A fact to know about me: I teach and research fashion. To be precise: I research and teach how fashionable dress is made meaningful and how that meaning is enacted on our bodies in everyday life.
Another fact to know about me: I am a child of the 1980s. To
be precise: the suburban, white, midwestern version of that era. There is
neither pride nor shame in that statement – what could I have done to avoid
such a beginning, after all? My relationship with things blossomed during that
period, so what does that mean for my outlook and identity?
Tim Jelfs’ The Argument About Things in the 1980s: Goods and Garbage in an Age of Neoliberalism, published by the West Virginia University Press, is a great place to start with such a question. Jelfs ventured to West Virginia University on November 2nd to chat about how the dominant ideology of neoliberalism has forever altered our relationship with the things we consume and, perhaps more importantly, the things we throw away. Though Jelfs delved into a whole host of ideas, his latest book explains how one very long decade (or perhaps a period that is still unfolding) represents the final triumph of materialism in American life.
Questions of fashion, however, are noticeably absent. I don’t fault the omission. Fashion is still working on its image problem as a subject worthy of inclusion in serious discussions. Thus, I would like to take a second to bring fashion back into the fold of Jelfs’ argument. Though my bias runs wide and deep here, fashion is the perfect vehicle to really dig into this issue of materialism. In fact, I’ve bet an entire career on that assessment.
In my youth, I never wanted for stuff. Sure, the odd barbie doll or jean jacket eluded my grasp, but there would be others. And why should I worry? By the year of my birth it would be “Morning in America.” Acquiring – not making – stuff was my birthright. Stuff in the form of flower-printed Dr. Martens boots helped me feel cool in middle school when I most certainly was not. One Christmas, getting less stuff when both my parents were out of work was a painful lesson about the intersection of neoliberal macro-economics with micro-economics. Stuff would also ultimately lead me to my profession. When my first major in psychology did not meet my expectations a brief review of the campus catalog revealed my destiny – I could major in fashionable stuff!
It took me only four months working in the industry to realize selling fashion stuff was not for me. So, I returned to a life of the mind, focused on why the stuff we put on our bodies mattered. Clothing exists at the meeting place of our public and private selves, carrying the weight of both personal and social identity. Yet fashion discourse and economics has largely robbed it of all cultural esteem. Though gender politics have played a large role in that reality – another story for another time – neoliberalism can offer some clues as to why.
Fashion in the age of neoliberalism goes as follows: we design, make, sell, and buy clothes so cheaply that their only real value is sign value, the intangible qualities affixed to fashion goods through advertising and branding initiatives. What was once material has become immaterial.
Just as Jelfs argues, much of this “unmooring” can be traced back to the long decade of the 1980s. Couture brands, historically the stalwarts of craftsmanship, realized in the early 1970s that they could not sell to Gen X the same way they sold to previous generations. Thus, designer ready-to-wear (RTW) lines were born. Creatively inspired by the designer’s couture presentation but utilizing mass-production shortcuts such as cheaper fabrics and construction methods, RTW collections paved the way for branding to displace quality as a driver of fashionable consumption. The 1980s and 90s saw further degradation of quality in the race to the bottom: chasing cheap labor, eliminating import tariffs that stood in the way of the neoliberal dream of “free markets,” and producing in far flung locales with minimal oversight.
“Fast fashion” is the culmination of these developments. Fast fashion’s value is ephemeral; many consumers only value its “nowness.” When this sign value is used up, the material becomes worthless, instantly transformed into garbage. While the outfit is still wearable, its meaning evaporates. That is why we can have a closet full of clothes but nothing to wear. It’s also why the average American discards 70 pounds of clothing and textiles every year. Though some of this refuse is donated or recycled through various channels, 85% will end up in a landfill. Under neoliberalism, fashion has innovated hyper-efficient production processes, but the post-consumer end of the supply chain has yet to see such innovation. Fashion’s environmental impact is horrific—depending on the source, it is either the second- or fifth- most polluting industry.
At the same time, we must also come to terms with the human toll this movement has taken. From slavery on cotton plantations to child and forced labor in sewing factories, the capitalist drive for economic rewards has not come cheaply. If you have yet to see The True Cost, I urge you to do so.
Though it may seem foolish, Jelfs and I both remain optimistic. For my part, I have dedicated my career to ensuring the next generation of fashion executives will be agents of change. Furthermore, I know the magic of fashion garbage is that the process is reversible. Items with use value are salvaged from the garbage heap daily. Vintage fashion has offered a second life to a sub-economy of goods, and textile recycling is a burgeoning industry. Sustainable fashion initiatives are expanding, driven by the mantra “buy better, make it last.” We have a long way to go before fashion can claim a circular economy, and neoliberalism has certainly established obstacles to progress on this front. But I still hope that when I am finally ready to part with my Dr. Martens boots—still worn when a dose of cool is needed—a system will be in place to help them be reborn as someone else’s treasured stuff.