Image: movie still taken from The Devil Wears Prada. Image source.
Why do we tend to spend more money than we can afford? It’s a condition that’s emblematic of our culture of mass consumerism and one that’s also intrinsic to the idea of ‘retail therapy’. But is buying more stuff all the time actually therapeutic; does itmake us feel any better about our bank balances? Perhaps in the short term, yes — and, even then, it’s only because we’ve been conditioned to feel that way. But, either way, it’s a very temporary, Band-Aid sort of solution that seems to wear off all too quickly. In other words, it’s a stopgap to make us feel better about not having more money than we do. And then it’s onto the next purchase and so on — a cycle that, in many ways, keeps fast fashion companies in business. Because, according to Smart Asset, “with fast fashion, clothing brands have rejected the seasonal model of dressing in favor of a near-constant stream of new designs.”
As The Wall Street Journal points out, conspicuous consumption — or lavish purchasing designed to enhance one’s status — has actually existed for centuries. For example, Frank Trentmann’s book Empire of Things asserts that “one Chinese observer in the 1570s complained about the ‘young dandies’ who thought ‘silk gauze isn’t good enough and lust for Suzhou embroideries’ seeking the ‘look of the moment.’” But while the focus then was on quality, the focus now is on newness. Once, it was about seeking the very best fabrics or products, as a way to solidify one’s status and personal identity. But today, ‘newness’ tends to be the currency in which we deal. The problem with this is that it doesn’t actually make us any less broke; actually it does just the opposite. And to quote the words of Sophia Amoruso, “money looks better in the bank than on your feet”. So why do we remain so addicted to the idea of retail therapy then; to the fast fashion mentality of mass consumption?
In her New York Times book review of 1996 bestseller The Millionaire Next Door, Juliet B Schor writes about “the overspent American”. She contrasts the spending habits of these individuals with those that have excessive personal wealth. “In contrast to the popular perception of millionaire lifestyles, this book reveals that most millionaires live frugal lives — buying used cars, purchasing their suits at JC Penney, and shopping for bargains,” Schor writes. “These very wealthy people feel no need to let the world know they can afford to live much better than their neighbors. Millions of other Americans, on the other hand, have a different relationship with spending. What they acquire and own is tightly bound to their personal identity.” In particular, Schor is talking here about driving a certain kind of car or ordering the ‘right’ bottle of wine as a way to “create and support a particular image of themselves to present to the world.” Today, though, it is not quite so straightforward to appear ‘fashionable’ as it once. Because fast fashion companies churn out new trends for us to covet in lighting time, therefore we find ourselves in a perpetual state of want. And if we wish to keep up with these new ‘trends’ — fast fashion constructs as they may be — then weekly shopping sprees are the way to do it.
But is there really anything fashionable about following brand new trends every week, or is it time that we re-evaluate our definition of style? In the wise words of Coco Chanel, “fashion changes, style endures”. But in the context of mass production and consequent consumption, we seem to have mistaken trendiness for the art of being fashionable. Because we tend to believe now that having a new top or dress to wear out for drinks with friends will make us feel better, even though it mightn’t be the best use of our hard-earned money. That’s where tricky fast fashion can really come in handy, because it has so successfully made people believe that clothing can and should be cheap. Therefore, it feels ‘normal’ and achievable to have that new item to show off every weekend. But what it is actually doing is contributing to a vicious cycle of social and environmental devastation. Not only that, but costing you a pretty penny in the process. When you consider that a quality t-shirt might retail for around $70 but actually last you for years to come, while its $30 predominantly-polyester counterpart is less likely built with longevity in mind, those new weekly purchases suddenly don’t seem so cheap.
So how do we combat this issue then? Well we can start by buying less and seeking quality wherever possible. While buying new stuff all the time might makes us feel as if we’re not broke, it is deceptive at best and counterproductive to actually not being broke at worst. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, in the sense that driving particular cars has given people a sense of self worth for years. But the fervent need for newness is a more recent phenomenon and one that’s suspiciously convenient for the continued success of fast fashion companies. Overall, it’s important to remember here that we don’t have anything to prove to anyone. And, ultimately, the buzz created by a brand new outfit is bound to wear off pretty quickly anyway — so it’s a very temporary solution when you think about it. With that in mind, I’d argue that saving those pennies spent each week on fast fashion clothing is a much more effective way to feel better about being broke. Because not only will you have more money in the bank (aka actually not be broke), but the excitement of purchasing new items of quality, well made clothing will also be far greater once you do get there.
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