‘Conform Just Enough’: Reflections on Fast Fashion – The Dartmouth

The world of fast fashion promotes the mass-consumption of trends for students at Dartmouth and for young people everywhere.

by Solenne Wolfe | 7/30/21 3:00am

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The Dartmouth closet seems to fall easily into a few sartorial aesthetics. 

The standard prepster: Sperrys, loafers or beat Nike tennis shoes; khaki shorts slightly above the knees; Polos on good days and t-shirts on bad days; the ubiquitous quarter zip. 

The athlete and athlete-adjacent: for girls, leggings, strappy sports bras, team shirts, Lululemon sports shorts. For guys, tight-fitting, sweat-wicking, performance material in green, anything Dartmouth Peak Performance and sports shorts with clean (but overworn) Nike sneakers. 

Then there is the ever-widening “alt” umbrella. “Alt girls” can sport anything from a long black-and-white floral skirt to a pair of flared — secondhand-store baggy — corduroys and a tight tank. The general binary of athlete and prepster leaves plenty of room for the urban expats and generally-image-conscious dressers to experiment in the “alt” category.

Then there are the handful of tops that we’ve all seen, which cross boundaries into every aesthetic. The top is colorful, bright, skin-tight — it sparkles in TikToks and carefully-curated vacation photos, it’s a halter neck around sun-kissed skin. One of the qualifications for the top is that it is cheaply made. It is presented to the masses in YouTube hauls, where influencers try it on in a dozen different forms, each with only slight variation in color, pattern or material.

What’s interesting about the top is that it is popular because it is popular. In a strange tautology, people want the shirt because other people have several versions, colors and simulacra of the shirt. 

Stores like SHEIN price at unbelievable lows because they can, with the cost of labor subsidized by sweatshops and outsourcing to circumvent livable wages. Tank tops in packs of four cost $19.00, a blouse costs less than ten dollars and a swimsuit set goes for less than what a pack of cigarettes costs in most states. 

It doesn’t really matter how nice the shirt is, how long it will last or how it will wash. The purpose of the top is not to stand in for a memory of a trip or a gift. It is a membership card for a set of twenty-something college girls who never have to be seen wearing the same thing twice.

Fashion becomes about an individual’s assertion of belonging — but maybe it has always been about that. Each article of clothing or pairing of pieces displays a choice that the consumer has made. The shirt is a gesture toward a life spent clubbing, nights out at hotels and bars and frat basements.

Famously and all over the Internet, Louis Vuitton has been accused of burning bags that did not sell at the end of the season because the excess of goods would be detrimental to the illusion. If there were extra, then how could the brand charge such exorbitant prices for a brown, monogrammed bag? 

Most status symbols, unlike the top, are priced at points out of reach for the average consumer — certainly the average consumer in college. A tiny round Versace medallion on a pair of sunglasses skyrockets the price of the shades, and in some ways, fast fashion is a shortcut to the aesthetic. 

Veblen goods are described as a set of goods that seem to contradict the laws of the supply and demand curve; as the price for these goods increases, so does demand for the goods. This is the category of luxury goods that Louis Vuitton bags and Gucci sunglasses fall into. The more these bags and sunglasses and lipsticks cost, the more consumers want them. 

Is fast fashion at the other end of this spectrum? Valued for how cheap they are, the shirts and swim sets are rendered individually insignificant by the speed with which they come in and out of style. There is nothing personal about the top, except for the fact that it is one of those tops. Fashion trends, typically intellectualized into a series of cycles, are growing faster and faster. 

So-called “micro-trends” rise to popularity and fall from it in a manner of months. With desirable aesthetics like “coconut girl” and “tennis prep” circulating online, these trends seem to cast incredibly narrow nets, creating flaming hoops the size of one potential image of a girl and projecting it for as long as it can sustain itself — which isn’t long.

The problem isn’t influencers who post their SHEIN hauls, though, or even Instagram itself. These two have been railed against as the key agents of the attention economy, but SHEIN’s model isn’t so far off from Amazon’s. Ripping off the designs of others and artificially deflating their prices by sidestepping ethical questions is not a new game.

Before there was SHEIN or ZAFUL, there was Forever 21, Claire’s and the desire for “new things” as a way to have a sense of control over our style and identity. The question is whether clothing is still a way to express ourselves, or if it has become a way to express our conformity. 

Expressing ourselves would likely look different if we leaned into the quirky, strange visual fascinations we might have, rather than trying to limit our sense of what is “cute” to what is “trendy.”

Still, the ubiquity of the top is an indication of how little the ultimate goals of getting dressed have changed from high school to Dartmouth. Whether you identify with the preppy, athletic or alternative crowd, we all have an idea of what we want to see in the mirror, and the accessibility of clothing like the $10 top makes that feel achievable. Fast fashion makes an appeal to the fantasy of quick, ready and cyclical assimilation — at Dartmouth and virtually everywhere else.

The idea is to conform just enough without losing our sense of individuality: to dip our toes in the micro-trend and wink at it, to flirt with the Bermuda length denim Levi’s — but ultimately buy them secondhand — without succumbing to the Urban Outfitters Vintage Renewal version.

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