Trying on the latest fashions can be fun, but there is more to fashion than trends and designer labels. Clothes and fashion often represent the values of society. Clothes may not make the man, but clothing can and does provide a means of identifying socioeconomic class and cultural distinctions. Demonstrating an awareness and concern for designer clothes and fashion trends is not only legitimate, but represents an important means of staying in touch with current issues, such as sustainability, body image and fair trade.
Fashion and Society
Back in the day, high fashion was strictly for the catwalk and highly paid celebrities, socialites, entertainers and athletes who could afford the astronomical price tags for designer originals. However, toward the end of the 20th century, ordinary consumers began to embrace designer labels such as Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dresses and Louis Vuitton leather goods. In later decades, young designers like Christian Siriano, former winner of the television reality show "Project Runway," continued to bring designer label style to ordinary consumers by creating garments for mid-market retailers such as PayLess Shoe Source in addition to collections displayed at fashion shows and featured in up market boutiques such as Neiman Marcus. Even established designer Isaac Mizrahi created affordable fashions for Target before leaving in 2008 to work with the Liz Claiborne label.
Fashion can represent one faction of an entire sub-culture. For example, the hip-hop scene includes music, hairstyles and language along with its own sense of fashion. What began with cargo pants and cocked baseball caps has evolved into entire fashion lines, with many celebrities such as Sean "Puffy" Combs and Jay-Z entering into the designer arena.
Fashion can also reflect the social and economic atmosphere of the times. First Lady Michelle Obama effortlessly shifts from designer creations to off-the-rack pieces, reflecting both a keen fashion sense and a conscious acknowledgement of the difficult economic situation facing many Americans during Barack Obama's term of office. Skirt lengths supposedly reflect the general state of the economy; with short skirts corresponding to boom periods and more sedate lengths signaling economic downturns.
Shaping Body Image
Designers and designer fashion can also play a role in shaping body image, to the benefit or detriment of society. Fashion design, along with the entertainment industry, places tremendous pressure on women to adhere to a body image that is impossible for most women to achieve. Many women and even young girls develop serious and even life-threatening eating disorders in an often-vain attempt to achieve model-thin figures.
Models also struggle to achieve so-called ideal body weights. The death of model Luisel Ramos in 2008 brought the debate over "size zero" models to the forefront, leading to the decision to ban extremely thin models from fashion shows in Madrid and the German fashion magazine Brigitte to cease using models in its photos altogether. The following year, designer Jean Paul Gaultier featured plus-size model Crystal Renn, who began her career as a size zero model but who now wears a size 12. Nonetheless, like many designers, Karl Lagerfeld, continues to resist any criticism of insisting on very thin models, insisting in 2009 that only "fat mummies" objected to thin models because the models' thin figures reminded the women of their own weight.
Fair Trade and Eco Fashion
Consumers have begun to question the working conditions of the individuals who labor to create the garments associated with their favorite designer labels. Since the early 21st century, retailers such as American Apparel have emphasized "sweatshop free" manufacturing methods, using only American or unionized workers and paying living wages. However, the Italian textile industry suffered a major scandal when multiple news reports revealed in 2007 that many of its top designer houses employed cheap immigrant labor from China and maintained working conditions little better than slavery.
Fashion also represents a tremendous demand on natural resources, consuming more water than any other industry other than agriculture and producing massive amounts of toxins through the cultivation of cotton, which requires heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers. Consumers have increasingly begun to demand less ecologically destructive production processes for the clothing they wear, and eco-conscious designers have entered the fashion scene with garments that are stylish, environmentally conscious and created under humane conditions. Along with many other aspects of 21st century life, fashion and designer clothes have begun to "go green".