Identifying the course and cause of fashion’s inexorable cycles

Hema Yoganarasimhan
Hema Yoganarasimhan

Fashion has gone mainstream.

This is not to say that haute couture has saturated the suburban mall. Rather, the broader force of fashion—the social dimension of consumer culture—now influences the sales of virtually every consumable, from clothes, perfume and shoes to cell phones, diet plans and power tools.

But how well do we really know fashion? Can we predict its cycles, identify its sources?

“Most of our knowledge of fashion cycles is anecdotal, really,” says Hema Yoganarasimhan, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Yoganarasimhan’s new study produces the first statistical model to identify the course and cause of fashion cycles.

And it offers some empirical evidence to settle the longstanding debate over the source of fashion cycles. Applying the model to analyze the popularity of baby names over time—an undiluted example of fashion’s effect—she finds that the cycles of popularity are driven by cultural capital, not wealth.

Getting social

Yoganarasimhan explains that everything that we purchase shares two personal dimensions. The first is utility: its quality and usefulness to us. The second is preference: its appeal to our inclinations and emotions.

But there is a third social dimension that factors into the sales or adoption of a growing number of consumer products and cultural trends.

“If you are Robinson Crusoe alone on an island, or if you’re buying something private like toilet paper, you’d only care about the first two dimensions,” Yoganarasimhan says. “But the more conspicuous a product, the bigger the impact of that social dimension will be.”

As baseline income rises and product quality becomes more uniform, our interest in social appearances grows. Call it a First World phenomenon. In addition to clothes and footwear, we can afford to care more today about what people think of our choice in almost everything—from paint color to underwear style, college degree to countertop material.

This expanded social striving creates a golden age for fashion, and a lot to think about for marketers.

Top of mind is the billion-dollar question of what drives the cycles of fashion. The two prevailing theories argue that fashion is the result of either a show of wealth or a demonstration of culture.

What’s in a name?

To test which theory is correct, Yoganarasimhan applied her model to the purest manifestation of fashion that she could find: baby names. With decades of data and a “product” costing nothing, any movement in popularity should have everything to do with the contagious force of fashion.

And, sure enough, the rise and fall of baby names charted beautifully in sweeping sine curves.

But what spurs those spikes in Isabellas and Emmas, Jacksons and Noahs?

Yoganarasimhan started with the Social Security Administration’s annual database of registered baby names, both nationally and by state. This she cross-referenced with state-by-state income records (to establish economic capital) and education levels and affiliation with arts and cultural organizations (both closely correlated with cultural capital). She carefully controlled for wealth and culture, which are closely but not perfectly correlated.

The analysis demonstrated that wealth had no measurable effect on the rise and fall of baby names.

The clear driver is culture.

This culture-driven cycle resembles the fashion vacillations illustrated so memorably in Dr. Seuss’s cautionary parable, “The Sneetches.” Names become popular in more cultured states, then less cultured states follow suit, at which time those names become less popular in the cultured states and, eventually, in the less-cultured states.

In and out of fashion at the whim of the cultural elites.

Beyond observation

Marketing departments of modern firms have sophisticated tools to know their products, customers and competition intimately.

Yoganarasimhan says that this data-driven knowledge could be applied to a model like hers to better track and understand the cycles of fashion. This could help a firm drive rather than chase the trends. Marketers could tailor the design, price, distribution and advertising of their products to influence their key demographic—whether it’s the people looking to show off their cultural clout or their wealth, as the case may be.

“It’s not a very complicated model, and it can easily be adapted to predict what will come next given a different set of actions,” she says. “This is vitally important for a firm to remain ahead of the curve.”

Identifying the Presence and Cause of Fashion Cycles in Data” is published in the February 2017 Journal of Marketing Research.