Disposable Fashion



I'm visiting my parents' and getting rid of the last of my old clothes and school papers. In between Kantian perspectives on animal rights and Galbraithean conceptions of market economies, there's this book report. It got a 100% originality score on Turnitin.com:
The relationship of writers with fashion is complicated. Shin-eqi-unninni wrote the Epic of Gilgamesh wearing nothing but a loincloth, and Heian court lady Murasaki Shikibu composed The Tale of Genji in a billowing kimono she undoubtedly couldn't keep out of the ink. Then came Aldous Huxley, in round little glasses and three-piece Hunstman suits, the perfect marriage of literary and sartorial genius. A regular Vogue contributor and avid design enthusiast, the author sprinkled his work with colorful descriptions of futuristic outfits, none as eerily prophetic as the ones worn by characters in the 1932 novel Brave New World. Huxley depicted a lascivious society besotted by mass-produced ephemeral fashion, not dissimilar to the retail climate today. Whereas 1932 values emphasized thrift, uniqueness, and propriety, today's frivolity adheres to Huxley's principles of disposability and conformity in fashion. 
"I love new clothes, I love new clothes, I love..." repeat hypnopaedic recordings shaping supply and demand for the dystopian apparel industry. The mantras, "Ending is better than mending" and "The less stitches, the more riches," subliminally teach Ford-worshipping devotees of mass production to abhor heirlooms and hand-me-downs. Not surprisingly, Huxley's citizens wear synthetic clothes exclusively- bottle-green polyester, acetate furs and rayons. Conditioned to prize disposability in apparel, Huxley's fictional populace embraces the concept of attire as an instrument for social realization. 
Fashionable profligacy isn't restricted to fictional societies alone. Hedonism and style became inextricably linked in the 75+ years since Brave New World was published. "It never used to be right to mend clothes," Lenina recalls. "Throw them away when they've got holes in them and buy new. Mending's antisocial." Lenina could have been describing today's throwaway culture, which encourages people to consume rather than care for clothing. Every man, woman, and child is compelled to consume so much a year, in the interests of industry. 
Today, the impulse is to spend. In an Oppenheimer Funds study of 1,205 American women, three of four surveyed said it's important to look wealthy and 54 percent said they are more likely to accumulate 30 pairs of shoes before $30,000 in retirement. Disposable clothing chains cheaply replicate the latest trends quickly and en masse using fabric polyester and acetate derivatives. Others promote the idea of fashion as an exclusionary tool, in a manner seemingly aped from hypnopaedic caste conditioning recordings. 
When Brave New World was first published, "the tailor and dressmaker around the corner were so essential to the creative wardrobe, it seemed there was one in every family," recalls Genevieve Antoine Dariaux. "Then designers began licensing clothes to the same store where one would buy china and appliances." Huxley's concept of assembly-line clothing may have been radical in the heyday of seamstresses and tailors, yet the birth of mass-produced apparel was not far from 1932. Still, principles of wardrobe thrift and saving would continue to be applied into the wartime years and beyond. Garments were constructed from long-lasting materials, such as cashmere and wool. Until the late 1960s, Vogue ran a regular feature counseling women how to dress well on a budget. 
The 1938 style guide Better Than Beauty advises, "Chic can easily be a triumph of mind over money. Sit down for a moment and think. During the coming season, where will you be going, what will you be doing? Exactly what type of clothes will you need the most? If you can sew, you are in luck. If you've never tried to mend or sew, by all means make an effort. You have no idea how much  money you can save if you've never tried this most practical and amusing of all ways to use leftovers." How strange such advice would be to citizens of the brave new world, accustomed to hearing "the untiring whisper continue, 'But old clothes are beastly. We always throw away old clothes.'" 
Henry David Thoreau could have been speaking of Huxley's fictional world when he wrote, "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes." The novel assumes further relevance when viewed through the glass of fashion, as Huxley's concepts and principles are more of a reality now than they were when he first introduced them in 1932. A society in which not only clothing but people become disposable is a terrifying prospect, and with the advent of clothing chains and new manufacturing techniques it appears our throwaway culture is only a few steps from discarding individuals as well. Designers, economists, and social activists alike bemoan the possibility of technological advance phasing out human beings from an increasingly sexualized apparel trade in the near future- a stark contrast from the people-driven, labor-intensive industry of Huxley's day. 

I'm not going to post the concluding sentences, which included the word "assuredly" (I was fourteen). When I wrote it, I changed clothes thirty times a day and threw away barely worn items, chasing after trends. I stopped reading fashion magazines and visiting street style blogs, and the compulsion subsided. It wasn't a conscious decision- I grew out of it. I went to university and worked and didn't have time or money. My best advice on simplifying your wardrobe is this: Get an unpaid internship or minimum wage job, cancel your credit cards, and pick up a sewing needle. You'll never shop at the mall again. 
Paris to Go

4 comments:

  1. Wow, you were on a totally different level at 14 than I was or hoped to be. I was obsessed with fashion, fashion week, etc, but never put it into such a context. I think even in my adulthood, I've never thought about it in such complex terms. I'm impressed.

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    1. Thank you Emily! Oh, but I was obsessed, too. All I remember from that book are the clothes! (That, and the whipping.) Because my love of fashion was really unbalanced- my closet was out of control- I went in the complete opposite direction later in life. It's like I revolted against my teenage self.

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  2. I have evolved over 5 years, going from poly to natural fibers, retail to thrift and I have never looked back. The wear and feel of real fibers are extraordinary. Like you I am purging plastics from my life and using glass for everything. Your wardrobe is inspiring, though my lifestyle is much different. I threw away my must have list and have embraced enough. As pieces wear out I will replace them, but for now I have enough.

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  3. Kathy, what you said is really beautiful. I've been thinking a lot about wants and what drives them and they can be easily satisfied by producing much or desiring little (maybe this will be a blog post someday). I go into thrift stores now and want nothing. I love the idea of only buying when something needs replacing, and the idea of making something to fill that need is even better!

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