Those who know me are aware that I don’t have much of a sense of fashion. Before I met my wife, in fact, the very idea that there were clothes with colors that “match,” or that certain colors look better on me than others, was unfathomable. I would simply be unable to parse those considerations, no less know how to act on them. Today I feel that dressing in a minimally acceptable way is within my reach and it is what I strive for most days.
This, though, does not mean that I am not interested in fashion. Over the years a string of movies have fascinated me, including Unzipped, Coco Before Chanel, and, of course, The Devil Wears Prada. A few weeks ago I decided to take this a step further and I convinced my wife to sign up with me for a Coursera course called “Fashion as Design,” put on by MOMA. The course opened with a long but fascinating video about whether clothing, or fashion, is “modern” and the implications of such a designation.
“Modern,” in this context, is defined as something that is in tune with the times. This is potentially in contrast to “modernist,” which is a more ideological stance that deliberately breaks with the past. Hence “modern” fashion might well draw on earlier traditions (e.g., colors or materials), as is often done in modern African design. One of the interesting challenges is identifying what is “in tune with the times.” The video and course emphasize that one such concern is ethical. It is hardly newsworthy that there has been a swell of interest in “farm to table,” locally produced food. We increasingly (although probably still in relatively small numbers) want to feel good about what we eat and we are willing to pay a premium to do so. So too, although I think it has received less attention, there has been growing interest in the conditions in which our clothing is produced. To buy a garment is to participate in a complex global economy that can along the way involve exploitation of workers. How are we as consumers to respond to this, and how might our response shape the industry?
I do not mean here to dismiss the awesome power and benefits of the ready-to-wear market. The price of clothing has fallen dramatically; whereas in 1900 the average American family spent 14% of its income on clothing, today it is only 4%. People who could barely afford clothes now can and clothes no longer mark social class so starkly. Workers across the world now have jobs that lift them out of poverty. A global clothing industry is here to stay and that is probably a good thing.
But – it is hard, at least for me, to feel particularly good about the clothes that I buy. I am no clothes hog but I still own more clothes that I need and they are not all at the level of quality that I would like. I know that behind every article of clothing I buy is a chain of company owners profiting, with only a fraction of what I pay going to the workers. And I think of all of the smaller-time operators – the farmers, artisans and the small retailers – who struggle to survive financially in this climate.
The problem, of course, is that when I buy clothes I don’t just want to do good, I also want to look good at a price I can afford. When it comes to eating meat ethically, the calculus is relatively straight-forward. Meat, eggs, and dairy that one buys at their “real cost” from animals raised humanely cost more, and in order to balance that cost I eat less meat. Clothing, though, works differently due largely to societal expectations. It is hard – especially for women – to wear the same outfits to work or in certain social events repeatedly, even if they do look stunning.
I am told that the French generally approach fashion with an eye toward less is more. They wear fewer, better looking, more expensive garments and they repeat more often. I find this approach, which could be combined with more attention to the ethical dimension of clothes production (just because a garment is more expensive does not mean it was produced ethically), viscerally appealing, although I certainly have some qualms about bucking our own American expectations.
Over the next month or so as I work through the course this is a question I’ll continue to ponder. I have found a few articles (e.g., in the Atlantic) that deal with aspects of this issue, but none that really work in putting all of these pieces together for me. What would be the next step?
As always, I would welcome your comments.