Rooting against fashion

by Rob Horning

16 July 2006


When I see an article like this one from BusinessWeek about Urban Outfitters’ recent struggles, my initial reaction is a delight akin to schaudenfreude. but I’m beginning to question why I have any sort of emotional reaction whatsoever. Yes, Urban Outfitters is one of the more annoying upscale downmarket retailers that sell commodified cool to the 12 to 24-year-old demographics. But their flounderings doesn’t mean what I initially assume in my blush of delight—it doesn’t mean that fashionability itself has become any less important to people. Instead, it simply means that fashion has proven once again its unreasonably powerful and inevitable fickleness, creating more economic losers (not to mention the few poor chumps who dropped the cash on clothes suddenly made uncool by forces beyond their control). And some new company, Zara or H&M or whoever, is picking up the slack for Urban Outfitters; the game has simply moved as it was being played, to paraphrase X. So I’m really just delighting in an increase of human misery, with no compensation anywhere in terms of the greater good—there are new winners and losers, but their proportion remains unchanged.

This realization leaves me one step away from conceding that in rooting against the promulgation of fashion, I’m rooting against prosperity in general, which is the essential condition for fashion to matter at the scale of mass-market retailing. This point of view assumes that the natural result of prosperity is the individual being empowered to pursue some kind of distinction, to express himself more publicly and thoroughly, with fashion-related goods being one of the main ways this can be pursued. But that seems true only because our society labors to link goods with social recognition and communication—we have a massive discourse-generating machine of ads and entertainment and so forth that imbues goods with connotations, with meanings. But meaning might reside elsewhere, in a different sort of (utopian?) society. I’m still holding out; I still stubbornly believe that there’s a better use for prosperity than peasant skirts and drainpipe jeans.

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