With the conclusion of Paris Fashion Week marking the end of a month-long sartorial celebration of all things ‘in’, I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by the outstanding display of mediocrity presented at this season’s fashion month. While I’ll admit there have been some absolute gems of creative expression, I find myself revisiting the same tiring question that has plagued me for two consecutive seasons: does society need fashion?
I feel I can safely speak for most of us when I say that, humanity’s two main driving forces are sex and ambition (excuse the bastardization of Freudian theory). And in no better way do these two facets of our nature manifest themselves than through the ultimate form of ‘visual peacocking’, our dress sense. For centuries ateliers and artisans have indulged our deepest desires and insecurities by fabricating garments that enhance features that society has deemed desirable.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of corsetry and bustles respectively. Which, by their very nature, accentuated the feminine form to attract the male gaze more effectively. Centuries later, and although tastes have changed, the same two desires are still being mused upon by designers, with creations such as Herve Leger’s signature ‘Body-Con’ dress being used to amplify the natural assets of women. And while it is easy to take the stance that the fashion industry is preying on our insecurities like a money hungry succubus, it is equally puerile to deny the financial gain that it provides. For example, the British fashion industry alone made a direct contribution of £26 billion to the UK economy last year, and currently, has a domestic market value of £66 billion.
Still, a hefty portion of the global fashion market comes at the detriment of others. The West’s thirst for fast fashion is quenched by the exploitation of labourers in growing global superpowers such as India and China, who work for an average wage of less than $2 per day. Add to this appalling factory conditions and gruelling twelve-hour workdays of labourers. This has to make you question the morality of our culture’s desire for the new and, ultimately, disposable.
The demand for fast fashion is created by trend forecasting companies such as WGSN, and the frenetic seasonal structure of fashion. But Many of fashion’s top labels are attempting to make the switch to the more favourable (and marginally more sustainable) ‘See Now, Buy Now’ show structure. The question of whether or not our lust for more warrants the exploitation of others, remains.
That said, fashion itself has always held a place in society. Throughout history, style has played an integral role in the formation of cultural identities across the globe. It acts as a visual marker, enabling the identification and unification of different nationalities and ethnic groups. A prime example of this can be seen in the indigenous tribes of sub-continental Africa, with each unique ethnic group possessing their own signature form of dress. Consider the dazzling display of coloured beadwork worn by the Kenyan Masai or the striking white body art, lip plates and body modification of the Ethiopian Surma.
In Western culture too, fashion’s ability to create a sense of togetherness and uniformity has been evident throughout the centuries. One example of this was women’s fashion in the ‘40s becoming a direct display of solidarity with the war effort. Here, we see fashion’s function as a socially cohesive force operating precisely through its ostracism of those who are not in uniform.
While fashion has helped create and enforce the aesthetic language of the status quo, it has often provided socio-political pioneers with a mode of expression. Defying the societal norm to birth counter-cultures and give a face to the cultural militia, be it the Punks of the mid-‘70s or the ‘80s New Romantics. It has provided us with both rules, and a means to break them, with creative rebels using clothing for self-expression and as a platform to champion individuality.
I could argue that fashion is nothing but a trivial construct, crafted to strip us of our spare change and brutalise our self-worth, but I can’t. I love fashion! Unapologetically so! It has an innately transformative quality that can free us from our daily shackles and help us to present as our most authentic selves. And while, as an industry, there is (most definitely) a long way to go before equality and sustainability can be achieved, I can’t help but feel that our lives would be poorer and a lot less beguiling without it!
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Social Jungle.