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Fashion, under capitalism, discriminates based on the colour of your skin, the shape of your body, and whether you have a 401K. Mina Le – a popular YouTuber – dissected the history of fashion before the introduction of microtrends and aesthetics. She said that in a culture that valued blending in, and sticking to the status quo, standing out was a rebellious, important choice. A statement piece made a statement.  

Fashion – Renate Stauss writes – is both an act of dressing oneself, but also a ‘universal connective tissue. What was once an important cultural practice because everyone has always had fashion, is now something entirely different. The average American now throws away 37 kilograms of clothing per year. How and why did we change how we wear clothes? And what does it have to do with TikTok?

I think that this is because our identities are no longer shaped by our community, but rather by the latest algorithmic trendy item being shoved down our throats. Fashion is no longer about personal identity exploration, defiance, rebellion, and symbolic of the community we identify with. It is about pseudo-identity creation in the face of the depreciating quality of life under late-stage capitalism.

But why do we feel this urge to fill our lives with cheap clothing items?

Here’s an average day in my life: I wake up, I work, I do laundry, and I go to sleep. I have no time for my passions, hobbies, you know, a life. But I have to work to survive. In surviving, I have no space for living. I’m sure you have the same problem. With no space to explore aspects of your identity, you are left to find happiness within capitalism. And what does our good friend capitalism value? Well, $$$money$$$. It wants your shiny doubloons in exchange for a tee-shirt that has a 70% chance of ending up in Africa

We are pursuing overconsumption under the guise of identity exploration. 

It’s not old-money core, it’s my plaid skirt.

Identity development is a complex phenomenon to study, but recent studies suggest that it does not happen in isolation. Traditionally, this process would happen in social situations, with your peers, family, elders, etc. The pandemic, however, shifted our social spaces online – into the WildWildWest of the internet.

Algorithms controlled the social niches we found ourselves in. This controlled our cultural learnings in the journey of self-definition – especially as adolescents and young adults. It meant that I identified as a dark-academia, old-money core girlie as tragic as that sounds in hindsight (I just loved plaid).

This feeling of belonging was fleeting. The dark-academia girlies are not a real community and identity. In the hunt for a sense of belonging, I fell into a capitalist trapping. I believe that the trend of micro-trends is a symptomatic of a larger cultural issue. We don’t have third or offline spaces for youth to safely explore affects of their identity. This leads to a sense of alienation, pushing us further into the arms of capitalism. 

There’s also the problem of “market competitive identity development”. To explain in non-finance bro terms; identity development, a psychological process, was separate from our economic system. But under late-stage capitalism, they have become connected to form a new process. This is caused by our immediate environment feeding us messaging about the inextricability of capitalism from our everyday life, and us invariably developing our identity around capitalism and consumption. This is why the identity of “old-money core” isn’t centred around community, but buying clothing that reflects “old-money core”. It is individualistic, materialistic, and what’s worse – you continue to feel empty and lonely because it is not related to authentic community creation.

In conclusion, buying things won’t get us the personality we want.

While TikTok micro-trends are both a cause and effect of capitalism, they are directly feeding the behemoth of fast fashion industries. Think about how quickly these microtrends and aesthetics cycle through your For You Page and how it might lead to us discarding 40 million tons of clothing per year

While I understand while we fall into the trap of micro-niches and aesthetics, I do believe we can do better. I’d like to end of with an age-old proverb: go outside; touch grass; feel the sunlight; find community. 

Khushi Mehta

Author Khushi Mehta

Khushi (she/her) is a passionate advocate for social, climate, and labour justice. With a background in psychology and design, she finds the intersection of her interests in writing about the reasons why humans behave the way they do. In her free time, you can find Khushi playing Dungeons and Dragons, or napping in sun spots with her two cats.

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