“Fashion: capitalism’s favourite child,” proclaimed Anthony Sullivan in the Socialist Worker in 2017 – although he was paraphrasing novelist and historian Elizabeth Wilson. Sullivan’s piece was triggered by a spat between the Tory PM of the time, Theresa May, and her sidekick Nicky Morgan over the latter’s disparagement of the grotesquely over-priced – and just plain grotesque – leather trousers sported by May in a Vogue photoshoot that year. The subsequent revelation that the £995 trousers had been produced in a Turkish garment factory whose workers were paid £1.49 per hour was as unsurprising as the “revelation” that Morgan herself had spent a grand on a Mulberry handbag.

But fashion could surely just as easily qualify as capitalism’s origin story, because where did the most powerful economic system the world has ever known spring from, but the eternal desire of human beings to have more than they strictly need? Fashion, defined as clothing that ornaments as well as protects us from the elements, is the very emblem of the excess – in the literal sense of being extravagant or superfluous to our needs – that characterises capitalism, and it has been with us since our Palaeolithic ancestors hung shells around their necks.

Down the centuries dressing up has also been the whipping boy for puritans, ascetics, socialists, writers, priests and philosophers. Socrates disparaged multiple colours in dress as concomitant with undesirable complexity of thought; Plato compared democracy (of which he sternly disapproved) with a dangerously seductive “multi-coloured cloak”; Savonarola exhorted fifteenth-century Florentines to burn their gaudy breeches on his bonfire of the vanities; and every Puritan since Martin Luther has put the banning of fancy outfits at the top of his (or her… but mostly his) list. Envy, covetousness, greed, pride and a healthy dollop of lust: the pursuit of high fashion could be filed away under a number of deadly sins.

But the behemoth that is capitalism – intent on monetising everything in its path – knows that nothing turns as easy a profit as the exploitation of one or two of our more tempting weaknesses. We want to look good, we want to show off our wealth, we want to indicate our rank and status, and we are constantly thirsting for the next New Look; that’s how Bernard Arnault, head of the fashion and luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, got to be worth over two hundred billion dollars. The industry has proved itself crafty at absorbing critics, to boot. Take an originally “anti-fashion” hippie brand such as Birkenstock. In 2012 designer Phoebe Philo took their earnest sandals and lined them with mink and – kerching! – they’ve gone global.

Envy, covetousness, greed, pride and a healthy dollop of lust: the pursuit of high fashion could be filed under a number of deadly sins

Such a multiplicity of critics can’t all be wrong, however, even if they sometimes go to extremes. And the clothing industry has more than one ugly face. High street or “fast” fashion is most often cited as a chief offender: t-shirts for £1 can only be produced at a huge human cost in sweatshops, workers are exploited in countries with lax health and safety measures, and there’s damage to the environment into the bargain. The fashion industry plunders resources such as oil and water, producing carbon emissions and vast amounts of landfill when unrecyclable £5 jeans fall apart after two washes and are thrown away. For centuries, workers in the clothing industry have been among the most ruthlessly exploited in history – from cotton-pickers in nineteenth-century Alabama, to millworkers in Lancashire, to garment workers in New York, to 21st-century Chinese machinists.

The top end of the market, as represented by labels such as Chanel and Dior, is no better, either in terms of exploitation or ecological impact: in 2018 it was reported that Burberry had burned more than £200 million in designer goods rather than lower their prices. The couture houses might point to their petites mains and their sponsorship of excellence, but by no means every item in the average Bond Street boutique was produced in an airy Paris atelier by well-paid craftspeople in white coats. When the Rana Plaza sweatshop collapsed in 2013 killing more than 1000 Bangladeshi workers it was producing pieces for some of the biggest names in fashion.

Our instinct to display and decorate ourselves, for reasons evolutionary, material or social, is deep-rooted. It is shared, after all, with plenty of animals, most of whom have better raw material to work with. It is also a source of pleasure, a spur to extraordinary creativity and – as the current exhibition of Palestinian embroidery in Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard gallery demonstrates – can bind communities and reinforce their rituals and identity. Even Émile Zola, in his excoriation of fashion capitalism in the novel Au Bonheur Des Dames (“The Ladies’ Paradise”), was half in love with his subject.

So can we take a stand against this voracious and destructive industry, without losing all the joy fashion has brought to humanity for thousands of years? There are promising signs: second-hand fashion websites such as Vinted and Depop are enjoying unprecedented success, with huge take-up particularly among 16- to 24-year-olds. There are no sweatshops or landfill involved in this equation – old clothes are simply the “new” new clothes. There’s also the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee generation, doing it for themselves. And high-street brands such as Toast have started inviting customers to bring back old and damaged pieces from their collections, making a feature of restoring them using an exquisite Japanese technique called Sashiko. They’re even teaching customers this form of craft repair, in a measure William Morris himself might have sanctioned.

These are tiny steps but they’re indicative of a bigger movement, particularly among the young: not to try and do the impossible – overturn capitalism – but to hold it to account and make it more ethical. Stitch by stitch they’re trying to reclaim fashion from big business and restore it to the individual.

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. Her latest novel “In Deep Water” is out now

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Main Features, October 2023

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