Clothing & Fashion

Clothing & Fashion (2)

Why Fashion Matters

Dr. Anthony Sullivan explains why and how fashion matters, in an era when‘fast fashion’ highlights the absurd waste of precious energy and resources by capitalism’s ‘favourite child’.

Fashion matters for any serious analysis of culture because like eating or drinking and unlike say playing an instrument, dancing or reading novels, reading poetry, blogging, vlogging or even playing sport or watching films it is something that we all do – even when we may think that we don’t!

It’s easy to chauvinistically dismiss fashion as the terrain of the vain, naïve, lightweight or superficial – but who amongst us did not dress themselves this morning? So fashion matters because the burden and/or the pleasure of fashioning ourselves is something none of us can truly ignore or completely avoid.

This morning, who amongst us did not enact in sociological terms a form of Goffman-esque self-presentation to ourselves and the world? For Goffman, transforming the back stage ‘private self’ into something more ordered and appealing for public consumption ‘front of stage’ captures the ubiquitous practices of dress we all engage in every day of our lives.

Of course some declaring themselves to be naturists would clam to be wholly disinterested in fashion and dress – but who goes naked onto our streets to visit friends, to work, shop and live in the buff? And moreover even when naturists claim to be ‘naked’, each and every one of their ‘natural’ bodies still bears the marks of culture – of which the effects of the gendered differential in bodily practices of grooming and the management of hair are but one obvious example.

Fashion and fashioning the self matters then, because it is always a social activity premised on the evaluation of the self and other, even for those who are unaware of its trickle-down diffusion and who believe themselves to be beyond its contagion.

Indeed the fact that judicial judgment of our appearance turns ‘nakedness’ and exposure of the genitals into a potential crime (in the case of nipples and breasts significantly for women alone) draws attention to the highly socially regulated, thoroughly political and meaningful nature of embodied dress in its modern form fashion. Just think through these couplets – hoodie and ‘chav’, ‘Burkini’ and beards and ‘fundamentalism’, ‘tramp stamps’ and….? 

Drilling down into some ‘deeper’ thinking about fashion then, Elizabeth Wilson’s now classic scholarly critique in ‘Adorned In Dreams’ argues fashion ‘layers culture on the body’. It really matters on many levels therefore because dress as the basis or raw material of fashion is a universal aspect of all human culture. This means that whether it’s in terms of wearing garments, bearing tattoos, piercings and forms of scarification and other bodily adornment and modifications there is simply no human culture which goes unadorned and unfashioned.

Understood using Marx’s work, as I have argued elsewhere in the edited collection published in 2016 ‘Thinking Through Theory’, fashion is fundamentally indicative of our very ‘species-being.’ As a play of form with and over function, it can be seen as an exemplary case of the distinctive aesthetic expression which, Marx argued, marks out the objects/products of human labour as purposeful yet also purposeless instances of our propensity to design and make as he puts it ‘beyond necessity.’

But, and this is where things become even more interesting, Wilson adds fashion is not simply dress:

What is added to dress as we ourselves know it in the West is fashion. The growth of the European city in the early stages of what became known as mercantile capitalism at the end of the Middle Ages saw the birth of fashionable dress, that is of something qualitatively new and different…..Fashion is dress in which the key feature is rapid and continual changing of styles. (ibid, 4-5)

Here then we come face to face with fashion as a specific system of dress which is best described in my view as ‘capitalism’s favourite child’ a phrase first coined by the German writer Werner Sombart in1902. Exactly why this is the case was articulated by the seventeenth century political economist Nicholas Barbon who with the greatest of foresight wrote, “fashion, or the alteration of dress, is a great promoter of trade, because it occasions the expense of clothes, before the old ones are worn out.”

A writer who Marx read and was greatly familiar with Barbon points us to the importance of fashion commercially and economically. Fashion’s mutability acts as a key means, in Marx’s terms, with which to increase the turnover of goods and to facilitate the circulation of capital. It enables the ever more rapid movement of surplus value from its origins in the productive labour embodied in every commodity, through sale and onto its final realisation in the form of ‘profit’.

A lot has now been written about the cultural connections between capitalist modernity and post-modernity and fashion.There is a wealth of literature, much of it timely and significant in its focus on the power of fashion to both perpetuate and resist the rigid and often oppressive binary structures of sexual and gender identity in particular. But there is far less examination of the culturally infused dynamics of the economy of fashion, and its centrality to capitalism.

The way in which various forms of identity and subjectivity have emerged with capitalism and how these have come to be expressed and resisted and, in post-structuralist terms ‘performed’, has formed the epicentre of critical attention in fashion scholarship. However, disinterring the precise nature of the role of fashion in the creation and disruption of not just social, ethical and cultural meaning but also economic value remains a relatively marginal activity.  

Here cultural economy approaches have made significant contributions to emerging debates about the nature and creation of value and meaning in fashion. Jo Entwistle’s suggestive analysis of ‘the aesthetic economy of fashion’ in her book of the same title is one important example of this approach. In addition, there is recent post-Marxist work on brands from the critical theorist Adam Arviddson. He argues labour has increasingly moved outside Marx’s circuit of value as consumers themselves become ‘prosumers’ and co-producers of new forms of value, ‘surplus value’ and even capital, and also presents some interesting new leads to explore and productively critique.

If ever there was a case that any cultural form was ‘co-produced’, fashion must be a consummate example, given the sheer amount of mostly hidden work which goes into both producing and consuming it. The labour of fashion so rightly critiqued for its gender politics by second-wave feminism, and observed so acutely too by Marx when he wrote ‘a dress becomes really a dress only by being worn’ needs then much more careful attention and critical exploration. This applies not only to the sweated labour of its production – something Marx subjected to an excoriating critique in Capital Volume One (1990 [1867]) –  but also to the ‘active’ labour of its consumption as a form of secondary production.

In an era when ‘fast fashion’ highlights the absurd waste of precious energy and resources by capitalism’s ‘favourite child’ it is perhaps unsurprising that sustainability for much of the fashion industry has come to mean little more than understanding ‘green’ is the new black! Here the kind of fundamental Marxist critique of capital’s concept of value as self-expanding labour productive of ‘surplus value’ – the destructive and myopic condition of our collective social labour – is yet to be applied to fashion in order to demystify and deconstruct the archetypal  ‘consumer’ industry.

Finally then fashion, as I have hopefully begun to show, matters on almost every level of socio-cultural and economic analysis from the subjective to the systemic… even perhaps to the most po-faced of Marxists. It certainly mattered to Marx.

The everyday creative activity of clothing ourselves

Dr. Joanne Entwistle offers a foundation essay on fashion, and the everyday creative cultural activity of clothing ourselves.

Not so very long ago, fashion was a rather ‘silly’ and ‘frivolous’ aspect of culture that was not worthy of scholarly attention. Barring a few key texts, such as Wilson’s Adorned in Dreams (2007, first published in 1985), classic studies of fashion from sociologist Simmel (1904) and social psychologist Flugel (1930) and a range of anthropological analysis, there was a surprising dearth of analysis on fashion and dress which my first monograph The Fashioned Body in 2000 (Polity Press) set out to address. However, by the time of the second edition in 2015, the situation was very different: the intervening years had seen a veritable explosion of interest in fashion, dress and the body that I would never have predicted in 2000. This development coincided with the rise of ‘consumption studies’, examining different aspects of ‘consumer culture’ and a growing interest in all things to do with the ‘body’, with fashion one area that appeared to connect these two up (food within consumption studies was the other big development at the time).

Fashion continues to now be an object of intense social, moral and political scrutiny, often as headline news as well as academic enquiry. Exploitative labour practices though global sub-contracting chains, first identified in the 1990s by the likes of Fine and Leopold, Naomi Wolf and Andrew Ross, continue today, and in recent years culminating in terrible accidents, such as Rana Plaza 2013 factory building collapse in Bangladesh which killed 1,000 garment workers. ‘Sweated’ labour in nineteenth century England is alive and well in many parts of the world today.

JE article Mission observation FIDH

Sewing machinists in Bangladesh

Fashion, as a system of dress the core of which is a concern with changing aesthetic trends, has complex spatial and temporal formations and goes to the heart of ‘modernity’. It was a driver in the Industrial Revolution with cotton production, spinning and weaving, the original industries that moved populations in the UK to city life. Today it is an engine of modernisation in the developing economies, from Turkey, to India, China and Bangladesh, which are core production hubs in the long sub-contracting chains that lead all the way to H&M and Zara on Oxford Street.

The ‘fast fashion’ model of accelerated fashion cycles in the west/north have not only led to injustice to human lives: it is also costing the earth and has become an object of intense environmental and political critique. Today many scholars, such as Kate Fletcher, writing on fashion and sustainability, argue that the rapid and uncontrolled consumption of natural resources to feed this market in cheap, throwaway clothes is taking its toll on water, land, energy, and other resources, while the transportation of clothes from the south/east to the north/west adds to the carbon footprint of the clothes themselves.

JE article 02014. Wickerman Fest at Kiczera Hill in Wola Sekowa Slow Fashion

Slow fashion

Fashion has also entered mainstream through very public media debates, and very photogenic news items, about body image and the restricted ideas of beauty propagated by the fashion industry. An extensive scholarship on the fashion modelling industry now exists and provides for more sustained critique of the skinny, young, white, tall bodies of models as marking out culturally valued and valorised bodies and reinforcing gendered and racialized norms.

Where does this scholarship and media attention get us in terms of understanding the power and potency of fashion? What is the appeal of fashion? And what of the critiques of fashion in contemporary cultural theory?

To take the first question: fashion has long held an allure. The temporal dimension of changing one’s clothes to be ‘in fashion’ (not when worn out) was once the preserve of a small elite, initially of Kings and courts. It’s only when fashions begin to spread outside the courts to the increasingly numbers of bourgeoisie and nouveau riche with incomes to spend on clothes, and through expanding media channels, that anything like a modern fashion system begins.

Fashion was often described as ‘trickling down’ from the elite trend-setters (still often in court but later in ‘society’), to wider populations, though this over-simplifies the historical movements of tastes. However, there is general agreement among historians and academics that the circulation of fashions comes hand-in-hand with the emergence of the modern class system, as issues of taste - in clothes, homes, food, and manners - drive competition between strangers living in modern cities.

Thus, the very idea of changing one’s style of dress to have ‘this season’s’ sleeve or collar or skirt length is very much tied to the birth of modern consumer culture, accelerating over the 18th and 19th centuries as a new class system emerges. Fashionable dress as an expression of one’s ‘identity’ comes to be ‘fabricated’ in increasingly anonymous spaces of the city, a fact exploited by many characters of modernity - such as dandies, flaneurs, and creative artists.

However, it isn’t till we arrive at the 20th century that the shop-bought clothing item that is the basis of today’s ‘fast fashion’, becomes readily available to more people than ever, with a disposable income to spend on clothing that can be discarded after a short while for being ‘out of fashion’. Before then, fashions spread through patterns and were largely made at home or by dressmakers. The rise of subcultures and mainstream youth culture in the mid-20th century, further accelerated by rising incomes and media imagery, demonstrate the power and appeal of fashion as a resource for ‘identity’ play and performance.

JE article fast fashion

Fast fashion

The story of the modern fashion system is, therefore, not only a story of changing industrial production and consumption patterns: it also a story of retail. From drapery stores to department stores, to boutiques and markets, the circulation of fashionable clothes is about the practices of ‘going shopping’. The appeal of fashion is not just about wearing particular clothes but shopping for them. The rise of social media has simply added new dimensions to this (the ubiquitous ‘selfie’ and ‘outfit of the day’ on Instagram) over and above fashion magazines, by spreading the changing styles. These are no longer on the older, two fashion season model of autumn/winter, spring/summer but multiple monthly ‘drops’ of new items and styles.

Just as speeded-up consumption generally has become politicised, so too has fashion: indeed, it is possibly the exemplar of this and more critiqued than, say, our rapid consumption of phones or other gadgets. What of the critique of this? The rise of ‘slow’ fashion, like ‘slow food’ and practices of second-hand shopping, upcycling and ‘hacking’, are in different ways challenging and experimenting with different, and sustainable ways of engaging with and taking pleasure in clothes, in ways that are much less exploitative of human and non-human life.

Fashion, an industry which is often demonised by academics, feminists, and political activists on the Left remains, however, and we cannot simply ‘do away’ with it, and nor would we want to. As an industry it can be exploitative but has also played an influential role in economic development and growth here in the UK and abroad. Moreover, the appeal of dressing and changing one’s clothes and the playfulness of dressing throughout the life course is no longer the preserve of a small elite but an everyday act of creativity by many, men and women, young and old alike. Increased critique of fashion and awareness, though initiatives like Labour behind the Label which campaign for the rights of garment workers, and awareness of the best practices among retailers to guide shopping habits, can help create socially aware as well as fashion-conscious consumers.

JE articlde IMG 4310 min 1024x683

 The women who make our clothes: Photo by Heather Stilwell for Labour behind the Label