fashion theory

Unravelling fashion and consumption

Monday, October 14, 2013

It's time to pull another strand from my PhD thesis: the relationship between fashion and consumption. Yes, it's a big one! Here, I'll just try to summarise the issues...

My approach to this research was informed by a short conference paper from 2008 by Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose, which I described in my thesis like this:

Fletcher and Grose (2008: 1) call for ʻfashion that helps us flourishʼ. They describe how the rich culture of fashion helps us to meet our human needs for identity and participation, and argue that celebrating this positive role of fashion could improve individual well-being and allow new opportunities for sustainability to emerge.

As I went on to explain, this idea is inspiring, but not straightforward:

This view of fashion requires us to consider the role of fashion independently from the current economic fashion system. This is far from easy; as Breward and Evans (2005: 2) explain, ʻfashion is a process in two senses: it is a market-driven cycle of consumer desire and demand; and it is a modern mechanism for the fabrication of the selfʼ. These economic and cultural processes are intertwined, ʻmutually constitutive to the extent of being analytically inseparableʼ, according to Briggs (2005: 81). 

So - I'm interested in challenging the link between fashion and consumption, whilst celebrating fashion as a means of identity construction (what Breward and Evans call 'the fabrication of the self'). Identity construction is a key idea in my thesis:

In traditional cultures, identities are stable; for example, ʻin nineteenth-century industrializing societies, social class affiliation was one of the most salient aspects of a personʼs identityʼ (Crane, 2000: 4). We now live in a post-traditional world, and identities are less stable; in this context, we have multiple identities and the self becomes an evolving, reflexive project (Giddens, 1991). 

One way in which we construct our identity is through our possessions (Belk, 1988). Because leisure and lifestyle, as opposed to work, religion and class, have become more important in constructing identity, ʻthe consumption of cultural goods, such as fashionable clothing, performs an increasingly important roleʼ (Crane, 2000: 11). Woodward (2007) describes the act of choosing what to wear as a practice of identity construction, and dressing as an act of ʻsurfacingʼ particular aspects of the self. 

Shops provide us with an endless supply of new clothes, that we can use to construct our identities. However:

As Finkelstein (1991: 145) says, ʻif we are relying upon the properties of procured goods for our sense of identity, then we are compelled to procure again and againʼ.

This neatly summarises the link between the two processes of fashion, described above - a central challenge for sustainable fashion. 

In my research, I found that an alternative means of identity construction was taking place, separate from consumption:

When we re-knit, we are able to mould our identity within a single garment, adding new meanings associated with the practice of making.

This project has provided some indications that alternative fashion practices – such as re-knitting – can provide the well-being benefits associated with fashion and meet our needs for identity and participation in ways which are not dependent on consumerism. While a fashion system revolving around these alternative practices would involve much less frequent consumption of new items, it need not be dull; as we have seen from the examples in this research, the process of re-knitting can intensify and energise the relationship between wearer and wardrobe.

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Belk, R.W. (1988) Possessions and the extended self. The Journal of Consumer Research, 15 (2), pp.139–168.

Breward, C. & Evans, C. (2005) Introduction. In: C. Breward & C. Evans, eds. Fashion and modernity. Oxford: Berg, pp.1–8.

Briggs, A. (2005) Response [to chapter 3]. In: C. Breward & C. Evans, eds. Fashion and modernity. Oxford: Berg, pp.79–81.

Crane, D. (2000) Fashion and its social agendas: class, gender and identity in clothing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Finkelstein, J. (1991) The fashioned self. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Fletcher, K. & Grose, L. (2008) Fashion that helps us flourish. In: Changing the change: design, visions, proposals and tools proceedings. Turin, Italy, 10-12 July. [View pdf of full proceedings]

Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and self-identity: self and society in the late modern age. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Woodward, S. (2007) Why women wear what they wear. Oxford: Berg.

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