Habermas, J. (l981), Modernity versus Postmodernity. New German Critique, No. 22. Special Issue On Modernism [online] Available at: [Accessed 02.03.17].

Hurlock, E. B. (1965). Sumptuary Law. Dress, Adornment and the Social Order, New York: Wiley. Print.

Ilmonen, K., Sulkunen P. (2011) The Lure of Fashion: Communicating Contraries. A Social and Economic Theory of Consumption. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Print.

Melinkoff, E. (1984). What We Wore: An Offbeat Social History of Woman’s Clothing, 1950-1980. New York: William Morrow. Print.

Roche, D. (1994). The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the Ancien Regime. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Print.

Stallybrass, P. (1993). Worn Worlds: Clothes, Mourning and the Life of Things. Yale Review. Print.

Steele, V. (1989) Dressing for Work. Men and Women: Dressing the Part, ed. Claudia B. Kidwell and Valerie Steele. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. Print.

Stromberg, Peter. (1990) Elvis Alive?: The Ideology of American Consumerism. Journal of Popular Culture [online] Available at: [Accessed 02.03.17]

Todd, D. (2011) You Are What You Buy: Postmodern Consumerism and the Construction of Self. University of Hawai’i at Hilo, Hawai’i Community College. [online] Available at: [Accessed 02.03.17].

Van Raaij W. F. and Schoonderbeek W.M. (1993) Meaning Structure of Brand Names and Extensions, European Advances in Consumer Research, Vol 1. Print.

Venkatesh, A. (1992), Postmodernism, Consumer Culture and the Society of the Spectacle. NA – Advances in Consumer Research. Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Association for Consumer Research. [online] Available at: [Accessed 02.03.17].

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s