This would be a post-capitalist society where the means of production are collectively owned so that people are freed from needless toil for the profit of a minority. A society where we live art not just make it, where “the colours of humdrum life [are] painted over once and for all.”
We will still be wearing clothes - most places are too hot or too cold not to. Unlike pictures or writing, clothes cannot be digitalised. They have to be tangible.
The difference will be that the addiction to clothing will have gone: the constant desire to accumulate and feel that brief rush of hope and excitement. Today, the all-consuming world of fashion acts as a beautiful distraction from the grey, unexciting, alienating world that we live in.
But in an ideal society, such distractions from reality would not be necessary. The world itself would bring us happiness, work that mattered and made a real difference to society, all-consuming fun and relaxation and freedom to explore and be ourselves.
Clothes will not have such a hold on us as they do now. People will no longer be judged and categorised by what they are wearing. You will not be that handbag or those shoes. There will be no more talk of ‘I’d love to go but I’ve got nothing to wear’ - the madness that states that what you wear is more important than your company. We will cease to value objects more than we value ourselves. Our individuality will be assured: we will possess something other people don’t have, we won’t need to prove it by purchasing.
People will be freed from having to look a certain way, the old rigid beauty ideals will be swept away and with them will go people’s anxiety over their appearance. There will be more to life than the way we look.
This is especially important for women who will at last be free to live a life in which worth is not measured in beauty. In the words of Alexandra Kollontai: “It is not for her specific feminine virtue that gives women a place of honour in human society, but the worth of her useful work accomplished for society, the worth of her personality as a human being, as a creative worker, as citizen, thinker or fighter.”
Will there be a need for fashion specialists, a special group of people to design clothes?
The design of clothing is certainly an art form and should be respected as such. Art has a hugely important role to play in society: it has the power to make life beautiful, to make us dream, to challenge us and to lift our eyes above the horizon and picture a better future. As Trotsky wrote, “the development of art is the highest test of the vitality and significance of each epoch.” A truly free society will give artists the freedom to work as they wish and to experiment free of constraints.
This is not a freedom that fashion designers enjoy today. Defendants of capitalism often preach that it is the best system for originality and ingenuity because people are forced into the search for newness by a sink-or-swim society. But as the fashion industry today shows - capitalism is at odds with creativity.
As explored in Part One of Stitched Up, all fashion designers work to sell and the vast majority work within the crippling confines of the mass market. Creativity comes second to what can be mass-produced and sold to produce maximum profit.
There are many examples of young designers doing their best work whilst unfettered at university and then finding their creativity hampered once they are designing to sell. Here, Trotsky is talking about picture galleries but he could just have easily meant catwalks: ‘those concentration camps for colours and beauty, serve but as a monstrous appendage to our colourless and unsightly daily reality.”
In a post-capitalist society fashion design would cease to be something that was done for profit; rather it would be done for love and improvement of society. Writing after the Russian Revolution, Victor Shklovsky wrote that: “Neither science nor literature could then serve as the stepping stone to a career. We were born into bourgeois times but were set free by the unselfishness of the revolution which raised us high and made us think again.”
In today’s fashion industry, a few individuals get to decide who works in fashion. In an ideal society there would be unlimited creative space for those artists whose ideas were rejected by the current capitalist system. No longer will we be dictated to by a handful of rich, white European men.
But what about inspiration - do those controlling the fashion industry hold the key to beautiful clothing? Happily the answer is no. Designers take their inspiration from the world around them. The world inspires fashion, not the other way round.
Look at all the clothing ideas that have come directly from the streets, from the poorest sections of society. From punk to hip hop fashion, tribal prints to the iconic Che Guevara image, the world’s people are more than capable of producing their own fashion - and having it co-opted by capitalism.
Gwen Stefani stole Harijuku style, Madonna mimicked Hip Hop fashion, McQueen co-opted punk and Gucci did Goth. Kaffir mania - stripped of its political meaning - swept the world until legendary SATC stylist Patricia Fields described the Arabic scarf as being as ’ubiquitous as leopard print.’
The point is that the world is rich with ideas - we don’t need fashion, fashion needs us. After the Russian Revolution it is said that “art led a feverish existence.” It would be the same after our revolution. There will be a tidal wave of new influences and inspiration. Everything would come alive for everyone and everyone would become an artist. “The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe or a Marx. And above the ridge new peaks will rise.”
But what if there was suddenly an excess of designs? An outpouring of creativity and ideas? Well, surely that is the point. In an ideal society the floodgates will be opened and everyone will be unrestricted. The Parisian couturiers fought tooth and nail to keep fashion for the rich. Once this elitism has been overthrown once and for all, we might at last see the freedom of choice that capitalism pretends to give us.
Thus there will be an end to fashion’s “mystical self-elevation above the world.” With the loss of the poisonous rules propagated by the fashion industry - about appearance being the most important aspect of human existence - those now in power will lose some of their hold over us.
Profit will be taken out of fashion and the rulers will be stripped of the coffers that keep them so elevated. Trotsky wrote that after the revolution the human race would stop crawling on all fours before ‘God, kings and capital’ - to this list of we can add the fashion industry.
The whole idea of clothing will change. Fashion today runs on the idea that to keep selling, what you have already sold people must have a sell-by date. Thus things go out of fashion and must be replaced no matter how intact they are as an item.
Fashion is a good way of illustrating the difference between use value (what something is worth as an object) and exchange value (what you can exchange it for on the market). For example, in Spring 2010 you could buy a pair of jeans for Ôø°50; by next Spring the style of jeans will have changed so you will want to sell the old ones - you put them on Ebay but can only get Ôø°10 for them. Their use value has not changed: they are still a perfectly good pair of jeans but their exchange value has plummeted because they are now out of fashion.
When things are not valued for their real worth (their use value) but for their exchange value, we end up in the situation we are in today. The UK alone puts a million tonnes of textiles in landfill each year. If we measured things by their use value society we would be rich in resources and people would have to spend far less time making things.
Before fashion was mass-produced it was produced by households, by ‘the active fingers of the wife.’ It has been argued that making your own clothes is a more economical and sustainable method of production. It would lead to far fewer clothes being owned, new clothes would only be made if necessary, they would be mended rather than thrown away and the labour value of making clothes would be more appreciated if the hours spent sewing were your hours.
People’s desire for sustainability in the light of climate change is leading people to want to cut back and small companies making recycled/upcycled/local wool etc. clothing have become extremely fashionable. The start of the recession in 2009 saw countless magazine articles harking back to the days of make-do-and-mend, encouraging people to save money by making their own clothes. When I say people, of course I mean women. These articles were solely in women’s magazines.
One danger of seeing households as a method of production is that the burden inevitably falls on women - to be done on top of all her other work and domestic duties she must now make clothes. “She spun wool and linen; she wove cloth and garments; she knitted stockings; she made lace..” Women have fought for years to be freed from the domestic yoke; an ideal society would not send them back to it.
Whilst artisan skills are valuable, they should not be seen as women’s work or be put on women as a burden. Home-alone knitting is neither the most efficient nor enjoyable way to make socks.
So what is the alternative to sweatshops or clothes being women’s work? What will happen if we rip our jeans? Will we darn our socks under socialism?
Firstly the clothing that is made will be of a far higher quality than what is made now. Prized qualities will be durability, sustainability, pleasurable to the touch - and the proper fulfilling of an item’s intended role i.e. keeping you warm. Corners will not be cut in the cost of clothes as there will be no profit margin to adhere to.
Clothes will for the most part be made in collectively owned factories where people choose what to make according to their needs. “The realm of freedom actually only begins where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases.” There will be no sweatshops. Job rotation will ensure that everyone has a hand in the production and lifecycle of clothing, which will lead to a greater respect for the resources available to us.
We will use technology to digitally scan ourselves to produce a tailor’s measurements so that we get clothes that fit rather than having to pick a random size. This will also mean that fewer clothes are needed.
The washing of clothes will be done in centralised laundries and if clothes need mending they won’t be thrown away but will go to ‘special clothes mending shops’ staffed by men and women which ‘will give the working woman the opportunity to devote their evenings to instructive readings, to healthy recreations, instead of spending them as at present in exhausting labour.’
This is up to people in a new society to decide. ‘The art of a given period resonates in the soul of men and women only because it reflects their innermost feelings, aspirations and frame of mind. The art of one period is so radically different from other periods because it arises out of a different social environment.’
However, there are some elements of today’s fashion that will surely be cast aside as relics of an old oppressive order i.e. pink for girls and blue for boys. Dozens of divisions exist which need to be torn down but here there is only room for a very brief look at two.
Judging by her clothes, a woman’s role in today’s society is to be a helpless, stationary sex object. There is no place in fashion for a woman to be physically strong, fast or agile, she must remain trussed up. Much of fashion relegates women to the level of a child - for example needing help to walk. Heels so high that they distort spines, damage joints and cause arthritis; skirts so tight walking is difficult and running impossible and corsets, girdles and belts that make breathing difficult.
As Ariel Levy states: “A tawdry, tarty, cartoon-like version of female sexuality has become so ubiquitous, it no longer seems particular. What we once regarded as a kind of sexual expression we now view as sexuality.”
Any woman who tries to opt out of this will find herself censured and outcast by society. ‘The logic of choice, of the market, of the right to pick between competing products, cannot be used to justify the decision to wear what one likes, if one chooses something that indicates a desire to not play the game.’
Some commentators even stated that the French outlawing of the hijab was a ‘purely capitalist law.’ Under capitalism, not only women’s clothes are for sale but the women themselves. Women are also a commodity and as such “a girl must show what she’s got to sell. She’s got to show her goods…it is vital to hint at undressing at every instant. Whoever covers up what she puts on the market is not a loyal merchant.”
It is worth noting, however, that the hijab does exist as a fashion commodity, along with the abaya and the niqab. Every designer fashion label Christian Dior to Hermes does designer hijabs, available to buy for hundreds of pounds each.
In the ideal post-capitalist society that this article envisages, women will gain the freedom to be whatever they want to be. There will be no pressure to conform to a certain kind of physicality or sexuality, and women will not be judged on their looks.
The ultimate dictator in fashion is class. Ultimately we wear what we can afford to wear and are judged for it accordingly.
The world is consumed by clothes as status symbols. Work wear is a prime example of this. What you wear to work reflects your place in society. We are judged by the colour of our shirts in the same way that the Ancient Egyptians had different coloured robes for the different ranks: are you a blue collar worker or a white collar worker? A cloth cap, or a bowler hat, or a top hat? (Top hats were only allowed for those working in the Bank of England.)
Outside of work, fashion has long been the playground of the rich. Many of the items offered to us by fashion are impossible unless the only movement you are required to do is walk from your chauffeured car to the door of the restaurant. The idea is to look as though you don’t work.
Items of clothing are designed to show what the individual wearing it can afford. People are branded by their net worth. In a society where resources were distributed fairly and everyone was equal such status symbols would cease to have meaning.
For every division in clothing that needs to be torn down, there is a myriad of possibilities that could spring up. This will be our job in the new society. This will be the adventure. “To redo everything. To arrange things so that everything becomes new; so that the false, the dirty, dull ugly life which is ours becomes just life, pure, gay, beautiful.”
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