We would be willing to say that the single most psychologically interesting category of consumer good is clothing; the evidence supporting such a position is ample, and it could be argued fairly easily. Even those who disagree, though, would certainly concede that an individual’s fashion choices are of enormous psychological importance and are influenced on a number of axes. Just to provide a few examples of these influences, fashion choices might be motivated by ethical concerns, social signalling, cultural identification, political support, or even technological reasons (that is to say, the quality with which a given clothing article satisfies the explicit purpose for items of its type: the quality with which a watch tells time, the comfort of a pair of pants, and so on). Perhaps the most obvious example of ethical consumerism is the movement away from fur, which is particularly ironic for our purposes because fur coats were formerly a memetic status symbol (the term “mink coat” conjures to mind images of conspicuous consumption and the “good life”).

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Someone might use their fashion choices to make their cultural identity apparent both to others and to themselves; for example, an Indian immigrant might mix American and Indian clothing as a way of articulating his own multicultural identity. Some people will even use their clothing to indicate their political affiliations. In this essay, we will examine three forms of external motivations that can affect consumer’s purchasing decisions when buying clothing: ethical, cultural, and social motivations.Ethical consumerism is a term that is often bandied about in academia, usually with the faintest implications of a disappointed sigh. This is something of an exaggeration, of course, as there are many scholars who are satisfied with the direction that the ethical consumerism movement is taking, but there are others who feel it has failed to live up to its potential (Shen, Wang, Lo, & Shum, 2012). The idea of “ethical consumerism” sounds quite compelling, of course. Would not virtually everyone prefer to own clothing made from cruelty-free materials, assembled in fair-trade factories that treat their employees with dignity, and transported in environmentally-friendly ways? The answer is yes, of course — but the optimism this might engender is misplaced, because there is another question whose answer is much more important.

That question is “how much of a premium are consumers willing to pay for ethical products,” to which the answer is a much gloomier “not much.” What’s more, consumers oftentimes have very confused ideas of what actually is ethical consumerism — as Joergens shows, consumers frequently evaluate organic products as being more ethically important than fair-trade products, despite the fact that a product’s being organic says virtually nothing about its ethical merits (Joergens, 2006, pp. 367–368). However, all is not lost — Shen found that ethical consumerism can be promoted by companies who focus their advertising efforts on emphasizing the ethical merits of their products (Shen et al., 2012). It is therefore too early to count out ethical consumerism as significant motivation in consumer behavior, at least in the future; however, we must acknowledge that today ethical consumerism has not lived up to its potential as a motivating factor in consumer purchases.

The second motivating factor we will investigate here is the usage of clothing to indicate cultural identity that is distinguished from the “norm.” To elaborate on our meaning, consider the case of American immigrants’ clothing choices. The process of Americanization frequently involves the decision to overtly identify with one’s ethnicity or cultural identity, often more strongly than the subject would have so identified had he remained in his home country (Subbaraman, 1999). There are at least two ways of looking at this: the first perspective on this sort of cultural identification is that it is an act of rebellion against oppressive or normalizing forces operating within American society; the second is that these patterns of identity expression are a positive way of representing one’s past culture in one’s new culture, a way of establishing a shared cultural dialogue. We believe the second perspective is more accurate, but in any case, this overt cultural identification occurs. As Subbarman writes, “the sartorial site becomes an (in)different space where the complexities of cultural citizenship are enacted, debated, and resolved. Clothing functions as a way to create and maintain group identity, while also signalling differentiation from the larger surrounding culture” (Subbaraman, 1999, p. 575). We therefore see a phenomenon wherein those who identify strongly with a non-dominant culture (immigrants, children of immigrants, those active in a particular ethnic community) tend to make that identification apparent in their fashion by mixing clothing from the non-dominant culture with clothing that we might call “western.”

Finally, we will consider what is perhaps the most obvious role of clothing: social signalling. O’Cass and McEwen are particularly relevant here because they have proposed that a dichotomy exists between two types of status identification that are commonly conflated (2004): status consumption, which is inwardly-directed and serves to reinforce the consumer’s self-identity, and conspicuous consumption, which is outwardly-directed and serves to reinforce the consumer’s social status in the minds of those in his or her social group. Expensive underwear would be the most obvious example of the former category, a lavish dinner would be a clear-cut example of the latter.

What is particularly interesting is that both of these forms of consumption seem to have enormous influence on the sartorial motivations of consumers (Piacentini & Mailer, 2004). As Piacentini and Mailer explain, clothing in particular is a consumption category that carries “high perceived risk,” that is, clothing is highly visible socially and is understood by the consumer to be highly visible. It therefore is extraordinarily vulnerable to social pressures in ways that (for instance) one’s choice of toothpaste or personal computer would not be. This effect is particularly pronounced in younger consumers, who tend, more than any other age group, to be highly status-conscious: “Consequently, it has been revealed that young status-conscious consumers are more likely to be affected by interpersonal influences” (O’Cass & McEwen, 2004, p. 37).
We can conclude by recapitulating our assessment of these three types of motivating factors, with an eye towards comparing the magnitude and prevalence of the influence of each. Despite the intuitive appeal of ethical motivations concerning what products to buy or not buy — after all, who would want to buy clothing produced by what is essentially modern slave labor? — ethical consumerism actually has a disappointingly slight effect on consumers’ purchasing decisions.

However, this effect can be increased by marketing that focuses on the ethical merits of a particular product. Cultural identification motivations are much more pronounced, leading certain subgroups of the population to dress in ways that are noticeably different from the “norm.” These motivations, however, are restricted to the aforementioned subgroups — a white, fourth-generation immigrant of Irish, German, and French ancestry is unlikely to feel an overwhelming urge to wear culturally-significant attire. Finally, and most prominently of all, social signalling motivations affect the fashion choices of virtually everyone. As has been pithily observed numerous times, man is a social animal. Perhaps the single most important social signal (certainly the most obvious one) is the clothing that a person wears. Because it is clear to the consumer that his or her clothing choices have enormous social significance, social signalling motivations have an enormous magnitude and breadth of influence.

  • Joergens, C. (2006). Ethical fashion: myth or future trend? Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management: An International Journal, 10(3), 360–371.
  • O’Cass, A., & McEwen, H. (2004). Exploring consumer status and conspicuous consumption. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 4(1), 25–39.
  • Piacentini, M., & Mailer, G. (2004). Symbolic consumption in teenagers’ clothing choices. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 3(3), 251–262.
  • Shen, B., Wang, Y., Lo, C. K. Y., & Shum, M. (2012). The impact of ethical fashion on consumer purchase behavior. Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management: An International Journal, 16(2), 234–245.
  • Subbaraman, S. (1999). Catalog-ing ethnicity: Clothing as cultural citizenship. Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13698019900510831