The following is a repost of my article, Fashioning For A Cause While America Turns Green, part of Clutch Magazine’s June edition.
Eco/enviro/global consciousness is seeping into the public mindset – once it’s on Oprah’s radar – you know its hit the mainsteam! Green ink dominates the newsstand as fashion and lifestyle magazines rush to release a “green issue,” and green bloggers like Ecorazzi and TreeHugger are enjoying a surge in hipster traffic. With the “fashionization” of social and political causes so eagerly trendy, it’s important to look at fashion trends in a historical context.
Clothing provides a visual means to demonstrate a particular ideology through dress. Fashion trends often emerge from social, political, even religious subcultures where the style of dress challenges, at least at first, cultural norms. These counter-fashions may even offer an alternative to the traditional beauty or fashion ideal (safety pins through the nose, the 1980s women’s powersuit), thus exposing the social construction of such ideals. Socially combative dress has been used regularly throughout history, from the suffragettes dressed in white, to DIY punk, and in the co-opted prepster gear of hip hop fashion. Ironically of course, counter-culture fashion often ends up being made available by mass marketing and adopted by a larger population, and then diffused into the dominant population – like baggy pants, or the baby-doll tee – and eventually passed into the fashion attic, only to emerge, like leggings, or colored denim, just to remind you how old you really are.
By providing a mainstream fashion alternative, anti-fashion functions as a social force that actually produces new cultural symbols. This is what is happening currently with Eco-Fashion. Punk clothing began as the visual manifestation of the subversive, rebellious nature of punk ideology. Initially handmade, punk fashion has since become highly commercialized, and with it, symbols like skulls and safety pins have lost their original meaning. Similarly, hip-hop fashion rebelled against economic distortion with expensive and outlandish accessories and brand names that heavily influenced mainstream fashion. Most recently, the influence of the Middle East, in particular, the Muslim head covering, has made its controversial sashay down the runway.
Currently, instead of trends emerging from the street, most fashion labels are taking their inspiration from social causes. Activist-inspired fashion (and beauty), popular with younger fashionistas, women, and those environmentalists-now-ecoists, is touted from the CoutureLand of Stella McCartney to L’oreal red lipstick sold at the big red bulls-eye. However, in keeping with mass appeal, it has to be the right kind of cause. A subversive pro-choice shirt by Vinxi was recently banned from a Midwestern chain due to customer complaints, and Dove’s “Pro-Age” ads have been banned for showing too much of the wrong kind of skin.
Green is the right cause for 2007 – but where are we headed? Does this craze for a cause speak to a real shift in consumer expectations and behavior, or is putting down your plastic for an eco-friendly item just a new means to excuse rampant consumption though the “do-gooder” mindset? It seems too easy to say it’s both, but it seems like green is destined return to the crayon box, or become so assimilated into the mainsteam that we take for granted that our clothes read “Fair Trade or Bust,” until the symbol itself loses all cultural significance.