The fashion industry has been labelled many things – shallow, exploitative, unsustainable, unethical – the list goes on and on. But where do these labels come from, and does fashion truly deserve these names?
In an environment revering limited edition pieces for the price of an arm and leg, it’s no wonder that fashion gets a bad rap. How can the average consumer afford a $500 shirt from Vetements, or a Supreme hoodie at an even higher price point, when that amount could easily feed a family for a month? The show of affluence through fashion has been a practice for centuries, if not since the beginning of fashion itself. And it makes sense; if you have it, why not flaunt it? The underlying problem though, is not this display of wealth, but the glaring inequalities that are showcased through it by the capitalist system it represents.
Image: Reuters / Lucas Jackson
Although capitalism has mostly been referenced as a political or economic model, it goes without saying that it affects even the most private areas of our lives. Without being consciously aware of it, our values, needs and wants are heavily influenced by capitalist ideals. The emphasis on independence and innovation as drivers for success has given people the hope that they too can change the circumstances of where they began in life. It’s a system awarding an individual’s ability based on merit regardless of their social background, proving that anyone and everyone can ‘make it big’. Finally, all are seen to have equal opportunities, as success is causally linked to hard work and perseverance. This meritocratic ideal has since been idolized, throwing success stories of people going from ‘rags to riches’ into the limelight and praising the underdogs of our century for their relatability. But how equal are our opportunities really?
Image: The Guardian
The idea of meritocracy is appealing for obvious reasons. To be able to move beyond what we are born into solely by dint of talent and effort gives the illusion of a fair playground for all, and spits in the face of social immobility that prevailed until the 1800’s. But this utopian system of fairness is just another way to disguise inequality, making it acceptable, even praised. Meritocracy disregards certain privileges people are born into, reiterating the idea that if you just worked hard enough, you would be able to get to where you want to be. Jo Littler discussed this topic in her article, saying that, “those who could not draw on existing reservoirs of privilege were told to work harder to catch up.” Not only is the same level of success expected from everyone, but the failure to reach this level is the fault of the individual rather than external factors they can’t control. Merit is undoubtedly manipulated to benefit the wealthy, feeding society with the idea that everyone begins at the same starting line when certain opportunities are only presented to those with privileged backgrounds.
This quite obviously permeates into the fashion industry. Our obsession with owning high end fashion pieces began with meritocracy, as it is a symbol of social status, proof that anyone able to indulge in luxury can move up the social ladder. It also legitimises social inequalities by completely disregarding the structural conditions of opportunity. When we hear of the ‘self-made man/woman’ in fashion, they usually revolve around those of the top tier, publicised in a way to perpetuate the illusion of an open society. Not everyone can spring up out of nowhere without a push in the right direction. Knowing the right people and having a pool of resources all contribute to becoming noticed. Of course, talent and hard work makes a big difference and shouldn’t be disregarded, but privilege works much like a stack of dominoes. A little help in the beginning will continue to open up doors of opportunity, always placing those coming from privilege one step ahead of the average person.
Image: Teen Vogue
Take the runway as an example. Gigi and Bella Hadid have exploded all over the media in recent years, seemingly out of the blue. With a mixture of winning the genetic lottery, charisma and hard work, they have become household names and respected models in their own right. However, far from the typical tale of the underdog rising to success, the sisters already came from an affluent background, with a mother previously working in the modelling industry – a definite advantage leading to their success.
Then there’s Kendall Jenner, rising to equal fame with the support of her family’s social media reach. It’s obvious that, although these women worked for their coveted positions, they were given opportunities any average person would not have access to. Whilst the modelling world has moved away from aristocratic roots, its portrayal of the down to earth, girl-next-door that anyone can become is a far cry from reality. Picking models who are seemingly normal may appeal to meritocratic values, but it is only a mask for the ingrained elitism still prevalent in fashion, when these models are clearly selected from a homogenous pool of wealthy families.
Image: IMG Model News
The result then, is an overshadowing of less prominent models who have equal potential but are at an obvious disadvantage to those born into wealth. As Martin Lerma says in his article, “There are countless stories they can help tell, campaigns they can front, catwalks they can traverse and young people they can inspire, but fewer and fewer people are interested in developing those nascent talents into professionals.” Fighting for a place in fashion is made so much harder when there’s an identical expectation of success for everyone, in an industry still uninterested in the average individual.
Maybe the meritocratic ideal is not so fair after all.
Written by Tiffany Ko