Why Do We Buy So Many Clothes? An Honest View

The fashion world bombards us, everyday shoppers, with the latest trends, last-minute discounts, and magic fixes. It feeds us all kinds of fantasies, so that we make mindless purchases and chase the next shiny object. Resisting this isn’t easy. However, as we break away from the trap of unnecessary purchases, it’s important that we ask ourselves – why do we buy so many clothes?

In this guide, we’ll delve deep into our consumption habits and where they truly stem from. So, let’s dive right into it.

Why do we buy so many clothes?

Our shopping motives may stem from unique our tastes, values, and aspirations, or perhaps, simply from the advertisements we encounter every day. However, there’s more to the picture.

We buy excess clothes to feel like we belong, boost our social status, and seek novelty. Research shows that psychological factors, such as social identity, need for uniqueness, and self-promotion, are what govern our fashion preferences and inclinations towards fast fashion.

why do we buy so much clothes? analyzing consumption as a social practice

Consumption is a social practice

With the rise of social media, fashion consumption is no longer limited to certain occasions. Rather, we can consume and showcase our clothes to the public – right through our devices.

Dressing up just to take pictures and post them online has turned into a modern-day pastime. And of course, it all affects the way we view fashion. “What aesthetic does this item make me fit in?”, “does this outfit look too casual?”, “have I worn this outfit twice on my feed?” – these are some of the questions that guide our thought processes when posting on social media.

Facing a lot of scrutiny through the online audience, consumption becomes a social practice. Through fashion, we seek engagement from strangers on the internet. Posting photos of our clothing, we curate our image carefully and construct our identities through sartorial elements. And all this is directed towards external validation.

We buy clothes to be accepted in social groups

Fashion-centric social media platforms, such as Instagram, open a unique two-sided mode of communication. People post pictures to receive comments from the audience, which prepares the groundwork for status-oriented consumption.

Excess clothing allows us to fit in. The more we buy, the more we can showcase. Seeking more complements and positive feedback, we all are tempted to follow trends and fit into the mold of what’s ‘in vogue’.

We yearn to feel well-regarded and appreciated by our audiences. This drives us to copy outfits off of Instagram and emulate digital influencers – completely losing track of our consumption habits.

According to Thorstein Veblen, fashion consumers seek to impress others through material possessions – in order to boost their social status. Other scholars echo this sentiment, claiming that purchases create the fashion zeitgeist. As Douglas & Isherwood mention, we don’t purchase expensive items for the sake of it, but rather for the social relations they bolster.

So, as we ponder upon the question, “why do we buy so many clothes”, perhaps, it’s reasonable to question whether we do it for ourselves or others.

The fast fashion phenomenon: we view excess consumption as harmless

Fashion retailers have brainwashed us into hoarding clothes in a selfish manner – with no regard towards the environment. Trend after trend, we are running on the hamster wheel of overconsumption, never asking ourselves, “how often should I buy new clothes?” or “is my wardrobe sustainable?” We adopt compulsive shopping as a habit, succumbing to the pressure of looking trendy 24/7.

Trends, and more specifically, “micro-trends” are like kryptonite for us, everyday shoppers. Once one new thing is out of style, a brand new trending article of clothing is all the rage. Even attempting to keep up with such cycles can result in overflowing wardrobes – full of clothes that become outdated in a few weeks.

We see clothes as an extension of our identities

How do we, humans, categorize ourselves in the world? how do we convey our opinions, values, or beliefs to others? As Calhoun mentions, self-knowledge “is never altogether separable from claims to be known in specific ways by others.” That is, the way people view us very much determines our self-perception and vice-versa. This is where fashion comes into play.

Let’s remember that humans are social animals. In the past, we used to live in tribes, sharing particular cultural or social frameworks with others. This gave us a sense of belonging, as we formed cohesive communities, established kinship, and attached our identity to the collective.

However, in the modern world, things have changed. Tribalism no longer reveals itself in the people that we live with, but rather visual elements of self-expression.

So, when posing the question, “why do we buy so many clothes?”, it’s crucial to acknowledge fashion’s role in identity creation and a myriad of ways, in which we relate to the world.

why do we buy so much clothes? fashion as a means to establish online tribes

Fashion as a means to establish online tribes

The rise of micro-aesthetics on social media is undeniable. Every internet demographic, or in other words, subculture, flaunts its distinct way of dressing – whether it’s dark academia, barbiecore, fairycore, grunge, Y2K, or ‘old money.’

Their aesthetic choices, coupled with certain settings, values, beliefs, and even hashtags, unite like-minded individuals. By this, they ultimately serve as modern-day tribes, in which humans bond through clothes, accessories, and even color schemes.

Put simply, we use clothes to tell people who we are. In other words, you are what you wear. 

Has It Always Been This Way? The Origins of Overconsumption

Around the 1980’s, the fashion world relied on basic fashion styles, such as button-down shirts, Levi’s jeans, and graphic t-shirts. With strict seasonal calendars, trends used to go through fashion executives, luxury buyers, and magazine editors before reaching the masses. Hence, fashion used to be more exclusive than it is today.

However, as retailers embraced globalized supply chains, coupled with the rise of online stores, fashion became more mainstream. Consumers started observing the latest trends and becoming more fashion-savvy, flocking to stores to fulfill their craving for novelty.

Fashion Democratization: How It Ruined Our Consumption Habits

Simply put, at some point in time, fashion became democratized and more ubiquitous. This, perhaps, is what led us to believe clothes are convenient and disposable, molding the fashion industry into a tragedy of the commons.

The fashion world opened the pandora’s box of resource exploitation, modern slavery, and environmental degradation, as it began making dirt-cheap clothes accessible to all. It let us view cheap garments as almost a public resource – the one that we can overconsume and throw away at our will.

After all, the convenience of ordering so much clothing online leads to the convenience of throwing it away fast. The idea that we don’t put any effort into creating, sourcing, or appreciating clothes leads to a separation from the consequences of consumption.

Our Motives Behind Consumption: The False Needs Theory

According to Herbert Marcuse’s ‘false needs theory’, corporations impose false needs upon consumers. They encourage shoppers to pursue things that go against their individual or collective benefit, perpetuating “misery and injustice.” 

By the same token, disposable clothing is the superficial ‘false need’ that pollutes our oceans, exploits underpaid workers, and depletes non-renewable resources – the false need that makes us dig our own graves.

Ultimately, the very ethos of fast fashion, “of the people, for the people, by the people”, is inherently against the planet.

Therefore, an obvious answer to the question, “why do we buy so many clothes” is that we simply can. However, as the saying goes, just because we can doesn’t mean we should. While clothes are here to serve us, we shouldn’t forget the very agents involved in their production, be it human or environmental, and how our consumption habits affect them.

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