Culture of Fashion

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    This article marks the third in Urban Times’ EcoFashion Series. We hope to shed some light on the eco fashion industry by exploring elements such as the sustainability, culture, ecology, psychology, labour and future of fashion. Our authors explore to what extent eco fashion is on the cusp of becoming the next big trend.

    Previous episode: Ecology of Fashion

    There is no shortage of eco-brands on the market today. Almost every sector of the economy has incorporated social and environmental causes into their marketing. You can buy biodegradable cleaners, organic clothing, eco-friendly cars, and even houses in certified, environmentally friendly neighbourhoods.

    The apparent need to change our consumption patterns has driven manufacturers and fashion designers to make clothing out of recycled plastic, bamboo, coconut, volcanic ash, coffee, and even milk. One designer has experimented with clothing moulded out of cellulose produced by a bacteria that grows in a green tea bath.

    Prophetik, Aveda Eco Fashion Week, Vancouver. Source: Jason Hargrove on flickr.com

    How these products are made is quite interesting, and many companies are happy to tell you about their unique, ethical, and patented processes. Go ahead, search “organic socks,” “sustainable underwear,” or any other bizarre combination of a socially conscious adjective and an article of clothing. Someone somewhere has tried to sell a biodegradable G-string.

    Okay, maybe not. But rather than asking how these products are made, I want to know what these products say about our culture. Why do we make them? How are they sold and why do we buy them? And more importantly, what does Freud have to say about this?

    You may know Freud as the guy who associated everything from bed-wetting to jacket pockets with sex and mothers, but he also provided us with tools for dissecting our culture and sussing our fears. Eco-fashion and, more specifically, our obsession with FSC paper, sweatshop free clothing, or wind-powered department stores, represents our desire to make up for, and hopefully cover up, a self-induced social and environmental apocalypse. I know, it is a big jump from bamboo underwear to the end of the world, but lets look closer at this. I’ll stick with underwear, to keep things simple.

    In his analysis of a patient he calls Dora, Freud says:

    Contrary thoughts are always closely connected with each other and are often paired off in such a way that the one thought is exaggeratedly conscious while its counterpart is repressed and unconscious. This relation between two thoughts is an effect of the process of repression. For repression is often achieved by means of an excessive reinforcement of the thought contrary to the one which is to be repressed.

    Lets try apply Freud’s idea of repression to statement from PACT, an underwear brand, by picking out their descriptive words and phrases (in bold below). “Change starts with your underwear,” they say:

    The purchase of PACT underwear is participation in a social movement: when you buy PACT underwear, you are supporting and encouraging organic cotton farmers, responsible labor practices, and businesses that form partnerships with nonprofit organizations dedicated to positive change in our world.

    PACT is making us exaggeratedly conscious of the fact that we are doing a good thing by buying their underwear. So what is the repressed counterpart to this? That we have a legacy of socially and environmentally destructive underwear.

    The heiress (1890's). Source: Danka on flickr.com

    I am only partly joking. PACT is emphatically positive about their eco-chic underwear because it sells to a culture that has a repress guilt about their habits of over consumption. By celebrating green products and overemphasizing the language of sustainability, our culture is decidedly not recognizing the fact that we continue to live beyond our means. As Jenny Gai noted last week, the fashion industry continues to become more eco-friendly, but Kendra Pierre-Louis pointed out that sustainable fashion is actually more viable if we commit to buying less while manufacturing more ethical products.

    But that’s not the end of the repression. Environmental and social apocalypse may be a repressed fear in the culture of eco-fashion, but it is an exaggeratedly conscious thought in media in general. Actually, the fears of human annihilation are as old as human existence. As long as human beings have been aware of their own death, they have feared the end of the world. Today, we have a heightened sense of the earth’s fragility because we know that its destruction is our destruction. In the rhetoric of sustainability, our underlying, unconscious thought is that we are not more than worm food.

    In a recent issue of The Walrus Daniel Biard suggests,

    The real problem with the future is that it doesn’t yet exist, and the forces that bring it into existence are too complicated, too subtle and volatile and fractal, for us to know in advance–or ever.

    Prophets will continue to preach the end of the world and optimists will continue to look for solutions. The world may very well end tomorrow, this afternoon, or even a hundred billion years from now, but no matter how long we are here, we will always grapple with our finitude.

    "There Is No Shape Without Shadow" - a performance by students on the Creative Web module of Newcastle University's Master of Digital Media program in Culture Lab. It sought to raise awareness of the fashion industry issues surrounding 'throw away fashion' and the need for sustainability. Source: zimady on flickr.com

    The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker explores our attempts to avoid death, or at least avoid thinking about it. Becker suggests that cultures set up hero systems through which each member can be an important contributor to society and feel at peace with the awareness of their limited life. In his concluding paragraphs Becker observes:

    Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. As awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget.

    The rhetoric of eco-fashion, builds a hero system through which each consumer can contribute to positive social change by purchasing earth-friendly products. As citizens of the earth, we need to identify our repressed fears seen through the culture of eco-fashion and use them for good. Mortality salience, recognizing our own death, shouldn’t throw us into despair but should make us fight for life. Without knowledge of our fragility, we would have destroyed ourselves long ago.