Fashion and Capitalism Sitting in a Tree

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Maeve Gorman (she/her)

I can’t keep up with fashion trends. Just as I was getting to grips with the concept of 90s nostalgia (think Bella Hadid’s tiny sunglasses and beret), everything changed. The age of glitter, glamour, and the cut-out dress had dawned thanks to the HBO hit Euphoria. My point is that fashion is fickle: it is an industry that relies on novelty. There is always a new supermodel or fictional cheerleader ready to set the rules of the fashion playbook.

A wise man once declared fashion ‘capitalism’s favourite child’. Set to be worth $1.7 trillion in 2022, fashion labels continue to make profit, exploit textile workers, and destroy our planet in the name of looking hot. Love fashion, hate capitalism? What can we do?

The detrimental impact of fast-fashion brands on textile workers, creatives, and the environment has been widely chronicled and plays a crucial role in tying fashion to capitalism.

Take Fashion Nova, the brand famed for recreating the Kardashian/Jenner family’s outfits within hours. This fast-fashion giant shows no signs of slowing down. Thanks to its appeal to the aspiring influencer, the brand turns over $500 million per year and reportedly pays its textile workers as little as $2.77 an hour. Statistics like these are alarmingly commonplace when it comes to fast fashion, and this is leading to the desensitisation of the consumer – a key tool utilised by capitalism.

These Instagram-worthy clothes are disposed of just as quickly as they arrive at our front-doors. The average garment is worn only 7 times before it is thrown away leading to approximately 350,000 tonnes of clothes ending up in landfill in the UK every year. The fashion industry is now responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions – more than aviation.

Fast-fashion is a classic 21st century tale of exploitation, hyper-consumption, and environmental destruction. Fast-fashion and capitalism make a ruthless team. They have successfully changed the way we think about what we wear. Clothes are now objects of consumption – used and then discarded. Breaking this cycle of hyper-consumption is essential… but how?

Enter Gen-Z with the perfect solution for any anti-capitalist, climate-anxious fashionista… the online curated marketplace of our dreams: Depop. Claiming to be a ‘community-powered fashion ecosystem that’s kinder on the planet and kinder to people’, this new app seemed to be the answer to our prayers.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Boasting 20 million users, Depop is a huge unregulated free market – the capitalist ideal. Prices burgeon depending on what’s on trend. An innocent search for #Y2K, will sky-rocket prices. The online marketplace has been gentrified. Once an alternative to scouring the charity shops, Depop has become exclusive; the domain of those with time to kill and money to burn. Without these luxuries, many are, justifiably, forced back to fast-fashion. And thus the cycle continues.

Depop has also been accused of greenwashing fast-fashion. A search for Shein, Fashion Nova, or Zara produces thousands of results. Depop is, perhaps, another cog in the machine transporting garments from factory to landfill. All is not bleak, however. The growing interest in second-hand clothing is undoubtedly encouraging. With 90% of Depop’s users below the age of 25, a new generation is changing the way we think of fashion.

The second-hand approach to fashion, however, still fits nicely in the capitalist order; it makes a lot of money: the second-hand market is set to be worth $64 billion in the next five years.

In the social climate of the pandemic, fashion is beginning to reflect the apocalyptic chaos of society. ‘Dystopia-core’ with its signature cargo trousers, minimalism, and monochromatic colour scheme is in (thank you Julia Fox). Whatever you think of fashion, its ability to reflect social change is impressive.

But could this creative, spiritual expression through fashion thrive in an anti-capitalist ideology? Maybe. Even a socialist society can’t escape the trend cycle. Stalin, for example, launched a Soviet fashion house in 1935. It was called Dom Modelei, or ‘House of Prototypes’, and its head designer was Italian, Elsa Schiaparelli. She created looks for the Soviet working women that transcended typical gender roles and class distinctions. The collections were avant-garde and fashionable. It seems fashion possesses an enormous power in any society.

Recently, the fashion industry has shown innovation and adaptability. Major fashion houses have responded to the impact of fashion on the environment for example with Gucci and Giorgio Armani announcing a new, less wasteful seasonless approach to fashion pushing back against its typical calendar. Mugler also reacted resourcefully to coronavirus lockdowns. They created stunning virtual shows (featuring Euphoria star Hunter Schafer!) and created a new platform for their label. Fashion’s adaptability, I think, proves it could thrive outside the confines of capitalism. 

Anyway, apparently micro-mini skirts and ruffled feathers are in. On to the next trend.


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