The history of fast fashion

Fashion hasn't always been fast, and with the increase in social media and internet access, it has never been faster. But what are the consequences?

Faye Navesey
6th December 2020
instagram: @xrfasionaction

The need to create a more ethical and sustainable world to live in has brought a lot of criticism of fast fashion in recent years. Just last week Pretty Little thing received a great deal of criticism for selling clothes for as little as 8p, with some asking how they could afford to slash prices by that much whilst still making a profit. This is a question to which we all - deep down- know the answer. Earlier in the year Boohoo, the company that owns multiple brands including PLT, was accused of modern slavery and unsafe working conditions in Leicester factories. So the question arises when did the trend of fast-fashion begin?

Fashion, for the majority of people, used to be a relatively simple affair. We owned a lot fewer clothes and they lasted a lot longer as we fixed and repurposed them, which is not to say that the production of clothes was ever truly ethical by any stretch of the imagination. Mistreatment of garment workers predates fast fashion and goes back to the exploitation of workers in 18th-Century cotton mills. But fast fashion is a relatively modern phenomenon in which companies kept up with skyrocketing demand for affordable clothes by exploiting the labour of people both here and abroad. During 1960-80, cheaper fabrics became widely available and suddenly a larger portion of the population could afford to buy relatively inexpensive clothes, now this on its own was a good thing, seen as many people couldn't afford to buy clothes but the increase in demand meant that to reach demand working conditions were sacrificed.

Mistreatment of garment workers predates fast fashion and goes back to the exploitation of workers in 18th-Century cotton mills.


Towards the end of the 20th-century during the process of globalisation, it became increasingly convenient to use garment workers abroad instead, leading to more exploitative conditions and poverty wages across much of the global south. The way people spend money is also changing as well: first with the development of high street brands like Primark and H&M, now online brands like Boohoo and Shein, meaning fast fashion became a staple that the majority of people could use. Social media has also created aesthetic trends that mimic the style of prominent influencers in online shops like Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing. These brands allowed people to look good without bankrupting themselves but they also created a trend of very short-lived fashion trends; lots of people wear clothes only a few times before throwing them away. Not only does this increase demand and push companies to exploit labour, but the advent of online shopping worsened the effect of fast fashion on the environment too. You can purchase clothes from any brand, anywhere in the world, which of course leads to pollution caused by shipping and packaging.

The way people spend money is changing: first with the development of high street brands like Primark and H&M, now online brands like Boohoo and Shein, meaning fast fashion became a staple that the majority of people could use.

The unfortunate truth is that most people cannot afford to buy expensive clothes, and do not have the time to research the ethics of a company before buying something. The fast-fashion business model, that has developed over decades, depends on us needing them to afford clothes. It is, however, important to understand how we got here, so we can be more aware when discussing how to end our dependence on fast fashion.

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