Fashion Literacy


What really separates Fashion’s Leaders from the rest of us mere enthusiasts? Is it their personality, their style, their insight or something else? Psychologist Elijah Kellman’s research points towards some interesting findings.

Shopping behaviour, particularly in a fashion context, is quite an evasive topic of study: Just as civilization, commerce, fashion and society have evolved and flourished with time. In my undergraduate study, I attempted to examine fashion purchase behaviour, by anchoring it with more pervasive social motivations.

In the field of contemporary consumer behaviour we refer to 2 types of individuals: Fashion Opinion Leaders: who influence fashion consumers and have a greater than average interest in fashion and their counter-parts, Fashion Opinion Seekers: who are influenced by the views delivered by Fashion Leaders. I should clarify, neither Seeking nor Leading is better than the other, they simply refer to 2 different ways in which we interact with fashion information.

Research in the 70’s proposed Uniqueness Theory which suggests that feeling highly similar or dissimilar to others is unpleasant for us and we strive to avoid this negative emotion by being positively different to them. Further, we can satisfy this Need for Uniqueness (NFU) in many ways, one of which is through our fashion purchases. Doing so in this way relates to our consumer-NFU, i.e. how unique we wish our purchases to be. 

So NFU and the more specific consumer-NFU are two separate ideas. One could be high on their general NFU – behaving eccentrically, but also be low in their consumer uniqueness in that they buy the same fashions as everybody else; and vice-versa. In any case, lets imagine NFU on a scale: where a stronger need is characterised by a desire to be more dissimilar to others.

We already know that Fashion Leaders, have a higher NFU than do Fashion Seekers, but I wanted to additionally measure consumer-NFU and extend this idea to get a better picture of the social factors which may motivate shopping behaviour.

Another drive for behaviour, which has been around since the beginning of civilisation, is our need to belong; our desire for enduring attachments to others, which leads us to seek out others and maintain relationships.

 Karen Pine created a Fashion Literacy Test which measures how ‘brand aware’ we are. Being able to identify brand names and also correctly identify and ignore false brands is the fundamental basis of the more fashion literate individual. For the first time in the literature, I used the Fashion Literacy Test to examine if Fashion Leaders were in fact more knowledgeable of brands than fashion seekers.

I collected data from 200 people on the way they interpreted fashion information (leading or seeking); how unique they wished to be from others both generally and in a fashion context; whether or not they had a need to belong; and how knowledgeable they were of fashion. I intended to find patterns between these social factors to detail today’s shopper and establish what may explain their fashion purchasing habits.

The findings were not entirely as expected! Not one person, leader or seeker, achieved a fashion literacy score of over 30%. This means that not even the self-professed leaders of fashion had an average level of brand awareness despite their social status! Fashion leaders were also not any more likely to have a NFU, even in a consumer context, which seems rather counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?

The findings of my research posit that the Fashion Leader of my UK sample is likely to be an ‘uninformed’ one, who basically is still the source of fashion information within their social circle, despite not actually possessing a great deal of fashion knowledge. Research suggests they would make up for this lack of knowledge by using social media more effectively.

As expected, those of the sample whom identified as Fashion Seekers had a desire to belong; wished to be similar to other fashion consumers, and knew less than average about fashion.

The one factor which motivated both leaders and seekers was their need to belong- emphasising the sense of belonging that fashion shopping can elicit. Besides this, the paradigm shifts slightly in that Fashion Leaders were found to lack core knowledge, and their typical need to be different from others.

It seems then, that today’s fashion consumer could be thought of as both leader and seeker, where we can express our uniqueness not only through our purchases but also through our social media usage. Knowledge of brands is less prevalent today, and instead the way we communicate fashion ideas is of greater importance in our social groups.