From Flash Sales to Philanthropy, It’s the Politics of Fashion

Your fashion choices reveal your political views, whether you want them to or not.

There was a time when tags like “Made in the U.S.A.” meant something. During war times, when buying cotton was limited by choice to only the bare necessities (unless you wanted to be considered unpatriotic by your neighbors), we could directly trace how our consumption habits related to our society’s values. Since then, flag waving morals within fashion have more or less disappeared along with the great American garment factories. With the internet, the world is a much smaller place and sadly, our sense of social values and our concern for our neighbors seems to have shrunk, as well.

The “Made in ____” label actually means a lot on the front of world politics. It relates to tariffs and trade agreements, which government worker rights and standards you support, and the bottom line: the price. The reality is that we haven’t been paying the real price of goods for decades. Whether it’s our own government that has been manipulating the price of our products through trade agreements and tariffs, or the Chinese government subsidizing their labor costs to dominate the world’s production market, it’s all coming back to us. We’re starting to pay for it: prices are going up, jobs have been lost, the environment is at risk, and fashion is once again on the center stage of politics simply by what we choose or don’t choose to wear and how we acquire goods.

Flash Sales

As of late, it seems there are very few things besides sales that get consumers excited to buy more clothes in the middle of a recession. For fashion, an economic recession translates to a mad rash of online flash sales.

According to industry reports, in 2010, on average, flash sale sites reported a 300% increase in sales even though the economy had not nearly recovered. The frenzy these exclusive, one day only, sample sales stir up in consumers (who are fearful of missing out on getting the last designer bag at sample prices), runs parallel to the fears the economy stirs up in times when everyone is fearful of losing their job. The general philosophy behind these shopping patterns is to get as much as you can while the getting is good.

While flash sales encourage cut-throat consumer shopping habits, the fashion industry’s ever cheerful motto continues to be “It’s just fashion, no one’s dying over it,” but the truth is that people are dying over it.

Last December, 25 workers were killed and another 100 were injured in a factory fire in Bangladesh, and that is a highly visible case where the workers died directly because of poor safety standards in the factories. Most factory workers end up severely crippled with chronic health disorders related to a life of hard labor working with toxic materials. In China, by law, the media is forbidden to report on human rights issues. However, recently the Chinese government has made great efforts to clean up its act and provide better working conditions in factories for their people. If you consider factory labor camps where workers are required to take two hour naps on cots underneath their machines mid-day so that they can last the whole 18 hour shift to be humane working conditions, you’d be wrong, but you’d also be part of the status quo. This might be the reason for the other hot trend in fashion sales this year: fashion philanthropy.

Fashion Philanthropy

Clearly, people are concerned about the human condition and want to put their dollars toward something meaningful when they buy their clothes. So, for just about every cause, there is a fashion company doing double-duty selling products to raise money and awareness.

Designers, from Vivien Westwood and Stella McCartney, to companies like the Gap in collaboration with Bono’s Red Campaign, have made huge waves in social awareness by fundraising and sales through profit sharing and partnering with philanthropic causes.

In 1983, Katherine Hamnett launched her line of political fashion tees. While Hammett’s flavor of fashion politics is now outdated, her company was one of the first to market giving a percentage of the profits away to charity, and for this reason she’s considered a pioneer. Luckily, savvy social media experts, marketing campaigns, and branding have allowed fashion philanthropists to become subtle yet clearly recognizable in their charitable product placement. Today, the hint of a rubber bracelet hanging just below your shirt cuff is enough to let people know where you stand.

These affordable tokens serve as status symbols among the high ticket donating entrepreneurs and socialites alike.

The Political Implications of Stepping Out

Just stepping out in a cheerful frock from H&M seems to have political implications these days. We used to be able to buy clothes without a care in the world about who made them, what they were made of, and how the world might be affected. Today, what you buy says quite a lot about who you are and what you stand for. Want to really know where a fashionista stands on political and social issues? Just look at her feet. Shoes are one of the most coveted and telling items in a woman’s closet. You can really tell a girl’s views, values, and how far her morals go just by looking at her footwear.

Take, for instance, these shoe made by Osborn, a company that works with a fair-trade organization in Guatemala to employ traditional craftsmen who are paid a fair wage for their work. At just a glance, these shoes belie a wearer who has a creative lifestyle, who generally stays current with what’s happening in the world of art and design, but who has some rebellious, hippie-heritage deep down leading her to choose to support skilled craftsmen and favor ethnic chic patterns in her fashion statements.

Then there’s the vintage shoe. Their owner is practical, well educated, frugal, slightly sentimental, likes fashion but does not follow any known trends, and probably could be pegged as someone who reads a lot of books. Her old school, working-class-Americana political views are reflected in her subtle lifestyle choices which she carefully cultivates at great pains. When asked about politics, she has well-informed opinions that she exercises at every election when she faithfully votes at the polls.

Next, take a Tom’s Shoe. Similar to the Fair-Trade Osborn model, Tom’s is far more successful in sales and recognizable on the street. This is the Prius of shoes, and like the Prius, it gets twice as many miles to the gallon. For every shoe you buy, Tom’s gives a pair of shoes to a barefooted child in a third world country. Anyone found wearing this shoe chose to support Tom’s cause just by buying these slightly homely slippers. The owner of this shoe proudly reads The New Yorker, is educated, social, political, cares about others and also, about what others think. Even if her interest in philanthropy is ever so slightly pretentious, she is making a conscious choice to do good through her fashion choices, and she feels that’s better than most can say.

Next, there’s the Ferragamo shoe. This is a shoe that is hand crafted by highly skilled craftsmen who have refined fit and quality to an art form over the past 100 years. These heritage shoes are built to last. Women who have known the Ferragamo shoe covet them as heirlooms from their mothers and grandmothers. Even to the average eye, these shoes equate class distinction and old money. To a more critical eye the wearer of this shoe has discerning taste in quality, comfort, and luxury, and is educated but conservative in her world views. Politics? She’d rather not say; she generally keeps her opinions on such things to herself.

Several steps down in class, but not in price is the Louboutin shoe. The higher the stiletto, the higher maintenance the girl. Her greatest aspiration in life appears to become a life size Barbie doll in a Barbie McMansion married to Ken. This kid is a Freudian field day if you can crack the lacquer. She likes flashy cars, big cigars and diamond rings. Politics never come into conversation with this one, and she only attends high-brow charity events as arm candy or with her best friend (the other hot girl). Just don’t take her for stupid; she knows exactly what she’s doing, what she wants, and nothing is going to get in her way.

There are millions of other shoes out there, all of which have something different to say about their wearer, but on the political front of fashion these are just some prime examples of what your shoe choices alone might say about you. What does the rest of your wardrobe have to say? What if every new item you bought was seen as a vote for the ethics in which you want the future to follow, if every time you saw a college student ready to go out in a Forever 21 frock you were reminded that she supports work camp labor? And while choosing to wear a skimpier swimsuit at the swim club could cause a scandal in uptight social circles, in the material world, it certainly could help reduce fabric consumption.

Even if we never return to the glory days of WWII rationing, as fashion continues to get dragged through the trenches for wreaking havoc on delicate planetary ecosystems, one can only hope our wardrobe choices become a lot more thoughtful and truthful, to protect them.


Editor’s note: Louise Lagosi is not the author’s real name. Catch our fashion industry insider’s insights and revelations every Friday at EcoSalon.