The "trickle-down" theory offers a straightforward way of predicting fashion diffusion: a hierarchical process whereby individuals with high status establish fashion trends, only to be imitated by lower-status individuals wearing cheaper versions of the styles. Subsequently, high-status individuals become motivated to differentiate themselves by moving on to a new trend. Initially based upon an explanation of social-class dynamics within western modernity, the theory has since been applied to gender and age relations.
The origin of the theory is generally attributed to sociologist Georg Simmel, although he was actually only one of several writers (e.g., Spencer, Grosse, Veblen) who sought to explain fashion through class structure and social mobility in the late nineteenth century. Through a contemporary lens, Simmel (like others of his day) placed an inordinate emphasis on social class in his explanation of fashion (see Blumer; Davis; Crane). However, in many ways Simmel's analysis was especially nuanced in its blend of psychology and philosophy; it can be read as elaborating a fundamental blend of imitation and differentiation that surpasses social class alone (Lehmann; Carter).
Carter (2003) suggests that a modern scientific goal of assigning order to a seemingly disorderly phenomenon (fashion) led to the restricted (economic-based) naming and life of the trickle-down theory. The historical evidence of such an orderly trickling-down fashion is not very convincing (see Breward; Crane). By the late 1960s, the theory had come under attack, as class-based explanations could not explain the number of styles that bubbled or percolated up from working-class youth or diverse ethnicities (Blumer; King). Furthermore, the speed with which fashion could be "knocked off" in cheaper versions had accelerated to the point that any trickling that occurred was blurry. Indeed, in the twenty-first century's global economy, counterfeit versions of high-fashion handbags appear almost simultaneously with "original" handbags, on the sidewalks outside designer stores in major cities around the world.
McCracken (1985) attempted to rehabilitate the trickle-down theory by relating it to gender. He noted a process whereby women imitate men's fashions in order to obtain more status, only to be usurped by further changes in men's attire. Although McCracken has been critiqued for not demonstrating the differentiation function (on the part of men) adequately, if one goes back to Simmel's analysis, it is possible to establish how the dialectical process of fashion simultaneously articulates twin opposites in a single "masculine" or "feminine" look.
More recently, Huun and Kaiser (2000) demonstrated how the basic elements of imitation and differentiation can explain changing infants' and young children's fashions-in terms of age, as well as gender. And, Cook and Kaiser (2004) reinterpreted the trickle-down theory to explain the recent "downsizing" of teen and adult fashion into children's and "tweens'" styles. Although the hierarchical (class-based) flow of the trickle-down theory may be challenged in many ways, the basic dynamic underlying Simmel's analysis of imitation and differentiation remains a critical part of fashion theory.
See also Thorstein Veblen.
Blumer, Herbert. "Fashion: From Class Differentiation to Collective Selection. "Sociological Quarterly 10 (Summer 1969): 275-291.
Breward, Christopher. The Culture of Fashion. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1995.
Carter, Michael. Fashion Classics: From Carlyle to Barthes. Oxford, U.K., and New York: Berg Press, 2003.
Cook, Daniel, and Susan B. Kaiser. "Be Twixt and Be Tween: Age Ambiguity and the Sexualization of the Female Consuming Subject." Journal of Consumer Culture 4, no. 2 (2004): 203-227.
Crane, Diana. Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class Gender, and Identity in Clothing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture, and Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Huun, Kathleen, and Susan B. Kaiser. "The Emergence of Modern Infantwear, 1896-1962: Traditional White Dresses Succumb to Fashion's Gender Obsession." Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 19, no. 3 (2001): 103-119.
King, Charles W. "Fashion Adoption: A Rebuttal to the 'Trickle-Down' Theory." In Toward Scientific Marketing. Edited by S. A. Greyser. Chicago: American Marketing Association, 1963, pp. 108-125.
Lehmann, Ulrich. Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000.
McCracken, Grant. "The Trickle-Down Theory Rehabilitated." In The Psychology of Fashion. Edited by Michael R. Solomon. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1985.
Georg Simmel. "Fashion." American Journal of Sociology 62 (May 1957): 541-558.