What drives the production of fashion products is not a real need for people to own consumer goods. Desire in fashion is often created less by aesthetics and more by what an object represents, by its aura.
Ironically, this key element of the fashion system is intangible. Its main driving force is the quest for belonging. The desire to belong fuels the desire to have: this is the fetish that has always kept the fashion wheel spinning, and it continues to do so today.
Belonging in fashion: a historical overview
In the 15th century, claimed by historians as the origin of fashion, people were already seeking to look alike, to mimic and identify themselves with others in an effort to feel comfortable in their own skin. Since then, fashion has become a powerful tool for telling apart noblemen and the bourgeois, the social class that emerged in the early Modern Ages and thrived on labor and land ownership.
However, social ascension was not enough: one had to look blue-blooded, and clothes were a perfect fit for that purpose – so much so that at the time, sumptuary laws were made to clearly distinguish social categories through clothing, reinforcing social hierarchies. Certain fabrics, jewelry, and even colors were exclusive to nobles.
In the 17th century, king Louis XIV of France declared that noblemen’s heels should be painted red, to explicitly and immediately identify their origin, thus creating a social code to distinguish the noble from the mere mortals.
This separatist behavior, typical of ancient Western Europe, continues even today, in the 21st century. The monarchy collapsed and the power passed into the hands of families that own large corporations, bankers, the financial system, and the entertainment industry. But the mindset in force remains the same. Fashion is still seen as a tool for individual validation.
In the 20th century, the desire to belong remained alive, although it underwent drastic changes. An anti-fashion phenomenon emerged on the streets in the 1960s, based on hippie esthetics. People bought clothes from second-hand stores to create original and unlikely styles, mixing lightweight and romantic pieces with utility and tailored items. This novelty, however, became a business. The English boutique Biba, followed this trend and raised its empire by marketing a lifestyle admittedly inspired by this aesthetic originality.
Yves Saint Laurent pioneered the haute couture niche by embracing this behavior. He incorporated the aesthetics of the streets into his collections and paved the way for the crossover between the ghetto and luxury. The boundaries of social distinction began to become increasingly unclear.
Fashion uses pre-set formulas as its main resource: it changes and updates whatever it needs according to the market's goals, following the logic of the spectacle.
Art and fashion work “with objects that are already in circulation on the cultural market, which is to say, objects already informed by other objects (…). Notions of originality and even creation are slowly blurred in this new cultural landscape.” — Nicolas Bourriaud
Bourriaud’s statement poses a challenge: “how can we produce singularity and meaning from this chaotic mass of objects, names, and references that constitutes our daily life?”
Meanings for fashion in the 21st century
We are constantly reminded of old collections when we go to retail stores. Something tells us that nothing there is new, no matter how much brands broaden their product mix and launch capsule collections with declining seasonality.
Among so many launches, it is humanly impossible to find belonging by owning everything proposed by fashion. Information vanishes as fast as a Snapchat post.
This act of vanishing is explained by the concept of see now, buy now, the fast fashion logic that is applied to the luxury segment and opinion-forming brands. It is a buying mechanism emptied of meaning. In this case, the meaning is more associated with the urgency of belonging than with the progressive thoughts or the cutting-edge information that fashion proposes.
On the other hand, emerging consumer behaviors — less connected to the need for belonging — predict the kinds of products and services that will drive fashion in the coming years. Questions about the course of mankind and access to information on the backstage of the fashion industry guide choices in clothing consumption and shape a new individual identity, driven by collective awareness and a concern for the whole.
In this scenario, consumerism, accumulation, and belonging are seen as a sign of backwardness.
Another contemporary behavioral feature that dismisses the need for belonging through consumption is the quest for self-knowledge. External factors influence your existence less when you feel whole and comfortable in your own skin. And this perception shapes today’s fashion, which is lighter and less centered on branding.
Fashion companies that embrace ethics and transparency as their founding concepts will be the ones that spark desire today and in the years to come. After all, the ultimate will of contemporary society is to belong to a world that is better for everyone.