Our passive entanglement with material goods continues – A social perspective on fast fashion
Fast Fashion has become somewhat the norm of modern society; as soon as a garment goes down the catwalk, in next to no time at all, a cheaper more accessible version appears on the high street. Arguably this culmination of mass production and growth of consumerism has had undeniable consequences on the fashion industry. Clothes can communicate a lot about a person but are they losing the meaning they once had. There is a blurring of status as everyone is able to afford the fashions of the elite. This has made way for a very materialistic generation.
Clothes have always had a hidden language; they portray aspects of the wearer’s subconscious. You can also usually tell somebody’s social standing through what they are wearing as different types of clothing have their own class connotations. Through what we choose to wear we put on a face to the world.
This can be seen throughout history where “it was assumed that the people you met would be dressed as lavishly as their income permitted” (1) and that “to dress above ones station was considered not only foolishly extravagant but deliberately deceptive” (2). Assumptions about people’s status through their appearance can not only be traced throughout history but also across culture; Lurie (1992) for example, states that in some Polynesian tribes the bigger your waistline the higher up you are socially – it is assumed that as you are consuming more than everyone else, you have more wealth, more status. This is the same with fashion – clothes can signal status.
A very obvious divide of the classes is shown as “traditionally the more outfits one can display the higher ones status.” (3) The social elite would have different forms of dressing suited for different social circumstances. They would change suit or dress between lunch and dinner. Lower classes wouldn’t have a choice of outfits: they had everyday clothes and Sundays’ best. This would serve to identify where you stood in society – something which tends to disappear in the modern day.
After the war Dior launched the New Look; this popular and iconic fashion of the time however was altered as it trickled down into mainstream fashion. “It is commonly accepted that cheaper mass-produced copies of designer fashion tend to dilute or otherwise tone down its more extreme aspects” (4) but in Chic Thrills, Ash and Wilson (1992) argue that the lower status social groups didn’t want a diluted version of the original but rather a more practical one. They’d adapted the design to suit their daily needs, “they combined the practical and glamorous in a hybrid of styles” (5). Fashions experience the trickledown effect; moving from the very highest of social circles they eventually reach the very lowest, to never be touched by the elite again. Today the effect is more of a Trickle Across that sees several versions of a design evolve with minimal differentiation to suit the needs of different social classes.
When it comes to fashion there are many marketing ploys to try and maintain a divide between the classes. The most obvious is branding: constant visual images, logos and brand colour that instantly make us connect products with their high end label “If it was clearly labelled and known to be extravagantly priced, it would be enthusiastically purchased.” (6) However as soon as cheaper, poorly made copies become mass produced the item quickly becomes undesirable and the pubic moves on to the next big trend.
Everyone wants to feel part of an inclusive group, to impress others with fashionable clothing and display ourselves appropriately; to portray a certain role to the world. “In America many girls in secondary school or even younger feel acute embarrassment about wearing the same outfit twice in the same week” (7). From an early age vulnerabilities to the ideologies of status and fashion create a lasting impression. Young people want to be accepted, they strive to be part of the elite and in doing so buy more and more of what is thought to be on trend. “So strong is this compulsion that quantity is usually preferred to quality.” (8)
Conspicuous consumption is everywhere; everything around us is telling us to buy. Mass production has enabled people with little income to buy into the latest trends. With the raging battle over quality and quantity, high end design has to strive for more expensive natural fabrics in order to justify their prices. Will the availability of cheaper imitations cause the industry to die out?
It is apparent that today you cannot easily tell who has money. Fashion has become individual – a mix and match across eras, genres and price brackets to create something entirely new. The desires to own a prestigious item that cannot be realistically afforded still exist. The industry however leads us to believe that you can portray a higher status by dressing in a certain way. Mass consumerism has caused instability in high end fashion. Can we justify spending large amounts of money on fashion that may be reproduced cheaply and might go out of fashion just as quickly? Our passive entanglement with material goods continues as we are stuck in a ceaseless cycle of retail consumption, being plugged an increasing amount of must-have fashion pieces.
. (4) (5) Ash, J & Wilson, E (1996) Chic Thrills, A Fashion Reader, Pandora Press
. (2) (3) (6) (7) (8) Lurie, A (1992) The Language of Clothes, Bloomsbury
This article was written and submitted by Katie Booth for Round 1 of Modeconnect’s International Fashion Writing Competition. Katie was invited to take part in Round 2. Read all the published submissions.
All images courtesy of Marie Roure @ Fashion Copycats