Cultural Capital & Fashion

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was known as a sociologist of culture. He wrote on cultural, economic and social capital and used these concepts to analyse the workings of the fields of culture, art, fashion and its subfields – large scale production and restricted production, notably in his book Distinction: a social critique of the judgment of taste (1979).

One’s position in a field is determined by one’s capital. In his sociological essay The Forms of Capital (1985), Bourdieu identified three categories of capital: Economic capital as economic resources such as money, assets and property; Social capital as resources linked to a network of relationships, acquaintances and recognition; Cultural capital as a person’s education, knowledge and intellectual skills.

According to him, the latter, cultural capital, comes in three forms – embodied, objectified, and institutionalised. Embodied cultural capital is the knowledge either acquired or inherited through culture and tradition – one’s accent or dialect is an example. Embodied cultural capital is not transmissible, but is acquired over time. Objectified cultural capital refers to a person’s property such as a work of art, a luxury car and so on. It can be transmitted for economic profit and for symbolically conveying the possession of cultural capital facilitated by owning such as things. Institutionalised cultural capital comes from an institution’s formal recognition of a person’s cultural capital, such as credentials and qualifications which attest of one’s cultural competence, authority and distinction.

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PRADA Epicentre New York, Rem Koolhaas


Earlier, I mentioned the subfield of restricted production whose values of art for art’s sake dominate practices and aesthetic judgments. In Haute Couture and Haute Culture, Bourdieu draws a homology between high culture and high couture to argue that:

When I speak of Haute Couture, I shall never cease to be speaking also of Haute Culture.

– Bourdieu

Despite this, Bourdieu argues that the fields of Haute Couture and Haute Culture occupy different positions in the hierarchy of culture, in which fashion is situated in an intermediary position. Therefore, members of the field of fashion mobilise references to high culture in an attempt to elevate their status and consecrate fashion.

The references to the legitimate and noble arts, painting, sculpture, literature, which give most of its ennobling metaphors to the description of clothing, and many of its themes to the evocation of the aristocratic life which they are supposed to symbolise, are as many homages that the ‘minor art’ makes to high arts. […] It is the same with the eagerness which couturiers are keen to demonstrate on the topic of their participation in art or, by default, in the artistic world.

– Pierre Bourdieu and Yvette Delsaut (1975), Le Couturier et sa Griffe

An example of this phenomenon is the collaboration between Prada and Rem Koolhaas in the creation of the New York and Los Angeles epicentre stores. Koolhaas’s cultural capital is appropriated to produce symbolic capital for the Prada brand. His status as an “avant-garde” architect contributes to establishing and communicating a particular image of the brand by association. In a field known for its struggles for power, iconicity is a key component to staying relevant. The Prada brand image or “aura” was one of artistic sensibility. The epicentre stores were all individual depending on their urban and cultural context but shared common characteristics in that art was a central point of the project. Through installations, digital content and a smooth minimalist architecture, Prada further established its artistically engaged image by combining art, architecture and fashion within a public space.


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Prada Marfa, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset


In 2005, artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset created Prada Marfa, a sculpture of a Prada store situated in the middle of nowhere in Texas. Prada Marfa can be read as a critique of consumerism, luxury branding and gentrification, however, the artists probably didn’t expect their installation to reinforce Prada’s image as the brand was now associated with Elmgreen and Dragset’s innovative, critical, and liberal values. Instead of shying away, Miuccia Prada embraced their work and recognised the strength of its statement. By doing so, she cancelled the work’s critique of her brand.

This image carefully crafted by Prada is a badge of authenticity, but more than that it consecrated the brand within the field of fashion.

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PRADA Epicentre New York, Rem Koolhaas


Bourdieu, P. (1986) The Forms of Capital

Cultural Capital – Pierre Bourdieu,

Agnès Rocamora, Pierre Bourdieu – The Field of Fashion,

Nicky Ryan (2007) Prada and the Art of Patronage, Fashion Theory, 11:1, 7-24, DOI: 10.2752/136270407779934588,

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