Thrifting, Fast Fashion, and Walter Benjamin
The sustainable fashion movement has recently begun to dominate the conversation on most fashion sites, championing a push towards thrifting, rewearing, and buying second-hand. The movement also shuns fast fashion brands like Forever21 and Zara for their sketchy environmental and human rights practices, and for their unsustainable business model of churning out trendy garments created with only short-term wearability in mind. As someone who was mocked for having to thrift clothing in high school during the recession, I’m only low-key bitter that this trend didn’t begin 8 years ago. That being said, the nexus between the recession, fast fashion, thrifting, and the return of bolder, more heavily-branded designs provides a tumultuous glimpse into America’s fashion landscape and social consciousness.
In her recent Vox article “How the Great Recession influenced a decade of design,” Eliza Brooke broke down the pre-recession early 2000’s maximalism of juicy couture track suits and bling, the cautious “start-up minimalism” that defined 2010-2015 (think Glossier, Everlane, and “normcore”), and the creeping return of maximalism to the runway over the past few years. Essentially, when the economy is flourishing brands are comfortable taking risks and producing edgier, more groundbreaking designs. When consumers have money in their wallets, and the security to take risks with their purchases, that’s exactly what they’re looking for. However when the economy takes a nosedive, both brands and consumers are far more cautious and choose to invest in practical basics.
Additionally, the logo emblazoned items of a good economy are what theorists Thorstein Veblen and Pierre Bourdieu would point to as a neon sign of economic means. From a sociological standpoint, during a recession even well-off consumers tend to shy away from wealth-signifying logos. Greed isn’t cool when it’s causing a housing bubble.
However the pendulum of shameless consumption has not returned to the levels seen pre-recession, and the popularity of thrifting is evidence. While thrifting from an economic standpoint saw a renaissance during the recession, the practice of thrifting and buying second-hand has boomed over the past few years despite the economy’s recovery. Consumers are choosing to buy second hand even when they can afford brand new status symbols.
One reason is that internet has made virtually every trend and subgenre of dressing easily available regardless of its moment in time and space. Brooke addressed this change using Berlin-based magazine 032c’s concept “The Big Flat Now,” a term used to describe the non-linear time we exist in thanks to the internet. It’s no wonder then that consumers are electing to shop in thrift stores– condensed time capsules where 90’s grunge, 70’s bohemian, and 2005 High School Musical are right at their fingertips.
Guilt over both capitalism and the environment also plays a major part, as ThredUp CEO Anthony Marino explained during his recent appearance on The Glossy Podcast. The usage of clothing resale sites like ThredUp has exploded over the last year, offering consumers the ability to snag their favorite brands with a clear conscience, and entrepreneurs the platform to start a lucrative side hustle.
However offering a more philosophical take is Walter Benjamin’s famous 1936 anti-fascist essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin argues in part that reproductions of artistic masterpieces lack the authenticity and “aura” of the original work, meaning its rarity, the history it has experienced, and its position in the “domain of tradition.” The same argument can be easily applied to fast-fashion garments, which reproduce designer trends with lower quality materials.
With the return of maximalism there has, on one hand, been a return to the reverence surrounding authentic designer brands, who are back to displaying their labels and logos in all their status-symbolizing glory (here’s looking at you iconic Gucci T-shirt). The resilient popularity of designer brands both in consignment shops and on sites like ThredUp underscore this predicted reaction to a recovering economy.
But what has massively changed since the recession is the conscience of consumers. While Benjamin denounces reproductions on simply a matter of principle, the sustainable fashion movement is far more concerned with the physical processes that go into fast fashion production on a massive scale, and their implications for the environment and human rights. However the proposed alternative, a return to “slow fashion” and quality over quantity, is fitting with the importance Benjamin places on an original work of art.
What “slow fashion” practitioners are seeking is a garment with an aura in its purest sense. A garment with a history, or at least the quality necessary to become a wardrobe staple for multiple years. When shoppers thrift an article of clothing they are not just chucking a mass-produced product into their cart with the same indifference to the individual object as one would hold for an Ikea bath mat. They’re selecting a unique individual piece that won’t still be waiting around for them on a store rack two weeks later. Thrifting is a mode of shopping completely dependent upon its moment in time and space, something that is refreshing in a world where mass-produced products are so easily accessible.
Before the rise of e-commerce and social media, it used to be possible to walk into a department store and, despite the racks of identical items, still walk out with a wardrobe that was mostly unique amongst your own social circle. Though garments were mass produced, they were still able to retain some sense of rarity and authenticity. In the Big Flat Now of the internet, the resulting uncanniness of seeing replicas of your wardrobe scattered across cyberspace diminishes the aura and perceived value of the individual piece. Your new jacket may be totally unique amongst your friends, but just one quick instagram search will show you the 300 other girls across the globe wearing the same piece. The grandeur of mass production is no longer obscured from the average shopper in warehouses and stock rooms, it’s right in our faces.
What Benjamin warns of is the danger of deriving a detached aesthetic pleasure from the grandeur of mass production, which in the extreme can translate into an appreciation for the “beauty” of war. Though I do not believe an appreciation for fast-fashion in particular will lead to an aesthetic enjoyment of warfare, I do believe that developing a passive aesthetic appreciation for the wasteful consumption destroying our environment is troubling. Society has become desensitized to its own level of consumption, and the world of fashion is no different. Thankfully, the sustainable fashion movement is slowly chipping away at fast fashion culture and bringing back the importance of “aura.” So remember kids: reduce, reuse, don’t buy mass-produced.