Fashion is the very epitome of everything that went wrong in capitalist modernity. In that respect, fashion seems the opposite of sustainability. Crafted with infinite passion and superb know-how, fashion is made for the one, perfect moment. It thrives on waste and is discarded in the next minute. Fast fashion turbos that dynamics in order to ‘democratize’ and make it available not only to the happy few, but to everybody: Collections change every six weeks, the labor is cheap, a mass market emerged. The kick of fast fashion is to shop until you drop and discard everything next minute – which is the opposite of sustainability. The sustainability problem of fashion is heightened by the fact that the material of the discarded clothes is not recyclable, due to poor quality.
In addition, the fashion industry is extremely polluting, heavy on the environment. And it is particularly exploitative of the people who work in it. The exploitation of labor in the fashion market has always been hard and extremely gendered. In the emerging fashion markets of the 19th and 20th century in London and in Paris, German, Belgian, Polish and Russian workers of Jewish descent, impoverished women and children, worked in the garment industry. Under similar conditions, the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on 25th of March 1911 in New York killed 146 people (123 of them women). Even though it led to a turning point in trade union politics, the garment workers were – and are – mostly illegal, modern-day slaves of human trafficking, disempowered and exploited, and thus were and are unable to demand their rights.
The recent major catastrophe in 2013 of the collapse of the Pakistan factory Rana Plaza near Dhaka shows how little has changed in 100 years of globalization. More than 1000 people lost their lives. Non-existing safety standards, super-low salaries, the hierarchical relationship between the sexes, the particularly crude discrimination against women in the garment industry went global (Ismail Hossain). The reaction to this catastrophe revealed the dilemma in its crassest dimension: In a fast fashion market, profit maximization is the law. “Ethical fashion,” “supply chain transparency,” “empowerment of women” are mere buzzwords and selling arguments in that market. A lot of white or, rather, green washing is happening.
The moral imperative that hit fashion as the most exploitative and, on top of it, CO2-intensive industry, was reflected by designers already in a new way of clothmaking: going vintage, second hand, tailored from used fabrics, incorporating used children’s clothes or re-edited museum pieces, upcycling. The most interesting, aesthetically innovative designers were keen already in the 80’s to address the problem of fashion and waste, fashion and recycling, fashion and labor, fashion and time, and thereby to reflect upon sustainability in the making of their clothes (like Comme des Garçons, Jean-Paul Gautier, Martin Margiela). Interesting fashion designers stress a sustainable craft, reflecting upon cultural heritage (Dries van Noten), and turn to ecological materials (coined ‘slow fashion’) against a capitalist production interested in profit margins only.
With recourse to this, the course also highlights fashion as a medium of memory that is useful as an archive of textile achievement and local craftsmanship. In forging gender identities and, even more so, in staging and subverting gender identities ironically, fashion was and is the major queering force of our times, in that it also works against the gender stereotypes in their own labor force.
Addressing fashion with respect to sustainability, the class offers an interdisciplinary approach, including social sciences, political ecology, aesthetics and gender studies. It gives an introduction to the material basis and economic circuits of the fashion industry while simultaneously giving an outline of the place of sustainability in fashion theory. Through close analysis of individual works’ reflection on sustainability, the course also provides an introduction to the analysis of works of fashion and its semiotics.
Monday, the 27th of February
Nietzsche, “Fashion and Modernity” in: Human, All too human.
Monday, the 6th of March
Joanne Entwistle, “Sustainability and Fashion” in: Kate Fletcher, Mathilda Tham (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion, London 2016.
Georg Simmel, “Fashion”, in: The American Journal of Philosophy (May 1975)
Monday, the 13th of March
Mirjam Southwell, “Fashion and Sustainability in the Context of Gender.”
Jean Jacques Rousseau, La nouvelle Héloïse II, 21.
Monday, the 20th of March
Sasha Rabin Wallinger, “A history of Sustainability in Fashion.”
Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (extracts)
Monday, the 27th of March
Sigmund Freud, “Fetishism.”
Barbara Vinken, “Transvesty – Travesty. Fashion and Gender.”
Monday, the 3rd of April
J.C. Flügel, The Psychology of Clothes (The Great Male Renunciation)
Barbara Vinken, “The Suit”, in: The Oxford Handbook of Media, Technology and Organization Studies.
Adolf Loos, “Men’s Fashion” (May 2, 1898) Spoken into the Void.
Monday, the 17th of April
Jules Barbey-d’Aurevilly, “Threadbare Dandy Fashion”;
Emma Katherine Atwood, “Queer Time” in: Alessandra Vaccari, Carolyn Evans, Time Fashion: Industrial, antilinear and uchronic temporalities, London et al. 2020.
Charles Baudelaire, The Dandy.
Monday, the 24th of April
Caroline Evans, Alessandra Vaccari, “Time in Fashion: An Introductory Essay”.
Karl Marx, “The Murderous, Meaningless Caprics of Fashion”;
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, “The Acceleration of Fashion Change in the 18th Century”, Ramij Howlader, Monirul Islam (Rajib), Tanjibul Hasan Sajib, Ripon Kumar Prasad, “Standard Minute Value (SMV) for a T-Shirt”, in: Alessandra Vaccari, Carolyn Evans, Time Fashion: Industrial, antilinear and uchronic temporalities, London et al. 2020.
Monday, the 8th of May
Francesca Granata, “Martin Margiela’s Carnivalized Time : Margiela’s Theatrical Costume Collection”, in Alessandra Vaccari, Carolyn Evans, Time Fashion: Industrial, antilinear and uchronic temporalities, London et al. 2020.
Barbara Vinken „Amazing Grace. Martin Margiela and the Antwerp School“, in: Ausst. Kat. 6+ Antwerp Fashion, Brüssel: De Loketten 2007 und Tokyo: Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery 2009, Ghent: Ludion 2007, S. 210-221.
Monday, the 15th of May
Barbara Vinken, “Fashion: An Oriental Tyranny in the Heart of the West,” Fashion and Politics: Historical & Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Djurdja Bartlett, New Haven, CT, 2019, 61-71.
Monday, the 22nd of May
Carolyn Evans, Fashion at the Edge (Alexander Mc Queen und Charles Baudelaire, Phantasmagoria)
Monday, the 29th of May
Students are encouraged to attend the conference organized by Anneke Smelik and Alessandra Vaccari on Fashion and the Four Elements on March 16th and 17th.
Teaching and Evaluation Methods
All grades are based on a presentation in class (20 min.); presentation should open the topic for discussion, a pointed thesis is therefore essential, plus a paper (10 to 12 pages developed from the presentation) and, of course, oral participation during classes: presentation 30%, paper 50%, oral 20%.
Kate Fletcher, Mathilda Tham, Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion, London 2016.
Ismail Hossain, Globalization and Women Garment Workers in Bangladesh, 2010.
Alessandra Vaccari, Carolyn Evans, Time Fashion: Industrial, antilinear and uchronic temporalities, London et al. 2020.
Barbara Vinken, Fashion Zeitgeist – Trends and cycles in the fashion system, Oxford/New York 2006, and “Fashion: An Oriental Tyranny in the Heart of the West,” Fashion and Politics: Historical & Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Djurdja Bartlett, New Haven, CT, 2019, 61-71.
Last updated: March 20, 2023