Can We Escape Fast Fashion?

'Fast fashion' retailers have many of us in a double bind, writes Hannah McCann.

Illustration

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

 '… garments as objects, so close to our bodies, also articulate the soul'

– Elizabeth Wilson

Fashion School

Growing up in a low-income, single-parent family, I became accustomed to op-shopping. One of my favourite op-shop finds was a pair of oversized neon yellow overalls, which I’d wear with a bright pink t-shirt and black accessories as my ‘licorice allsorts’ look. I considered myself a fashionista. I found that femininity was my ticket to being more ‘normal’, considering that I came from an ‘abnormal’ family. I often missed the mark, and hit high-femme instead of girl-next-door.

Illustration

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

When I was 11, we moved from the city to the country, and it was there I discovered brands. I had no idea that wearing a big logo across your chest could be cool. Many of my wealthier peers sported branded items from their t-shirts down to their socks. When I got birthday money, or my casual job paycheck, I’d put it toward laybyed pieces at the central surf store. I thought this would be my ticket to cool.

But when it came to school, the greatest shame of all was that my clothes were often from the ‘uniform pool’ of second-hand, often out-of-date, garments. I was grateful when my mum would layby plain school-like clothes at the cheap country chain store: grey pants, nondescript maroon jumpers and brandless socks. I realised op-shops were something to avoid in a small town – because if schoolmates saw me op-shopping, they would know I was poor.

Worse for Wear

Those painful teenage days ended. Moving back to the city in my early twenties, I learned that the best – and cheapest – way to do fashion was to shop at chains that take runway trends and interpret them quickly. If you couldn’t afford the label, no problem: just find a similar version of that season’s print/colour/style, albeit in polyester, not silk.

By the time you get to the op-shop, the most fabulous pieces have already been combed out, ready to be sold back to you by that hipster retailer at 500% mark-up.

What I also slowly learned was that like food, fashion could be ‘fast’. And it seems to be getting faster still. Now, on top of seasonal trends, fashion retailers put out mid-season collections and styles all year round. Cheaper outlets release designs copied from the catwalk, almost as they happen.

With fashion on fast-forward, working conditions have gone backwards. The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh was just one tragedy to highlight the misery of garment production. More than 1000 factory workers were killed after being forced to continue working – even though visible cracks in the building had appeared.

The new speed of fashion also necessitates the fast disposal of old garments. It’s estimated that Australians buy around 27 kilograms of clothing each year, and dump 23 of them. That’s not to mention the unethical treatment of animals involved in producing leather, fur, down, and more, for clothing retail. I won’t go into the details of how those feathers get into your down jacket, but suffice to say, it is not great. By all accounts, the fashion industry is an environmental, social, and ethical disaster.

Illustration

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

There are attempts within the industry to respond to the ever-visible tragedies of fashion production. There is now a growing market trying to convince us to be careful about what products – and which brands – we buy. Transformation of the industry is up to the individual consumer, according to this line of thinking. We have to spend our money the right way and consume our fashion ‘ethically’. However, where responsibility is focused on the consumer, the question that remains is not only how successful this individual-based strategy can be, but also how equitable this approach is. Who has access to ethical fashion?

Cramping Our Style

When I think about my situation growing up poor, the most ethical clothing we had access to was second-hand. While op-shopping seems to be on trend these days, the reinvigoration of vintage fashions means that by the time you get to the op-shop, the most fabulous pieces have already been combed out – ready to be sold back to you by that hipster retailer at a 500% markup. Even if you can overcome the shame of op-shopping as a poor kid, you’re often just left with stained chain store jumpers no one wants.

If you need something specific or new, the cheapest retailers are often the most ethically dubious. Indeed, once we start thinking in terms of consuming products, it’s not just about fashion. As fashion theorist Matthew F. Pierlott asks in Fashion: Philosophy for Everyone, ‘Should a single working mother of three track down the manufacturing history of every article of clothing, every toy, and every food product she buys for herself and her children?’ As the price of electricity soars, and governments do little to invest in cheap renewable energy for everyone, it is understandable that people would buy more unethical, but cheap, down jackets.

We should be sceptical of the idea that the most powerful thing we can do is 'vote' with our dollars.

Future Fashion

This isn’t just a question of ‘basics’. There remains a question of why we might care about fashion in the first place. I am a firm believer that in a future egalitarian society, we would (hopefully) not all be forced to wear plain and practical jumpsuits. Fashion is culturally conditioned, but it is also an artistic practice of self-presentation. Fashion can be a painful means to communicate status and fit in. But fashion can also be about playing with identity and subculture or experimenting with colour, texture, pattern and form. Fashion can be a moving sculpture. It can express social commentary. Fashion, at its best, is art.

But like art, fashion is distorted under a capitalist system that demands hyper-consumption and pursues profit above human life, the environment, animal wellbeing or creativity. Designers are forced to exist in a dual world of mass-production versus creative integrity. Some designers produce both a cheap and unethically produced fashion line available in chain stores for the masses – and an exclusive line of hand-sewn art for those to whom cost doesn’t matter at all. The most ‘ethical’ consumers of fashion, then, are the ones who can most afford it; who are indeed gaining their consumer capacity from profiting off a whole corrupt system in the first place.

Supporting organised campaigns for more accessible ethical clothing is a good step. But we need to keep in mind the tensions, and limits, of the idea that there can be ethical consumption under this system. When so many are economically contstrained to act, we should be sceptical of the idea that the most powerful thing we can do is 'vote' with our dollars. We should keep an open mind as to what fashion on the utopian horizon could be: the artistic stylistic pursuit of joy, creativity and expression.

And – if the reforms of the fashion industry can't deliver this for everyone – we might have to think about what else needs revolution.

Portrait of Hannah McCann

Dr Hannah McCann is a lecturer in gender studies at the University of Melbourne. Her research explores feminine gender presentation as represented in feminist discourse and in queer femme LGBTQ communities, and she is currently working on a research monograph for Routledge, titled Queering Femininity: Sexuality, Feminism and the Politics of Presentation.

She has published in the Australian Humanities Review, Australian Feminist Studies, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and on the Conversation, writing on topics including postfeminism, affect theory and queer femininity.

In 2015 her comic explainers Judith Butler Explained with Cats and Foucault Explained with Hipsters were exhibited in the German Historical Museum show Homosexuality_ies in Berlin.

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