We are not born clothed, but quickly come to need clothes. Throughout our lives, we cover our bodies with garments primarily for utilitarian purposes. We humans are both the only animals who need clothes and the only animals who have the intelligence and free will to create and select clothing. What a boon for the clothing industry!
Yet, we are not completely limited in our choice of vestments. Human societies aren’t entirely dystopian, so we usually can freely select from a variety of types, colors, and textures of clothing. What a boon for the fashion industry!
Yes, the fashion industry. I put it to you that the fashion industry is different than the clothing industry. Clothing is more on the utilitarian side — covers the body, keeps you warmer and safer. Dickies clothes are about utility, not fashion. Fashion can be simple aesthetics, sometimes very simple, like Garanimals from my earliest childhood.
Fashion can also be highly elaborate. It can be exciting, daring, fun, but also stupid, and coercive. Inserting some philosophy, we can take a look at the different dimensions of fashion and the fashion industry.
Clothes and accessories can be an expression of one’s personality or mood. We buy clothes that we enjoy and make us look good. Each day, we often select an outfit that makes us feel good. We can be as bold as we like, mix and match whatever suits us. We can have fun with clothes, and that’s the good side of fashion.
Clothing, like all things in life, should be about being yourself and freely expressing who you are. Unfortunately, fashion can, and often is, something else—something the opposite of being yourself.
“Clothes make the man (or woman)” is a bit of a lie. No doubt, how one dresses affects how one is perceived. To be blunt, we are judged by what we wear, for good and bad reasons. We have many largely unspoken expectations about who should be wearing what in various situations. An inappropriate outfit or sloppy attire can be a sign that one doesn’t care or take the time to dress well. We do want and need to dress well to be socially appropriate.
The fashion industry is there to service our need to dress well. It also exploits our need to conform. Fashion is good when it helps us put together an outfit that matches and helps us express our aesthetic sense. Fashion is bad when it tells us what we should wear and then tries to coerce us to buy and wear it. Where the line is between the good and bad is not easy to identify, but it is easier to see a stark difference of approach.
The Fashion Industry, No
There’s an old story about a woman who asks a haberdasher to improve the look of her hat. The hat maker looks at the hat for a minute then gabs a ribbon and ties it to a particular place on the hat and hands it to the woman. She is thrilled, the hat looks great, but is shocked when told what the cost would be. She asked: ”All you did was look at it for a minute and added a piece of ribbon, how could you charge so much?” The haberdasher explained: “What you didn’t see was the years of training and experience from which I learned that that ribbon was perfect for that hat.”
I retell that story to illustrate the difference between the good and bad in fashion. There are people who dedicate themselves to creating beautiful clothes for people. They deserve to get paid well. Not all of us can afford personal tailors, like the haberdasher in the story, but there are clothing brands whose business focuses on people, creating quality products for them. These businesses also tend to engage in sustainability, fair trade, and fair employment.
Fashion brands, in contrast, tend to focus on their image rather than on their customers. The devil may or may not wear Prada, and calling Prada and similar fashion “houses” evil may be a bit of a stretch, but they use people as mere means to their ends.
The fashion brands could argue that their high prices reflect training and skill, as does the hat maker in the story. That argument falls flat in the fashion industry’s high price tags but low pay for everyone but the corporations’ executives and shareholders. I wrote at length about the difference between capitalism (corporatism) and free enterprise in another article. The fashion industry is an especially nasty corporatism in its corrosive relationship with customers.
Fashion is a game, and dare I say it, a bit of a swindle. The fashion scheme is deceptively simple. First the fashion industry establishes in the media what the “in” fashion trend is. Then it hammers home the narrative that the fashion trend (that they invented) is what “everyone” is wearing. That creates the impression that if you don’t buy into the trend (literally buy), you won’t be “in,” “on trend,” “hip,” and so on.
The fashion industry exploits people’s fears that they will be judged by their clothing, that they will be looked down on for not conforming. Fashion tells us what we should wear and then tries to coerce us to buy and wear it. Be cool or be outcast. That’s the message from the fashion industry. That’s a big reason why fashion brands can get away with charging process many times over what the product cost. People don’t buy a haute couture handbag or suit because it is the best quality as much out of a slavish following of the need to conform or not be thought less of.
I shouldn’t have to mention how insidious this is. It is one thing to get along with others. It is another thing entirely to be subsumed under mass conformity. Wear what you like; wear what you like. Don’t let television, magazines, celebrities, or social media tell you what to like.
Being a Billboard, NO!
The lowest denominator of the fashion swindle is the branding for the sake of branding. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense to put your brand name on a product. For example, a car will have a name or logo of the make and model on the front and back. That’s for people to identify the car and know from which company to buy one.
But do you buy a car to run around town showing off a huge label with the manufacturer’s name on it? That would be silly. Yet, that is what any people do with fashion clothes.
Many fashion brands are more than happy to sell you clothes with their name on them.
Not your name.
Many brands would absolutely love for you to pay them to advertise for them. Who can blame them? If someone is willing to give you something you want for free, you take it. If people are willing to give a corporation free publicity by being walking billboards for their products, man, that has to be the best thing capitalism has ever dreamed up! Not only are the billboards free, but the billboards also go out and about and mingle with the target audience!
A walking billboard. That’s what you are when you buy clothing or accessories with brand names blazoned across them: you are being a billboard for someone else. Not only are you not being paid to make money for someone else, but you’re also paying them for you to make money for them. Whether you are carrying a Chanel handbag or a shirt from one of the cookie cutter mall stores, you are volunteering to be an unpaid employee of that corporation. If that’s what being fashionable means, what is the point of fitting in?
I am not saying don’t buy clothes from particular stores, though you should generally buy local over corporate. I am saying that you can be so much more than just a vehicle for someone else’s profit machine. These corporate chains may indeed have really cool clothes that look great on you. But a t-shirt that states the name of the company that made it doesn’t make you look cool. It makes you look like a sucker. That’s especially true if you pay $60 for a t-shirt with a fashion brand’s name on it, when you could buy the same shirt with no name on it for $12. Sucker.
The moral of the story is that you make yourself and your clothes can at best enhance what you express of yourself. The clothes you wear should be an expression of who you are, not an expression of a corporation’s branding. Don’t be a billboard. No, even better, don’t follow fashion at all.