Was the Democratisation of Fashion the Beginning of the Downfall of our Planet?

Fast Fashion turned 30 this year. Perhaps not officially, as it might be hiding its age. But it was born when The News York Times invented the name as the first Zara shop opened in the early 1990s in the Big Apple. The speed of the production process was incredible: clothing made it from design into stores within two weeks.

Fast Fashion made the 4 seasons of the year grow to 52, pushing for a new collection every week. Fast Fashion called, and the consumer responded. The innate thirst for new shiny stuff can’t be satisfied. Throughout history, we showed how we distinguished ourselves from others by possessions. “In an era in which social status became mobile, the possession and display of objects of luxury à la mode became a way of expressing a new social status”,(A. M. Rosa, Comunicação e Sociedade, vol. 24, 2013).

Traditionally, those with more wealth also owned more clothes, as each garment was tailored and sewn by a professional tailor, and was therefore expensive. Fashion was an elitist tool. The progress of automatisation in the 60s partly democratised fashion. It became possible for everyone to buy clothes they could afford and accumulate them. The focus of the fashion industry shifted from the elite towards those who, quite often, were previously overlooked.

The fact that everybody was now able to buy new fashion is not the actual act of democratisation. Democratisation happened, as for the first time, especially with Yves Saint Laurent, the couturiers started to look onto the streets to find inspiration and to promote the styles of the “simple” people. It happened when the leather jackets worn by the people in the 60s were introduced into high fashion, or when the jeans, previously considered a farmer’s garment, trickled up into haute couture. For the first time, the simple people influenced fashion and not vice versa, as it has been for decades. Fashion is all about imitating a model from the catwalk, with the big master - the couturier- dictating what’s desirable (Sicard, M-C. (2010)). With the new developments it was not only about the poor trying to imitate the rich but another way round. This dynamic is called horizontal diffusion. Fast fashion, therefore, helped create a social movement, from vertical to horizontal diffusion. While previously only the rich were role models, now “any individual can be a model for any other individual”, (A. M. Rosa, Comunicação e Sociedade, vol. 24, 2013).

While these consequences of Fast Fashion were empowering to the masses, they also contributed to the uncontrolled production of garments. In the past thirty years supply exceeded demand, and 350 000 tonnes of clothes in the UK alone are being dumped and burned every year. Exploiting mainly women of colour, the fashion industry produces so many cheap textiles that it’s not bothered by the fact that customers dispose of, many of them being unworn. Fast fashion not only creates enormous volumes of waste through oversaturation, but it also consumes a lot of energy and natural resources, contributing to more than 8% of our total greenhouse gases for the manufacturing process alone. With this, it has become one of the most resource-intensive and polluting industries.

In the western world, we are now wealthier than ever, being able to lead happy and prosperous lives. We are now also more equal than ever, even though the path to total equality is still an extremely long one. But we are privileged enough to start thinking not only in terms of capitalism but also in terms of sustainability. It is our responsibility to use the progress to the advantage of all of us and not just a few. Because if we can’t live sustainably, the world as we know it, how long do you think it will last?


The evolution and democratization of modern fashion: from Frederick Worth to Karl Lagerfeld’s fast fashion by António Machuco Rosa, Comunicação e Sociedade, vol. 24, 2013

Sicard, M-C. (2010) Luxe, Mensonges et Marketing, Paris: Pearson






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