What would fashion look like in my ideal world?
“Utopia means elsewhere,“ says John Malkovich in an interview (Hill no date). My ideal world might seem like a utopia but for the simple reason that the Earth is where humans have evolved and consequently our natural and ideal habitat, it is not elsewhere. Unfortunately, from an environmental perspective, we are about to ruin this planet. It is also a planet with great inequalities in life quality and living standards and an economic system that spawns materialism and unhappiness. Nevertheless, this planet has such potential, in regard to both people and nature so when I look at the kind of world where I would like to live, I ask myself: -Where does happiness come from? What makes a human being happy? I believe that we are happy when our fundamental needs are satisfied and when we have the liberty to pursue our desires. Max-Neef’s list of fundamental needs, the satisfaction of which are intertwined with our economical and political systems, include non-material needs like identity, participation and understanding as well as material needs (Max-Neef 1992, pp. 199-200). Planned societies and dictatorships set aside, Kamenetzky claims that a main obstacle to adequate satisfaction of needs is the free-market ideas of consumerism that invade the private realm and our relationship with nature, where needs can be satisfied freely (Kamenetzky 1992, pp. 187-88). Today, the fashion industry is a big part of this problem, but has the potential to instead be a part of the solution to create a healthier planet with a happier population that participates freely in society and freely expresses its diversity.
The current political, social and economic situation, is fuel for more and more alienation, stress and mental illness, such as anxiety. One reason for this, in the western world in particular, is that the pressure for novelty and materialistic values encourage a lifestyle of working long hours to acquire goods that have become a means in themselves (instead of manifestations of need satisfiers). In reality, materialism is a poor solution for covering human needs, as it is only a temporary fix (Kasser 2002, p. 41).
A point often overlooked is that above a certain level of income, one that covers our basic materialistic needs, the level of happiness does not increase (Jackson 2011, p. 42). Thus, the image of prosperity displayed by our consumer culture is more than flawed. The fashion business is a part of this problem because it “feeds insecurity, peer pressure, consumerism and homogeneity“ through globalised fast fashion (Fletcher 2008, p. 118). As an illustration of this omission, the influence of society on our mental health is something rarely discussed even in psychotherapy (Brouillette 2016). Meanwhile, embedded in a materialistic consumer culture is also a self-reinforcing negative effect on human wellbeing as the time spent earning money effectively hinders meaningful participation in society that provide real happiness and prosperity. Moreover, the growth-based economical system contributes to an unequal and unstable world with a growing gap between rich and poor that again makes people more anxious and stressed and more prone to status consumption (Jackson 2011, pp. 189, 171, 117).
The fashion industry needs new ways of playing out its role to better serve human needs, still allowing communication of distinction and belonging but unconnected to the fashion seasons that generate compulsory consumption. In general, the calls for a more humane approach to economy that take all human needs and nature into account are striking. The solutions proposed include economical de-growth, political structures that encourage and give the opportunity for grass-root creation, a system allowing for differences without discrimination of gender, skin colour, religion etc. (Kamenetzky 1992, p. 185; Max-Neef 1992, p. 200; Jackson 2011, p. 101) When it comes to clothing, man has always been concerned with appearance but fashion as we see it today, the continual change that touches an entire society, is a recent western invention, as late as the 19th century (Monneyron 2010, p. 9-10). Along with traditional ways of dressing that have persisted, this might suggest that the overturns of today are not necessary to human activity but rather a product of society influenced by consumerism. This logic would allow for other ways of functioning being just as fulfilling or even more so. Arguably, the pressure of conforming with imposed fashion trends will disappear and leave us happier for it and so, in a world where fashion is less uniform, the freedom to construct your own identity will, in my opinion, be greater.
A new vision of prosperity based on need satisfaction will necessarily change the fashion business and how clothing function. Less over-all material consumption will make our clothing choices more restricted and therefore they should be informed and based on quality. I imagine clothes ranging from strictly utilitarian, where function is optimised through technical advances and optimal material choices, to the most expressive and creative where new technologies allow for new shapes and experiences. At the expressive end of the scale, craft, culture and user participation also play a fundamental role. This means that both consumer and designer have an active part in shaping the product and society, and the interdependence between the two are taken into account. To further facilitate need satisfaction, clothes are consumed in a different setting, where customisation and the end of life of the garment is part of the user experience. In addition, instead of global fashion trends, trends are fluctuating and mixing so that they are indiscernible, allowing us to live our lives without imposed changes and diminishing the desire to own a lot of clothes. However, because self-expression is a part of the basic human needs for creation, participation and identity, fashion is decisive in every process of socialisation (Monneyron 2010, p. 18). For this reason, some sort of choice is important and this creates the backdrop for new ways of consumption like clothing libraries, swapping, lending and sharing-services as well as alternative business models that encourage other ways of thinking about clothing. In short, one will adhere to ways of using clothes rather than styles.
Rather than being goods mistaken as conveyors of social and psychological functions (Jackson 2011, p. 181), I believe fashion pieces have a wide range of possibilities to become something more meaningful. A fascinating thing about clothing is that they can be everything between very high tech and industrial, demanding specific manufacturing skills, to hand made with craft techniques that are accessible in a hobby setting. Hence the clothing solutions can be as many as people are different. Furthermore, as society allows you to live more freely and demands fewer working hours, pursuing activities that make the “happy”-chemicals like endorphins race through your brain – physical activity, time outside and positive human interaction – is easier. In many ways, clothing can add to this through functionality and multi-functions, which is also very much in synch with a lighter material lifestyle. In summertime, staying out all night with friends is easier if your light summer coat transforms to sleeping protection. If you care about your visual impact, you will have a new outfit for the next day because your clothing is reversible or transformational. But, although the possibility of participation is a key to meaning on most levels, even fashion is “inhibiting our need to participate” through the sale of ” “closed” ready-made products with little opportunity for self-expression” (Fletcher 2008, pp. 117, 122). A participative garment can be made to change with the user, encourage them to make changes or they can be at the centre of its design process. What if a piece of clothing that is torn is made to be mended in a way that allows the wearer to add to its design? For some, art is an essential part of their lives so a hybrid between art and design, where a piece of clothing can function as a sculpture when not worn might interest them. In this case the hybrid integrates the care in the way it is conceptualised, for the exhibition allows it to air instead of being washed. The possibilities are endless.
My utopia has a fundamentally different economical and political organization than this world as the latter’s materialistic values are replaced with a humane approach to economy. The change springs from the realization that everything is interconnected: humans, economy, society, nature, ecology, etc., and that human happiness is conditioned by these factors. This implies that it is not possible to satisfy all human needs through material consumption. In this context, fashion will continue to play out its role in socialisation, facilitating expression of identity but in a completely different, diverse and more humane manner. And it will do this while respecting nature. Indeed, fashion is largely noted as the second most polluting business in the world today, which makes the potential for ecological improvement enormous.
Historically, fashion can be seen as a powerful companion in a number of social changes (Monneyron 2010, p. 42). I would like the fashion industry to be in the forefront of creating this happier world on the other side of the ecological crisis we are facing.
Brouillette, R. (2016) ‘Why Therapists Should Talk Politics’, The New York Times. Available at: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/15/why-therapists-should-talk-politics/ (Accessed: 15 April 2016).
Fletcher, K. (2008) Sustainable fashion & textiles: Design journeys. London: Earthscan.
Hill, L. (no date) ‘King Con: John Malkovich’, New York Mag. Available at: http://nymag.com/movies/profiles/16859/ (Accessed: 14 May 2016).
Jackson, T. (2011) Prosperity without growth: Economics for a finite planet. London: Earthscan.
Kamenetzky, M. (1992) ‘The economics of satisfaction of needs’, in Ekind P. and Max-Neef M. (eds.) Real-life economics. London: Routledge, pp. 181-196
Kasser, T. (2002) The high price of materialism. Cambridge: A Bradford Book.
Max-Neef, M. (1992) ‘Development and human needs’, in P. Ekind and M. Max-Neef (eds.), Real-life economics. London: Routledge, p.197-214.
Monneyron, F. (2010) La sociologie de la mode (2nd edition). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
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