The concept of FASHION, as a prevailing custom, a conventional usage in dress, ornaments, etc., a word everybody understands nowadays, has changed dramatically since it began to have meaning, at least for the elite. Before I carry on, I will only deal here with costume fashion.
Fashion considered as change is as ancient as the history of men but traditionally was a domestic affair, enclosed within the boundaries of each country; there was a certain trade involving silks, wools, leather and cotton from abroad but nothing else.
Each historical epoch has its own style, but the compelling strength of fashion is a phenomenon of recent times. In the past, only the very, very, rich could be bothered by what was or would be fashionable, the majority of people had more pressing problems: food, levies, wars, punishments due to lack of justice, etc.
France, during Louis XIV was the leader in good taste, and the rest of Europe just followed suit until the second half of the XIX century. The first fashion magazine was born in 1672, the “Mercure Galant”, French of course. Even if France had lost its hegemony over the rest of the world, still the richest people liked to be dressed by the French designers, and so they did but then 1914 arrived, and the Great War that changed a lot of things. Gone was the “Ancient Regime” with all it meant.
New times came with less formality, with women working outside their homes and entering the universities, playing sports, and fashion had to evolve into something less grand, more suited to the needs of the moment. But the rich had the upper hand and continued to be wrapped by the few top couturiers, were them in Paris, Berlin or London and the rest had to do with seamstress that tried to copy from magazines what the greatest names invented for their customers. And then the II War happens.
Europe needs to reinvent itself after the disaster and things are never going to be what they were. Recovery takes time. Fashion is not a priority; in fact “The Encyclopaedia Britannica” in its edition of 1957 does not have the word in its volume 9 EXTRACTI to GAMB. Obviously people dressed… how they could.
Time goes by; France, Italy, Great Britain and Germany too, are able to regain stability and began to enjoy the pleasures of life. Women want to look their best after years of mourning and scarcity… Haute couture revives, seamstresses, tailors… And suddenly a miracle: “Prêt-a-porter”, clothes off the peg; no more fittings, no more waste of time, no more disappointments. You saw what you wanted and you got it right away…
May 68… the youth revolution…Mary Quant, Carnaby… Fashion in on the street even for babies… and FASHION must be forever new, must change as soon as possible and be as different as possible from the last trend or it becomes stale… New trade-marks… designers, all kinds of… but fashion is not an abstract concept it is an industry that involves all levels of society in its making, a business that moves millions and which target goes from grandmothers to, indirectly, newly born children… and during this long history made short, no one ever cared about how the merchandise was made… Meaning? No one worried about the dress goods, about the conditions of the people who provided them… Undeveloped countries had cheaper labor so there was where the production happened… children slaving to collect the buds to make Cashmere shawls, women working themselves blind to embroider thin silks… Men, women and young girls engaged hour after hour in sweat-shops seated at sewing-machines earning ridiculous salaries… For cotton to become denim workers have to drench the crops in pesticide; to stain the fibers with toxic dyes and finally to sandblast and soften chemically the resulting fabric… Healthy, is it not? But this is not all; as the solid waste from garment factories is being dumped and burned, untreated liquid waste is being poured into rivers in Africa, Latin America, etc. polluting drinking water and killing river life. And the philistine excuse “At least they have a job”
Synthetic fibers and dyes . What to do without them? Some good, some not so good but they are here to stay. Who cares? Good question!
Lately a group of people environmentally conscious, they want Nature to get the due respect it deserves, that sees fashion as a way to improve the working conditions of those countries that lack trade unions, are trying their best with labels that intent to capture the interest of buyers by letting them know that with its buy they are helping poor communities to better their lot… But let us not forget that it is another way to do business, but business is what it is, and there is still another question; this movement is a fashionable one but… How long will remain being so? And once the thrill of something new and solidary wears off, what then?
After all fashion is by nature changeable…