Like in the drama of Faust, ambition seeks instant gratification: no matter the cost while pushing the payment ahead of us
Unsustainable Faustian bargain
All fashion is Faust-fashion, however virtuous the brand may claim to be. It is the current operating model of fashion. The essence of Faust-fashion is its unsustainable Faustian bargain. Like the drama of Faust, how unchecked ambition buys instant gratification, no matter the cost or social standing of the perpetrator; the price is still damnation. Faust-fashion is the delight we take in the immediate sense of gratification in consuming the future. We do so at a discount rate, sometimes calling it ethical, while delighting in our own purity. We seek to become masters of the conditions of our being, while pushing the payment ahead of us.
Solutions for a more sustainable fashion
Faust-fashion is the current arrangement brands have with the promise of consumerism. This allows certain values in fashion to flourish, promoting social dynamics, but at a steep environmental cost. Current ideas on how to make fashion more sustainable address the environmental impact, yet this simultaneously undermines these social dynamics, effectively blaming the poor. As the main consumers of fast fashion, the underprivileged have to pay the price for turning fashion more sustainable, while the whole industry has made the Faustian bargain. For a more sustainable fashion to emerge, designers need to check the hypocrisy, examine what values they reproduce, while making sure they serve the populations that need fashion the most. As of now, the Faustian bargain of fashion stands unchallenged, and fashion as a cultural practice must change to avoid environmental degradation. Like the drama of Faust, fashion is a struggle over values. This becomes apparent as sustainability has become the paramount narrative across all fashion discourse. The dichotomy is set up between sin and virtue. On the one hand, the pleasures of the ‘fast’ passions, on the other, the virtuous temperance of sustainability. Whereas the first speaks of user-friendly and cheaply accessible immorality, the second connotes authenticity, transparency, integrity. Across the popular narrative, fast fashion is a sign of wickedness, while sustainability translates as the splendor of the soul. This dichotomy conceals how you can consume sustainable, ethical and luxury fashion, just as fast and foul as any other thing; it is just a matter if you can afford it. On the other hand, you can keep, care for and repair fast fashion garments like a lesser saint, yet your cheap copies are still damned. Every brand now has a conscious or recycled edition, and through it you can buy your righteousness. Yet the virtue is not in the fabric.
The everyday masquerade of fashion
We can use fashion for self-expression, let the appearance of an unseen inner quality of our life and its values become visible to others. This can allow us to meet and attune to new people. We can express aspirations, and our thirst for life and affections, and it may add a sense of aesthetic excitement to the dull every day. On a societal scale, fashion allows for social mobility, where I can dress up in a skin that actually does not represent the identity I am born into, such as my class, ethnicity, or gender roles. I can move transversally through the social sphere. I can flirt with someone beyond my community. I can use fashion to align with or move across social boundaries, I can present a self with the tokens I pursue, to the possible peers at a job interview, or to my date. With fashion, I can use my appearance to convince peers I am in control, that I am the master over the conditions of my life. Fashion can also show the wide mongrel reality of human differences and desires, and this may foster tolerance of such heterogeneity. The more used I become to see a wide variability of people around me, the chances are I can accept more of these deviations from the norm. The quotidian masquerade that fashion opens for us can facilitate a dynamic social environment. These are crucial values and we should remind ourselves what fashion can do for us. This is the Faustian knowledge, aspiration and beauty that is so tempting to purchase on the cheap; and in the form of fast-fashion, it serves a large population that, outside of cheap and on-trend consumption, have little agency to change the conditions of their existence.
The promise the Faustian bargain entails is not available to everyone. There are interests curtailing its mass dissemination. Social mobility has traditionally been held back by sumptuary laws, for example that only the emperor can wear a certain color, or the nobility set decrees for what fabrics and how much yardage could be used for certain garments. Today we instead call the sumptuary laws of our times copyrights. Their purpose is to make sure the poor cannot imitate the rich, while of course also protecting brand revenue. Yet the effect is the same and the potential for tolerance is held back by the proliferation of judgments and bias. Even as dress codes are rolled back at many workplaces, there is an increasing assessment of looks on social media as our lives get lived through the mass dissemination of selfies. Those afforded generous resources have a higher visual presence, more thrilling content, and they set the standard for what is considered success. We must be conscious that there are consequences in the way the values we promote come to play out. This becomes crucial when it comes to how the discourse and methods are set up and promoted to make fashion sustainable. The standard path to a more sustainable fashion business has a tendency to hamper the potential fashion has as a social good. Sustainability may reduce the harmful impact on the biosphere while serving people with means but fails to assist the populations that need the potentials for fashion the most.
In order to address the environmental impact of mass consumption, the response amongst brands is to pin down on the ‘mass’ in consumption. The problem in their eyes is that poor people consume. From a historical lens the observation seems correct; the global footprint of fashion was not so big until it got accessible to those with lesser means. Yet, this produces an eye-catching hypocrisy, and shifts blame from the affluent to the poor. It also suggests the values promoted by sustainability discourse are generally applicable, while actually modelled on standards unattainable to the underprivileged. This is clear just by looking at the most common tropes in sustainable fashion; buying less, keeping garments for longer, and creating emotionally durable pieces. The first approach is to limit the number of goods people buy, telling consumers to ‘buy classic pieces’. There are several issues here; who can afford to buy this quality? Who is at a social position they can buy a garment to preserve as a classic piece that cements their social standing? It is an easy thing to do if you are rich, but less if you are poor. It basically tells the underprivileged: buy only what you can afford, stay at the low rung, don’t aspire to be one of us. The second method translates as ‘buy things your kids can inherit’. That is easy to say if you live in a castle and want your kids to inherit your status, but less so if you are poor. We all want to inherit a vintage Chanel bag, not so much the copy. Inheritance is an idea that favors those with assets to inherit; it petrifies hierarchical stratifications, social mobility. The same happens when we examine the rhetoric around what is often called ‘emotional durability’. It is a theme that takes for granted the way clothes can embody pleasant memories, and it often stirs affective recollections of a grand-mother or other authentic and rustic values of the ‘good-old-days’. In these discussions we take for granted that memories are good, grandmother treated us well, and she preferably had a wardrobe full of high-quality goods and a social stature we can remember her with. But much of fashion is about forgetting: it helps us to move on from failure and don a new skin to try one’s luck elsewhere. In the bitter defeats in life, fashion allows us to desire change, however shallow. This is at the heart of the Faustian bargain of fashion; with fashion, I am not eternally doomed by my birth or misfortune, but I can pursue a brighter future, perhaps vague, but at least in vogue. In each case, the values promoted through current discourse on sustainability set limits on the potential for the masquerade of fashion, hampering the possibility of the poor to move away from their precarious condition. The potential of social dynamics, the masquerade, is preserved only for the rich or those with social status. The poor, those who need fashion the most for social mobility and to get a sense of aesthetic agency in their lives, are deemed a problem and looked down upon.
Covering consumer hypocrisy
We need to be clear on this: sustainable fashion, as it is conceived today, punishes the poor for their social condition, while celebrating the values of the rich, suggesting the moral codes of sustainability are equally distributed. It sets the standard of life on the terms of those with privilege, while withdrawing avenues for the poor to aspire and reach these standards. Fashion is not equitable to start with, it is played out on an unfair field of appearance, race, abilities and affluence yet the way sustainability is frequently framed increases these differences, vilifying the poor for their lack of means and character. Sustainability has become the new Victorian morale with which to regulate and harass those on the breadline. Preaching to the needy may not be the intention of designers, but it affects the general discourse. It influences the futures we can imagine for fashion. More and more brands embrace ‘value-driven’ agendas, where companies create deep, meaningful relationships aligned with brand communication and its promoted cause or core. With a focus on values, a customer buys a product that suggests something about their place in the world, and as brands are ‘creating value for customers’, these values help define their lives. If a customer is supposed to identify with these values, brands are in the business of designating the values and worth of people and their inner lives, their esteem and self-knowledge. Good consumers are good people, worthy of respect, while bad consumers are condemned for their wickedness. This becomes prominent when it comes to the virtues of sustainability, especially so in the face of a looming climate emergency. Whose values count and are accessible, versus whose values are not good enough? We have to be careful in the way we address these value-driven processes in fashion. If we are a bit cynical, there is a sinister backing behind the virtuous veneer of sustainability. We are facing more than merely a classism in sustainability. Again, these are values that only the rich can access, and that become a façade to cover for consumer hypocrisy. If I only buy ethical brands and heritage goods, I can keep consuming without any remorse; I actually support the good brands.
A value-driven sustainability
Brands embrace a discourse by which to again speak down to the poor, but now this population not only lacks means and desirable assets, they supposedly are also devoid of sustainable and enlightened values. I can buy a couple of heritage dresses at vintage stores, and that is virtuous, but I simultaneously look down at the riff-raff that rush the sales on Black Friday. ‘They’ lack not only my taste, but more importantly civic values. They certainly cannot afford the tokens of sustainable vanity, but the subtext also becomes that they lack them because they are not worthy. The more brands call upon values to address sustainability the more apparent this dynamic becomes. How often have you heard brands suggest how they embody values such as authenticity, honesty, integrity – often at a high price point – yet they still only offer products. The discussion around goods is saturated by this light of virtue; brands take climate action, promote equitability, restitution, and work closely with their communities. At least they say so, and we must believe employees really try to make their workplaces live up to these ideals. Under Faust-fashion, the only way the consumer or user can engage with these virtues is through the wallet. Sustainability is ‘in the DNA’ of the brand, as they say, yet this DNA is a component removed from the practice, desires and corruptions of everyday life. Even if I can afford it, brands offer little or no help to a consumer to cultivate these values in the quotidian struggles of life. I may be offered an exclusive artisan bag of ethically sourced leather, a scarf woven by hands which have been immersed in ancient traditions, a pair of shoes where of shoes of which each component is documented and traceable, a jacket grown by organisms I have never heard the name of, yet after the point of purchase, I am left on my own. If I am to believe in all the virtues the brand stands for, my own life as a depraved sinner can be almost too hard to bear. Or perhaps I only consume the ‘good’ to repent, to offset some of my other decadent ways. The poor, on the other hand, are now so wicked they cannot even understand how virtuous I am, having bought all these tokens of righteousness.
From fashionable to fashion-abilities
What is to be done? It may seem the Faustian bargain of fashion offers us no way out. Yet, to start with, if we are serious about the ideals we strive for in making fashion more sustainable, the question must become how we can offer fashion users a wider interface towards the ideal practices we say we promote. If we are earnest about the virtues of sustainability, the honesty, integrity, authenticity and community support, how can we think of fashion as a tool for cultivating these ideals in the living practices of our users, not merely offer a product token, or even replacement, for these values? If we believe in these practices of life, how can we better support the user in their struggles to live up to these ideals for living. At more avenues for practicing fashion, not merely purchasing its substitute, our inner Faust can perhaps repent and start to change his ways. If we believe that design can embody values such as authenticity, honesty, or integrity, we cannot merely harbor them in commodities, and simply hope they will affect their consumer by osmosis. We must change focus from fashionable goods to the practices of fashion; what we can call ‘fashion-abilities’. The Faustian consumer needs our support to live up to the high ideals preached to them, especially in the face of the familiar failures of life. If we sincerely think our designs can promote the virtues we say, how can we commit to help our users enact them, beyond buying the stuff? Sustainable brand value is a life of practice, a striving for perfection, and it is not limited to the size of the wallet. This situates fashion in relation to the cultivation of skills and spiritual practices, engagements with life in which we try to live up to inner held beliefs and paths towards perfection. In such a setting, the bottom line is offering support to make lasting change, starting to improve my life from the wardrobe and out; care services and instructions, spare parts, updates, but also a mutual sense of commitment. In this case we can embrace fashion as part of a life journey, an ongoing endeavor aiming for what we hold as supreme nobility of the soul. To not only consume fashionable goods, but ‘to live fashionably’. Such integrity can also be available to those with less means, in supporting care and repair, inviting users to practice the values a brand suggests it embraces. We all need help to become masters of the conditions of our own existence, beyond buying the future on discount. The challenge remains of how to make sure those who need fashion-ability the most will also be offered it. Here, our journey has just begun.
What about the fate of Faust? In the popular narrative Faust is doomed to hell, but in some versions of the story, he could still save himself as he struggles to make up for what he destroyed. The drama of tragedy is to witness someone suffer and self-destruct. With Faust-fashion, we are not the audience, but are invited onstage. With the current bargain, it is our self-destruction we get to see. As with theatre, in the mirror of tragedy we may recognize the forces at play, reflect on the arrangements we are part of, and change our ways. We can make fashion-ability something more meaningful than a mere exchange of commodities, a more appropriate tool for self-betterment, instead of a bargain for easily accessible delight. Faust is bored and wants to quickly acquire the success of the world. Sustainability must be more than buying tokens of virtue today, and still pay with eternal climate damnation. Let’s make sure we can imitate more splendid ideals than the appearances of celebrity, nobility and exquisite elitism. The end of Faust-fashion is not the end of fashion. It is a negotiation and rebirth, a practice of life that fulfils the virtues sustainability so far merely speaks of. Can fashion-abilities be the phoenix rising from its flames?IMAGE GALLERY
Dr. Otto von Busch
Is associate professor of Integrated Design, School of Design Strategies. In his research he explores the emergence of a new hacktivist designer role in fashion, cultivating ‘fashion-abilities’ amongst users. In his research he explores how the fashion designer engages participants to reform fashion from a phenomenon of dictations, anxiety and fear, into a collective experience of empowerment and liberation. In such practice, fashion is reverse engineered, hacked and shared among many participants as a form of civic engagement, or ‘fashion-ability’, a skill rather than product.