After a Fashion

Muireann Charleton

The rise of fast fashion.

Paris was freezing that January day I queued for eight hours outside the Musée des Arts Décoratifs to catch a glimpse of the lavish exhibition about Christian Dior and his legendary House of Dior. Finally, when I made my way through the exhibits of haute couture, I was in awe of the craftsmanship and beauty of design that his deep and intelligent connection with materials created. Shape, stitching, colour, silhouette, form and textures: all combined in a display of mini-architectures. I marvelled in particular at Dior’s iconic 1947 “New Look” collection that featured a dream of extravagant draperies and voluminous A-line full skirts. This look was a liberation from the previous war period of frugal and austere attire. Inside the spacious Dior exhibition, I took in the rich atmosphere of sensuous fantasy. It was a reverie that for a moment I belonged in. I followed up the museum visit with another cathedral of consumption in Paris: the Gucci store on rue du Fauborg St. Honoré. That pilgrimage was for the experience, and to purchase a small black leather belt. If Gucci was virtuous enough for Samuel Beckett (photographed in 1971 with a Gucci bag), then it would do fine for me. Yet, in recent years, I have become disenchanted with this make-believe. I am more conscious of our unbridled emotional and psychological needs that give rise to our complex relationship with objects, things and fashion. Perhaps it is now time we return to an austere and humble vestiary to help mitigate fashion’s role as one of the worst contributors to the climate crisis in the Anthropocene? 

Our relationship with objects and clothes has come along way since the first pot was crafted on the banks of the Euphrates in Mesopotamia. The rise of department stores in the late nineteenth-century in Europe as formidable theatres of consumer craving enabled a sleek process of identity commodification to take place with relative ease. They facilitated in a practical way a bringing together of consumer habits among the different social classes under one architecturally impressive roof. Another big change was the practice, spawned in the twentieth-century, of styled obsolescence. This was the dubious practice of intentionally reducing the shelf-life of products in order to boost sales in pursuit of an endless upwards curve of economic growth. Both of these developments have led to mass consumption, which has  contributed to the loss of our material intelligence and appreciation of the tacit knowledge that goes with it. Now, we live in a culture in which making has become largely separated from consuming. This has obscured the importance of making. But, as writer and curator Glenn Adamson has written in Fewer Better Things (2019), the relationship we have with materials “determines much about the way we live on earth.” 

According to the United Nations, the fashion industry now consumes more energy than the aviation and shipping industries combined. Its special report found that due to its high energy production and long supply chains, the fashion industry contributes 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If that’s not bad enough, over-production of textiles leads to more than 85% ending up in landfill or being incinerated. The fashion industry is now one of the most environmentally dangerous industries in the world. And, this highly damaging sector is also the most manipulative.  

One of the features of our psychology is the way we use fashion to express our identity whether as a member of a group, or to imply our uniqueness and sense of personality. As late nineteenth-century Dandyism exemplified (a chief proponent of which was Oscar Wilde), we still use dress in codes to project a sense of aesthetic taste, authority, class and professional membership. The history of fashion also makes clear that we use dress especially to appear attractive to others. However, we are now in the era of fast fashion, with all the extra harm that implies for the environment. Closely associated with fast fashion is the new profession of “influencer,” an online role to peddle or endorse product in a 24-hour cycle of the new. Coupled with the vanity-appealing digital platform Instagram, influencers have helped develop a see it, buy it culture that stormed a whole new generation. “Shop the look” has become a norm for millennials who are digitally seduced into endless purchases from cheap high-street fast fashion stores. Superficially, yet understandably, at the heart of this activity is a longing for visibility and connection to a congregation for both the influencers and the influenced. In his book Taste (2017), writer and founding director of the London Design Museum Stephen Bayley showed how fashion is primitive in its insistence on exhibitionism. It cannot survive isolation from the gaze of others. Remove the stage, and it ceases to perform. 

Fast fashion has also perpetuated the myth that buying something new is the same as attaining worth. In addition, a critical factor is how fast fashion producers make garments so cheap to manufacture that there is a strong incentive for consumers to buy frequently in spite of increasing awareness about the impact this has on damaging the environment. Many of us who work in design were horrified at two shattering events. One was the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in which an unsafe garment factory collapsed killing over a thousand workers. The second in 2018 was the fashion house Burberry destroying millions of pounds of stock in order to preserve its brand exclusivity. Fashion is the monster that feeds on its own skin. 

But, fashion designers know how things are made; they work with raw materials, factories, production. They know how to cost items of clothes. They understand the price of fabrics, embellishments, packaging. They are acutely aware of the economic principles of supply and demand. So, they work with marketing teams and social media influencers to conjure up advertising campaigns with the sole purpose of creating a desire in us to consume their products. Some of these campaigns use multiple artists: talented photographers, stylists, copy writers. The results are often akin to magical stories. The late Vogue magazine stylist Isabella Blow was particularly famous for extravagant fashion features, often obscuring the narrative away from tawdry consumption and towards artistic expression. And there is real and fulfilling art to good fashion design. Nevertheless, the goal is still to sell fashion and to use the earth’s limited resources for this purpose. No wonder then, that fashion designers often talk in codes, communicating that their work is pushing artistic boundaries, committed to ideals of beauty and innovation. But many are trapped in a system not of their own making but one they are sustaining; a harlequin masquerade pushing a re-worked new while the climate declines. 

The author and activist Naomi Klein saw all of this trouble coming when she was researching her ground-breaking 1999 book No Logo. Decades earlier Vance Packard warned us in his compelling in 1952 book The Hidden Persuaders on the ways we were being manipulated by advertisersDesigner and pioneer Victor Papanek’s 1970 guidebook, Design for the Real World, was one of the first brave voices of protest from inside design itself, as he encouraged designers to create only for positive environmental and social change. I often try to imagine a world where designers in training and practice adhere faithfully to Papanek’s words. He wrote, “As socially and morally involved designers, we must address ourselves to the needs of a world with its back to the wall…” Environmental and social responsibility has to be integral to design education. We need to do more to educate the next generation to be these social and morally involved designers that can solve the complex, global challenges of our time. 

Today, there are a few leaders in the fashion industry who try to connect sustainable principles with creative enterprise. Leading the charge is Stella McCartney, one of the rare fashion designers to work by a code of ethics. For example, declining to work with leather, McCartney explores technology and innovative processes to create products made from recycled plastic (recycled fishing nets). There is also the former punk designer Dame Vivienne Westwood, who has in recent times pleaded with consumers to buy less and to “choose well, make it last.” The time has come to reconnect with the concept of slowness and Slow Fashion, which will require us to buy garments that are designed for long-term use. Quality of materials and construction for longevity, combined with an enthusiastic culture for fixing and repairing, can become a seductive proposition again. Much like the pastoral in poetry and art, perhaps a nostalgia for a making and mending way of life can be marketed to us. I often reflect that perhaps buying fast fashion in the future will be viewed in the same way as smoking: unhealthy and no longer cool. But we do need to develop an intelligent relationship to the fabrics we wear and the way our clothes are produced. Well-designed, well-made and long-lasting clothes such as a Studio Donegal tweed waistcoat, or a battered Barbour re-waxed jacket can give us an enhanced and deeper connection with the fabrics we inhabit. We can sense they are not shallow things.

Since there is no scientific or philosophical evidence that we are what we wear (or don’t wear as the case may be), we should be able to embrace releasing ourselves from the relentless pursuit of the new, and pivot our desires towards the imperfect and the serviceable. Perhaps we can embrace the ancient Japanese philosophy of wasi sabi, discovering the beauty in the imperfect, the worn, the already used. This is as much a battle-cry for the persistence of craft, as it is a Gregorian chant for behavioural change.

And what of my black Gucci belt, once so beloved and desired? It is stored away for now in a dresser drawer, in a graveyard of things. 

Muireann Charleton is a Lecturer in Design at the Yeats Academy, Institute of Technology, Sligo. She  co-curated a design and craft exhibition entitled Generation for the National Design & Craft Gallery, Kilkenny, which was scheduled to open 12 March 2020, but was postponed due to the Pandemic.