Posted on May 23 2021
Now more than ever, there exists a need to explore the meaning behind excessive and unreasonable fashion consumption. A culture’s values, morals, and social norms ultimately shape community values and personal perceptions of the material universe. Exploring the framework of socialistic versus capitalistic fashion can serve as a reference to understand how today’s fashion industry must be held accountable for promoting frivolity to the expanding Western world.
Berlin Divided, Fashion Divided
Here in East Berlin where I am writing this piece, West Berlin is just minutes away by train. A city once divided and now united allows access to the history of a previously divided fashion industry.
Prior to the fall of the wall, West Germany experienced a western world filled with open access to many frivolities; hedonistic. The East experienced another reality, having little access to the essentials needed to live comfortably, let alone even the same opportunities to openly create and share ideas or express themselves through fashion. Perhaps this creative freedom is even something we take for granted today in the Western world.
West Berlin, filled with beautiful, towering pre-war buildings and monuments pleasing to the eye are a contrast to the East today, the beauty lying in the expansiveness of attention-grabbing two-dimensional sculptures emanating from spray cans. The city is filled with hundreds of years of history, though it represents a very present emerging progressiveness. A beautiful montage of the old transformed into the new, Berlin’s fashion history represents how we can learn from the past to actively create a better future.
A Shift in the Meaning of Frivolity
Walter Ulbricht once stated, “One has full freedom! But, dear comrades, if a woman wants to wear a sack dress, she should pay a higher price! Please! The others wear dresses that correspond to the people’s sensibilities [Volksempfinden], which as a rule are prettier – and that works just as well! We’re footing the bill, and the others are getting their pleasure from it” (Stitziel, Fashioning Socialism). He proposed that if the fashions were more frivolous, one should pay a higher cost. Today, the opposite is true. It’s often the case that the more frivolous the fashion piece, the cheaper the cost.
The wealthy upper class used to pay high prices for frivolous goods, whereas now we are emotionally rewarded for low-priced purchases. The media convinces us that items are essential to our happiness and growth as members of a capitalistic economy. We must ask why we are being rewarded for flooding our homes with fashion items that will ultimately end up in landfill, taking thousands of years to completely breakdown into the Earth. The meaning of frivolity has shifted from what it once represented, as these purchases have become more readily available to all.
In the past, “... consumer-citizens... were obligated to be selective and to use their buying power as an economic lever to force industry to improve its offerings” (Stitziel, Fashioning Socialism). We have lost touch with realising that we hold the power to control what is produced. Fashion brands are constantly looking to the future to predict what the consumer will ask for next. What if the future asked for nothing more than what we already had? What if we asked for experiences and quality that would outlive our own wardrobes?
“The East German clothing industry’s failure to produce fashionable apparel prompted especially women and youth to cover their needs for fashionable clothing...” in West Berlin, resulting in purchases that “...naturally [had] political and financial-political consequences” (Stitziel, Fashioning Socialism). The concept of purchasing purely based on superficial pursuits can still be seen as one of the largest blocks standing in the way of fully integrating sustainability into the industry today.
Freedom of Self-Expression as a Solution to Frivolous Consumption
According to Judd Stitziel, Ulbricht implored that East German consumers wanted the right to select their styles and enjoyed the freedom it bestowed upon them. After the fall of the wall, it can be seen that East Berlin became a hub of eclectic fashions wanting to express themselves after being repressed for years.
When an abundance of raw self-expression within a community exists, perhaps there is less frivolous consumption. Self-expression is the key to putting consumers in touch with their fashion purchases. A new and improved kind of consumption framework is needed; something along the lines of a conscious democracy with the core intention to supply the planet and humanity with the equity it so righteously deserves.
The Responsibility of the Fashion Industry
“The annual collections designed within the socialist central fashion institutions condensed real time into an ever-repeating, controlled cycle. The socialist predilection towards stability implied the design and production of conventional, repetitive clothes. The Chanel suit—classical, elegant and timeless—corresponded to this slow flow of time” (Djurda Bartlett, Sean Cole, and Agnès Rocamora, Fashion Media). This history serves as a framework to understand the industry’s selection of what is deemed fashionable. Under socialism, the East selected carefully what to portray to the public, based on what fit in the category of a slow-paced version of fashion. It is up to the fashion industry to come together to promote these brands which are slower moving and fit into the category of conscious and sustainable fashion.
In a digital age, there is no excuse for a lack of creativity. There are ideas, references and sources all around us. We must use this to our advantage to fashion a new industry which thrives and exists through creative expression rather than purchases. This not only stimulates the conscious decision making of the consumer, but also stimulates and informs a new mentality to support a fashion industry which rises to a higher consciousness.