The Ontology and Materiality of Fashion  

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody’s talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
Everybody knows

Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows

I recently purchased a pair of pants. They are a slim-fit dark denim, tight jeans with a bit of a stretch. I liked the way they make my body look when I tried them on and examined myself in the dressing room mirror. I felt their cut and styling expressed a feeling of youthfulness and “cool” that seems to become ever more elusive as I get older. The store where I was shopping is one that I knew to employ ethical production practices. There was also a seasonal promotional discount that sealed the deal for me. All of these factors contributed to making my purchase, and communicate aspects of my character much larger than just a desire to acquire and wear a new pair of pants. However, soon the indigo used to dye my new jeans made the skin on my legs itchy, introducing an uncomfortable corporeality back into the process of my comprehension of the garment. They became uncomfortably real to me in a way they hadn’t been before. Leading me to ponder the ontology of clothing, how I relate to my wardrobe and the forgotten physicality of clothing as an object. The immateriality of contemporary garment ontology wherein image trumps physicality is dangerous when considering fashion, because fashion is both powerful and pervasive, not just as a philosophy but as an industry. Every person on this planet wears clothes or adorns their body in some way, and thereby interacts with them physically, experientially and psychically. Aside from the phenomenological questions that arise from the deep intimacy of this process, it also necessitates the manufacture of an enormous amount of garments. How those clothes are designed, produced, manufactured and distributed has a massive global impact. Unfortunately, the fashion production that generates these garments–in its current production models–is inherently destructive to people and the planet. There are brightly coloured rivers in Asia that correspond to the trendy hues of the upcoming season’s fast-fashion offerings, or look to the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, where 1,129 garment workers were killed and 2,500 injured. Perpetuating these damaging processes is obviously extremely harmful, in spite of this knowledge dangerous practices are the norm in the fashion industry, and the impacts of garment production are ignored. What is it in our relationship to our clothing that occludes both our will to change this myopic perception, and the desire to demand concrete ameliorative results in the world? How has the materiality of the problems we are facing vis-a-vis clothing sustainability become so immaterial? We consume and discard without ever engaging truthfully with our garments and their consequences. As unpleasant as it may be to some, the discussion must be continued and I would argue that resistance to sustainability principles may stem in part from a sense of futility that people face when confronted with the scale of issue. At this time we are also alienated from the manufacture of our garments geographically as so much of global production is conducted far from the location of retail. Fashion in its current incarnation is toxic, and to quote Leonard Cohen: “Everybody knows”.

Image: “Fashion Shoot in Nolita” Oct. 20, 2010, Mark O’Connell

@Mark O’Connell 2017, all rights reserved, no reproduction without authorization

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