The Fashion Industry: Then vs Now

Onesta Journal

The Fashion Industry: Then vs Now

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Although there is no exact knowledge of when people first started wearing clothes, it is estimated that the first clothes date back between 100,000 and 500,000 years ago, made from natural elements such as animal skins, plants etc. Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution which introduced a whole load of new technologies, including the sewing machine! This made it easier, quicker, and cheaper to make clothes, making it accessible to the middle classes. This did start to become more popular but a lot of people still made clothes at home or in small workshops. Around this time, sweatshops started popping up, which brought some health and safety problems that we all are familiar with (see our last blog post for more information on that). In 1911 for example, a fire broke out in New York's Triangle Shirtwaist factory which claimed the lives of 146 garment workers.

It was only after World War II around the 1950s that the people got onboard with buying mass-produced clothing. Mass consumerism and mass marketing communications took off, meaning more was being made abroad at lower prices.

It was in the 1960s that fashion trends started picking up speed, young people started to use their clothing to express themselves but also followed what was new. Everyone wanting the most recent items gets expensive though, for both the people making and the people buying the clothes, so cheaper garments became more of the norm. Massive textile mills started to open across the developing world, which meant the U.S. and European companies could cut their costs and outsource their labour.


The fast fashion phenomenon became even more popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It had become more and more acceptable to flaunt low-cost fashion, and it actually became desirable. H&M first opened in the U.S. in April 2000, and the New York Times wrote that they had started at the right time because people were now looking for bargains and department stores had started to lose their appeal. The Times stated it was now "chic to pay less". It wasn't long after when online shopping really became a thing, and more brands like Zara and Topshop took over the high street.

Everyone was now able to shop the trendiest clothes of the season whenever they wanted, so it isn’t hard to see why the fast fashion phenomenon caught on.

The mid-2000s is when the next stage of fast fashion kicked off. Retailers like Zara taught shoppers to try and get items before they were gone, encouraging us that we needed the 'limited edition' item of the season. Primark became popular through their selling point of being able to get items to us really quickly, keeping on top of trends, as well as being super cheap. Their cheap price points were a revelation to UK shoppers as Primark grew quickly, purchasing 119 locations around the UK!

Nowadays, in Britain we purchase five times the amount of clothes we were buying in the 1980s, and we have more clothes per person than in any other country in Europe! Online shopping has really pushed the need for fast fashion, and it's thought that by 2024, 51.1 million people in the UK will shop online for clothes. The Boohoo Group in 2019 really show this (this group comprises of Boohoo, BoohooMAN, Pretty Little Thing, Miss Pap, and Nasty Gal as well as traditional retail chains Karen Millan and Coast) as they earnt over £1 billion for the first time! It’s perfectly normal now to buy a piece of clothing on your phone in moments and expect it to be delivered in less than 4 working days.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

However, as with most things that seem too good to be true, there are issues within this system. The increasing demand for trends upon trends, and the 1000s of new styles appearing on websites each week has led to unjust labour practices, worker exploitation and catastrophic amounts of waste! The fashion industry has been moving quickly since the 1950s, but now it is the time we should be moving slower and be more mindful of the purchases that we are making.

Thanks to public campaigns and global news exposing tragedies such as the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, more and more people are demanding better in the fashion industry. Although many big brands continue to rely on greenwashing to appear ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’, there are some brands (like Onesta) that are working incredibly hard to do fashion better. To easily find out more about brands and their ethical commitments, check out directories such as the Re:Directory or Good On You so that you can take comfort that any new item of clothing you purchase puts positive values ahead of profit.