Fashion industry gives rise to a 'disposable culture'

The push to wear the latest clothes helps clutter our closets with old castoffs.

By , Columnist

According to the thermometer and the calendar, it's still summer. But step into any clothing store in New England and the season quickly changes.

Mannequins are sheathed in black and gray, and racks groan under the weight of heavy wools. Just to be sure customers get the intended message – it's winter already! – the air conditioning is cranked up to high, sending arctic blasts through the store and making shoppers in shorts and sundresses shiver.

Baby, it's cold inside.

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This kind of instant seasonal change has long been a staple of fashion merchandisers, with next season's clothes arriving earlier and earlier every year. Swimsuits and sweaters vie for retailers' space in July.

But to maximize both our confusion and our spending power, in recent years Seventh Avenue marketers have added another element: instant style changes. Stores such as Top Shop, H&M, and Zara provide a constant rotation of reasonably priced merchandise. The prevailing philosophy is: Here today, gone tomorrow. So fast is the turnaround that styles may be Out before many of us ever realized they were In. Even high-end designers are playing the game.

Call it fast fashion, and consider it either exciting or puzzling, depending on your perspective.

For customers who like to keep up with the latest trends – the shoppers the industry approvingly labels "fashion forward" – this constant turnover produces heady excitement. But what does that make those of us who prefer more stability and predictability in our closets? Are we "fashion backward"?

Men in particular are begging for mercy, pleading with manufacturers to bring back their favorite styles, according to the Wall Street Journal. Fast fashion is producing burnout.

As an antidote, a new line of clothes called Slowear, based in Italy, promises to keep its styles always available. Down with instant obsolescence. Up with staying power.

Yet even classic clothes have their traps. In the 1980s and '90s, the clever phrase "investment dressing" suggested that certain styles would last a long time. It also presumably made women feel less guilty about spending megabucks for a designer jacket or a suit. Even then, there were always new collections of investment-dressing clothes to deplete a shopper's bank account the next season. It wasn't fast fashion, but it was just as seductive an idea.

Beyond the endless flow of money these constant purchases require – "Charge it, please" – fast fashion, with its throwaway mentality, encourages a feeling that everything is expendable. It can foster a sense of impermanence, even restlessness, as a shopper goes in pursuit of the hottest new style. It can also require space – lots of it.

Several years ago, I went through a house in Wisconsin that had been built around 1890. Inside and out, the white structure, with its hilltop setting and wraparound porch, had a certain grandeur. But it lacked something absolutely essential today: storage space for clothes. None of the bedrooms had a single closet. Residents hung their clothes in wooden wardrobes and armoires, often only four feet wide. That says everything about the modest amount of clothing early occupants owned. A 21st-century visitor could only wonder: How did they ever manage?

Today, to accommodate mountains of clothes, Americans build houses with ever-bigger walk-in closets, some the size of a room. Shoppers make frequent trips to stores specializing in storage containers to stock up on stackable units to hold sweaters and shoes. And still we have too little space for the quickly outdated clothes we think we might still wear "someday."

Instant obsolescence isn't just a sartorial challenge. Ever-changing electronic devices also help to create a disposable culture. As part of manufacturers' planned obsolescence, consumers constantly receive subtle, insistent messages. The voice of temptation whispers: Your cellphone doesn't have a camera, a video recorder, a flashlight, a calculator, and a GPS. How outdated. Time to get a new one. And you don't yet own a flat-screen TV or the very latest digital camera? What are you waiting for?

With each new generation of electronic gadgets – ever smaller, faster, more powerful – we congratulate ourselves on our progress. But as our closets and houses fill with an accumulation of castoff possessions, sartorial and technological, progress can create its own forms of enslavement.

No wonder there's a growing audience for a new magazine called Organize. And no wonder publishers keep churning out books with titles such as "Put Your House on a Diet." Our cluttered closets, attics, and basements attest to our affluence and our easy-come, easy-go approach to possessions.

"Staying power" has its uses. As landfills bulge with unwanted but often still-functional possessions, our throwaway culture could heed a reminder: "Fast" has its appeal and its purpose. But slower and longer-lasting still have their place.

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