Challenging Prescriptive Fashion

Over the past decade, knowledge of the scale of textile waste has slowly seeped into mainstream consciousness, with the general public increasingly aware of fashion’s landfill problem. With around 85% of textile landfill coming from the fashion industry, much of it likely still wearable, it’s clear that the reason for clothes being disposed of is not necessarily because they’re unfit for purpose, more likely that they have been disposed of to make way for newer garments. Clothes can take hundreds of years to decompose, therefore taking up space in landfill for centuries.

Numerous studies prove that globally, on average, we have more clothes in our wardrobes that don’t get worn (or haven’t been worn for at least a year) than clothes that do. Recent research by True Fit shows that British women on average will amass £22,140 of unworn clothing over a lifetime, British men amassing £10,811.


So how do we end up purchasing garments we don’t end up wearing?

With many of us owning more clothing than is physically needed, our psychological and emotional needs propel our purchases beyond our physical necessities. We continue to buy new clothing, despite knowing we have plenty to wear, none of it about to fall apart just yet.

On a practical and physical level, clothing provides us with shelter, essential for human survival. On a psychological, social and emotional level, the reasons we buy new clothing are complex and differ for each individual, depending upon our unique vulnerabilities and desires. Kate Fletcher, an independent consultant who has worked in sustainable fashion and textiles since the early 1990’s, believes our consumption of fashion can be understood as partially fulfilling ‘our need for identity, participation and creation’, satisfying our needs and establishing our identities through how we choose to present ourselves.

As a general understanding, we use fashion as a medium to communicate ourselves to others and define our identities, knowing we are vulnerable to being artificially judged on the styles and brands we choose to wear. Although we are able to consciously choose to define ourselves as part of a collective or as an individual, it is often we define ourselves as both, with fashion becoming ever more entwined with cultural relevancy.

Brands with strong identities are able to fill our complex needs effectively and efficiently, communicating personal identity and values with relatively little effort by the wearer. Take Fred Perry for example. Wearing one of their iconic twin-tipped polo shirts make them a highly emotive garment, connecting the wearer to musicians and sub-cultures throughout modern British history. A high-fashion example is Prada, their brand being portrayed as creative, sensitive and politically engaged. The wearer is able to communicate authority and intelligence, by association to their clientele of New York intellectuals and London business women.

Uncaptive with their bull, pig and panda tags, minimalist aesthetic and love of nature and animals, communicate ethical lifestyle choices, especially with their original vegan graphic designs.

“No Hunting Fox” Organic Cotton tee by Uncaptive

“No Hunting Fox” Organic Cotton tee by Uncaptive


So where do trends come into this?

Fashion trends are an accessible way of fulfilling our needs for change and creative stimulation, and with fast fashion retailers offering up to 52 collections per year at cheap prices, it’s easier than ever before to transform ourselves, exploring our social-facing identities and creative expression. On a personal level, the way we present ourselves and our emotions are closely linked – we feel if we’ve changed our look, we’ve evolved emotionally. The more socially-focussed benefits are that to keep up with current trends, we appear to have our finger on the pulse when it comes to what’s ‘in’, and we can also feel connected and share a collective identity.

The problem with creative expression with regards to fast-fashion trends is that rather than us actively choosing to wear something because it is something that resonates with us on a personal level, it is something that is often heavily influenced by clever marketing that employs celebrities and influencers as trusted arbiters of taste, as well as feeding us a continuous and persistent stream of visuals through a range of marketing platforms. There is truth in that trends generally reflect the zeitgeist, capturing the current mood, cultural events and conversations. With fast fashion and the acceleration of trends, we are left with an over-saturation of garments almost indistinguishable from one another in character, an exhaustion of trend overload where trends are coming out so quickly, that little on the high-street appears original or refreshing anymore.


As it seems easier for many to buy new clothes than re-stitching buttons or split seams, sewing skills are considered less of a necessity. Not having basic skills to alter, repair and customise clothes makes it more difficult to express ourselves through clothing, as reliance on the fashion provided shapes our perception of what clothes can be, allowing companies more control over what we wear and dampening individuality. Despite the increasing accessibility of cheap clothing, there remains a slow but gradual increase in the interest of sewing, whether it be through watching the Great British Sewing Bee or attending sewing groups or workshops.

Part of our revived interest could be put down to nostalgia and the need for calming and social activities during turbulent times, but it could also be down to people who are tired of not being able to find what they need on the high-street, who are wanting to learn the skills to tailor, customise or even make their own clothes. Although sewing skills are certainly a benefit when it comes to adapting and connecting to your clothing, it isn’t an essential skill to make something your own. Being able to adapt our wardrobes and wear things in different ways puts fashion back into the hands of the individual, and enables us to become more creative.

photo credit:

photo credit:

Fashion maverick Vivienne Westwood is someone who actively encourages thinking outside of the box when it comes to getting dressed. For her 2010 ‘DIY’ collection, her press release was a list of DIY wardrobe suggestions, including wearing long pieces of fabric (shawls, blankets, table cloths etc) enfolded into a coat, cloak or dress, or silk boxer shorts ‘worn showing as outerwear’. Vivienne with her instantly recognisable mop of copper hair, unconventional tailoring and polished punk aesthetic, has created a look that is all her own.

Looking at style icons past and present, the identities they express visually are personal and timeless, appearing fresh now and also for years to come. Take James Dean for example. His iconic white t-shirt, blue jeans and leather jacket combo wouldn’t look out of place on a Topman advert. Andy Warhol famously had multiples of the same garments in his wardrobe, which included horizontally striped t-shirts, dark Levi’s 501 jeans, black thick-framed wayfarer shades, silver wigs and Cuban heels, an iconic look synonymous with Warhol. Artist Frida Kahlo defied conventional beauty standards and was loyal to her Mexican roots, her charismatic monobrow, hairstyles adorned with fresh flowers and traditional embroidered dress have made her appearance as equally famous as her artwork and life story.

Vivacious 70’s groupie Pamela Des Barres curated her own influential style from her love of thrift shops and vintage, combining velvet, frills and feather boas, often chopping vintage frocks into mini dresses and gluing sequins and gems to her face. She describes her style as ‘looking like a dressed up ragdoll’. Iris Apfel is a great modern-day example, an interior designer turned self-proclaimed ‘geriatric starlet’, her eclectic and maximalist style a personal reflection of her international travelling and collecting over the years, her owlish glasses and stacked colourful jewellery becoming her signature look.

Some of these examples are a reflection of personal journeys and circumstances, some are a more deliberate construction of personal branding. Either way, these individuals have taken control of the narrative and have embraced fashion for what it should be – communicative, creative and most importantly, fun!

Challenge your ideas of what fashion is and can be, cultivate a wardrobe that means something to you…and don’t take fashion too seriously!


This article was written by Melanie, who is the director of Melanie Kyles. She is a contemporary embroidery artist based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

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