How has Fashion Changed Society?

By Kimiya Asjadi 

An invitation for an event arrives, almost reflexively you reach for your laptop, open ASOS and start looking for the something new to wear. Sound familiar? It’s nothing to be ashamed of, we’ve all been there.

We live in a society where there’s a relentless need to keep up, fit in but also stand out. Our clothing creates our identity and while we battle with the difficulties of trying to maintain our own individuality but also fit the ever-changing mould of societal norms, we feed into the consumerist cycle.

The notion of consumerism is one that dates back thousands of years and relates to the concept of supply and demand. Where there is demand there is production, investment, expenditure and ultimately supply of the pair of trainers we saw someone wearing on Instagram once (more on that later). The mid twentieth century was thought to be the golden age of consumerism as products became more affordable and marketing campaigns were leading to more sales than ever before. Campaigns would intensify the concept of your identity and standing within society being related to the products which you associated with, thus causing divides between ‘social’ classes based on who was buying what.

It is believed that human beings started wearing clothes around 500,000 years ago. Clothing was first required to serve a practical function such as protection from hazards in the environment. Its purpose later evolved to become more of a reflection of society. Clothing was and is still used to some extent as a uniform to indicate people of different cultures, religions, occupations and social status. Nowadays, we use clothing primarily as a method self-expression however it is still used to identify somebody’s position in society for example we can recognise a policeman based purely on their clothing. The fashion industry makes use of resources in every corner of the world with people exploiting their local resources to make silk, linen, cotton and a spectrum of natural dyes. Goods are now being imported and exported all over the world more effortlessly than before – but this does not come without economic and indeed environmental consequences.

According to the Collins dictionary, fashion can be defined as a style of clothing or a way of behaving that is popular at a particular time. Popularity is affected by our perceptions and associations of particular things. In terms of fashion and clothing, this impression was created by fashion magazines, marketing, department stores, catalogues and later the internet.

For years we depended on fashion magazines and advertisements to tell us what was popular at the time and how we should be dressing. One full-colour full-page advert in VOGUE magazine is estimated to cost $157,734 (£120,465.40) with an impact of about 1.2 million readers which is in fact a very small, privileged proportion of society. Today, the fashion industry relies heavily on the internet.  Free clothing is sent to ‘influencers’ who will in return post pictures of themselves wearing the clothes to their audiences of thousands or even millions of followers. As a consumer, we like this because we see ‘real people’ who we can relate to wearing clothes that we can actually afford and as a result, we purchase items with handy links directly from their page. Clothing is more accessible to more people and effectively demand is being amplified on a wider scale than ever before.

In recent years, the term ‘fast-fashion’ is being increasingly used. This describes a phenomenon whereby fashion brands are no longer producing new designs based on the four seasons, but they are in fact releasing 52 new collections based on ‘micro-seasons’ each year. Huge fast fashion brands are producing thousands of items a day rapidly, at a lower cost, with lower quality materials with the use of unethical, unsustainable methods in order to compete in the clothing economy and match the growing demand.

But what is the impact of this? Surely, cheaper clothes are beneficial to the majority? Unfortunately, fast fashion has detrimental impacts on the environment and also those involved in unethical methods of production. The chemicals used in the production of our favourite t-shirts, the dyes in our jumpers, the synthetic fibres in our trousers are entering the environment via the water we wash them in. The clothing we bought and wore once for that party and threw away are filling up land-fill sites and the carbon footprint of the fashion industry is continuing to grow to dangerous levels.

If that wasn’t bad enough, in order to offer items at a low cost, cheap production methods must be used. This involves employing people who are willing to work long hours whilst being underpaid, and pushed to their limits working long hours in order to keep the production line running smoothly.

We often hear people talking about retail therapy because indeed, clothes make us feel good about ourselves. But it’s important that we realise the consequences of our habits and become more conscious of our impact. With apps like DEPOP allowing us to browse second-hand clothes, an abundance of charity shops and vintage markets popping up across the country, we really have no excuse not to try to shop more consciously and modify societies perception of fashion.