The Dynamics of Style and Taste Adoption and Diffusion: Contributions From Fashion Theory

ABSTRACT - Understanding style and taste must be built on the conceptual framework of contemporary fashion theory. This paper presents an overview of contemporary fashion theory and positions the dynamics of style and taste within that framework. The concept of the fashion change agent as a multi faceted role player in the origination, adoption and diffusion of style and taste is also reviewed.


Charles W. King and Lawrence J. Ring (1980) ,"The Dynamics of Style and Taste Adoption and Diffusion: Contributions From Fashion Theory", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 13-16.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 13-16


Charles W. King, Purdue University

Lawrence J. Ring, University of Virginia


Understanding style and taste must be built on the conceptual framework of contemporary fashion theory. This paper presents an overview of contemporary fashion theory and positions the dynamics of style and taste within that framework. The concept of the fashion change agent as a multi faceted role player in the origination, adoption and diffusion of style and taste is also reviewed.


The classic expression of fashion is in the area of clothing and apparel, dress and adornment. The term fashion in popular usage generally refers to clothing fashion. In fact, frequently, clothing and fashion are synonymous terms.

Clearly, clothes and wearing apparel are probably the most visible examples of fashion. Fashion in the clothing context is widely discussed by the population and frequently reported upon by the nation's press. Clothing fashion has been researched by academics ranging from marketers to psychologists and from home economists to sociologists. However, fashion is a more generalized phenomenon and is apparent across a wide range of material and non-material contexts.

The concept of fashion goes well beyond just the context of dress and adornment. Fashion is also apparent in a wide range of other contexts such as furniture, architecture, and automobiles which are material in nature, as well as such non-material context as child-rearing techniques and art appreciation. In order to understand the generalized concept of fashion, some definitions are appropriate.

The Two Dimensions of Fashion

Fashion may be thought of as two-dimensional and encompassing both the fashion object and the fashion process. The fashion process is the process by which a potential fashion moves from its point of origination to public acceptance. The fashion process is characterized by the introduction of a fashion innovation; its early adoption by fashion leaders; the diffusion of the fashion object throughout a particular sociocultural network; and the eventual decline in acceptance of the fashion object.

The fashion object refers to a specific object, such as a particular dress, an architectural style--notice the work style--or a particular style of child-rearing. Style can be defined as a distinctive or characteristic manner or appearance. The fashion object or style can be identified by the following pragmatic criteria:

1.  A fashion object must process differential characteristics that separate it from others of its class;

2.  The differential characteristics must be perceivable;

3.  The perceivable differential characteristics must be communicable, either visually or verbally; and

4.  Those perceivable, communicable differences must be operationally measurable.

Pragmatically, the goal is to monitor and track the state of development of a style in order to influence the adoption/rejection and the resulting impact of a particular style statement. If a fashion object or style does not satisfy the above criteria, then it is not interesting for pragmatic purposes of managing style adoption and diffusion.

Style in fashion is related to the concept of taste. Taste refers to an individual preference or inclination toward or for a particular style. For example, one individual's "taste" in clothes or another individual's "taste" in art.

Fashion is really the intersection of style and taste. When a style is preferred by--or is the taste of--enough members of a particular social system or group of associated individuals to become discernible, it becomes a fashion.

The Definition of Fashion

Generalizing the concept of fashion to a broadly based phenomenon, fashion may be theoretically defined.

A fashion is a culturally endorsed form of expression, in a particular material or non-material phenomenon, which is discernible at any given time and changes over time within a social system or group of associated individuals

More intensive analysis of this definition reveals that it succinctly describes a rather complex interactive behavioral system. A fashion...

1.  Has acceptance... "is culturally endorsed;"

2.  Is a specific entity... "form of expression in a particular behavioral or material phenomenon;"

3.  Is visible... "is discernible;"

4.  Has a specific time focus.. "at any given time;"

5.  Is fluid and flows... "changes over time;"

6.  Has a sociological focus in a particular cultural unit or sub-unit... "in a social system or group of related individuals."

Dress: The Classic Fashion Experience

Clearly, fashions are a broadly based phenomena. However, as noted at the outset, clothing fashions are the classic arena of fashion expression. Based on a history of popular usage, fashion has become implicitly synonymous with clothing fashion.

The generalized definition may be modified to relate to any specific fashion context. In the classic arena of fashion, application of the generalized concept, would produce this definition:

A clothing fashion is a culturally endorsed style of aesthetic expression which is discernible at any given time and changes over time within a social system or group of associated individuals.

A style of clothing is a particular aesthetic and physical configuration of an apparel item. The style statement of the apparel item is based on several design dimensions such as silhouette, line, hem length, color, fabric, waist length and so forth. Taste refers to the level of acceptance--popularity--of a particular style statement at any given time within a particular social system. A style may be in or out of taste, and therein lies its fashionability.


Clothing Fashion Adoption: A Process

Fashion adoption is the process by which a new style is adopted by the consumer after its commercial introduction. The adoption of a new style entails a shift within the population from the styles appropriate at a given time the previous year to the new style offerings of the current season. Individuals adopt at different speeds and at different times. Various fashion adoption process models have been postulated to attempt to explain and predict the intricacies of the movement.

Fashion adoption actually operates on two geographical dimensions:

1.  adoption flow within a given social environment, community or trading area;

2.  adoption flow from one community to another.

The geographic adoption flow is generally called definition.

At any given time within and across geographical markets, there are a wide range of different styles "in fashion." The degree of acceptance of a particular style is measured by the volume of that style that is being worn in the market. The level of acceptance of a particular style will typically vary across different market segments and geographic areas.

The Clothing Fashion Season and Fashion Cycles

The consumer fashion adoption process operates within the time dimension of a "season." The concept of "season" is an artificially defined consumer buying period structured by the fashion retailing community. Merchandise appropriate to the calendar and climate of the period and initiates the season. The particular buying period or season is closed with the introduction of the next period's merchandise.

The culmination of the consumer fashion adoption process is the array of styles that are worn and, thereby, are "in fashion" at a particular point in time in a specific culture. Gradual long term secular trends in apparel fashions have also been documented. These secular trends have been labeled "fashion cycles."

The goal of the fashion researcher or of the pragmatic fashion manager is to understand the process by which new styles are created, introduced, adopted and diffused across the population.

The Traditional Model of Fashion Adoption

The traditional fashion adoption model has historically been referred to as the "trickle down" theory. The central hypothesis of the theory, the vertical flow hypothesis, held that fashion adoption flowed vertically from the upper classes to the lower classes within society. (Foley, 1893, Simmel, 1904).

The Changing Market Environment

While the early historical evidence generally tends to support the "trickle down" notion, it should immediately be observed that the modern social and marketing environment is dramatically different from the class structure which existed at the turn of the century and before. Given the development of mass merchandising and manufacturing strategies, the proliferation of mass media information and influence, and the increased levels of disposable income, it is clear that the contemporary fashion environment has indeed outgrown the "trickle down" of fashion which characterized earlier eras.

In fact, across the consumer population, sizable and frequently updated wardrobes are accumulated by almost all segments of the population. With more equitable wealth distribution and modern, rapid manufacturing techniques, style differentiation across social classes is essentially non-existent.


Contemporary Research on Fashion Leadership

Early fashion theory and exploratory research established the concepts and broad behavioral dimensions of fashion leadership. In recent years the concept of fashion leadership has been further subdivided into the study of the fashion innovator and the fashion opinion leader. (King, 1964, Summers, 1970, Baumgarten, 1975).

Analysis of the fashion adoption process and the dynamic consumer roles operative in the process have been well documented. These roles have introduced a different assessment of the fashion adoption process.

Contemporary fashion theory suggests that there is more of a "trickle across" flow than a "trickle down" flow in the fashion adoption process; that fashion adoption occurs simultaneously across the time dimension and across socioeconomic groups; and that innovators and opinion leaders play key roles in directing fashion adoption and represent desirable market segments within social strata. (King, 1963, 1964).

The Fashion Change Agents: Broadening the Theoretical Perspective

Building upon the empirical research on the fashion innovator, the influential and the innovative communicator, the motion of a broader form of fashion change agent role has emerged. (King, 1964, Sproles and King, 1973, and Ring, 1977).

Fashion involvement is a highly participative, social and visible form of consumer behavior. The highly involved, fashion oriented consumer performs numerous simultaneous and collective roles in the fashion adoption process. Therefore, a pragmatically valid conceptualization of a fashion change agent must include the multidimensionality of the roles involved in propagating fashion movements.

The multiplicity of theoretically relevant fashion change agent roles is illustrated in the following concepts. In reviewing the concepts, it should be kept in mind that the simultaneous performance of these roles is potentially both a requirement and a simultaneously active role performance of the change agent:

1.  The change agent is relatively innovative in dress behavior within his or her social networks. However, in the absolute sense the change agent may not always be among the earliest adopters of a newly introduced style?

2.  The change agent communicates fashion trends within his or her immediate environment, in either or both of the modes of visual presentation and verbal discussion of style trends.

3.  Change agents are relatively more interested in and knowledgeable about fashions than other segments of the population. Though the change agents may not necessarily be up-to-date with all current styles, they can knowledgeably communicate information on current alternatives, and legitimatize or instigate group interest in future adoption.

4.  Change agents have a high capability to aesthetically or artistically assembly stylish apparel presentations. They maintain a knowledge and sensitivity to appropriate dress expression, frequently referred to as "good taste." When recognized by their associates for the capabilities, they become establishers of group standards of dress behavior, operating within the confines of group normative standards.

These concepts illustrate the fashion change agent as something more than simply an innovator or opinion leader as traditionally defined. Broadly speaking, the fashion change agent is a higher order fashion influential or fashion stimulator with a combination of unique skills and personal fashion attributes. The fashion change agent has a combination of fashion innovative-ness, information transmission, knowledge, and social legitimization traits. As a visible performer in the fashion arena, the change agent performs simultaneously a variety of roles which stimulate the fashion adoption and diffusion process.

With respect to fashion innovativeness, a small segment of the population represents style innovators of a sort. Traditional fashion leadership theory has focused on that narrow "elite" segment of the population which presumably influences the larger fashion market. Furthermore, a somewhat larger segment of the population does innovate or experiment with unique styles, designs, and fads, most of which never become popularly accepted fashion by the masses.

Similarly, it cannot be doubted that a significant segment of the population engages in fashion interpersonal communications. And it follows that a significant amount of direct face-to-face information communication takes place. Interpersonal communication of fashion information is likely to take place in nearly all segments of the population, at differing times, involving differing subject matter, and with differing levels of impact.

The broader and more expansive conceptualization of the fashion change agent construct is based on several findings that have emerged from both the empirical consumer research and analysis of fashion industry practices:

1.  The basic components of the fashion change agent identity, innovativeness and opinion leadership, are apparently highly intercorrelated.

2.  The fashion innovator acts broadly as a change agent, by virtue of the power of visual communication of newly selected styles.

3.  In the mass fashion market, a large proportion of the population is interested in fashion participation, and constantly monitors the current fashion trends.

4.  Mass fashions are simultaneously available to the fashion consumer in nearly all price ranges.

5.  Mass communications and rapid production of fashion increased the rate of fashion diffusion throughout the population. The time compression of fashion diffusion confounds the strict identification of innovators and opinion leaders. Major market adoption is accelerated instead by a broadly identified change agent segment of the population.

The fashion conscious, or fashion change agent, sector of the population is generally defined as a large and broadly fashion oriented market segment. A large percentage of the population is fashion "interested" or "oriented," at least in terms of continually monitoring fashion trends, if not always changing their wardrobe. Empirical data have consistently reflected as much as half the female population and 25 percent of the male population has an "active" fashion consciousness (King, Ring, Tigert, 1979). In general, this segment enjoys monitoring fashion magazines, fashion trends, new style offerings, and the social environment of fashion. They are, as a group, broadly innovative and communicative, though "pure" innovators and communicators probably form the core of the change agent segment.

Pragmatically, from the mass fashion market perspective, the large coterie of change agents control the destiny of all new emerging styles. The impact of innovators and opinion leaders in initiating a new style trend is undeniable. However, the new style, in order to emerge as a mass fashion, may need a more substantial base of endorsement. Fashion change agents provide this general endorsement. Because of its practical size and magnitude, the fashion change agents spread its impact throughout the population. It is the fashion change agent, working across geographical regions and within personal social networks, who may be the ultimate stimulant to mass fashion acceptance, or rejection in the early buyer or "faddish" stages of the fashion object's life cycle.

The fashion change agent market segment represents the potential market with the greatest probability of having an influencing impact on current fashion trends. in the adoption and diffusion of a specific new style offering, different groups of the fashion change agent sector may vary in their influence on style acceptance. For any given new style, those groups from the change agent market segment actively performing the specific roles of innovators and opinion leader to the greatest degree would be expected to have the most powerful influence.

For differing style introductions, for instance sportswear, casual wear, formal fashions, or other role performance specific fashions, those specific change agents exerting the greatest degree of power may vary. Simply stated, it may be realistically hypothesized that specific change agents vary in their impact on specific fashion product categories and over time. Depending on their personal involvement in a specific fashion product category. A fashion change agent may be particularly influential in a specific product category, for instance sportswear, and yet qualify as a follower of other change agents in other categories. Likewise, one change agent could be influential in leading the adoption of a specific item, and yet be a follower of other change agents on other similar items.


Generalizing the Fashion Change Agent Construct

The fashion change agent construct, while developed from the fashion apparel arena, may be generalized to other mass consumer focused, stylistic product categories, e.g., popular music, popular literature, residential furniture, residential housing architecture, interior decoration, etc.

In each stylistic product categories, the change agent is the segment of the population with the highest likelihood of initiating any type of style change. The critical dimensions of high product interest, high product involvement, innovative behavior and interpersonal communication propensity related to the product context, again compound to maximize the impact of the consumer change agent's in the product categories adoption process.

The Consumer Change Agent Segment as a Research Focus

The change agent is a potentially valuable bellwether of changing consumer preferences in mass consumer directed, stylistic product categories. Therefore, the product specific consumer change agent can be a potentially valuable source of information about market developments and trends.

Comprehensive and systematic monitoring of the change agent's purchasing behavior and shifting attitudes related to a specific stylistic product category would:

1.  Track the evolving product life cycles of particular style statements within a specific product category;

2.  Document the dimensions of relative taste--style popularity--across the array of style statements available within a specific product category;

3.  Identify the emerging new style "runners" about to "take off" in popularity and influence.

4.  Enrich the understanding of the dynamics of the evolving style portfolio and the character of consumer taste within a specific product category.

From this data, using the profile of consumer change agent tastes as a barometer, identification of evolving dimensions of taste and predictions of specific style acceptability might be developed.

The consumer change agent segment could also be used as a valuable concept testing/evaluation target audience. The consumer change agent segment within a specific product category could be used as the target consumer group in traditional qualitative, focused group methodologies to probe new style concept validity.


Contemporary fashion theory developed largely from the fashion apparel arena can be generalized to provide a conceptual framework for exploration of the adoption and diffusion of style and taste across the broad range of mass consumer focused, stylistic product categories. The consumer change agent construct broadened from the fashion apparel context can be useful in monitoring evolving consumer taste. Additionally, the consumer change agent may be valuable in predicting evolving style preferences within specific product categories.


Baumgarten, Steven A. (1975), "The Innovative Communicator in the Diffusion Process, Journal of Marketing Research, February, 12-18.

Foley, Caroline A. (1893), "Fashion," Economic Journal, 3, 458-474.

King, Charles W. (1963), "Fashion Adoption: A Rebuttal to the Trickle Down Theory," in Stephen A. Greyser, ed., Toward Scientific Marketing, Chicago, American Marketing Association.

King, Charles W. (1964), The Fashion Change Agents, An Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University.

King, Charles W. (1964), "Innovator in The Fashion Adoption Process," in L. George Smith, ed., Reflections on Progress in Marketing, Chicago, American Marketing Association.

Ring, Lawrence J. (1977), The Male Fashion Consumer: An Analysis of Fashion Involvement and Retail Patronage, An Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Krannert Graduate School of Management, Purdue University.

Simmel, George (1904), "Fashion," Journal of Sociology, 62, 1957, reprinted from International Quarterly, 10, 130-155.

Sproles, George B., and Charles W. King (1973), The Consumer Fashion Change Agent: A Theoretical Conceptualization and Empirical Identification. Institute for Research in the Behavioral, Economic, and Management Sciences, Purdue University, Paper No. 433, December.

Summers, John O. (1970), "The Identity of Women's Clothing Fashion Opinion Leaders,: Journal of Marketing Research, May, 178-185.



Charles W. King, Purdue University
Lawrence J. Ring, University of Virginia


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07 | 1980

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