Is Overconsumption Killing Fashion?

By Meriel Philips

The fashion industry feeds on our over-consumption. Clothing companies create more than 100 billion garments a year, and we throw 100 million tonnes of them into landfill . We are encouraged into wastefulness by the carefully engineered manipulations of the industry’s  marketing tools; our overconsumption guarantees large profits on small margins for the companies that feed us. It seems, though, that the bloated attractions of fast-fashion are not doing anyone any good. This might be the cause of mortal disease within the industry itself. 

When it comes to couture, fashion is art. Contemporary museums fetishise fashion as both art and cultural touchstone, with exhibitions of clothes worn by rockstars and royalty. There is every reason to think of these exhibits as fine art: they are bespoke, highly designed, and individually manufactured pieces that can be traced to a single designer. They reflect the zeitgeist in which they were made and worn and, at best, will affect that zeitgeist, pushing culture and thought in new directions. And they are beautiful.  

Christian Dior Spring Couture Show, 1998. Credit: Vogue Runway

They also have very little in common with those 100 billion garments that we see in a thousand online ads. They are not what we buy and wear and throw away each year. Our overconsumption and demand for new, cheap fashion ensures that our clothes are not art. 

But that is the lie we are sold. We do not buy clothes for function or from need. Very little of what we wear is designed primarily to keep us warm or dry. The average Briton buys a suitcase full of new clothes every year; this accumulation is driven by want, rather than need. We are sold, and we buy, fashion as a kind of art. And yet we expect this “art” to be cheap and largely disposable. What we get  is mass produced, generic facsimiles of high-end fashion but, like a million washed out prints of the Mona Lisa, nothing that can be called art.

Whilst clothing is indispensable, fashion is not; it still exists in the same framework as art in the context of the dynamic between artwork, creator, audience, and aesthetic pleasure, but in a banal impersonation of it. Perhaps it should be considered a performance art, existing only if there is an actor to incarnate it, an expression of art lived daily. Or perhaps the advertisers are kidding themselves and we see fashion in terms of its function, shrugging at any pretensions to artistic integrity. The fashion we wear daily is really just a kind of uniform for our lives. 

Whatever it is, it is difficult to take pride in what we wear anymore. If we buy our clothing new, the chances are it was made by overworked, underpaid women in the global south, and thousands of the very same garment exist in other people’s wardrobes. These items are confined to same dismal lifespan: to be worn on a few hours on a body and then to lie for centuries as non-compostable landfill. There doesn’t seem to be much art in this. 

Clothes discarded in landfill. Credit: Shutterstock

Fast fashion is on the rise and has been for several decades. Fast fashion can be defined as cheap clothing, mass-produced by retailers in response to the latest trends. This business model is based on maximising the efficiency of supply chains, meaning products are more readily available and less expensive. Fashion houses are producing huge amounts of garments, introducing as many as 6000 new products per day, creating micro-trends which are ephemeral and typically have an even shorter shelf-life than Liz Truss.  

Trends used to hold cultural significance: the 60s was the era of the mini skirt, 80s fashion is known for its shoulder-pads and neon leg-warmers, and the 00s for its ultra low-rise jeans and baby tees. Nowadays, trends change so quickly, they no longer represent moments in history – how can an item hold meaning when it is seldom worn more than 7 times?. Our insatiable appetite for micro-trends has limited fashion’s creative capability; trends under the umbrella of ‘art’ should not rise and fall so quickly. They should command a level of influence, and more importantly, longevity. 

Some fashion designers do create clothing that wields artistic value.  Smaller, independent brands foster ‘slow fashion’ making a limited number of pieces that are bespoke and timeless. They practise conscious manufacturing and support local production, rather than outsourcing it to developing countries where materials and labour is cheap.  Fashion designed and sold by labels like Paloma Wool, House of Sunny, and Vatka Co is carefully curated and well thought-out; the same amount of effort goes into their designs as an artist might put into a painting, or a potter would invest into a piece of ceramic. Perhaps their pieces can be considered decorative or applied art, as opposed to fine art. High fashion also tends to be artistic, although many of the items produced by luxury fashion houses are not intended for everyday wear. 

While fashion still exists in artistic forms, this is an anomaly as most clothing is mass-produced. The brands which do retain authenticity and integrity are being undermined by fast-fashion giants duplicating and swindling their designs. Small and haute brands have consistently fallen victim to plagiarism carried out by popular High Street names. Zara, Shein, Primark and Topshop are all culpable of embezzling the designs of independent designers, eliminating any creative meaning behind them and bulk-producing them for a fraction of the price. In 2020 Shein duped a €220 Masion Cléo blouse in 2020, selling it for just $8. The Chinese e-commerce company has poached thousands of designers’ creations too, including Bailey Prado’s handmade knitwear collection.

Credit: @baileyprado on Instagram

Many of the brands victim to this appropriation do not have the means to pursue a legal case against plagiarism; there is little they can do when their carefully created pieces are debilitated by leviathan retailers. Even patterns that are created with artistic authenticity are far too frequently stolen and undermined. The duplication of these designs has reduced the pieces to a uniform obtainable by all, stripped of originality. 

If the function of art is to reflect (and direct) the fluidity and changes in contemporary culture, perhaps by its very nature, fashion will always be a form of art. Money and art have always been uneasy but intimate bedfellows. Too often is accessible only through wealth and so the democratisation of art through mass produced fast fashion might be applauded . . . except that the process destroys the art. Is there an alternative way for us to affordably enjoy fashion made with artistic integrity? Only we if we change our habits of purchase and use. 

Buy less and buy better. Buy clothes that are not manufactured to the marketing whims of the latest micro-trend. Consider your fashion an investment for life. And ignore the demands for change that are manufactured by the fashion industry that is telling you that what they sold you last year is terrible and that you need to update your wardrobe to stay on trend. Our voracious appetites for new clothing must be quashed in order to honour fashion as an art once more.

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