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Why Style is Key in Sustainable Fashion

Fashion and style certainly share similarities, but there are some major differences as well.

You may have seen my simple, concise equation that explains the relationship between fashion and style, but I wanted to offer a more in-depth explanation of this equation.

So first, the equation:

Style = Fashion + The Self

So what's the difference between fashion and style? Well, here is a quick list to keep it simple:

  • Fashion is an industry, whereas style is a human reaction to that industry

  • Fashion is driven by profits, whereas style is driven by self-actualization

  • Fashion is mass, whereas style is individual

  • Fashion is transferred, whereas style is transformed

  • Fashion is centralized, whereas style is decentralized

  • Fashion is stratified, whereas style is equal

  • Fashion is "objective" (as it relies on arbiters), whereas style is subjective

  • Fashion is affected, whereas style is genuine

  • Fashion relies on adoption, whereas style relies on adaption

  • Fashion requires money, whereas style requires creativity

To put it simply, fashion gives us everything we need to create our own personal style... And all we have to do it add ourselves!

But the Self is not just your physicality (even though your physical self does have an affect on garments), as it also includes non-physical attributes (such as your personality). Another important aspect of style is how you make it your own by mixing and matching different items; this unique composition of clothing and accessories then combine with your physical and non-physical attributes to create your own unique sense of style. If you put the same exact mix of clothing and accessories on someone else, the end result will differ because we are all different.

So why does style matter so much?

Well, it matters in a very human way because it is part of self-actualization (which is at the top of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs). It also matters because we can build a better industry if everyone focused more on style than on fashion.

Fashion is great for many reasons and can be as positive for the human psyche as it is the human form... Fashion should be about self-confidence and empowerment, but it is often used to make people feel inadequate and excluded. Artificial trends push people to consume more, but increased consumption only further hurts people and the planet. I could go on for forever about how bad fashion is, but it really isn't all bad... especially because it allows us to create our own sense of style!

So if we all focus on style, a few great things will happen:

  • There will be less judgement, because everyone's style is valid and equal (it is subjective so you don't have to like it!)

  • We won't be made to feel inadequate or forced to buy products because some trend or arbiter or fashion said we should

  • We can support a more diverse group of designers, artisans, and craftspeople because we will look for items that resonate with us on a personal level and not items that simply fit into constructed narratives

  • We won't throw away so many clothes and so much money, as we will buy things that we actually want and will use

  • We can live within our planetary boundaries because we won't be mass producing, as people won't want to buy all of the same things

  • We also won't have to exploit people (mainly poor women and girls of color) because we won't need to create so many garments with such razor thin margins

  • We can be our most authentic selves

So style is really a key component to a more responsible, ethical, and sustainable fashion future... So whether you have a strong sense of style or say you don't have any style at all (if the latter is you then you DO have a sense of style, you just haven't really nurtured it yet), PLEASE ignore fashion and focus on style!


PS - I wrote this article based on my honors thesis that I wrote at Harvard University on the difference between clothing, fashion, and style, and how these concepts manifest in different cultures (my focus was China). Below I've included an excerpt where I define fashion and style (this is more in-depth but also a bit out-dated, since I wrote this 14 years ago from the year this post was originally published... so please be nice)!

Anyway, below is the definition from my thesis, as well as the title page and table of contents if you're interested in some of the finer details. And if you're interested, you can access my thesis here!

Defining Fashion and Style Fashion is thus currently a business that includes and employs runways, models, ad campaigns, brand image, magazines, and aesthetics to generate profit. Fashion exists in an “imaginary” sphere because images are contrived, aspirational, and hyperbolic to create an artificial brand image. Fashion is highly objective, as truly novel fashion is compromised for a mass aesthetic; business is profit-motivated, and thus the transferability of objects is essential to selling considerable quantities of product. Thus, fashion is objective because it is able to be transferred from person to person and carry the same meaning. In this way, fashion is imitative and adoptive as it conforms to the artificial trends and tastes of current arbiters of fashion; furthermore, it depends on an economic imperative in order to be able to conform to fashion arbitration. Lastly, fashion is self-referential in that it has to be conscious of its own past in order to progress.

Style is only related to fashion in that it manipulates fashion in order to exist outside of fashion’s imaginary realm and create a truly unique visual manifestation of the psychological schema. Thus style occurs in the “street” sphere, as it originates by utilizing the structural component of the fashion sphere in order to exercise autonomous choice and create personal expression within the “street” sphere. As fashion houses and magazines intrinsically do not allow such autonomy of choice, style does not conform to fashion arbitration. Most importantly, style is highly subjective as it is meant to eradicate any form of imitation in favor of a singular visual expression of the self. Single garments interact with both other garments and the individual’s physical and psychological attributes to create an entire manifestation of a very specific construction of personal identity formation and thus any single component cannot be transferred to carry the same meaning in another individual. Style thus depends most heavily on a strong psychological schema in order to create a truly individualized “style” and manipulate fashion to visually display such a construction of identity. Lastly, style is not self-referential, although style inspirations more numerous than fashion inspirations; style is less ephemeral and is not limited to a temporal context when being considered “stylish.”

Thus, fashion and style have mutually necessitated but undermined each other’s existence.


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