Fashion: the mouthpiece of cultural change

  • Regular voices
  • March 29, 2017
  • Claire Tutill and Rory Docherty
Fashion: the mouthpiece of cultural change

Micro-trends in fashion are constantly changing – one minute we’re being told we should be wearing harem pants, and the next you shouldn’t be seen dead in them. It’s near impossible to keep up with what’s in vogue at any given time.

But if we look a little deeper than these surface level trends we can see that there are actually a number of underlying influences that run through the seam of the fashion industry. These influences are constant – they may develop and adapt to reflect what is happening at the time, but season after season they are present.

At TRA we call these influences ‘Cultural Currents’ – macro-trends that are shaping society, how we express ourselves, what we think, do and buy. Cultural Currents hold a significant place in fashion, an industry that prides itself on being ahead of the curve and pushing boundaries.

Fashion responds directly to the cultural landscape of the time. As a visual platform, fashion allows us to easily track key Cultural Currents over time, analysing how they manifest and what this says about society.

Fashion and the acceptance of gender fluidity and freedom

Possibly the most significant—and obvious to see—influence on the fashion industry is that of gender. Society’s attitudes to gender at any given time define fashion, so naturally the industry pushes back to try and redefine it.

Fashion historically has been gender-rigid. In 1876 the New York Times proclaimed that women wearing trousers were “suffering from a curious disease” best treated in “hospitals for the insane”. It wasn’t until well into the 1900s that we saw fashion subverting this line of thinking – in 1913 Vogue published an illustration of a woman in Harem pants, and by the 1920s and 30s Coco Chanel was popularising trousers for women.

Since then the industry has developed its thinking further driven largely by women’s changing role in society, work, politics and the economy, the desire for greater freedom of expression, and the drive for equality.

In the last five years, we’ve seen a radical shift in society’s approach to gender. The very notion of gender is being questioned – think Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, and transgender models such as Andreja Pejić, Hari Nef, and Lea T gracing runways and high fashion advertising campaigns the world over.

We’re seeing designer labels like Rad Hourani building businesses out of unisex clothing, and London department store Selfridges recently opened a concept area called Agender. Here, shoppers are “welcomed to the future of genderless shopping” where they choose items based simply on style, colour, fit and taste, rather than by gender.

Since Vogue and Coco Chanel in the 1900s, traditional expectations of gender have been gradually challenged, blurred and ignored. Society as a whole is becoming increasingly aware that gender is not one or the other, and we’re gradually being given the freedom to transcend traditional concepts of ‘his’ and ‘hers’.

But while we’ve seen the “Gender Freedom” cultural current grow and expand its presence in recent years, there’s still a way to go. We can see evidence of this in the fashion industry – just think back to the last time you were in a children’s clothing department and were surrounded by pink for girls, and blue for boys. These distinctions reinforce traditional gender roles that have largely become redundant. If we look at how things currently stand, how many companies are accommodating anything other than a ‘male’ or ‘female’ definition of its customers? Fashion is the outward sign, but the inner person wants to be acknowledged too.

As with all cultural shifts, societal change takes time as new thought plays out through early adopters and gradually becomes mainstream. But what we have seen is that Gender Freedom is a powerful current, and fashion is at the forefront of expressing the change that we’re feeling as a society.

Fashion and the mood of discontent

Just as we are seeing fashion push back against traditional notions of gender, there is a similar movement against entrenched political systems. Fashion is a powerful voice to capture the thoughts and mood of a group – we’ve seen this play out multiple times through history, most recently with Brexit and Trump.

Looking back to the 1970s and 80s, we have evidence of fashion acting as a mouthpiece for a marginalised group. The UK’s skinhead movement was adopted by disenchanted youth seeking comradery against social alienation. Characterised by their buzz cuts and tattoos, skinheads stuck to working class clothing such as Dr. Martens boots, braces, high-ankle straight-leg jeans, and simple shirts. Their anti-establishment clothing was easily recognisable, and effectively communicated their discontent with the class system.

Fast forward to 2016. Three weeks before the Brexit ballot, Gucci shows its new season resort collection at Westminster Abbey. Amidst intense political turmoil and uncertainty, the fashion label sent models down the runway in clothes with strong references to British history – think the iconic Union Jack, traditional Scottish tartan, bleached denim and knuckledusters referencing London’s punk scene – combined with broader European influences. This mesh of cultural references was a sartorial nod to the fact that a nation’s culture does not evolve in isolation. In calling to attention Europe’s influence on British history and subculture, Gucci designer Alessandro Michele made a bold political statement saying “You are part of the culture of Europe”.

But merely a month later we saw the emergence of the safety pin as a symbol of solidarity in the aftermath of the Brexit ‘leave’ vote. The symbolic safety pin would again emerge after the Trump presidential election. These momentous global events signalled to many that racial minorities were in danger of becoming even more marginalised. The safety pin became a powerful statement of protest, and support for those who felt threatened by the voting outcomes.

We can see fashion’s power to express an undercurrent of fear and unhappiness, and also unite people in times of uncertainty. Fashion has a unique ability to represent the mood of the time, and it forms an accessible mouthpiece to illustrate underlying social currents. As a unifier of people, fashion holds a significant role to create real change and an opportunity for brands to be part of the movement.

Fashion and the authentic voice

As we assess these big social question marks around gender and politics, where does moral conscience fit in?

Globally there is a growing desire for products with meaning and integrity. First world societies have hit “peak stuff” and there is an undercurrent of fear around where the world is heading. We’re now seeing a demand for minimalism, ethical business, locally-sourced materials and products with meaning. No longer reserved for hippies, this cultural current has hit the mainstream.

We really saw the authenticity movement emerge onto the fashion scene in the late 1990s with Naomi Klein’s book No Logo which questioned consumerism and corporations producing goods in cheap labour markets with shocking working conditions. Since then, consumers have become increasingly aware of the footprint of consumption to the point that ethical and authentic business practice is now an expectation.

Part of this movement is the drive for simplicity and a clutter-free life. How many of us hold onto clothes that we haven’t worn in years, in the hope that they may one day come back in fashion or fit us again?

Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood has been urging people for years to “Buy Less. Choose well. Make it last. Quality, not quantity. Instead of buying six things, buy one thing you really like”. Buying things just for the sake of it is now seen as irresponsible (which poses real challenges to brands whose number one goal is to sell stuff). However, this is this mindset that has begun to pervade the world of fashion. Slow fashion is the newly emerged movement of creating and buying clothes for quality and longevity. It urges fair wages and conditions, zero waste, and minimised carbon outputs. As the remedy to fast, cheap, disposable fashion it is helping to ease the clutter of too much stuff.  

The drive towards localism has never been more prominent. In New Zealand, there has been increased demand for fashion labels that speak to unique elements of craft and material sourcing. And on a global scale, there have been numerous brands return their manufacturing to their home countries, and hand-made goods are becoming more important to consumers.

Consumers are also placing more importance on authentic sustainability stories. Global chain stores have launched clothes recycling initiatives, such as H&M where old clothes can be dropped off to any H&M store worldwide to be recycled and repurposed. Swedish brand Nudie Jeans has opened repair shops around the world, offering lifetime repairs on of any of their jeans to save people from throwing them out and creating waste.

It is these initiatives that speak to the emerging conscious consumer who is interested in local-made, sustainable and ethical products. As the cultural current for authenticity drives forward, consumers increasingly want to form a deeper connection with the brands they consume, and this depends on having a genuine and unique brand story.

The power of fashion

On the surface the fashion industry can appear superficial, but look below the surface and you see that fashion is really a powerful vehicle for social change. Fashion’s ability to unite marginalised groups, communicate the desire for equality, and deliver messages about issues plaguing society has not yet been recognised by the mainstream.  

As an industry defined by its ability to be ahead of the curve, the fashion world draws on the underlying cultural currents running through society. A naturally visual platform, fashion is one of the megaphones that communicates to the world what is happening both on and under the surface. As marketers, and people of the world, if we fail to acknowledge this we miss opportunities to detect and understand evolving collective sentiment and resulting cultural shifts in rich and nuanced ways that give us clues as to where society is heading and ways we might get there.

Claire Tutill is the marketing coordinator at TRA.

Rory Docherty is an Auckland-based fashion designer and product developer working across the fashion industry.Docherty first presented this content at TRA’s recent Mindframe Breakfast on the topic of culture.

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