What is the Point in the Fashion Industry?

Fashion may seem like harmless creative expression, but under the surface it seems that this is an industry filled with immorality and unwarranted self-righteousness.

February saw another set of Fashion Weeks (in London, Paris, New York and Milan) go by, showcasing a whole host of designers’ Autumn/Winter 2017 collections. This season’s trends included cut out detailing (the shoulders out of jumpers, the waist of dresses, the chest of tops), intense retro flower prints (think 70s wallpaper), and lots and lots of ruffles – bonus points for multiple ruffled items combined. But if you stop and think about these looks that paraded down the catwalk, and have been replicated in all the fashion magazines, they’re not only impractical, they’re plain hideous. They’re not the kind of thing that most people could pull off in any situation, and neither would they want to.  Add to that the fact that these trends will ‘die’ by next season – looking back you’ll wonder why they ever existed. Not only this, but there’s the major issue that these trends make shopping for clothes really difficult, as some of the main looks filter through into most high street shops, and so if you’re not a fan of the style you can’t buy anything new for 6 months.

“High-end companies use factories in eastern European countries, where the wage the workers are paid is a fifth of the estimated minimum living wage”

With the vast amount of money this industry makes, at $3 trillion globally – 2% of the world GDP¹ – it could be argued that fashion is good for a country’s economy, and provides employment for many people, in particular unskilled workers. But actually this is another major issue with the fashion industry; it exploits people at the bottom to ensure costs are kept low.  Meanwhile, profit is high, due to extortionate price tags that are deemed acceptable purely because of a label, and maintained by the rich few who can afford it.

Many people will buy these top designer brands, believing that they are paying for quality and expert craftsmanship, while actually brands such as Versace, Prada, and Dolce and Gabbana actually use sweatshops just like Tesco, Primark and Asda. “But their labels say ‘Made in Europe’”, I hear you cry – this is true, and this is why it’s so much worse. These high-end companies use factories in eastern European countries, where the wage the workers are paid is a fifth of the estimated minimum living wage², but where poverty is so rife that there is no real option but to stay in the desperate situation. It has even been shown that conditions in these European countries are actually often worse than those in Asia, as many of them have no institutional or legal protections in place.  Conditions like these, where workers are paid unfairly but have no option but to work, are exactly the situations that create poverty – while the fashion industry argues that it creates jobs for unskilled workers and helps fight poverty.

If anything, the fashion industry is causing these issues to be compounded; while the industry has immense wealth, this doesn’t filter down to manual workers. Not only this, but the whole culture of continually changing trends is not only a massive waste of resources, and thus money, but will also have damaging environmental effects.

“While 85% at entry level are female it seems to be that they don’t manage to work their way to the top, with only 40% of the 371 designers across the fashion weeks being female”

This season saw a huge number of fashion designers make a political statement, from the entertainment at their shows to the actual designs themselves. While the most prominent theme was feminism, with readings from the organisers of the Women’s March on Washington to  ‘Everyone should be a feminist’ tops, and an official partnership between the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Planned Parenthood, there also featured comments on immigrants, Trump, and democracy. While I am never going to criticise someone for using their voice, expressing their opinions, or taking an active stance on an issue; I can’t help but think that this is the fashion industry just jumping on the bandwagon, and seems if anything a little hypocritical. How can an industry that promotes unrealistic body ideals, treats living women like mannequins, and still does not give women the top jobs be preaching feminism when they themselves have so far to come? While many at an entry level are female (85% of those enrolled at the NY Fashion Institute of Technology, 2014), it seems to be that they don’t manage to work their way to the top, with only 40% of the 371 designers across the fashion weeks being female.³

Not only this, but the fact that most top models have to fit a very specific criterion; above 5 foot 7, below a UK size 6. Top model Gigi Hadid is often held up as a ‘normal’ sized model, while actually being 179cm tall, and having measurements of 86/60/89cm4, while the average British woman between 16-24 years old is 164.5cm and has a waist measuring 79.5cm5. It has been repeatedly proven in numerous studies that the promotion of these unhealthy figures (with the average model’s BMI at 176) causes young girls to internalize this unattainable beauty image, and then to become dissatisfied with their own body.

Unattainable is the key word here, as practically everything you see in magazines is retouched – from the clothing fit to the model’s skin tone, and sometimes even the head of one model being edited onto the body of another. So while the fashion industry is being self-congratulatory for its feminist efforts this season, it might want to work on the wider issues they themselves are the cause of.

In the end, what does the fashion industry really give us that is beneficial? They may give us new trends, but do we want these fads to be dictated to us? They may give us some artistic and beautiful images, but at what cost to our self-confidence? They may provide jobs for unskilled masses, but does it really help them out of poverty or does it just make their circumstances worse? How does it make sense that the very people preaching equality are also the ones creating the toxic society in which the working classes suffer? To me, the fashion industry seems a sector based on shallow ideals and making money no matter the cost, and without it the world may be a much less troubled place.

¹ as of 2016, reported by FashionUnited

² Stitched Up, 2014 (https://cleanclothes.org/resources/publications/stitched-up-1)

³ Business of Fashion, 2017

4 IMG Model portfolio

5 2012 Health Survey of England

6 Tovée et al., 1997

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