If you’re anything like me, you hold the conviction that fashion is fun. There’s nothing better than scrolling through the pages of a fashion blog or trying on the uber-expensive, uber-stylish dress that you will never actually buy. But what does fashion actually say?

Is it a creative form of self expression, or, as my boyfriend sullenly claimed, “a sign that your parents are rich enough that you can drop a bunch of their dough at American Apparel”? Truth is, although fashion indubitably has ties to consumerism, it also has a strong interplay between culture, society and identity. A sociology professor emeritus at the University of California-San Diego, Fred Davis, explored these ideas in his 1992 book Fashion, Culture, and Identity.

Like any aspect of self presentation, fashion can be decoded, with different qualities that subtly express notions of our identities. There are many well-established associations that have linked fashion to personality expressions, such as the link between angular shapes and dark colors with masculinity and curvilinear shapes and bright colors with femininity, Davis wrote. However, most qualities of fashion do not have the same universal messages, and they communicate different meanings to different people.

In this way, fashion is highly dependent on group contexts, Davis explained. Within a social group that appreciates edgy, fashion-forward style, a pair of spiked Jeffrey Campbell Lita heels are a coveted piece that will make the group drool with envy. Yet, if one was to wander to the fashion-indifferent sphere of, say, a Badger football game, those fabulous six-inch clunkers suddenly seem ostentatious and wildly unnecessary. Likewise, one might think a thrift store flannel looks great with cut-off shorts, ripped tights and combat boots during a walk to campus, but the businessman passing by on the way to the Capitol could likely hold conservative fashion values and label said grunge-tastic getup as just plain messy.

However, even if people interpret fashion symbols differently, these symbols often have common concepts that can be viewed with a variety of sentiments, Davis said. Take, for example, a girl with an adorable pixie cut that resembles a boyish fop. No one will deny that the girl is incorporating aspects of androgyny into her look, but people will have varying interpretations of this androgyny.

More progressive onlookers may applaud her for denying feminine conventions and will see it as a sign the girl is strong, independent and daring. Conservatives may view the breaking of feminine conventions as a perversion of nature, lamenting that the girl has given up some of her “feminine charms.”

A trend itself can also have different perceptions over time. When a trend first emerges (or, more likely, re-emerges) in the fashion world, it is jarring and usually taken as edgy.

These trends are coveted by the fashion-forward and scoffed at by conservative dressers. Yet, over time, trends are adopted by mainstream culture and become much less noticeable. Seven or eight years ago, there could be nothing hipper than a pair of skinny jeans. Within a sea of flares, pin-straight pants had a rock-and-roll vibe that would turn heads – some of which would look on in disapproval. Now, skinny jeans have become part of the uniform for a majority of young girls and boys, and only the most fashion indifferent people dare to wear the low-waisted boot cut jeans that were the norm less than a decade ago.

In fact, at this point, a pair of high waisted, ’70s-inspired flares would be much more cutting-edge than those trusty skinnies.

Anyone with even the smallest interest in fashion is sure to notice how rapidly trends change. After all, you wouldn’t be caught dead in an outfit that was your absolute favorite five years ago.

There are many forces behind these changing trends, the main of which is the instability of social identities, Davis concluded. Fashion marketers pull from collectively experienced social movements that define the sentiments during the search for new trends. Society and subgroups within society play with certain contradictory qualities, such as masculine vs. feminine, work vs. play and conformity vs. rebellion.

Clothing simultaneously reflects these changes in social identity, and when, such as now, individualism is a valued quality, more rebellious styles such as leather jackets and one-of-a-kind thrift store finds are the trendiest options.

Every season, fashion changes ever so subtly to reflect changes in social identity. Last year’s maxi skirt is taken up a few inches to become an adorable midi, and classic oxfords are replaced with loafers in wilder prints. The question is: Do these subtly changing styles signify different notions? Once again, Davis’ answer is it is contextual. For the fashion-forward, there is no denying that they do change. Yet for the fashionably indifferent, the purchase of a new pair of shoes for every season seems shallow and altogether unimportant.

The truth is, no matter what you wear you will never get universal approval. Neither will you cause universal disgust. Fashion is an individual phenomenon based on culture, context and identity, and despite the fact that Elle Magazine may be telling you to wear this or that, the point of fashion is to wear what you want.

Maggie Schafer is an English and sociology major in the creative writing program. Send her your comments, questions or opinions on the latest trends at [email protected]