The fashion commons

Monday, December 9, 2013

An important part of my thesis, and one of my favourite bits, is the metaphor I have developed of fashion as common land. In this post I'm going to outline the metaphor, and explain how it has begun to influence my thinking about individual wardrobes.

The fashion commons - the big idea

First, I'll borrow a couple of paragraphs from my thesis that explain the thinking behind this idea:

In order to explore the theme of openness in relation to fashion, I have constructed a metaphor of fashion as land. The metaphor is linked to my interest in openness because land can be managed as a commons, with its use shared between many people, or privately owned and inaccessible. I see ʻfashion landʼ as a commons, because I believe the resource needs to be open – that is, with all areas accessible – in order to meet the needs of wearers.

I find the metaphor to be productive, because it positions fashion as a resource; furthermore, it places the focus squarely on wearers, rather than ʻexpertsʼ such as designers, manufacturers, stylists or celebrities. Importantly, I find that comparing a transitory culture such as fashion with the tangible reality of land brings some hidden issues into focus and enables an activist attitude. 

Now to describe the metaphor itself:

To illustrate the metaphor, I imagine a huge meadow, with the whole world of fashion superimposed upon it. Distributed around this space, I see all of the garments – new, old, fashionable, unfashionable – in existence. The size of this resource is staggering; it is estimated that in the UK, almost six billion items are hanging in our wardrobes (Gracey and Moon, 2012). On a more conceptual level, I see every desirable way of appearing through dress, throughout history: the huge diversity of archetypal garment styles, shapes and details from different geographical areas and historical periods; fabric types and their associated construction methods; and the enormous variety of ways of wearing clothes, and their associated meanings, that make up the worldʼs fashion and clothing cultures.

Fashion depends on this broad, varied, vibrant resource; new fashions involve existing styles revisited, recombined or recontextualised. I see wearers – all of us – moving around the fashion meadow. Because fashion reflects preferences at a particular time, areas of the meadow are accessed at different times and by different people. The way in which individuals move around the commons depends upon the degree to which they wish to stand out or conform. Activity is not evenly spread; some areas may have enduring appeal while others become popular only for a short time, until the ʻerosionʼ of overexposure drives people away. Dant (1999: 93) describes how fashion ʻacts as a living museumʼ and ʻplays promiscuously with the pastʼ. Gibson (2000: 356) similarly describes fashion as ʻa storehouse of identity-kits, or surface partsʼ. Thus, particularly fertile areas may return to favour time after time, renewed and layered with new meanings. 

In the thesis, I go on to discuss the ways in which I think the fashion commons has been enclosed through the professionalisation and industrialisation of clothing manufacture, and consider whether folk fashion - the making of clothes at home - can overcome this enclosure. 

The fashion commons and the wardrobe

Later on in the thesis, I come back to the idea of the fashion commons in relation to individuals and their wardrobes. I see the wardrobe as each person's own little section of the fashion commons - like items borrowed from a library. 

Cwerner describes the wardrobe as ʻa safely stored pool of identity tokensʼ (Cwerner, 2001: 80, original emphasis); thus, we can think of the wardrobe as the wearerʼs own miniature fashion resource, from which they construct their identity each day. 

Importantly, the construction of identity through dress [discussed further here] takes place during storage, maintenance and disposal of clothing, as well as acquisition and use. So, the unworn items kept in the wardrobe, items which are discarded and the things we mend can be as important for identity construction as the shiny new things that we bring home from the shops. For example:

According to Banim and Guy (2001: 205), unworn items ʻhelp provide continuity or discontinuity with womenʼs current identitiesʼ, thus playing an important role in the reflexive, continuous process of identity construction. They describe how kept clothes ʻallow women to maintain a connection with former, important aspects of themselves and their livesʼ (Banim and Guy, 2001: 207).

Many items are kept in full recognition that they will not be worn again, at least by their present owner. However, much of the conversation that took place in my research indicated an impulse to keep clothing 'just in case'; there was an implicit expectation, or hope, of future use. On one hand, this attitude can be seen as legitimising hoarding; keeping items in case of circumstances which are unlikely to arise. However, from another viewpoint we can see the miniature fashion resource of each individual as a source of resilience; the wardrobe provides wearers with a means of dealing with the contingency of identity construction, and of fashion.

In my wardrobe project, I'm thinking a lot about these ideas. I don't buy many new clothes, because I don't want to contribute to the fashion commons becoming even more vast - I really think we have more than enough already. However, I don't think that I should be reducing my wardrobe just to those things that I regularly wear. Understanding that unworn items are important for identity helps me to feel 'allowed' to keep things I'm unlikely to wear, without feeling that I'm wasting them. Thinking of the wardrobe as a source of resilience helps me to think it's ok to keep things 'just in case' of changing context and changing preferences. 

On the other hand, I'm actually happier about discarding things than I would have been before (I do have hoarding tendencies). I'm finding it helpful to think about the fashion commons as a library - albeit a huge, chaotic and uncatalogued library - with my wardrobe housing the items I have chosen to borrow at the moment. This helps me to see the process of discarding items in a positive light: returning them to the commons (via the local charity shop) for someone else to 'borrow'. 


Banim, M. & Guy, A. (2001) Dis/continued selves: why do women keep clothes they no longer wear? In: Through the wardrobe: women’s relationships with their clothes. Oxford: Berg, pp.203–220.

Cwerner, S.B. (2001) Clothes at rest: elements for a sociology of the wardrobe. Fashion Theory, 5 (1), pp.79–92.

Gibson, P.C. (2000) Redressing the balance: patriarchy, postmodernism and feminism. In: S. Bruzzi & P. C. Gibson eds. Fashion cultures: theories, explorations and analysis. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.349–362.

Gracey, F. & Moon, D. (2012) Valuing our clothes: the evidence base. Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP). Available here