Aesthetic Aspects of the Consumption of Fashion Design: the Conceptual and Empirical Challenge

Molly Eckman, Colorado State University
Janet Wagner, University of Maryland
[ to cite ]:
Molly Eckman and Janet Wagner (1995) ,"Aesthetic Aspects of the Consumption of Fashion Design: the Conceptual and Empirical Challenge", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 646-649.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 646-649


Molly Eckman, Colorado State University

Janet Wagner, University of Maryland

"...America is distrustful of aesthetics, considering them false and of no value. This is a national failing and, in some ways, the worse sort of reverse snobbism.." (Cohen 1993).

Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy dating to Plato and Aristotle. Prior to the nineteenth century, aesthetics had two goals, to analyze the creative process and establish rules for judging beauty and taste in the fine arts. In the late nineteenth century, two developments changed that direction. First, as psychology developed an epistemology, aestheticians began to apply its theory and methods to the study of aesthetic judgments. Second, as standards of living rose, consumers began to demand products that were both functional and attractive. In response, aestheticians broadened their scope to include the design of everyday objects. Today, the term "aesthetics" is construed to mean the study of both the fine and applied arts.

In the broadest sense, art includes objects and endeavors designed to appeal to any sense. However, in common usage, the fine arts are often taken to mean the visual arts, particularly painting and sculpture. According to aestheticians, the purpose of the visual arts is to create "significant form"Ca beautiful object that conveys meaning (Bell 1914). Individuals consume art to meet higher order needsCpleasure in perceiving beauty and emotion in grasping the meaning of symbols. In the "aesthetic experience", beauty and expression are inextricably linked.

The applied arts refer to the design of household objects, such as consumer products, furniture, appliances and clothing. Compared to painting and sculpture, the applied arts meet a broader set of needs. To achieve significant form, applied art must meet utilitarian as well as aesthetic needs. Examples of significant form in the design of household objects include the Norelco shaver, the Black & Decker drill, the Bentwood rocker, and the Chanel suit. While most household objects are not such fine examples of significant form, in a society where most products meet utilitarian needs, aesthetic attributes may be determining factors in consumer choice.

More than a decade ago, Holbrook (1981) challenged consumer researchers to shift their focus from utilitarian to aesthetic attributes of products. Despite sporadic attempts to rise to Holbrook's challenge, we continue to neglect the aesthetic aspects of consumption. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the design of fashion goods.

Fashion is a pervasive phenomenon of our culture. While fashion affects the design and consumption of many products, clothing is the classic example. In fact, the effect of fashion on the way we dress is so profound that the design, production and marketing of clothing, which encompasses many industries, is collectively known as "the fashion industry." Given the status of fashion as a multibillion dollar industry and the ability of "significant form" to meet a broad spectrum of consumer needs, the aesthetic aspects of fashion are a compelling area for future research.

The purpose of this paper is to stimulate more research on the aesthetic aspects of fashion design, focusing on clothing. To that end, we will begin by reviewing conceptual and empirical work on the aesthetics of fashion, a small body of scholarship that is primarily the domain of disciplines other than consumer behavior. We will then identify factors discouraging research on fashion design and suggest ideas for future research.


Sproles (1979) proposed a model of fashion-oriented consumer behavior. [Published in book form, the Sproles (1979) L model has had relatively little exosure. Two exceptions are the research of Eckman and Wagner (1994) and Wagner, Anderson and Ettenson (1990).] While similar in many respects to conventional consumer behavior models, the Sproles model is based on the assumption that the aesthetic attributes of fashion goods "overwhelm" the utilitarian attributes. Although the model suffers from some misspecification, particularly in the decision-making stages, Sproles offers three insights into the role of aesthetics in fashion. First, the elements of designCsilhouette, color, detail, and textureCare explicit inputs to the decision-making process. Second, the primary unit of analysis for fashion-oriented decisions is style, not brand. Finally, the interaction of style and the consumer's physical characteristicsCbody type and coloringCis a unique aspect of the aesthetics of fashion. Unlike other art forms, the aesthetic significance of a fashion object depends on how it appears on the human body.

Like conventional models of consumer behavior, the Sproles (1979) model is based on the information-processing paradigm of cognitive psychology. As such, the Sproles model assumes an individual consumer evaluating products for his own use. The focus of most research on the aesthetics of fashion has been the evaluation of clothing worn by others, with an emphasis on expressiveness, rather than attractiveness. The results of such research provide valuable information on one set of inputs to the decision-making process, but tell little about how consumers process information on fashion objects for their own use. Moreover, the results of such research offer little insight into how consumers evaluate attractiveness. In the following discussion, we will review research on how individual consumers evaluate fashion goods for their own use. The focus will be judgments of attractiveness, rather than expressiveness.

The results of research on judgments of attractiveness are useful in building the Sproles (1979) model. The relationship between attractiveness and expressiveness was explored by Morganosky and Postlewait (1989). In mall intercepts, shoppers evaluated the aesthetic quality of 16 styles of men's and women's clothing. Attractiveness of form was rated as more important than expressiveness. Support for the assumption that aesthetic attributes dominate utilitarian attributes was offered by Eckman, Damhorst and Kadolph (1990). In a point of purchase study, female shoppers were asked to recall attributes considered in purchasing fashion items. The aesthetic attributes of color, pattern, style, and fabric were recalled more often than utilitarian attributes.

Although Sproles (1979,1981) argues that consumers process information by style, not brand, he ignores the issue of specific information-processing strategies. Holbrook and Moore (1981 tested the notion that information on visual attributes is processed configurationally. Consumers evaluated a set of line drawings of sweaters, developed from a conjoint model with interaction terms. The results of the analysis showed interaction terms to be significant, confirming that visual information is processed configurationally.

Eckman and Wagner (1994) also used a conjoint model with interaction terms to explore the processing of visual information by asking consumers to evaluate the attractiveness of men's suits. Numerous main effects were observed for individual design elements; however, evaluations of attractiveness were dominated by the interaction of jacket silhouette and color.

Sproles (1979) suggests that judgments of attractiveness may be affected by consumer characteristics, such as gender, age and personality, and external factors, such as culture. The effect of gender on judgments of style remains controversial. Holbrook (1986) studied M.B.A. student evaluations of men's tailored clothing, and found that men and women seemed to differ in their preferences for design elements. The results of other research (e.g., Lubner-Rupert and Winakor 1985; Minshall, Winakor and Swiney 1982; Morganosky and Postlewaite 1989) suggest that gender has no effect on aesthetic judgments. Eckman and Wagner (1994) found no difference in the processing of information by gender; however, differences were observed between older and younger consumers. Holbrook (1986) reported differences in evaluations of style by personality. Among women, the preferences of visually-oriented women differed from the preferences of verbally-oriented women. However, no differences were observed by personality among men.

In a cross-cultural study, Wagner, Anderson and Ettenson (1990) compared judgments of the attractiveness of women's suits by Chinese and American consumers. The results showed differences in preferences by culture, with the Chinese preferring longer jackets and the Americans preferring solid slacks.


Given the pervasive effect of fashion on goods and services marketed in the U.S. and around the world, and the array of research techniques at our disposal, researchers' neglect of the aesthetics of fashion is somewhat puzzling. This neglect stems from four sourcesCcultural values, misunderstanding of fashion change, the complexity of the relationship between fashion goods and the consumer, and a variety of methodological challenges.

Cultural Values

Certain values of American culture may inhibit research on the aesthetics of fashion. Such values include faith in capitalism, belief in democracy, and the association of fashion with femininity. Many Americans have a streak of philistinism, stemming from our capitalistic and democratic traditions. As consumer researchers, we are no exception. Given the narrowness and ideological bent of our business school backgrounds, many of us lack appreciation of the arts. Others of us are simultaneously uncomfortable with and attracted by the notion of status. As we assiduously avoid fashion in dress, we actively follow fashion in other types of behavior, ranging from the consumption of other products to our choice of research topics.

Research on the aesthetics of fashion may also be inhibited by the association of fashion with femininity (Davis 1992). To the extent that marketing has been, until recently, a male-dominated field, the association of fashion with femininity (and weakness) may have made research in this area less appealing. The historical record shows that before the industrial revolution, men and women were equally concerned with fashion. As labor became disengaged from the home, men adopted more conservative dress. According to Veblen's (1899) classic work on conspicuous consumption, women became the vehicle for displaying household status through their appearances. The "Peacock Revolution" of the 1960's is often cited as the twentieth century revival of interest in men's fashion. However, this appears to have done little to reduce the perception that fashion is a female preoccupation.

Misunderstanding of Fashion Change

Despite recent research on the fashion process, fashion change is widely misunderstood. The popular stereotype is one of rapid and unpredictable changes in aesthetic standards, making fashion a frivolous topic unworthy of rigorous research. The results of research on fashion change challenge this stereotype. In a time series analysis of changes in the aesthetic attributes of evening dress, Lowe and Lowe (1985) reported that the rate of fashion change is quite constant. While the amount of change in a given attribute may be erratic, the average amount of change over time is constant, and evolves in a consistent direction. The Lowes suggest that design principles govern the relationship among aesthetic attributes and serve as "brakes" on the rate of fashion change.

The Consumer's Relationship to the Fashion Object

Another deterrent to research on the aesthetics of fashion is the complex relationship between the consumer and the fashion object. This relationship has both physical and psychological dimensions. As physical entities, painting, sculpture and other visual art forms can be judged as stand alone objects. However, the aesthetic quality of a fashion object is best judged when worn on the human body. When a fashion object is worn, the elements of design (silhouette, color and texture) interact with the physical characteristics of the consumer (body type and coloring) to create form (DeLong 1987; Sproles 1979). [In fact, physical characteristics such as body type and coloring have their own fashion cycles. As documented by the fashion press and our own observations, the fashionable body of the twentieth century has evolved from plump and pale to thin and bronzed.] The entire form is then evaluated in terms of how closely it fits the "cultural ideal" of attractiveness. The complexity of the relationship between the design elements and the physical characteristics of the consumer renders the construction of valid research instruments difficult, but not impossible.

The relationship of fashion to the consumer's psychological state is also complex. While multiple motives have been ascribed to fashionable dressing, Sproles (1979, 1981) argues that aesthetic motives may dominate, or even overwhelm, utilitarian motives. The archaeological record indicates that among prehistoric people the primary motive for dress was to beautify the body. Contemporary scholars concur that among modern consumers the desire to enhance physical attractiveness continues to motivate the consumption of fashion goods. However, the pursuit of beauty is not the only aesthetic motive. A second aesthetic motive is expressivenessCthe need to convey meaning. In fact, perceptions of meaning in dress may be the most actively studied topic with respect to fashion.

Research suggests that consumers infer numerous personal characteristics, including intelligence (Behling and Williams 1991), status (Damhorst 1985), and personality (Gordon, Infante and Braun 1985; Sweat and Zentner 1985) from the dress of others. It tells us nothing, however, about the meaning consumers ascribe to their own clothing. This is a particularly intriguing topic, because in buying and using fashion goods, individuals are not just consumers; they are also designers. In shopping for fashion goods, the consumer is engaged in a creative process of collecting aesthetic objects to enhance the "constellation" of fashion goods [See Solomon and Assael (1987) for a discussion of the "consumption constellation."] that is his wardrobe. The creative process continues in the daily dressing ritual [See Rook (1985) for a discussion of consumer rituals, including the grooming ritual.], as the consumer combines fashion items with his own physical characteristics in attractive (he hopes) and expressive forms. As consumer researchers, we are beginning to explore aesthetic judgments of fashion goods. However, we persist in ignoring the creative process, which is an integral part of the consumption of fashion. The emerging experiential paradigm may lend itself well to research on the creative process.

Methodological Challenges

Holbrook (1981) noted that in using the information processing paradigm, most of us rely on the verbal/additive model. In this model, it is assumed that information is processed in a linear manner. While the verbal/additive model is useful in analyzing the processing of utilitarian attributes, which are easily presented in verbal protocols, it is not well-suited to analyzing aesthetic attributes. Because visual information is processed configurationally, aesthetic attributes are presented more effectively in pictures.

To accommodate the configurational processing of aesthetic attributes, the conventional conjoint model can be extended to include interaction terms, an approach used by Holbrook and Moore (1981), Wagner, Anderson and Ettenson (1990), and Eckman and Wagner (1994) in analyzing aesthetic judgments. In using conjoint models with interaction terms, the number of variables and interaction terms mst be limited, to keep the number of stimuli manageable. Limiting the number of variables and interaction terms also means that visual images may have to be kept simple. Fortunately, pictorial information is more easily processed than verbal information, so respondents should be able to evaluate a large number of reasonable complicated images without tiring.

Another methodological problem of research on aesthetics is developing valid instruments. The ideal stimuli would be real fashion objects (Holbrook 1986; Sproles 1981), evaluated as worn by the consumer. However, locating or developing stimuli with the appropriate set of aesthetic attributes is impractical. Researchers have compromised by using photographs (e.g., Morganosky and Postlewait 1989) or line drawings (e.g., Eckman and Wagner 1994; Holbrook 1986; Wagner, Anderson and Ettenson 1990). Photographs produce realistic images; however, unless carefully controlled, confounding variables may bias subjects' judgments. Confounding variables are more easily controlled through line drawings. When drawn for a specific research problem, line drawings offer the advantage of experimental control over the manipulation of aesthetic attributes. However, line drawings make it difficult to present aesthetic attributes such as color and texture (Holbrook 1986). While presenting texture may be impossible, color can be easily added to line drawings, which can then be photographed and shown as slides (see Eckman and Wagner 1994). Line drawings have been criticized for being less realistic than photographs. Whisney, Winakor and Wolins (1979) compared consumer evaluations of attractiveness from line drawings and photographs, and found no difference.

The next best thing to real stimuli may be virtual reality. In recent research at Harvard, consumer shopping behavior was studied by simulating a store environment (Burke 1994). Retailers are speculating that there will soon be programs allowing consumers to see images of themselves wearing different fashion items. Such technology would be well-suited to research on aesthetic judgments.


Research on aesthetics in general, and fashion, in particular, is in a position similar to that of gift-giving research ten years ago. Numerous questions present themselves. Some will need to be answered by research in the information processing tradtion; others will be more amenable to research in the experiential paradigm. Our review and assessment of research on the aesthetics of fashion design suggests the following questions for future research.

Research Questions in the Information Processing Paradigm

1. What is the relative importance of function and aesthetics in judgments of fashion goods? Does this differ by situationCgift or personal use?

2. What combination or combinations of aesthetic attributes is favored? Are there certain "aesthetic rules" that govern preferences for fashion?

3. What information processing strategies are used in aesthetic judgments? How do individual differencesCexperience, innovativeness and involvementCaffect judgment strategies?

4. How does the fashion object interact with body type and personality to affect aesthetic judgments?

Research Questions in the Experiential Paradigm

1. What meaning do consumers attach to their own fashion objects? Why do some fashion objects "feel right" when worn? Why do others "feel wrong" and are never worn? What meaning do consumers assign to the aesthetic attributes, such as silhouette, color and texture?

2. What is the relationship of dressing to mood and emotion?

3. What is the creative process involved in shopping and building a wardrobe? What role does collecting play in acquiring fashion objects? What is the creative process involved in the dressing ritual?


In this paper, we have discussed the role of aesthetics in fashion-oriented consumer behavior. We have reviewed the limited body of conceptual and empirical work on the aesthetics of fashion, and presented cultural, conceptual and methodological factors that may have discouraged scholarship on fashion. Finally, we have proposed questions for future research, arguing that research on the aesthetics of fashion presents a wealth of opportunities and challenges for consumer researchers.


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