From Rags to Riches to Rags: A Brief History of the Rise of Fast Fashion

A top fashion insider shares insights and industry secrets.

For a woman who loves fashion as much as I do, I absolutely loathe shopping. Sifting through the retail dregs; overpriced, high-end department stores; designer sample sales strewn with trampled clothes; trendy discount retailer racks with garments falling apart on the hangers; outlet stores overflowing with misshapen rejects; and smelly second hand stores make me itch.

”Manolo Madness” from Flypaper

This is hardly what I would consider the path to glamor that I imagine as I turn the glossy pages of Vogue. And while I wish I could just stitch and alter my wardrobe into one-of-a-kind originals, as I am trained by profession to do, the irony of it all is that as a fashion designer I hardly have the time to make repairs to my wardrobe, much less actually sew anything for myself. A girl’s gotta pay the rent, after all. This plight of the modern woman – not enough time, too little money, and seemingly too high standards – is a pathetically malfunctioning equation. But perhaps it’s not that my standards that are too high. Maybe it’s just a sign that the times are indeed changing.

The infamous Marie Antoinette, who was well known for her taste in ridiculous hats and hairdo’s and expensive wardrobes. Image via Marie Antoinette, Sony Pictures.

There was a time in history when beautiful clothes could only be acquired by members of the Royal Court. Only the extremely wealthy could afford fine clothes. The middle class might have been able to painstakingly make their own out of less fine fabrics and trims. But homemade, roughly-hewn rags were all that was available to the poor.

Girls learning sewing in home ec. Image via

Thank goodness this all changed at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when the sewing machine made fashion available to more people.  As it became a common appliance in households of average means, like my grandmother’s in the 1920’s and 30’s, women were inspired to get creative and could make their own designs for themselves and their families, even on modest budgets. This marked a time in history that began to blur class distinctions, and women in the lower and middle classes began to rise in the ranks of style within society, especially if they had a taste and a talent for sewing.

Women hit the the workforce. Image via lexydeg

WWII marked a new kind of revolution for women, the right to join the workforce in place of their husbands who were off at war, and fashion once again changed. Women liked this new sense of equality in the workforce and especially the keys to financial freedom. Time for home sewing projects became more sparse as climbing the ladder and acquiring spending power slowly overtook women’s desire to manage home economics during the next several decades. In this time, the fashion industry boomed to meet consumer demand and provide more options for this new force of female consumers.

Fast forward to today.

Most female consumers are busy running businesses and households simultaneously and many have little knowledge of sewing, which sadly takes away any skill to recognize quality in craftsmanship. Combined with the fashion industry’s ability to attach aspirational dreams to meaningless stuff through marketing, women are generally willing to accept any item with a label they recognize as long as it proves affordable to buy. Design and original taste has been replaced by owning the most recognizable bling. And fast fashion, like fast food, has signaled the death of style and taste for the masses.

Insane closet behavior. Image via Apartment Therapy

The fashion industry has become a multi-billion dollar business in which entrepreneurs and investors look for ways to cut costs while increasing revenue for shareholders. The best way to do that is to produce and sell huge quantities of product to a mass market. This equation of making high volumes require an enormous investment which increases the risk immensely, a risk that most shareholders would not be comfortable knowing about. Which means that the buck gets passed to reduce the risk while keeping the profit margin steady. Who does it get passed to? Us. The consumers who pay the same price for half the quality; the workers, who have to do twice as much work for the same pay; and the environment, which is heavily fertilized to yield greater crops or dumped upon to avoid expensive waste removal processes. Sound familiar? Oddly, the fashion retail recession appears to be coinciding with the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008.

We come full circle to the era of Marie Antoinette, where only the richest of the rich can afford and experience the quality and taste of haute design and couture, while the vast majority of the population swims in low quality rags with fancy tags that will shortly only be worthy of garbage dumps. This epidemic of “trashion” is now spreading throughout the world, to developing nations that want the same standards that America and other westernized nations have set, leaving the knowledge and traditions of weaving, spinning, and cultural costume to the wayside to be forgotten.

“I think we are all secretly artists. It’s just a matter of allowing yourself to see.” – Fay Leshner. Image via

But throughout this history of mass culture, there have always been rebels, men and women, who defy the system with their originality and creativity, regardless of their economic status. Marked by their burning desire to express themselves and their joie de vivre, this counter culture of personal style mavens take the less-traveled path to acquiring their wardrobes. These people look for the alternatives to shopping at H&M, the Gap, or, god forbid, Abercrombie & Fitch.

Whether they save their dimes to buy that one coveted item from their favorite local couturier, or they have maintained the knowledge to sew and spend their precious free time doing so, or perhaps insist upon searching through vintage and second hand stores for one of a kind, original pieces, the way art and antique collectors might, they have found ways around limitations set by economics or a limited industrial selection.

This does require somewhat of an effort, but then again, so does making enough money to pay off last month’s credit card bills. The effort is well spent because these stylish individuals appear to be having the kind of fun with their clothing that many of us cannot even imagine. They stand out in a crowd without being celebrities harassed by paparazzi; confusing and criss-crossing all class, social, and economic lines, and meanwhile looking rather jaw-droppingly fabulous.

Main image: jaynepatel

Editor’s note: Louise Lagosi is not the author’s real name.