Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months. —Oscar Wilde
One of the challenges fashion has always had is convincing people that they needed to buy more clothes. Historically, people have bought new clothes for one primary reason: their existing wardrobe had either worn out or they had outgrown it. Prior to the end of World War II, many women, and some men, either made their own clothes or at least knew enough to make minor alterations. One didn’t just run to the nearest store and pick up a new shirt or a new skirt without considerable thought. Clothes were, for the average consumer, too expensive to be treated with frivolity.
Fast fashion has its roots in the early automation that took place in the 1950s. Prices fell as manufacturing made it possible to produce more pieces per day and it wasn’t long before department stores began seeing the benefit of placing these cheaper-priced goods on the floor along with name brand labels. Making clothes more affordable was a strong part of the growth of the middle class. People were no longer waiting until their clothes were threadbare before replacing them and the world’s elite weren’t the only ones paying attention to fashion and style. Dressing well was a sign of being upwardly mobile, a status most everyone desired to achieve.
Fast fashion has a severe price, though. As more emphasis is put on lower prices, quality has taken a back seat. Conditions for garment workers have gone beyond sweatshop all the way to outright slavery in too many situations. For every shop that is “cleaned up,” five more “dirty” shops open to meet the price demands of retailers such as Wal-Mart, H&M, and Zara. Domestic manufacturing is non-existent because just meeting building codes in the US prices us out of the subpar competition of third-world countries. We spend billions of dollars on cheaply-produced, low-quality clothing to secure a facade of a social standing, while simultaneously ruining the lives of thousands of garment workers and destroying the environment.
If there is a hope for the end of fast fashion, it may lie in the development of 3D printing that would allow people to print their own clothes at home. I’m sure designers would still be paid well for producing the patterns, but the low-price demands of retail could potentially be eliminated. Of course, so could millions of jobs. There are no quick and easy answers to a bad system on which we’ve become dependent. But change we must. Fast fashion is not sustainable and the end is not likely to be pleasant.