The “fashion industry” is a relatively new concept; it was not until the early- to mid-nineteenth century that technological innovation allowed for the mass-production of “ready-to-wear” garments.1 Prior to that time, most families’ clothes were custom-made by a tailor or by the mother and other “close female relatives.”2 Despite its recency, the industrialization of fashion has had a profound impact on the clothes we wear and the way we wear them – not only as a medium for “personal aesthetic expression,”3 but also as a “system of visual communication”4 through which we can express our individuality, collective identity, and political and religious beliefs.
As a form of art, fashion relies heavily on freedom of expression for sustenance; however, as a largely commercialized system driven by profit, this freedom is put under immense strain.5 For the fashion designer, the pressure to continuously create unique yet wearable garments that appeal to the consumer market has established a tight “seasonal schedule of Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter ready-to-wear collections” in which the designer’s creative vision cannot always be fully realized while balancing the rigorous process of “research, designing, prototyping, orders, manufacturing, [and] marketing”.6 A further obstacle resulting from the “dualism between commercialism and conceptuality”7 is the need for designs to be innovative enough to be differentiated from other products, but not so innovative that they are too difficult and costly to manufacture in large quantities.8
Consumers also feel the effect of the fashion industry’s dependency on profit. The “advertiser’s perspective” dominates the modern individual’s self-image and self-esteem.9 Despite that the majority of advertisements do not accurately portray or represent the diversity of actual society,10 they are effective in exploiting consumers’ insecurity and influencing them to buy the advertised product in order to reach the “often unattainable expectations and goals” presented.11 In addition, the gap between the consumer and the ideal presented has continued to widen through the use of technology to digitally retouch and enhance the images used in advertising. This practice has raised concerns about the ethical implications and the lack of corporate social responsibility in the pursuit of profit.12
The notion that clothing is an important representation of the wearer is not only exploited by the fashion industry, however, but also supported by society; garments are considered attractive or unattractive, acceptable or unacceptable based on “the symbolism consumers attach to them rather than the product attributes per se.”13 This trend can be seen in men and women’s clothing, formal and informal wear, and even in infant apparel: The demarcation of pink for girls and blue for boys is, in modern times, a symbolic divide between femininity and masculinity that supposedly has resounding effects on a child’s maturation and development of gender identity;14 men’s suits are symbols of power and status, and the tuxedo, the most formal of menswear, is a “quintessentially democratic garment”15 in which all men are equally classy. Even the popular expression “wearing the pants in the family” makes assumptions about authority based on a masculine article of clothing.16 All the qualities attributed to these garments are largely imagined and artificial, and have little to do with the actual physical qualities of the clothes.
Repeated exposure to these associations that “we are what we wear” greatly influences the buying patterns of consumers.17 The luxury market, for example, is a division resulting from the needs of consumers to differentiate themselves and create a heightened sense of worth. Consumption behaviors are dependent not only on how consumers would like to perceive themselves, but also on how they would like to be perceived by others.18 Consumer need for uniqueness theory identifies three dimensions of the relationship between an individual consumer’s choice and his perceived relationships to society:
“(1) creative choice counter-conformity (CCC), in which a consumer seeks social differentness from most others but still makes selections that others consider good choices; (2) unpopular choice counter-conformity (UCC), or the consumption of products and brands that deviate from group norms and may risk social disapproval; and (3) avoidance of similarity (AOS), in which the consumer loses interest in or discontinues use of possessions that become commonplace to re-establish differentness.”19
On the basis of this theory, even the rejection of traditional or “normal” clothing and their implied qualities are a result of outside influence. The “resistance” of trends is impossible without people first being aware of those trends.20 Teenagers that wear t-shirts with “progressive” slogans are still participating in an initiative of using t-shirts as “popular media for expressing political thoughts and collective affiliation” that began in the 20th century.21 The women’s liberation movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s encouraged empowerment by abandoning “traditional feminine styling”22 and opting for clothes based on a more masculine silhouette – perpetuating the idea that a woman could achieve a status equal to a man only by looking like one, too. As a result, modern “feminine feminists” took a different route by “[wearing] pink, [spending] money on fancy shoes, and simultaneously [expecting] – no, [demanding] the same success as men.”23 But it can be argued as well that hyper-femininity is not necessarily an act of independence, but rather another reaction to male-dominated culture.
The idea of counterculture in clothing is further cheapened by the fashion industry’s capitalization and commercialization of it. In The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank states that “rebellion, liberation, and outright ‘revolutions’ against the stultifying demands of mass society are commonplace… commercial fantasies.”24 In other words, the defiance of mainstream culture is as tainted by consumerism as mainstream culture itself.
Consumer tastes in clothing and brand preference are also extremely subject to change to reflect the times: “the value of the art… depends on the social marks attached to them at any given moment.”25. For example: fur, though considered to be a top-of-the-line material, was made a taboo product of a “culture of excess” after increased awareness of animal cruelty.26 On a less extreme and morally-charged note, what is considered dominant and “in vogue” for the season impacts the stylistic choices of both the fashion-conscious and the fashion rebels.
Freedom in fashion is a delicate and difficult concept that is continually threatened by the fashion industry’s profit dependency and society’s ready acceptance of the industry’s advertising campaigns. Individual freedom of expression through stylistic choice often struggles to survive in the context of these relationships. Even “counterculture,” the supposedly most far-removed movement from outside pressure, is continually subverted and exploited. Despite fashion’s role as one of the most visible and widespread modes of expression, achieving fashion freedom is far from a common occurrence.
2 Jo B. Paoletti, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 36.
3 Hollander, “The Modernization of Fashion,” 27.
4 Gordana Vrencoska, “Political statements in Conceptual Fashion: The voice of national sentiments as a self-reference in the Ready-To-Wear Collections of Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan” (Annual review, European University – Republic of Macedonia, 2009), 868.
5 Vrencoska, “Political statements in Conceptual Fashion,” 868.
6 Ibid., 868.
7 Ibid., 868.
8 Hollander, “The Modernization of Fashion,” 32.
10 Rajagopal and Gales, “It’s the Image that is Imperfect,” 3333.
11 Ibid., 3334.
12 Ibid., 3335.
14 Paoletti, Pink and Blue, 117.
16 Paoletti, Pink and Blue, 42.
18 Kastanakis and Balabanis, “Between the mass and the class,” 1402.
19 Ibid., 1403.
20 Paoletti, Pink and Blue, 112.
21 Vrencoska, “Political statements in Conceptual Fashion,” 870.
22 Paoletti, Pink and Blue, 115.
23 Ibid., 121.
24 Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), 4.
25 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 86.
26 Vrencoska, “Political statements in Conceptual Fashion,” 870.