“Behind the perfection of a man’s style, must lie the passion of a man’s soul.”
― Oscar Wilde,
Consumerism, both personally and more broadly speaking, have been on my mind for a while now. Several years to be honest, though my thinking and habits are in a state of constant revision. I thought it was worth dedicating at least one post to exploring the topic, especially given my framing of style as a series of choices we make about how we present ourselves.
Until the Star Trek future of infinite abundance arrives (or until the current world order collapses), capitalism is the predominant game in town. Though it’s the system we all live in, it’s not without its challenges. We are able to consume information and goods at a pace never before seen in human history, and as fashion has become more accessible, demand has grown to match. This is having a lot of interesting effects on consumer of society.
For instance, one of the biggest conversations in the fashion world right now is how the traditional mode of designing and showing clothes several seasons in advance to allow for the production is struggling to keep up with fast fashion. In a world crafted around instant gratification, it’s not entirely ridiculous for consumers to expect to be able to see-now-buy-now; we’ve been trained to expect just that. At the moment, the fashion world logistically can’t keep up with this. You could dismiss that demand as selfish and impatient consumerism, and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but it also leads to questions of ethical labor, production methods and environmental costs.
When sweatshops can churn out dupes of products for consumers now instead of making them wait months to get their hands on the designer version, the customer may be happy, but the cost is cheaper materials, usually badly sourced and badly made, with short shelf lives that result in more waste when they are thrown away, all produced by people not making enough money and often working in awful and unsafe conditions. This is a disturbing social reality and most of us are complicit in it.
On the other hand, given the current media age and it’s technical advances, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think fashion and style to be as accessible as possible to as many people who want to follow and participate in it. And if so, how are we to achieve that with an out of date design and production system originally designed to cater almost exclusively to the wealthy and privileged? To pull a Tevye, on the other hand, what does it say about our value for design, artisan skills, and art if we want the “look” but aren’t willing to wait for it to be produced by the designer who created it, or pay the money for original pieces instead of illegal knock offs? There are a lot of big questions to ask about what we consume and why.
Lest you think I’m trying to lecture, I’m not! My point is not necessarily to convince anyone to change their behaviors or habits, but rather to be a bit more opened eyed about the fact that our style choices are not made in a vacuum (as that iconic scene from The Devil Wears Prada so fabulously puts it), and that our day to day decisions of what we buy, why, and how we use it has much bigger footprints that most of us realize. Style choices are informed by economic, political, social, and industrial realities just as much as they are by cultural trends. Recognizing those facts means that in a small way, we have an ability to impact how those economic, political, social, and industrial systems work if we choose to, based on making informed purchase and presentation decisions.
I think we’re living in a period of peak consumer savvy and choice. There are more ways than ever to command your personal presentation, and do so with goods that align with the values you prioritize. Actress Emma Watson, for a high profile example, has famously chosen to wear and promote fashion and beauty brands that promote sustainability and natural ingredients. WAY down here in the proletariat I’ve written before about my decision to shop almost entirely secondhand to avoid fast fashion. But both of us have made choices that affect our consumption…and the way we look in public as a result.
Even though I love following fashion, I will very rarely ever look “trendy” as a result of my shopping choices. Buying mostly second hand or vintage means that I’m of necessity buying clothing that are several months to decades old. I’m fine with that trade off personally, where another person will make totally different style choices for totally different consumer reasons. Moving forward, I want do be better informed on the new items I do occasionally buy: who is manufacturing them, where, and in what circumstances. I’d like to improve my beauty game as well (keep an eye out for Beauty Week, coming Monday!) and do better at researching and buying from female owned, black owned, cruelty free, and boutique brands, as part of my effort put my money where my mouth is.
I don’t want to dampen anyone’s mood or playfulness when it comes to style, clothing, and fashion. As I’ve said before and continue to defend as a concept, style is supposed to be fun! But I do think that there is room for all of us, when putting our outfits together and our faces on, to consider our product choices in a wider context. After all, if we’re just throwing any old substance on our skin or clothes on our backs without any thought or intention, I’m not sure we’re being stylish so much as “sheeple.”
Your turn, what are some deliberate consumer choices have you made when it comes to clothing, and why? Do you eschew fur, cashmere, or leather for ethical purposes? Are there certain brands you shop at or avoid, and why? Have you tried a capsule wardrobe collection to experiment with closet size? Do you have a specific budget for clothing, and if so, how do you allocate it?