A while ago, I was asked to compose an essay in response to the following question, 'Envisage a world where you would like to live, what place does fashion have in this world and what does it look like?', as a part of a thought experiment project.
The essay was previously on an embargo, but it is now edited and available to share publicly. It is written in a different style than what I would post here (more academic and with references!) That being said, I thought it would be nice to share it with you all. Enjoy.
As ironic as this may sound for this particular essay, fashion, in my dream world, would only occupy a small fraction of the market and serve a designated purpose. Rather, it is personal style that dictates our approach to dressing.
Now, while this extreme view towards fashion is, partially, a purely reactive outcome of what role fashion currently has in the world we are living — an impermanent occurrence that is driven by the ever-changing appeal of the trend-setters.
It is pivotal to acknowledge the definition of fashion itself is intrinsically contradictory to the notion of sustainability — the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
In this short essay, I will first further elaborate on why fashion has little place in an ideal world, followed by proposing a sustainability-driven framework on style.
Similar to some of its green solution predecessors, sustainable fashion, under its current paradigm and the way it is being scoped, does little other than treating the symptoms.
While the lifecycle mode of thinking, alongside the recent linkages to social sustainability regarding labor rights and empowerment, has doubtlessly advanced the genre considerably, it falls short in realizing its full potential.
Put it this way, fashion, despite at its purest form manifests as the normally unsung yet exceptional statement which is highly valued, it is controlled by the very few that determine the socio-cultural output in reality.
Unsurprisingly, this has always been the case throughout history (Klimek, Kreuzbauer, & Thurner, 2019), as exemplified by the tailcoat of the early modern era to the tracksuit of our time. Additionally, it matters little whether the fashion trend symbolizes the counter culture or not.
The case of the tracksuit simply demonstrates the counter could easily become the dominant — considering at the end of the day, the dominant and the counter are easily two sides of the same token. With these societal connotations constantly shifting their positions, fashion could hardly be truly sustainable. Thus, to tackle the problem from its core, it is pivotal to move beyond the contemporary definition of fashion.
This leads to the question of what is the alternative.
While in an ideal world, where feasibility and repercussions were unnecessary concerns, I would simply suggest the unlinking of garments from their existing associated culture or time period, and a campaign of a societal behavioral/ perception change to enforce that idea.
Now, it goes without saying that this is unlikely to happen in reality, especially with the latter half; yet there are still some elements which could be salvaged from this fallen Tower of Babel.
To put this into perspective, under the current connotations and trends, garments ranging from the 1980s ‘power suit’ to the starched spear-collar shirt would be deemed un-wearable — not because they are in a poor condition for wearing, though that could be the case if they are not well-taken care of, but because they have certain associations that conflict with the mentality of the day.
However, it is crucial to acknowledge that this mode of thinking is only self-imposed and does not benefit the wider considerations of sustainability. Hence, while it is challenging to overturn everyone’s mindset, individuals could start moving beyond this psyche, and bit by bit, influencing others’ thoughts.
Nonetheless, this is only the first step to moving beyond this paradigm.
Without trendsetters to 'shed light' on what is 'acceptable' to wear, the question becomes what should one wear. To this, my reasoning would argue this is where the notion of ‘honing your style’ becomes ever more relevant, based on my commendation on individualism, alongside the psychology behind the emotional attachment that one has towards their preferable garments (Candy, 2005; Steve, 2015).
To put this into context, we could take the example of classic menswear. While the majority of the enthusiasts would start off being fascinated over different tailoring traditions — English, Italian, and the sub-variants in between — as well as the formality of cloths, etc., such that they would want to try them all, as if they were a style-collector.
This could not last forever because, with refined taste and self-discovery of what works and what does not, they would eventually distill into a smaller collection of what best resembles their style, identity, and so forth (Crompton, 2020).
Unlike those who would chase after fashion trends, they would focus on what is most important to them, thus manifesting the notion of being sustainable despite that not necessarily being the main intention.
Unfortunately, this is only observed in a small range of the population at the moment, with those who are best at honing their style either being individuals who have experimented and thought about their style very deeply or those who are closely related to the fashion industry. Hence, in order to turn this into reality, more guidance on how one can discover their style would be pivotal.
This is not a simple task, however, as there is no common consensus on whether style can only be acquired through making mistakes and self-learning (Coggins, 2016), or that it could be attained through being enlightened by those who are 'wiser' — designers, makers, shop keepers, image consultants, etc.
Going back to my ideal world, my take is more aligned with the latter, as the former would only imply textile waste, namely garments fallen out of favor as a part of the self-discovery process, must be produced before one becomes closer to being sustainable.
On the contrary, if the truth is the latter has happened before, as described in the following, then it could undoubtedly be reenacted again, despite the required effort.
"With most sellers’ incomes derived primarily from commission, fashion advice is too frequently prejudiced by the prospect of a sale.
It’s rare to find a salesperson inclined to dissuade a customer from buying an ill-fitting or unflattering garment, because of the pressure to sustain or increase his figures…
Whereas this might sound like chapter and verse from any period in twentieth-century menswear, such was not always the case. The twenty-year span bookended by the two world wars marked the high point of American men’s retailing and fashion.
This was the last time that the manufacturing, retailing, and editorial sectors of the menswear industry worked together to ensure the delivery of what it promised: authentic style and correct taste." (Flusser, 2002: p.8)
Finally, this leads us to the ultimate question — what role do the stakeholders, apart from the wearers themselves, have in this imagined world.
Even though the previous steps allow us to be more sustainable from an environmental perspective, it does not contemplate how the livelihood of the day, and more precisely the well-being of artisans and craftspersons, along with designers and salespersons, and most importantly, current garment factory workers, should be taken care of.
While the potential prospects of the first four players are relatively straightforward to solve, since they would be operating around the wearers — offering them advice, crafting their garments based on their lifestyles, or even just becoming friends with them, etc. — the latter is arguably the most challenging as their existence is largely inseparable from fast fashion.
And indeed, as contested by Gordon and Hill, "altering the way we consume fashion may not be without negative ramifications: across the globe, millions of livelihoods depend upon the constancy of change in fashion. These challenges, many of which have existed for over a century, will not be easily or quickly solved." (2015: p.XVI)
That being said, similar to how other industries have to be killed off to make way for greener industries or climate-change-related reasons, there could also be new opportunities awaiting for these former workers (Harrahill and Douglas, 2019).
From empowering these workers with new jobs that require their former skills, to re-training them to develop necessary skills, if not sharpening their existing talents for new roles, there would certainly be rising demands if the “revival of the artisan” scenario is to be ever more predominant.
A better fashion future can only be achieved if humanity is willing to look back to its past.
In this short essay, I first discussed why fashion, or sustainable fashion, has currently failed to address a fundamental issue that is embedded in its nature — namely the ever-changing trends that are set by the very few.
I then offered a sustainability-led framework on style, which covers how one could move beyond the tradition of following trends, hone their style with the guidance of the experts, as well as what role does existing stakeholders have in this new reality.
Undertaking a systematic change is never a simple task, yet given the bright new future that is waiting for us, enduring a slight hardship during the process is easily justified.
Candy, F. J. (2005) The Fabric of Society: An Investigation of the Emotional and Sensory Experience of Wearing Denim Clothing. Sociological Research Online. 10 (1), 124-140. Available from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.5153/sro.965. Available from: doi: 10.5153/sro.965.
Coggins, D. (2016) Men and Style: Essays, Interviews and Considerations. New York, Abrams.
Crompton, S. (2020) Honing your style. Available from: https://www.permanentstyle.com/2020/08/honing-your-style.html.
Flusser, A. (2002) Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion. New York.
Gordon, J. F. & Hill, C. (2015) Sustainable Fashion; Past, Present and Future. Bloomsbury Academic.
Harrahill, K. & Douglas, O. (2019) Framework development for ‘just transition’ in coal producing jurisdictions. Energy Policy. 134 Available from: doi: 10.1016/j.enpol.2019.110990.
Klimek, P., Kreuzbauer, R. & Thurner, S. (2019) Fashion and art cycles are driven by counter-dominance signals of elite competition: quantitative evidence from music styles. Journal of the Royal Society Interface. 16 (151), Available from: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsif.2018.0731.
Martin, S. (2015) The Psychological Reason Why We Wear The Clothes We Wear. Available from: https://graziadaily.co.uk/fashion/news/psychological-reason-wear-clothes-wear/.