Monday, March 12, 2012

Fashion: The Super Model of Late Capitalism

Finally, I get to use a bad pun! If I didn’t want my posts to be easy to find via Google searches, I would do this more often.

There have been a number of attempts in pop culture to get behind the more superfluous aspects of the fashion industry – for example, the comedy film Zoolander, and recent novel Zero History. The former, while jokingly implicating the industry in international conspiracy, also highlights the political-economic realities (namely, sweatshops) associated with it; the latter explores the relationship between the fashion industry and defense contracting. Of course there are other examples as well.

While avoiding any attempt render the industry as some sort of conspiratorial cabal, an examination of the industry along with the phenomenon of “fashion” and “trends” more generally can provide a good glimpse into the rhythms and logic of late capitalism.

By late capitalism, I mean the post-WW2 era, specifically characterized by fully automated production, “Fordism,” multinational corporations, and mass consumption. Several key problems resulted from its extraordinary successes (demonstrating the point that capitalism is based on contradictions that threaten its very existence): the prominence of sectoral (as opposed to regional) inequalities expanded the role of research and development and increased the risk of investment; mass production and consumption left fewer and fewer avenues for profitable investment (thus the turn to financialization) as well as a level of production grossly disproportional to human needs; and a high level of state spending and gradual devaluation of currency (responses to the aforementioned problems) destabilized the international monetary system.

It is also important to note that changes in the methods and organization of production in the post-WW2 era have sharply increased the turnover time of capital (and hence, accelerated the rhythm of production). As the value of capital depreciates over time, increasing its turnover time (approaching zero) is a natural tendency of capitalism.  Thus... constant bombardment with NEW! things.

And how does fashion (as an industry or a phenomenon) embody these trends?

First and foremost, of course, a basic human need (protection from the elements) is transformed into a commodity, but more importantly, a commodity which one must constantly purchase and replace. Through media and socialization, we acquire the mindset that one should have a variety of clothes (bearing no relation to the need clothing is supposed to fill). We believe with religious fervor that an outfit should never be worn more than one day in a row (even if, privately, we do not wash it between uses). Clothing begins to take on specialized functions. There are work clothes, leisure clothes, formal wear, athletic wear, summer clothes, winter clothes, etc. etc. And then, if that isn’t enough, things are constantly going out of style that so we continually feel a “need” to update our wardrobes. We see something new and have to have it. We give our old (perfectly functional) clothes to charity.

One thing that makes style so important to us is the idea, implanted into our conscious, that clothing expresses identity. What you wear says something about who you are as a person. In fact, the fashion industry has absorbed many of the people who, as a result of the capitalist division of labor, are able to devote their labor entirely to “artistic” productions, as a livelihood. Fashion has become an art form (as have other human necessities such as food and shelter). The fact that it is an “art” in some way legitimizes the attention people devote to personal style. Of course, as a type of art, clothing has also become a means of identifying and expressing class affiliation (in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, a form of cultural capital). Wealthier people will spend inordinate amounts of money on clothing, purchasing high-end brands, just to demonstrate to everyone that they can spend inordinate amounts of money on clothing.

The thing that real galls me is the seeming aversion of many celebrities to wearing a piece of clothing more than once. Must clothing really be that dispensable? Talk about senseless waste.

Another thing to pay attention to: why is it that every event, organization, vacation, any occasion whatsoever, requires a t-shirt? (College students have this down to a science.) How many people have many more t-shirts than they need or could ever wear? And somehow, t-shirts come to function as holy relics, objectifying the memories and emotions of past experiences. (People make quilts out of them!) Why something so silly and cheap as a t-shirt?

As the actual human need gets increasingly obscured, we are impelled to buy more and more. We are socialized to shop for new clothes at the beginning of every season. Clothes are not meant to last. All because demand and short production cycles are necessary for capitalist profitability.

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