By Anthony Sullivan
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Fashion: capitalism’s favourite child

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From Theresa May’s choice of trousers to the horror of sweatshop labour, fashion is intimately entwined with capitalist relations of production and always has been, writes Anthony Sullivan.
Issue 424

Controversy is never far away from fashion, as Tory prime minister Theresa May discovered just before Christmas when former education secretary Nicky Morgan attacked her choice of £995 Amanda Wakeley leather trousers. Predictably, despite Morgan’s claims to the contrary it transpired that she had spent a similar sum on a Mulberry designer bag.

Sexist double standards are undoubtedly a part of the story when it comes to judgements about male and female politicians’ dress sense. David Cameron, for example, was never criticised for wearing £4,000 Saville Row tailored suits. But May and Morgan’s spat exposed the nonsensical nature of Tory claims to be the party of workers — or, as they like to put it, “ordinary hard-working families”.

But it also revealed something else: the darker side of fashion. Fashion is an industry which trades on images of beauty and creativity seductively marketed to offer an escape from the shadow cast by austerity and the increasingly grim realities of work and home. The revelation that May’s trousers were made by garment workers in Turkey who earn just £1.49 an hour directed us to an old, frequently hidden, but nonetheless painful truth about fashion — the brutally exploitative conditions often endured by the workers who produce it.

More than 150 years ago the dynamics of fashion did not escape the excoriating critical eye of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels as they researched, analysed and wrote about the contradictions of capitalism’s productive powers, namely its unique capacity to create both marvels and horrors.

In The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844) Engels highlighted the plight of the “15,000 mostly young, women seamstresses” who worked for between 15 and 18 hours a day, forced to sleep and eat in their workshop premises. “It is,” he wrote, “a curious fact that the production of precisely those articles which serve the personal adornment of the ladies of the bourgeoisie involves the saddest consequences for the health of the workers.” In Capital, volume 1 (1867), Marx too discussed at length and in some detail the textile and garment industries and on occasion fashion. On a personal level, as a casual journalist — a “precarious worker” in today’s terms — the struggle to support himself and his family forced Marx to pawn his overcoat time and time again to put food on the table and pay the rent. Doing so meant he knew not just the exchange value of his coat as a commodity but also its symbolic value as a marker of status. For when he was forced to go without it, as the cultural historian Peter Stallybrass points out, Marx was unable to study because the reading room of the British Library would not let him in. A man without an overcoat, Marx discovered, was deemed not fit to enter.


More fundamentally, Marx closely analysed the twin workings of class exploitation — through waged labour and the appropriation of the surplus value from the worker, and the role of competition between capitalists. This led him to produce an astonishingly prescient analysis of the reasons for the levels of suffering which prevailed in garment production in the Victorian era and continue to do so today.

Marx attacked fashion’s “murderous caprices”, angered by the human cost of its cycle of stylistic change. Highlighting the tragedy of a 20 year old milliner, Walkley, who “worked uninterruptedly for 26 ½ hours” before her short life expired, Marx hoped that the invention of what he called the “decisively revolutionary” sewing machine would transform the production of garments. Marx goes on to explain why this hope was not fulfilled and the sewing machine intensified the exploitative pressure on garment workers rather than alleviating it.

In the case of textile manufacturing, which provided the raw material for clothing, large scale mechanisation was rapid, cutting the time taken to make cloth. The value of weavers’ labour power quickly collapsed, destroying the livelihoods of those who had used hand looms up until the middle of the 18th century. No longer able to compete by selling the products of their labour, most weavers were forced instead to sell their labour power itself, cheaply, for wages.

In the case of garment manufacture industrial development took a different path. In Capital, volume 1, Marx quotes The Children’s Employment Commission of 1864, which reported, “When work passes through several hands, each takes its share of profits…so the pay which reaches the workwoman is miserably disproportioned.”

Here the gradual development of the existing cottage industry or “putting out” system (dispersed manufacture by a network of home and small scale producers who worked up clothes from fabric provided by merchant clothiers) meant there was little incentive to innovate technically. Why invest in technology when, Marx’s terms, capital’s “reserve army” of cheapened women’s, child, migrant and later global labour was readily available for exploitation?

Middlemen merchants — the forerunners of the subcontracting agents who play a pivotal role in today’s global fashion supply chain — became adept at exploiting their greater knowledge of the market for both clothing and clothing manufacture. The role of these capitalist middlemen or “jobbers” appeared to mark a continuation of the “putting out” system in which the majority of seamstresses and clothing workers still sold the product of their labour rather than their labour power. But in reality per-garment “piece rates” were gradually negotiated down.

Marx argued that “fixing the rate” — the amount paid for each garment by the merchant — removed any control over the labour process by the producer. “Payment by the piece” ensured, as he put it, “the quality and intensity of the work which went into [making clothes] was controlled by its very form of payment.” So “piece rates” provided the mechanism by which artisanal garment workers became de facto wage labourers.

If workers could now produce the garments which made up the value of their wages in two hours instead of three this generated more surplus value for the clothier. In a vicious circle ever-faster work rates, aimed at producing enough garments to earn a semblance of a living wage, raised productivity but reduced the value of each piece.

Worse still, in a pattern which persists to this day, piece rates enhanced the profits of the middlemen and clothing retailers by encouraging further “sub-letting of labour”, subcontracting or “sweating”. The home or small producer would give out work to family members, including children, to try and make more garments to compensate for the fall in value of each.

Finally, Marx argued that when mechanisation eventually appeared in garment making in the 1850s the size and cheapness of the sewing machine as “fixed capital” encouraged intense competition between small manufacturers. Marx pointed to the competition, which “raged in direct proportion to the number and in inverse proportion to the size of rival capitals” involved in machine based garment production.


These exploitative and competitive dynamics identified by Marx continue to characterise the industry today. In Bangladesh, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma) and other developing countries, as well as in countries bordering the huge EU market — Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria and Poland — small garment-making firms continually underbid each other, competing for contracts from the agents who subcontract work for large global garment retailers. The likes of Walmart, Primark, The Gap, H&M and Arcadia (the home of Topshop) have outsourced and minimised the risks and costs associated with garment manufacture. Meanwhile, clothing workers continue to pay the highest price for the inflated corporate profits which allow fashion magnates such as Philip Green to lounge about on their £100 million super-yachts.

On 24 April 2013 the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1,134 workers and injuring thousands more. The factory produced clothes for Primark, H&M, Benetton and other global fashion chains. Less an accident than an act of mass industrial homicide, Rana Plaza brought home the realities of the extreme jeopardy faced by the 40 million or so subcontracted workers who produce high street fashion. The factory was overburdened with too many workers, too much machinery and illegal extra floors, built with little or no regulation on swampy ground. Garment workers were forced, despite their protests, to enter, work and meet their deaths in a building which was visibly cracking apart.

As images of this horror spread across our screens Marx’s analysis of how capitalism obscures the social labour which makes the “magic” of consumption happen was never more apposite. In Capital he argues, “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an immense collection of commodities,” but, he continues, “it is nothing but a definite social relation between people assuming the fantastic form of a relation between things.”
This insight — the core of his theory of “commodity fetishism” — captures the gap between fashion’s appearance as a visual feast, from catwalk to high street, and its origins in, and continued existence through, socially productive labour.

Fashion, alienation and the duality of adornment

Marx’s analysis of what he famously called the “hidden abode of production” — and in this case his detailed account of the exploitative pressures which shape how garments are manufactured — is not the only aspect of his work which remains of relevance to understanding the world of fashion. Marx analyses both the astonishing creativity of human labour — a capacity which he argues defined our “species being”, the thing that distinguished us from all other species — and its simultaneous frustration, distortion and alienation under capitalism and its class relations. This points us towards the deeper contradictions in fashion and other forms of popular cultural expression.

When it came to the creative potential of human labour Marx’s writing is at its most vivid and poetic. In Capital, volume 1, he writes, “Spiders conduct operations which resemble those of weavers”, and bees construct honeycomb cells, “but what distinguishes the worst of architects from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in their mind before constructing it in wax.” Elsewhere, Marx continues that, unlike animals, who “produce one-sidedly” to meet “immediate needs”, human beings “produce universally…even when we are free from physical need and truly produce only in freedom from need.”

For Marx, then, labour as our “species being” involves conscious creative design and aesthetic production beyond necessity. And it is this characteristic of the things we create that makes our production uniquely cultural, since, as he puts it, human beings alone “form objects in accordance with the laws of beauty”.

These words call to mind the very quality of fashion, the thing which makes it such a pervasive everyday cultural force — the duality of adornment.


In Capital, volume 1, Marx defines commodities as things that engage both wants of the “stomach”, that is, bodily or practical needs, and wants of the “fancy” or the imagination. Far removed from academic caricatures of him as a crude materialist, Marx’s words capture fashion’s essence. Namely it is a play of form with and over function: we do not just wear shoes for their utility or for protection; we wear specific styles of shoes for social, symbolic, and aesthetic reasons.

Though both Marx and Engels praised capitalism for developing our productive potential, they also attacked “the bourgeois epoch” as one in which a fantastic wealth of commodities is created by exploiting the many, while their enjoyment is restricted to the few. Under capitalist class relations, instead of the freedom they promise, markets determine access to commodities on the basis of access to money or credit.

Today, even in the “developed” world, few can afford to make genuine choices about the clothes and the other things they buy without anxiety: about their finances; the social and ecological costs of their consumption; and the cloying sense that, as John Berger argues, the gap between the self-as-imagined in fashion images and the self-as-it-is will not be bridged by purchase.


For Marx, these contradictions develop from the “estrangement” or “alienation” which removes ownership and control over both our creative labouring powers and the objects/products of our labour. This, he argued, could only be overcome when the limited or “fettering” role of class relations and the private ownership and control of production were swept away by socialist revolution.

Fashion remains, as the historian Elizabeth Wilson once put it, very much the child of capitalism. Though the best of fashion design can be exemplary of that human capacity to “produce beyond necessity”, its production embodies the worst of capitalism’s contradictions.

For today’s generation of designers their impulse to create “according to the laws of beauty” is marred by ugly market forces. The commercial imperative shapes what they can create, how long they have to design new clothes and how much time garment workers can spend making them. The last ten years have seen a speed up of the cycle of fashion driven by the demand to increase sales and turnover of low margin high street clothes. Design is becoming more industrialised. As a result of this designers suffer a loss of creativity while garment workers are forced to risk life and limb.

In Capital, volume 1, Marx draws attention to the work of the 17th century political economist Nicholas Barbon. Barbon captured the centrality of fashion to capitalism when he wrote, “Fashion, or the alteration of dress, is a great promoter of trade, because it occasions the expense of clothes, before the old ones are worn out.”

For fashion, as for the other so called cultural industries, the drive to make a profit trumps both “wants” and “fancies”, alienating and distorting the creative potential displayed by the workers whose social labour produces it across the global supply chain.

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