“I love fashion because it is like an extension of my personality and represents the kind of mood I’m in.”
“It can tell people to back off and leave me the hell alone, or it can invite people in and show the softer side of me. Fashion gives a certain amount of freedom to people and allows them to be who they want to be. Plus most of the time it just makes people look so damn pretty.”
- Written by a keen advocate of fashion on a forum I entered upon searching: ‘Why do people love fashion?’
It would seem that there is a great majority who have developed a stern opinion on fashion. Take for instance the rise of fashion blogs and ‘style bloggers’, each catering to niche styles in the market by relaying advise whilst promoting brands and trends. Perhaps this obsession with fashion might also have something to do with the dramatic increase in variety in terms of styles, shapes and avenues available for purchase; it’s also possible that the staggering growth of social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook has lead to a higher frequency of cross-media exposure to fashion icons such as men’s fashion guru, Nick Wooster broadening the appeal by making the fashion world more accessible whilst stimulating consumer desires at the same time.
It is of no surprise that an industry worth $1.5 trillion dollars is so far-reaching and I suppose that from a consumer’s perspective, it is expected that people want to get involved. Yet what’s questionable about this far-reaching influence of fashion is that it exposes the most hideous features of capitalism — elitism, selective appeal and envy. Furthermore, contemporary fashion’s extensive influence is being undertaken by the end-consumer without an actual awareness of the social cost involved in the manufacturing of those garments that we so desire. Perhaps some of us are ignorant, or maybe we all choose to be so.
The fashion industry is and has been capitalism on adrenaline for a very long time. A simple indicator of this is the fact that the industry produces short-term, seasonal goods that are manufactured at the hands of poor factory workers and are then sold to profit the already privileged few. Workers on production lines on the other hand face drastically different circumstances as the garment industry is now tarnished with consistent heinously driven treatment of said workers. Treatment that is ultimately legitimated because we are so eager to buy the latest pair of Jordans or the newest seasonal collections because our favourite celebrity is endorsing it.
Workers in a factory in Guatemala who produce garments for revered brands such as Tommy Hilfiger were robbed of $6 million in wages, all the while its management fired sixty workers who attempted to unionise. Similarly Bangladeshi garment factories still exploit child labor with eleven-year-olds working up to 11 hours a day.
The Rana Plaza incident of 2013 when the factory collapsed and killed 1,129 workers prompted a new inspection programme which has been undertaken in Bangladesh to assess working conditions. However, this has not convinced active investors in the Bangladeshi manufacturing industry, let alone human rights activist and public institutions. For example, last week Cornell University cut ties with clothing and bag manufacturer JanSport Apparel and although that stands as a bold move worthy of respect you can’t help but feel that it’s merely the tip of the iceberg in combatting this modern-day dilemma which bares no discrimination as it affects underprivileged men, women, children and the elderly.
These kinds of incidents are not uncommon – but the terrible death toll of Rana Plaza meant such incidents could no longer be ignored. Yet, with all the aforementioned information about the fashion industry’s ills, why do so many of us remain complicit by refusing to renegotiate our consumer habits?
Such complicity doesn’t sit well with me as I can’t help but feel that there must be more to this conscious ignorance in regards to fashion. Why do we choose to ignore the evils of the industry whilst the effects of our complicity can be found in every thread of the clothes we slide into every morning?
I think the problem begins when we start to cultivate a personality through the materials we choose to wear but here is where conflict arises – When defining ourselves by our own personalised dress code has been normalized and is so deeply entrenched in our consumer mindsets, conditioned by our rampant consumer culture then it seems to result in a scenario through which clothing becomes an important component of our personality, of our identity. One merely has to look at the fact that there is a brand that fits every size, shape and outlook.
Levi’s latest campaign, ‘Live in Levi’s’, is essentially marketing a product that transcends demographics such as age, gender and occupation. More importantly the campaign focuses on the mantra of ‘every pair of jeans has its story’, an idea that draws upon the emotive elements of the consumer experience. Hence what’s being sold is much more than just jeans, but rather a dubiously romanticised experience for all. “Levi’s are for everybody,” says Jennifer Sey, and it’s hoped that the campaign will “open the brand back up to everybody”.
Of course, you cannot think of clothes without thinking of shopping, an activity that has now become a form of escapism and a source of comfort; to the extent that figures now show that following the recession the average family spends more on clothes than on food.
Fashion then is our beloved medium of escape through the act of shopping. Fashion also acts as an extension of our personality through both style and branding and ultimately inhabiting an intimately personal space in consumer culture.
However what’s amiss in this whole mash is that we (me very much included in this) become wilfully ignorant of the callous hands that sweat, bleed, toil even die producing our shirts and trousers. And while we may curse the system for having bestowed upon us the 1%, we stay silent when it comes to the crimes of fashion because it caters to our individualistic desires, the pleasure of picking out a new item of clothing for our weekend antics. In that moment the news of Rana Plaza and the drudging system of exploitation is no longer a thought because that item of clothing just means something to us.
Ultimately I struggle to reconcile my love for fashion with the knowledge of all the intense ills it perpetuates and misdeeds it commits. Although initially I chose not to face the stark realities of the fashion industry, it becomes strikingly troublesome to not think of the carnage elicited by the collapse of Rana Plaza when taking part in the privileges of this so called democracy.
I guess Levi’s new mantra is quite true, ‘every pair of jeans has a story’, and although we may have believed that that story of our jeans began the moment we picked it off the shelf, this is simply not the case. The story of our jeans began quite some time before we received our monthly paycheque, in a poorly run factory where the hands which toiled over them have no value and in most cases no future, a part of the story which tends to simply be forgotten.