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