the fashion industry is out of control – and so, apparently, are we. We are buying clothes like never before, so many that the average Australian woman wears just a third of what’s in her wardrobe. And men are fast catching up – global menswear sales increased by 70 per cent from 1998 to 2014. The industry produces way too much: things we don’t need and wouldn’t want if we weren’t so brainwashed by social media, and advertising and celebrities who never wear the same thing twice.
Indeed, so used are we to that last concept that back in 2012, when the Duchess of Cambridge wore a pale pink frock to two events, she made headlines: “Kate Wears Same Dress Twice in 11 days!” Said dress was by the London-based New Zealander Emilia Wickstead and retailed at more than £2000, so Kate would have to wear it many more times to get a reasonable cost per wear – but that was beside the point. Our current definition of glamour is based on rapid trend turnover. You’re nobody unless your outfit is brand-spanking new.
Clothes are increasingly designed with disposability in mind, as fast fashion, built on cheap labour in Asia and Africa, booms. Each year, Australians send $500 million worth of clothing to the tip. Oxfam says 9513 garments are thrown into British landfill every five minutes. Americans dump an estimated 10 million tonnes every year.
The problem is, there is no escaping it. Commercial fashion is ubiquitous. In Tokyo, vending machines spew out tailored suits for businessmen who’ve been out all night. At airports, you can buy luxury leather goods that cost more than your plane ticket. Retail stores are presented as cultural institutions, and designers and models are the new rock stars. Oh, and rock stars, by the way, are the new fashion designers – Beyoncé has a new active-wear line, Rihanna has just launched a line of “statement socks”, whatever that means.
It’s only logical, in this context, that red carpet coverage should take over awards shows: “Who are you wearing?” is now more important than what you were nominated for. Since The Devil Wears Prada, the fashion film has become mainstream and museums are mounting fashion exhibitions like never before. This month, the fashion documentary The First Monday in May, starring Anna Wintour and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ball, opened in the United States to huge buzz. Everyone wants to dress like a Vogue cover girl.
According to a 2014 report in the Financial Times, “apparel is growing rapidly in UK food retail”. The shop floor space allocated to non-food items may be smaller, but the profit margins on them are way bigger. In Australia, Collette Dinnigan, once known for her luxurious lace ladies’ wear, did a kids’ collection for the discount supermarket chain Aldi.
Over at Coles, prices for Mix brand womenswear start at $8. I’m hard pushed to think of anything more depressing – because someone always pays the price for too cheap.
So how did we get here? Conspicuous consumption is as old as the hills, but for most of human history it has been the preserve of the select few; fashion and luxury goods were a tool used by the ruling classes to show the hoi polloi they meant business. But that all changed in the 1980s, when family-owned luxury businesses began selling out to big corporations, and rapid expansion ensued.