Once upon a time, there was a girl named Anne, and she desperately wanted a dress with puffed sleeves from a shop window in Avonlea. When Anne asked for the dress, her Aunt Marilla deemed the fashion silly, but her Uncle Matthew, understanding the desire of this girl who had never had such a fancy item, went to the shop, bought the dress, and Anna got her puffed sleeves. Anne rarely obsessed over clothes, and the fashionable dress was considered a great extravagance.
If Anne, from 1908, were transplanted into the 21st Century, she could easily have her dress with puffed sleeves—the runaround of asking Marilla and Matthew deciding to go out and find the dress would be unnecessary (and certainly a lot more difficult), the style could be found purchasable with minimal saving from the average teenager’s allowance. In today’s fashion world, when Matthew went back to purchase that dress it wouldn’t still be in the shop window. Overnight, it would have been whisked to another part of the store—likely even to the sale rack—along with dozens of other styles. Matthew would have had no idea where to start looking for that dress! And in today’s fashion world, those puffed sleeves would likely have been on their way out of style by the time Anne got around to wearing the dress for her event.
There’s little opportunity to be an Anne with the construction of today’s fashion industry and fast fashion. Fast fashion describes the movement of moving clothing from catwalk to store racks in a matter of weeks, capitalizing on short-lived trends, and limiting innovation in fashion styles. The aim is to quickly manufacture a clothing trend, move it to the rack at exorbitantly low prices, and sell it off before the particular trend fades a few weeks later. It’s a quick and dirty process and while the price tag might read low, the cost of this kind of clothing consumption is high—and some consumers are fed up. In her article, “Cheap at twice the price,” Linda Grant of The Guardian shares her frustration. “I had become sickened by fashion as disposable, instant gratification: clothes that are thrown away after a few weeks, not even because they are worn out but because a new trend has come in.”
Fast fashion is a phenomenon of the 21st Century. Our grandmothers and even our parents in their teenage years would never have gone through clothes like Kleenex, the way that we’re encouraged to do today by purchasing something cheap, having it fall apart or the colour run in the wash, then replacing it with something else cheap and in the next month’s style. And why not? There is an endless variety of clothing items to purchase at cheap prices—or so it appears.
According to Elizabeth Cline in Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion the fast-fashion trend took off just over 20 years ago and the primary proponent was the Gap. The Gap’s approach was to make generic basics such as jeans, T-shirts, and sweatshirts appealing through cleverly targeted branding—through upscale magazine ad placement and celebrity endorsement. Cline also says that “Gap was also one of the earliest retailers to get us hooked on shopping very frequently.”
In the 21st Century, shop frequently we do. Stores have come to introduce new stock on a weekly basis, and rotate their merchandise overnight around the store to also create the illusion of a constant stream of new products. In fact, according to Cline, “It’s all about the attention-grabbing detail that will get us to buy, and buy on the spot.” From Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture “Shopping…is not a rational exercise but a process fraught with emotions ranging from guilt to jubilation. Shopping forces us to extrapolate future needs from current evidence, a surprisingly difficult task.” Especially when confronted with a rack of 5-dollar T-shirts or 20-dollar dresses. Today retailers offer what are referred to as “exploding discounts.” Discounts designed to trigger the shopper into purchasing an item they don’t likely need, by placing a time constraint on that purchase— buy it now before someone else snaps it up or the item goes back to full price. Often these discount prices are determined when the full price is set— they’re designed to make it look like you’re getting a good deal. Gone are the seasonal sales, or, at least in their traditional sense of occurring only at certain points in the season. Instead, sales and “good deals” are offered on a near weekly basis to entice consumers to shop continuously.
Following in the Gap’s example, clothing chains such as H&M, Forever 21, and Zara (just to name a few out of dozens) operate on this model of quick design, quick production, and cheap prices. In Overdressed, Cline says “cheap fashion also depends on embellishments that make a garment look more expensive. Forever 21 clothing is an assault of sequins, ruffles, gromets, and studs…such garish trimmings are often the selling point for today’s low-end garments. It’s all about the attention-grabbing surface detail that will get us to buy, and buy on the spot.” The illusion of variety—when in fact all these embellished items might be the same basic T-shirt underneath.
A couple of generations ago, people wouldn’t have dreamed of such clothing consumption; purchasing an outfit was a serious investment. Clothing was much more expensive but was intended to last for years, and care and attention was put into how well items were made. Clothes that did eventually tear or lose buttons were carefully repaired and clothes that were outgrown were passed on to younger siblings or others in need. Today thrift stores and charities turn away used clothing that really hasn’t been all that used—it’s just that the minimal use has worn out the item too much for it to be passed on, even to those in need. Today, durability, has been sacrificed for the quick fashion fix. After all, if this season’s colours are out of style next year, why do those clothes need to last? Cline says, “Quality has been whittled away little by little, to the point where the average store-bought style is an extraordinarily thin and simple, albeit bedazzled and brightly coloured, facsimile of a garment.”
The purchasing power of such retailers as Wal-Mart has placed a stranglehold on other retailers trying to compete with “every day low prices.” As Wal-Mart creates cheaper garments, which in recent years have capitalized on trends and become more appealing to a younger demographic, how can other retailers compete with the price point? Continuing to manufacture in North America has become too expensive for many companies—thanks to labour laws—and the construction of these clothes has moved over to China and other cheap-labour regions. Pressure is placed on factories in Asia and other parts of the world to produce, and produce cheaply and fast. If the factory cannot meet the low-cost demand of the retailer, and the retailer has enough purchasing power, they can take their business to another factory that will produce for the lowest price. These low prices, of course, come out of the wages of the people making the clothes. This price war to produce as cheaply as possible creates dangerous working conditions, in addition to being environmentally unsustainable, and it also threatens to destroy our ability to evaluate quality.
A trip through any second-hand clothing store will tell the story. Labels on styles from five to ten years ago from certain popular clothing retailers can be found with the Made in Canada label. When compared with the labels on newer clothing in my closet, a different story was told—and these are not clothes purchased at Wal- Mart prices. During the past decade, manufacturing has shifted overseas even more dramatically. What was once made in Canada has been relocated to China, Bangladesh, Taiwan, Singapore, and the list goes on.
Of course purchasing clothes made in any of these places does not guarantee that they are of poor quality or are made in unethical working conditions, but it is a strong indicator that this is likely—and it does mean that the item has travelled much, much further to make it into your closet.
The Argument for a Better Closet
As consumers, we should expect that the products we put our money into will last more than one season—a quality item, well-cared for, should last years. The fact is, we’ve been conditioned to change our looks, and follow new trends from season to season creating the cycle to purchase more and cheaper clothes. This is environmentally unsustainable. Many of these rarely-worn items go straight to landfills and don’t even make it into the used clothing market.
When shopping for clothes to last, it should also be noted that high price should never be taken to coincide with high quality. Plenty of clothing companies capitalize on the social prestige of wearing their brand by pricing it high, without necessarily making a quality piece of clothing—even supposedly presitge designers are making their handbags and clothing in China, sometimes in the same factories as your T-shirt from Wal-Mart. When looking to purchase a new item, the important details to pay attention to are the quality of the seams, place of manufacture, and material. Use your fingers to explore an item—high-quality clothing should have some weight to it, button holes should be sewn on both sides, and seams should be tight without broken threads. Unfortunately, a lot of shopping is trial and error—so make note of what lasted, how you washed it, and whether an item holds its shape.
An alternative is to make your own clothes, or to receycle old clothing by sewing it into a new style. VIU student Melanie Godel started sewing from a young age, the skill passed on by her mother and older sister. The ability to sew, and to sew well, is fast-disappearing as clothing has become so cheap to purchase but Godel’s sister would bring home bags of clothing from a thrift store to refashion. Godel says “it’s fun to be able to turn a quirky item of clothing that might be too big or have old-fashioned tailoring, into a form-fitting piece that people inevitably notice.
One piece I made I started sometime last year, and I finally finished this spring. It sat in my ‘to-do’ pile for a long time because I wasn’t sure how I wanted to proceed. It started out as a 1990s-style jean dress with embroidered white flowers. I cut off the sleeves, brought in the sides, and hemmed it, intending to make it form-fitted and sleeveless. I abandoned the project, and it sat in the pile unfinished for a while until I got the inspiration to add a large doily to cover the back and reach over the shoulders as straps. The dress turned out better than I could have hoped, and when I wore it out, everyone noticed.”
When asked what advide she would give to those who want to try refashioning clothing, Godel says “don’t worry about perfection. If you have the skills, then by all means use them, but don’t get caught up in frustration. And if you’re not an experienced sewer, don’t let it hold you back. Safety pins can be your best friend, and a quick way to make something fun fit better or differently. Make sure you’re enjoying yourself, and it will show through in what you wear.”
Purchasing high-quality, sustainable clothing is not always feasible on a student budget—Canadian-made clothing that is produced at fair, living wages does not come at the cheapest price (but doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive either). Indeed, the best places to find Canadian-made clothes are boutique shops. I set out to find Canadian labels at shops in downtown Nanaimo and found that there were many, many more options for Canadian-made clothing than I expected, so the items are out there. It just takes a little looking. Changing economic climates may in fact drive people to commit more to a few items of quality clothing, rather than quick disposables. In her Guardian article, Grant says “it is time, it feels, to return to a more prudent and ethical way of shopping: not to forsake fashion altogether—God forbid—but to shop more wisely.”
In Anne of Green Gables, when Anne was given her dress with the puffed sleeves, she definitely didn’t toss the dress in a lump on her bed after Matthew gave it to her. She cared for that item, and it’s important to ask ourselves whether we should demonstrate that same care for our clothing, the same attention to quality, and if it’s time to put an end to the fast fashion obsession by forming a lasting relationship with what we wear.