How Fast Fashion Is A Form Of Economic And Social Control

by: Courtney Sanders | 3 years ago | Features

Image: From New York Magazine's piece about Normcore. Image source.

I love fashion. I love how creative directors of the luxury houses deliver thematically profound collections every season. I love how these themes reflect the social and political zeitgeist of the day, and how, if you look at the history of fashion, you can see the history of society and politics, too. I love how Meryl Streep, playing Anna Wintour, waxes lyrically on the importance of cerulean blue to Anne Hathaway, playing someone who wants to be a ‘proper’ journalist, in The Devil Wears Prada. I love the time Björk wore a swan to the Academy Awards.

Which is to say, when the luxury seasonal collections come out, I spend too much time working out whether I can afford to buy a pair of, just for example, pointed toe, multi-brocade, lace-up boots by Raf Simons for Dior’s resort 2016 collection. If I paid this week’s rent slightly late, if I didn’t buy any other clothes, if I didn’t drink or eat out, nay, if I didn’t eat, would I be able to buy them? The fact that I consider clothes art, and that I work in an office where we are exposed to real samples (in my size) of said art on a daily basis, does not help with this decision-making process.

When fast fashion came along in my early twenties, I, along with almost everyone else in the world, got extremely excited. I could now actually afford to buy into runway trends, and I did, too. I bought tea dresses inspired by grunge, I bought kilts influenced by punk, I bought slip dresses inspired by Kate Moss’ wardrobe, and I bought jeans with things called ‘whiskers’.

Within a few years I was in a serious relationship with fast fashion. Fast fashion gave me short-lived but frequent ego boosts, and I gave fast fashion money. Over the years I bought a lot of fast fashion pieces, and the short-lived but frequent ego boosts slowly turned into guilt, then slow turned into an overflowing closet of things I didn’t wear. From here, I started to ask the questions I'm now obsessed with: why is this stuff so cheap? Why is the quality so bad? Why do I buy it if I throw it away or hide it in the back of my closet after wearing it once?

Why did I buy it at all if I didn’t really like it in the first place?

I don’t like blaming myself for anything which goes wrong in my life. I will happily admit that as an almost-millennial, I will actively try to blame The Current State Of Things for a lot of things which go wrong in my life. If I can’t get a job, it’s because the media industry is in flux, and not because I’m just not very good at what I do. If I don’t have any money to pay rent, it’s because the economy’s in flux, and not because I went ahead and bought the pointed toe, multi-brocade, lace-up boots by Raf Simons for Dior. Which is why, when I asked myself the question, ‘why did I buy it if I didn’t really like it in the first place?’, I had to go in search of something, or someone, to blame. And I found it, in a little theory called Inverted Totalitarianism.

Two years ago I went to a conference in New Zealand, hosted by the Auckland University of Technology, about the future of fashion. Some of the talks I sat in on during this conference were rubbish: is it worth discussing how people will self-design, then 3D print, their own clothes, when we haven’t yet invented the input for 3D printing which will allow us to do this, and when we have no evidence to suggest people actually want to design their own clothes (and when people are lazy)?

But one speaker enraptured me, because in this one speaker I found the thing I could blame my bad fast fashion habits on. Otto Von Busch is a fashion academic. He wrote his pHD, Fashion-able: Hactivism and Engaged Fashion Design at the University Of Gothenburg, Design And Crafts, and now works on ‘hacking’ the fashion industry to make it better, through personal work and through his role as the Associate Professor of Integrated Design at Parsons, The New School, in New York. He believes the current fashion industry model needs ‘hacking’, because it’s fundamentally broken, dangerous even, and he uses a term called Inverted Totalitarianism to describe it.

Inverted Totalitarianism is a term coined by political philosopher Sheldon Wolin in 2013 to describe modern U.S. politics. Totalitarianism requires active, often aggressive participation in politics by some part of the population. Inverted Totalitarianism requires the opposite: apathy. In his project, The Current State of Fashion, Otto Von Busch imagined the fashion industry as if were “a state with no dictator, but with a population all too eager to follow every command and is a totalitarian state hidden under the consumer paradigm of “free choice”, a mythical superpower with a political mannerism in the footsteps of what political philosopher Sheldon Wolin called “Inverted Totalitarianism”".

It sounds absurd. People can’t be controlled by the decisions they make about pants! However, they can be controlled to make those decisions in the first place.

Fast fashion companies have hijacked the benefits of globalisation to create a cyclical system where they create, market, sell, re-create, re-market, and re-sell us things we don’t need, before we know it’s happening. This is something I know because it’s something I feel, and because it’s something I’ve witnessed first-hand, which means it must be infallibly true, right! As far as I know, there are no studies which analyse the control fast fashion companies have over our purchasing decisions, but it’s pretty easy to see how much power fast fashion companies wield.

When the problematic production conditions at Nike factories were uncovered in the ‘90s, customers stopped buying its product, forcing Nike CEO Phil Knight to release a statement in which he said, “The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse,” and forcing the company to radically change its business model in order to survive. In 2013, when Rana Plaza in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,000 garment workers, the fast fashion companies which were directly implicated in the disaster came out largely unscathed. For example, in 2014, one year after the disaster, Primark’s profits soared by 30%.

In this video, Alexa Chung sits down with trend forecasting agency, K-Hole, which coined the term Normcore, to discuss the idea that Normcore is an art project, not a fashion trend, much less a fashion movement. But if a movement isn’t a bunch of people doing the same thing at the same time, then I don’t know what it is, and over the past couple of years, there has certainly been a lot of people wearing drab clothing. I think Normcore actually developed from the disillusionment, by fashion’s early adopters, of the trend-driven nature of fast fashion. Fiona Duncan argues much the same thing in this piece for New York magazine, which arguably popularised the trend. There’s nothing less trendy than grey marle track pants after all.

Or, at least, there was nothing less trendy than grey marle track pants. By 2015, Normcore, thanks to fast fashion companies, had hit the mainstream, and wearing sweat suiting was less about standing out and more about fitting in. Now, Normcore is largely gone and we’re onto, and wearing, the next thing. Which is the whole problem. 

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