The History of Fast Fashion
Updated: Jan 29
‘Fast fashion’ was a term first coined by the New York Times in 1989 and refers to the inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass market retailers in response to changing trends.
Now we live in a society more connected than ever before, and consumers can access massive amounts of information every day surrounding new trends and styles. In Britain, we now purchase five times the amount of clothes we bought in the 1980s and have more clothes per person than any country in Europe.
But what caused this culture of overconsumption and treating clothing as disposable?
Before the industrial revolution, much of society made their own clothes, owning few outfits which would be regularly repaired and adjusted. The ‘Slop Shop’ was essentially Britain's first ‘thrift shops’ and in London’s Petticoat Lane, the second-hand clothing market was an essential service to the poor in society.
However, during the 18th century, changes in manufacturing and transportation made the idea of the ready-made garment possible, fabrics became cheaper and clothes were easier to make. Partly ready-made clothes were made by London firms which were then sold on to country dressmakers and drapers.
In the 1770s new trends appeared more frequently, with the fashionable silhouette changing almost every year.
Although, to accommodate this, simple alterations were made rather than buying new dresses each year. The sewing machine was first patented in 1846, being used in garment factory lines. This combined with the demand for pre-made clothing and easier travel for all classes led to the development of Britain's first department stores, shops like John Lewis and Harrods which still exist today.
The more functional styles and fabric restrictions due to World War II led to an increase in standardised production for all clothing.
After becoming accustomed to such standardisation, middle-class consumers became more receptive to the purchasing of mass-produced clothing after the war.
By the 1960s and 1970s, younger generations began to value fashion-forward and cheaply made clothing, with the first fast fashion retailers being introduced, Zara, H&M, Primark. At the same time, domestic manufacturing was becoming too expensive, companies began to outsource their production to countries with cheaper labour costs and massive textile mills opened across the developing world.
During the 1990s and 2000s, fast fashion retailers dominated the high street, they took looks and design elements from top fashion houses and were able to reproduce them quickly and for an affordable price. With such a rapid turnover, companies could release more collections, trend cycles sped up, and shopping became a hobby.
Production of clothing has doubled in the last decade, and with it the harmful effects on the environment are also increasing. Around 300,000 tonnes of textile waste end up in household bins every wear, being sent to landfills or incinerators, and less than 1% material is recycled.
And despite the second-hand market re-emerging, clothing is being treated as disposable.
We want to be a small part in changing that, with our sewing kits we want to encourage people to repair and alter clothes to adjust for changing trends, just as they did centuries ago. Second-hand clothes can be bought without the negative effect on the planet, people, and animals. For the world to even get close to tackling the problem that is fast fashion, people need to change the way they treat and buy their clothes.
Linden, Annie Radner, "An Analysis of the Fast Fashion Industry" (2016). Senior Projects Fall 2016. 30 https://digitalcommons.bard.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1033&context=senproj_f2016
Bhardwaj, Vertica & Fairhurst, Ann. (2010). Fast fashion: Response to changes in the fashion industry. The International Review of Retail. Distribution and Consumer Research. 165-173. 10.1080/09593960903498300.