The glittering long-con called fashion.
How the fashion industry profits from selling a lie whilst in the process shamelessly exploits labour and screws the planet.
by E.F Nicholson
The other day I was sent a link from friends with a shortlist of blogs that had won awards. One of them was a male fashion blog. Being curious to see what constitutes “male fashion” today, I went and had a look. Pretty soon I discovered my personal fashion was probably more at home with the “People of Walmart” than this guy’s tastes. There was nothing shocking on there, just reviews about certain shoes, new trousers, and some male grooming products. What impacted me was just the reality of its existence. An article titled “5 ways to wear a polo T-shirt” really puzzled me, as it was hard not to think the author of the blog, along with the authors of any fashion website or magazine, is really just writing about useless stuff. Here are millions of words dedicated to the description and analysis of “stuff”. We have a multi-billion-dollar industry that designs, discusses, promotes, and thrives on the sale of things that people put on their body. How did this happen? How have we become so fixated on “things,” possessions, status and appearance? When you break it down, what exactly is fashion, and why does anyone even remotely give a shit about it?
In the UK alone, £21 billion is spent on “fashion” each year, and the average household is home to 100 items of clothes per person. Women aged between 18-30 spend 2/3 of their disposable income on fashion/clothes. That means if you are working a 9 to 5, Monday through Friday job, all the work you do Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday just goes to buy clothes and other fashion accessories. Men in the same age group spend a quarter of their disposable income in the same manner, so they are not far behind. Regarding production, there are 40 million workers employed in clothing factories throughout the world, mainly in third-world countries. The average wage is around $43 USD per month, with Bangladesh clocking in with the lowest wages worldwide. These mammoth enterprises produce 80 billion garments annually.
Given the amount of money spent and resources used to fulfil the demand, here is something really worth examining. How has the fashion industry convinced women and men to part with so much money and to do so repeatedly?
All of this hasn’t happened by chance. It has been carefully and meticulously crafted over decades of advertising, product placement, and message saturation. Famous labels such as Calvin Klein, Versace, and Ralph Lauren have taken the benign sale of products and transformed their brands into iconic cultural touchpoints. This must imbue their clothing with magical properties, as those who buy them feel like they absorb a status they have contrived. Ultimately, these companies and their consumers have elevated what is simply clothing into something else altogether. Part of the illusion they have created (which I think many may actually believe) is to consider fashion more than just clothes. Fashion is a statement, an expression of who we are. Fashion inspires us to be more. “I don’t design clothes. I design dreams,” Ralph Lauren once stated. These lofty and vacuous statements aside, fashion is about money and getting people to think they need something they actually don’t, then days or weeks later getting them do it all over again. Just as washing machines are built to fail, planned obsolescence has been built into the fashion industry with chic titles such as “this season’s look,” meaning what you have on now is “last season,” and your current clothing has become a depreciating fashion asset.
Fashion is one of the many industries that circles consumers’ minds like vultures, and proceeds to lie, manipulate and exploit basic human needs: the need to feel special, the need to fit in, the need to feel attractive and to belong. These types of needs are meticulously accessed and wed to a pair of tailored trousers, a bottle of water with a fresh flavour, a statement dress, and so forth. The adulation of celebrity has proudly sponsored these same cultural leeches, as it creates a class of people where the message is, “those who have, have this dress, t-shirt, shoes, ect…”
The fashion industry makes for a great case study in observing how entire societies, through media and advertising, can be fooled into thinking something matters when it actually doesn’t. It has convinced generations to believe what they wear is somehow connected to the person they are and the person they want to be. Women in particular are bombarded with images of femininity that are impossible to replicate, and images that confirm women’s status as objects whose value is determined by the whims of the subject. We then have uber masculine versions of this process tapping into the same insecurities in men. Our societal obsession with buying clothes shows vividly how needs can be manufactured and built upon where the demand becomes self-generating. As the customers internalise the marketing message and proceed to lockstep straight to the cash register, “I need this pair of jeans,” or “I must get that particular handbag” aren’t the person’s genuine thoughts, but rather they are assimilated into that person’s thinking to fulfil a larger business outcome.
If there is any industry that outwardly reflects how materialistic, vain and self-obsessed our culture has become, it’s the fashion industry. We only have to look at the front row at any fashion event to notice there aren’t too many hobos or average Joe Blows sharing the exclusive front row. Rather you get celebrities, society types, fashion editors and a whole plethora of the world’s most pretentious dumbasses, who consider themselves very important. Only in this weird little world can a handbag be sold for £12,000, or a dress for £130,000 because so-and-so designed it. To all the rest of us peasants it seems obscene and just a total rip off, but not for the “fashionista” who is quick to point out we don’t understand the subtlety, craft and value that goes into it.
As the world is gripped with more inequality, injustice, and all the suffering and hardship that accompanies it, the fashion industry more and more becomes an outpost of conceited affluence and narcissism. I am not saying there is no merit or degree of creativity involved in creating clothes and other things. I am sure there are many creative and well-intentioned people in that industry who just want to be creative. What’s appalling and repulsive is how this industry is creating artificial value in what they do by ensuring its club is one in which only the rich are allowed to play. It’s one big global circle-jerk for anyone vain enough and rich enough to take part. Then, to add insult to injury, they make their billion-dollar empires on the backs of slave labour in third-world countries. While millions worry where their next meal will come from, or how to flee a country where war has broken out, people will sit court-side at a fashion runway and take seriously someone walking down that runway wearing this.
As absurd and hilarious as it is, that blob of frilly snot may have costs thousands of dollars, been wore once and sneezed into a wheelie bin in the back ally after the show.
All this absurdity comes at a high cost: the less tangible cost of what happens when a society starts to worship the shallow and superficial. (There has been a rise in incidence of anorexia in young women 15-19 in each decade since 1930) The prevalence of anorexia and bulimia being just one symptom of this this value set. Yet, in addition, there is more to be measured in damage to our environment and the exploitation of the workers and resources that ensure these billion-dollar empires.
The extent of this is explained by Madeleine Bunting:
“Many of the factories supplying the brands likely to dominate the Olympics in 2012, such as Adidas, Nike, Slazenger, Speedo and Puma, ‘are routinely breaking every rule in the book when it comes to labour rights.’, according to the ITGLWF.
The list of brands ultimately sourcing from the 83 factories surveyed in the report is so comprehensive, it seems to make a mockery of the whole idea that the high street has cleaned up its act.
Factories in three countries – the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka – were surveyed, and not one of them paid a living wage to their combined 100,000-strong workforce. Many of them didn’t even pay the legal minimum wage. What the report also makes clear is that this is a gender issue: 76% of the surveyed workforce are women. Globalised supply chains exploit predominantly female labour. It’s an irony that probably escapes most of the women who do the bulk of high street shopping in the west. Women shopping for products made by other, underpaid, exploited, women.”
The psychopathic profile many corporations embody of “caring about their workers in the third world” is merely a thin veneer set up only to assist sales.
As the world is being catapulted toward disaster with climate change tipping points drawing closer, the fashion industry is leading the way in playing the fiddle even louder as Rome begins to burn. We can’t keep producing and discarding the massive quantity of clothing that we are currently going through; it’s wasteful and completely unnecessary. It currently requires 2700 litres of water to produce a single cotton T-shirt. Given the ever-growing scarcity of water, we have to ask if that is really the best use of our finite resources. Does the person with 100 garments really need one more? If you then multiple that by 80 billion garments produced in a year, it’s a colossal amount of water being used for items where the necessity is questionable. All this is just another crude example of society with its head so far up its arse it can’t see any longer the destructive path it is on. And the fashion industry wants to keep people’s heads remaining exactly there. As the for-profit model that drives fashion and all other enterprises is an unyielding beast, it wants more and more, no matter how much it consumes, and no matter what the costs.
For it to continue we have to remain hypnotised in the value system that makes us believe buying things is saying something other than just buying things. So I think we all have the responsibility to voice how insane and ridiculous the fashion industry is, and to participate less where and when we can, which comes down to just buying less clothes, or buying second-hand clothes, and attempting to bring some greater awareness to the extent of the problem. Maybe making a commitment to buying no new clothes for the following year could be a very basic start. Now, I could be accused of being a grouchy, middle-aged, fashionless father, who thinks above the ebb and flows of fashion. All that may be the truth, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out the fact that some things have more value than other things. It’s actually a bit of a no-brainer. The future habitability of the planet, and all workers being treated with integrity and respect, has greater value than how I look in the Lacoste T-shirt.
In the end, this is about priorities. I’m not saying people shouldn’t have interest in clothes and how they express themselves. Rather, we need to ensure fashion doesn’t hold more importance than equality, justice, compassion and togetherness. When I see figures such as that men’s market for luxury fashion is increasing , I just roll my eyes and think really, really guys? Let’s get passionate, let get inspired, but let it be about something that is truly inspiring, something that’s worthy of our passion, and let’s see clothes for what they are: clothes.
UPDATE: Looking for a classic example of the absurdity and stupidity worship that is fashion? Look no further than Justin Bieber’s tweet about his new ad for CK underpants.
“Just spoke to my boy @mark_wahlberg,” he tweeted Tuesday. “Honored to be a part of the legacy. @CalvinKlein #mycalvins.”
What is the legacy Justin doth speak of? Well Justin feels honoured to be part of the legacy of people getting their photo taken while wearing their undies. That’s it. Words like “legacy” and “honoured” instantly become devoid any meaning. If we have gotten to the point in our society were we “honour” underpants and pictures of underpants leave a “legacy”, what can I say but Lord please bring on the rapture.
This uber awesome guy is also part of the legacy Justin feels so honoured to be part of.
Images in the article taken from Ad Busters
If we want to see how pointless and conceited fashion really is, just take a look at some of the bozos on a runway, not forgetting that all of what they wear may cost thousands of dollars. I know it’s easy to take pot-shots at how fucking useless and daft these clothes look, which is exactly why I am doing it.
8 thoughts on “The glittering long-con called fashion: How the fashion industry profits from selling a lie whilst in the process shamelessly exploits labour and screws the planet.”
Great post. You really nailed something here. As you indicated, it’s all about values. What are the values that are at the core of Western society? Right now I’m not sure there are any at all.
Thanks for the feedback Matt. I think that questions of values is big one.As we give time, attention and money to that which we value. So in my view I don’t think that someone would inherently value fashion, rather it’s artificial value created by our consumer culture and that wider agenda of just making money.I would agree that the core of western society seems to be lacking understanding what actually matters, as opposed to what we are told matters. Although there is this mass hypnosis i think if enough people awaken from it a radically different future is possible. If not we will have to accept our fate , as like lemmings we will be lead over the cliff, not by force but by our own stupidity. God help us!!!!!!!!!!!!
Hey Matt, just listened to you jeb bush song, very good , very funny. Lets just pray you don’t have to write too many as another prince rules over their peasants and fiefdom.
Awesome post, Ewan. Beautifully written & argued. Made me laugh out loud and seeth with indignation… nice one!
Hahahaha! This was great, nailed it. What I found most intriguing was that my friends from college who went into fashion will look at someone walking down the street and make fun of what they are wearing. They will continuously comment on someone’s outfit and proceed to make jokes like “didn’t know ___ was in town…” yet they can look at these pictures you posted, and like you said, take them seriously. Not all of them are like this, but the ones who are, I just want to look at them and say “WHO GIVES A FLYING FUCK?!” Excuse my language. But seriously, what someone is wearing should be the least of their concerns. It concerns me that that’s the first thing they see when they look at another person. And frankly, their ridiculous excuse to blindly hand over their credit card and willingly let some company rob them, and the outrageously expensive clothes they buy aren’t much better! Thanks for this post.
This may be a bit out of the blue, but something in this article about the insidiousness of the clothing industry in society really resonated with me. As a teenage girl I find fashion among my peers is treated as something of a compulsory interest, that as a woman you are supposed to be somehow naturally fascinated in clothing. This came to such an extent that my own disinterest is seen as something of a mental disorder, that according to psychologists my boredom in an H&M store translates to me having “deeply buried self-esteem issues”. The fact is I’m completely fine with my appearance -but the world isn’t, and that is what matters. Thank you for the read.
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