Talking clothes: where does fashion value lie?

Dress codes> (CC license, click for source)

Dress codes (CC license, click for source)

Our Challenge was inspired by the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 24 April 2013. So many people were crushed to death there or injured making the clothes that most of us wear, we were keen to see how this event, its reporting, and the NGO, union and corporate responses we’re tried to document have changed the fashion industry, and its consumers. We’ve just posted an extract from a report on the difference that Rana Plaza has(n’t) made to clothing consumers in the UK.

We’ll be working in a shopping centre, talking to people who work and shop there about their clothes. So, we asked Professor Louise Crewe, an expert on fashion consumption, why it’s important to talk to people about how we value the clothes we buy and wear. Here’s her response – a must read for all of our Challenge students! 

Where does fashion value lie? How do we begin to understand fashion in beyond-market terms? The answer, I suggest, lies in the recognition that an understanding of the embodied reality of the fashion is central rather than incidental to an understanding of fashion’s practices and effects. The key to understanding the secret of value may lie less in the realm of supply and demand curves, global systems of provision, product design, aesthetics or labels, but in the auto-topographical potential of goods and the relations between objects and subjects.

The very act of wearing clothes is in itself transformative. Whilst the brand, label, signature or designer may have originally informed the initial purchase decision, cycles of use and wear transform clothes and their meaning. And once we enter into conversations with people about their clothes, stories and meanings begin to take shape, grow, tumble out. Clothing is so fascinating because it forces us to think about embodied consumption. Clothes are intimate. We wear them and feel them and leave our bodily effects on and in them, trapped between the fibres. Our clothes become us. We inhabit them and they tell stories about us: where we bought them; when, where and with whom we wore them; the places we went; the stains from the party, the rip from the fall as marks of value not distain.

Our clothes touch us and reveal significance and memory-value. Clothing is an object in the space between self and surround, a second skin, porous, absorbent, soaked in memories and steeped in stories. Far from being a benign surface, clothes have agency: they can outwit us, fail and have the capacity to eat us up with anxiety. Our clothes can betray us, act as markers of social and bodily failure and refuse to accomplish their intended effects. In spite of our best endeavours to be an imagined other, our clothes have the capacity to be the superior agent.

When a garment is purchased it begins to record its own individual story. Clothes are repositories of accumulated sensory biographies. They hold secrets and tell stories. The value of clothing may lie far more in its social history and geography, in the traces of wear and use embedded within it, than in its brand, label or authorial signature. Clothes have memories stored, layered, deposited within them and it is through the excavation of use and wear that consumption value may emerge. Clothes act as a repository of accumulated sensory biography. They store and reveal corporeal traces of presence and intimacy. Clothes and their wearers are combined and entwined, inseparable in mind and memory. The material and the immaterial – fabric and feeling – are woven together in and through our clothes. The affective charge of memory-garments is out of all proportion to their market worth and underscores the hugely consequential significance of materiality.

The key methodological point here is that it is only by sharing clothing stories that we can really begin to understand value. And the key theoretical point I want to make is that in order to understand the value of clothing we need to reflect on emergent systems that constitute the object and subject as grouped around the idea of human-possession encounters, the social lives of our things and the affective power of material objects. This requires no less than a disentangling of the assumed connections between creation, sale and use; a decoupling of production from consumption in the creation of value. It is valorisation through presence and attachment; the coming together of desire.

If you have any questions, please post them below and we’ll ask Louise to respond. To see how these arguments relate to those about producers and production, read Louise’s paper here and to see how they’re explained in other academic work, read this post

Further reading

Crewe, L. (2011) Life itemised: lists, loss, unexpected significance, and the enduring geographies of discard. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29(1) 27-46
Crewe, L. (2011) Geographies of retailing & consumption: the shopping list compendium. in Leyshon, A., Lee, R., McDowell, L. & Sunley, P. (eds), The Sage Handbook of Economic Geography, London: Sage, 304-322
Guy, Ali, Green, E. & Banim, M. (2001) Through the wardrobe: women’s relationships with their clothes. Oxford: Berg
Woodward, S (2007) Why women wear what they wear. Oxford: Berg


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