Fashion has never been more affordable or more accessible, but as it becomes more generic and disposable, are we losing touch with one of the most enjoyable aspects of clothing; its ability to help us express our identity?
Whether we like it or not, the clothing we choose to wear (or have to wear) on a day-to-day basis says a lot about our identity. Even if we don’t have to wear an official uniform for work, we often end up choosing an unofficial uniform; expressing our affiliation with a sports team, a band or a subculture group. We can express a complete indifference to, or an in-depth knowledge of the latest trends with our fashion choices. For me, this performative aspect is one of the most enjoyable things about clothing; being able to choose who I want to be in the morning, and dressing accordingly.
When a tshirt costs the same as a coffee, it would seem that our options for self-expression through fashion are limitless, but I’m not sure this is the case. I’ve compiled my ridiculous dressingup box of a wardrobe over 20 years (a velvet blazer, bought with my first clothing allowance at 14, has somehow survived numerous wardrobe culls; some undertaken for reasons of space and some out of sheer embarrassment), and for me the thrill of the chase goes hand in hand with my love of clothing. I’ve saved up for party dresses, scoured charity shops and thrift stores, swapped items with friends and made my own dresses and accessories. I loved the idea of fast fashion, and I still have plenty of items from the cheaper end of the high street that have washed and worn well.
But I’ve recently fallen out of love with fashion, and fast fashion in particular, as I’ve seen the imagination and creativity that is so vital to good design edged out in favour of quick turnover and profit. Intricate detailing, pattern matching or good pattern placement takes up time during the making process and uses up more fabric, and good quality, durable fabrics and fastenings are more expensive to produce. All these things seem to have gone missing from the high street recently, replaced by vast numbers of more simply shaped garments, made to increasingly arbitrary sizes.
Fast fashion feels like a placebo; the one thing we can afford in great quantities when larger long-lasting purchases are almost laughably out of our reach. But it’s doing an increasingly bad job of keeping us happy; we may be able to fill our wardrobes with clothes but none of them were designed with us in mind, and none of them really fit. Sizing for women’s clothing in particular varies from store to store, and leaves a lot of shoppers feeling miserable; either because they weren’t the size they were expecting to be, or because there was nothing suitable for their body shape at all. We end up feeling that there is something wrong with our bodies because they aren’t the right shape for the clothes; it takes courage to, instead, argue that there is something wrong with the clothes because they do not fit our bodies.
While fast fashion may have created the illusion of making clothes shopping more democratic, at least in the West, cheap clothing comes at great cost to the environment and to the wellbeing of garment workers abroad. Throwing garments into landfill after only a couple of wears, or buying something and never wearing it at all has become normalised, and it’s no longer possible to turn a blind eye to this. If what we wear is part of our identity, should we be so keen to shrug it off and dispose of it every time something new comes along? As the exploitation of garment workers garners more media attention, we have to accept that if we buy in to fast fashion we are condoning this; our privileged position as first world consumers is also part of our identity.
I don’t think it’s shallow to enjoy expressing ourselves through our clothes; our fashion choices enable us to find common ground and strike up conversation. I love seeing someone wearing an obscure fandom t-shirt and thinking “I understood that reference!” At a time when we’re encouraged to present ourselves as a bland, palatable ‘personal brand’, being outrageous or unpredictable in our clothing choices is almost a subversive statement. I enjoy flouting ‘style rules’ and encourage everyone else to do the same; ignoring attempts to homogenise consumers by dictating what is or isn’t ‘appropriate’ for people of a particular size, age or gender is, in my opinion, a much better way to make clothing more democratic.
Elly Platt is a Costume Maker who lives in London