Battles between opposing schools of thought are nothing new. Indeed, history exhibits an extensive series of disagreements from World-War to Commons debates, to protest marches, with university campuses now providing some of the most vibrant disputes of our society. As a result of the staggeringly high intellectual standards and the eclectic mix of students from varying backgrounds all with contrasting political opinions, attitudes and interests, the student population is able to offer some of the most intriguing discussions of our time.
One of the many disagreements between opposing socio-cultural groups on campus that can also be applied to the wider society is the question of whether it is possible to reduce fashion to merely an indulgent interest of the superficial and materialistic, which supports our arguably consumerist, capitalist society. Marx’s analysis of the producer-consumer dialectic is exemplified in the reduction of capitalism to its basic principles of supply and demand, a construct which can be observed in its most simple form within the realms of the fashion industry. The most manageable break-down is that the ‘producer’ (the fashion industry) creates a need in the minds of the ‘consumer’ (the fashion conscious individual), who thus provides the ‘demand’, which is met by the ‘supply’, in the form of a seasonally changing multitude of clothing and accessories. It is necessary, therefore, to analyse the psychology of the consumer; ask why they continually invest in the most recent fashions; and explore both what causes and maintains this desire.
This reductionist analysis makes it difficult to assign blame for the materialistic nature of our society; both the ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ support each other and maintain the arrangement. Put simply, designers and retailers continue to produce goods because shoppers continue to buy them, and therefore to blame the fashion industry for the increase in materialism in recent decades is unconvincing. Every stage of the process of a collection’s development, from the initial design stage to its presence on a hanger, including commercial events such as London Fashion Week and the deliberately aesthetically pleasing display of the collection in a high street shop, are designed with the consumer in mind. This demonstrates how fashion is not only about the eventual product, but, for the style-conscious, satisfies a desire for involvement in the glamour and creativity of the fashion industry, where it has become an entity of both interest and scrutiny. Due to society’s willing interactions, the world of fashion permeates every sector of society, through advertising, journalism and indeed the economy, for without the income from the retail sector, the credit crunch may have succeeded in destroying Britain’s financial existence.
Not only is the fashion retail industry an entity that we need in order to maintain the economic stability of our country, as demonstrated by the importance awarded in the media to any increase in profits for the retail sector, but it also offers a wealth of prospects in terms of careers and creative opportunities. Some of the world’s most highly regarded forms of media arise from the immensely talented pool of creative individuals. Such individuals include both journalists and artists, not to mention the designers themselves, who create beautifully elaborate, usually wearable, works of art. Despite criticisms of superficiality, in essentialist terms the fashion industry merely harnesses humanity’s basic need for clothes and gives individuals the additional opportunity of carving their physical identity through the clothes they wear. With self-expression being at the forefront of student concerns, the array of statements visible in just one turn of a university campus is bewildering, with fashion being the most obvious physical representation of said statements. Thus it could be argued that the student population is undoubtedly one of the leaders in the debate between fashion as a consumerist or creative outlet, for we are the future, and our spending habits, although admittedly skewed due to the hindrances of a student budget, will follow us to adulthood and perhaps shape the future of consumerism.
A void between the two opposing views on fashion and the subscribers to such attitudes therefore emerges, for those who take the line that fashion is simply shallow and materialistic compete with those who take an enjoyment in creativity and make a partial link between identity and appearance. Their key disagreement though, surely, is one of preference; it is the lack of interest in fashion that impedes the former from identifying with the latter and the beauty they see in fashion. Is this justification for the accusation that those such individuals are guilty of shameless materialism?
I argue not: history reveals that the concept of decorative fashion dates back to the 5th Century and possibly earlier, therefore rendering the argument that today’s fashion-conscious individuals are unnaturally aware of their appearance or even superficial, utterly void. Admittedly, the materialistic attitudes of our society have increased in severity since the increase of employment and production in the 1950s, but we must consider why, in fact, an interest in fashion and style is a problem for society in its totality. If individuals take pride in their appearance, then surely modern-day principles of tolerance mean we should follow the mantra ‘live and let live’? We must accept that some debates can never be solved, particularly those within the context of a university campus due to the formidable intellect and passionate opinions that we have the fortune of being exposed to as students. Nonetheless, freedom of speech declares that all should have the privilege of remaining free from criticism, and therefore should be permitted to follow fashion if they so wish. If self-expression isn’t freedom of speech at its finest, then what is?