THE BLUEPRINT OF CONSUMER CULTURE
BY LINDSAY KINSELLA
COVER ART: JULIANNA LUKACS
Consumerism: the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods.
Consumerism is currently reaching new heights. The idea of having more “stuff” surrounds us, becoming more prevalent in fashion with social media boosting shorter trend cycles within manufacturing. The rise of mega fast fashion retailers like Shein have only incentivized the everyday consumer to buy more clothing, more often. But where did consumerism, at least the likes of which can be matched to today’s standards, come from? The blueprint of the phenomena can be found during the Renaissance, in 15th century Italy. A parallel narrative weaves between the consumer behavior in the post-plague world of Renaissance Italy and the post COVID-19, consumerist world of today.
History occurs in cycles; when war and disease run rampant, periods of intellectual and artistic rebirth follow. Taking place from the 14th century to the 17th century, the Renaissance promoted the rediscovery of classical philosophy, literature, and art, as well as a rebirth of the financial market after the black plague. Some of the greatest thinkers, authors, and artists in human history thrived during the Renaissance. This period was centered around an appreciation for art—and not only art framed on walls, but that adorning the bodies of men and women. Nobility of the era were notorious for spending obscene amounts of money on luxurious gowns with fabric and embroidery that could only be done by hand.
Everyone was eager to get back to work once the plague subsided. Artisans fueled the growth of the consumer industry as people flocked to markets to buy anything and everything to embellish themselves. Due to its strategic position, the Italian peninsula was the major hub of goods for East-West trade. Italy took advantage and started importing luxury, exotic goods, from Turkish carpets to silk and other fine materials used for clothing.
Without the economic boom in Italy during the Renaissance, and the subsequent consumer obsession with buying newly-available exotic goods, the rich fashion of the time wouldn’t have been possible. People started buying more clothing to show off their status, and this new consumer revolution placed importance on clothing with more styles, colors, and fabrics available. The more vast the wardrobe, the more prevalent consumer culture became. In fact, greater disposable income allowed shopping to become a leisure activity during the Renaissance, with the very first written instance of ladies shopping for enjoyment penned in 1491 Milan. And what time required more leisure than COVID lockdown?
Fast fashion: inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.
We are in the midst of yet another shopping transformation, courtesy of e-commerce magnifying the post-COVID world we’re living in. The rise of consumerism during the Renaissance parallels the rise of fast fashion in today’s landscape after the height of the pandemic. Much like how the black plague ceased economic growth in Italy, COVID limited people’s ability to go out and live life as they knew it. The world took a nosedive, and with everyone on social media working to reinvigorate the economy, it really is no surprise that consumerism—and fast fashion with it—has skyrocketed when the blueprint was already written during 15th century Italy.
But in today’s world, it’s not just COVID that has spurred a new era of consumerism. Social media can be accredited with the new levels in which fast fashion operates. During the pandemic, when most were secluded in their homes, life simply stopped. But, thanks to social media and online shopping apps, fashion did not.
The ability to connect with the world digitally was suddenly more prized than ever before. One app in particular amplified the prevalence of fast fashion: Tik Tok. Tik Tok is an algorithm-based app which means that what you like, you’ll see again. And again. And again. Thanks to Tik Tok’s ability to amplify anything to viral-status, clothing has fallen prey to a trend cycle that moves along just as fast as a popular sound. The app has shortened the trend cycle so much so that it forced the creation of a new term: micro trends. Micro trends themselves seem harmless—until everyone is buying clothing with a specific color or pattern as its trending just to throw it to the wayside when a new micro trend comes in to take its place. Tik Tok is also saturated with hauls where people show off their hundred dollar shopping sprees, spurring people to over-consume clothing. Fast-fashion brands see TikTok as a platform to increase website traffic with brands like Shein and Cider taking advantage to increase sales and reach a wider audience. With fashion trends now operating at hyper speed, and online shoppers buying what they see on social media from the safety of their homes, fast fashion is the norm. Mass-produced clothing is inexpensive as well, and with the financial hardships faced by many during COVID, these prices appeal to the average consumer.
Fast fashion has found itself at the forefront of consumer culture today. So much of its rise is due to COVID itself, much like how the black plague gave rise to consumerism in the Renaissance. When looking back at the blueprint of today’s fashion landscape in the Renaissance, the extravagant, throw-away, commodity culture of our consumerist world is not so unique after all.