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Fads and fashion are related yet fundamentally different social phenomena. Fashion is the more important of the two. Its general nature is suggested by the contrasting terms “in fashion” and “outmoded.” These terms signify a continuing pattern of change in which certain social forms enjoy temporary acceptance and respectability only to be replaced by others more abreast of the times. This parade of social forms sets fashion apart from custom, which is to be seen as established and fixed. The social approbation with which fashion is invested does not come from any demonstration of utility or superior merit; instead, it is a response to the direction of sensitivities and taste.

Although conspicuous in the area of dress, fashion operates in a wide assortment of fields. Among them are painting, music, drama, architecture, household decoration, entertainment, literature, medical practice, business management, political doctrines, philosophy, psychological and social science, and even such redoubtable areas as the physical sciences and mathematics. Any area of social life that is caught in continuing change is open to the intrusion of fashion. In contrast, fashion is scarcely to be found in settled societies, such as primitive tribes, peasant societies, or caste societies, which cling to what is established and has been sanctioned through long usage.

The picture of fashion as a distinctive social process in which collective judgment of what is proper and correct shifts in response to the direction of sensitivity and taste sets three major questions: What is the nature of the situation in which the fashion process operates? What is responsible for its operation? What societal role or function does the fashion process perform?