Essay: Murderous, Meaningless Caprices of Fashion

by Adam Briggs on 23 July 2008

Academic Adam Briggs on the problem of obsolescence.

Academic Adam Briggs on the problem of obsolescence.

Isaac Singer’s Sewing Machine Patent, 1851

'Fashion is dress in which the key feature is rapid and continual changing of styles,' Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams (2003)

Obsolescence is the defining feature of fashion. This industrially mediated process, whereby outmoded, rather than outworn, becomes the stimulus for purchase has far reaching political implications.

Environmentally, fashion becomes, in these terms, the inverse of sustainability.

Furthermore, in terms of the structuring effect on clothing manufacturing processes, obsolescence, as manifested in continual change in the clothing constituted as appropriate and desirable, feeds the ethical spectre that looms over the fashion industry: the sweat shop.

Our fashionable apparel is produced in situations where low pay, long hours with forced overtime, piece working, poor health and safety, abusive management, child labour, lack of job security and barriers to unionisation have been a constant feature and concern since the nineteenth century. Due to the long term linkage between ‘ethnic entrepreneurship’ and female labour in the manufacturing sector the spectre has a gender and an ethnicity (2).

As a consequence of seasonality (and the speed of trend turnover now often exceeds the bi annual rhythm of Autumn/Winter, Spring/Summer) the fashion industry faces what has been described as a ‘specific production problem of hyper innovation’ (3). There is no stability to the design specification of fashionable clothes. This lack of product standardisation is also characteristic of the fashion product due to the inconvenient variety of the human body; any single commercial garment has to be made in multiple variations of size.

Obsolescence, the defining feature of fashion, creates products with a shelf life akin to vegetables

Clothing manufacture has never undergone the complete transfer to mechanised production that has been the norm for other products. The hyper innovative nature of the fashion market leads to a demand for highly flexible production technology that does not need retooling as product specification changes. Since the nineteenth century this has been met by the sewing machine; this has served to reinforce the craft basis of clothing production rather than undermine it. The single operative still feeds textiles, complex in shape, and flexible, under the needle by hand.

Sewing machines are cheap and pose low barriers to market entry, consequently fashion manufacturing has, since the inception of ready to wear, been characterised by a multitude of small contractors with very low levels of industrial concentration. This has always been a convenient set of circumstances for the brand owners and retailers who control the design and marketing of fashion. Given their need for need quick response and flexibility at low cost, brands and retailers prefer to sub contract the actual manufacturing of clothes – the cut, make up and trim - rather than vertically integrate into manufacturing themselves.

Sub contracting to a multitude of small contractors, whose capital investment rarely extends beyond the sewing machine, not only provides extreme flexibility and shifts the fixed costs of manufacturing (premises, sewing machines) onto the producer; it also effectively outsources any ethical responsibility for the labour intensive process of making clothes. 'Not our fault….. they signed our code of practise'.

The low barriers to market entry also explains the concentration of sweat shops among capital starved ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ in the industrialised world and the enthusiasm of newly industrialising nations to enter into clothing manufacture.

Obsolescence, the defining feature of fashion, creates products with a shelf life akin to vegetables, this reproduces the structural determinants in clothing manufacture that perpetuates the exploitation of labour for our personal adornment. Maybe our anxieties about fashion should extend beyond whether we are sufficiently à la mode.

(1) Marx, a better analyst of nineteenth century political economy than a prophet, believed the sewing machine would lead to a rationalisation of clothing production which would end the “the murderous, meaningless caprices of fashion”. His sometime co author, Fredrich Engels, in his 1844 analysis of The Condition of the Working Class in England, made a comment which remains apposite a century and a half later: “It is a curious fact that the production of precisely those articles which serve the personal adornment of the bourgeoisie involves the saddest consequences for the health of the workers”.

(2) See for details

(3) Green, Nancy, Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work: A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York, Durham, Duke University Press, 1997




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