In the modern day, fast fashion and overconsumption have become an uncomfortable norm. But we must stop to think: how exactly did we get to this point? What factors played a part in quickening trend cycles, the shortened lifespan of our clothing, and the overwhelming cycle of mass waste in the West? Let’s take a brief look into the historical context of these trends.
Let’s set the scene – It is early 1700s. You are a wife and mother of ten children living in North America, where you experience hot summers and cold winters, and thus need weather appropriate clothing for yourself, and your family. For people with little means, clothing’s functionality was prioritized over its beauty. Women in family units were often tasked with making these garments, as well as sewing and repairing them when necessary. Clothing was made to last, and handed down. More luxurious, frivolous pieces, crafted by talented tailors and seamstresses, were reserved for upper class and high society.
In 1811, ⅔ of garments worn by Americans were homemade (Literary Hub), but around the same time the West experienced large economic booms, largely due to colonization and imperialistic practices facilitating globalization. These practices opened the West up to new resources and consumers across different pockets of the world. The influx of wealth flowing into the West at this time was what allowed society to become consumer-centric.
A general trend towards machine-based manufacturing and production in factories slowly, then not so slowly, became the norm as companies’ profit margins increased, and consumers chased new products. The exponential growth in wealth enabled by globalization began the rat race for many industries, and fashion was most definitely not an exception. Globalization expanded the production process across multiple countries; cotton picked in one country could be processed in another country, and the garments themselves could be made and sold all over the world. Suddenly the value of clothing was more about form than function.
But the trend towards overconsumption, and even hyper-overconsumption, truly took root in the contemporary age, aided by the digital revolution. Instead of two seasons (summer and winter), suddenly there were fifty-two!
With the advent of the internet, fashion became, well, faster. It connected trend-savvy designers, factories, retailers, influencers, and businesspeople from across the globe, enabling more access than ever before. Online shopping, and international deliveries quickened trend and production cycles, and when you add social media to the mix, urging its audience to consume, things get a little messy. Unfortunately, fast fashion quickly became the norm – cheap, trendy clothing produced on a mass-scale (usually in unethical conditions).
When examining the trends of today, it is important to remember that fashion, like all industries, is always changing. Fast fashion and overconsumption are problems now, but they weren’t in the past — and they don’t have to be in the future.
Keep an eye out for our next piece on the shift towards fast fashion — When Our Clothes Consumed Us: the Producer Perspective. Psst – the fastest way to get an update on new blog content is via our Instagram account!