Thinspiration and exploitation: why fashion is deeply uncool

Is fashion a feminist issue? Of course it bloody is.

As September rolls around following a summer that witnessed the emotional peaks and troughs of sporting glory and failure, not to mention society's general readjustment in its attitude to the disabled, we turn our minds to higher things: namely, the glistening, glittering albatross that is the fashion industry. Fashion (or fash, to dickheads) is so important that it gets four whole weeks dedicated to it every six months, which is more time than most people give their elderly relatives (seriously, ring your nan.) Unfortunately, the time we are, as women, supposed to spend being interested in fashion is a lot longer - namely our whole lives, or at least until we can no longer afford the dry cleaning bill for our shit-stained capri pants and our care assistant can euthanise us using a Mulberry Alexa as a makeshift suffocation hood.

If you have a vagina, the assumption is that you're somehow pre-programmed to give a toss about which print goes with which other print, and whether or not that goes with shoes. Is this something that men have to think about? No, of course not. If you don't believe us, ask a male friend what he's wearing out on Friday night. He'll regard you, baffled, while your female bezzie gives you an item-by-item run through of her outfit which stops short of her chosen brand of tampon. That's not because she's stupid, mind, but because fashion magazines have been breathily whispering in her ear all her life that she is not a fully self-actualised human being unless she buys those leopard print tights off ASOS like, now. Is fashion a feminist issue? Of course it bloody is.

At its best, fashion represents the expression of an art form which can be utterly transformative. Some of those Vogue photo-shoots make you gasp with their beauty and creativity, and a great dress cut right can have as drastic an impact on your mood as a shot of dopamine. Unfortunately, the high never lasts forever and at its worst, the fashion world consists of a convocation of vacuous twats who care way more than they should about something most adults grew out of years ago, ie looking cooler than your mates. The eternal irony is, of course, that caring about being cool is actually deeply uncool - and so all fashionistas must pretend that they do not care about being cool, while making up for it by simultaneously being really, really cool. FYI, we have it on good authority that this is no mean feat when you're wearing disco knickers. Frankly, it sounds bloody exhausting, and we'd rather be waterboarded with Vitamin Water than even attempt to be a part of it.

Of course, as far as fashion goes, most heterosexual men have a "get out of jail free" card. The fashion industry as it exists today cannot really be said to be a patriarchy, or even a matriarchy, so much as it is a HATEriarchy (ah, the power of the well-placed pun). The everyday self-loathing brought about by fashion is almost unmatched by any other industry. The fashion circus genuinely impacts upon how us women feel about ourselves on a day-to-day basis; our sense of confidence, of self-worth, can all boil down to whether or not we look crap in a skater skirt on a particularly stressful Monday morning. Yet is this huge amount of power treated as a gift, to be used cautiously, sensitively and with respect? No, duh. It's used to sell us leather trousers.

There is so much feminist beef to be had with fashion that it's difficult to know where to start. The fact that it avoids those markers of femininity (tits and arse) like the plague and worships the undernourished despite the deaths of several young models (and potentially thousands more fashion fans) is not encouraging. The internet was supposed to democratise fashion, but when you look at websites such as lookbook.nu, sites that used to be creative hubs celebrating sartorial individuality, it's clear that they've become little more than thinspiration. Then, if you're not angry enough about the fact that girls as young as five are now asking if their bums look big, there's the long-held idea that shopping is some kind of leisure activity for women, implying that we're all empty automatons who love nothing more than an afternoon trying to smush our fleshy bodies into arbitrarily (and often incorrectly) sized rags. Jesus Christ, the sizing - which assumes that you can't be skinny and have large breasts, or flat-chested with big hips, or indeed any body type other than perfectly proportioned or maybe straight up and down. And the self-hatred that occurs as a result of sizing: the tears that are shed because the "10" no longer fits; the lunches missed; the fingers down the throat in the ladies' at Soho House.

If that still isn't bleak enough, then you have the social exclusion upon which fashion thrives: the sheer wanton capitalism of it all. Fashion's exploitation of interns is legendary. A friend of ours recently left the industry to become an estate agent so that, in her own words, "I can actually afford the fucking clothes". Yet that's nothing compared to the sweatshops and the suffering, the slavery and the starvation that those in the developing world (often women and children) undergo to put that peacock-feathered satin coat on someone's back. Needless to say, whenever fur comes "back in", you can throw a whole load of innocent animals whose only crime was to be delightfully furry in to the mix too, for good measure. And while the most expensive pieces might have been more ethically put together if you're lucky, almost all affordable fashion has a dirty little secret that you wouldn't want to expose for fear of levels of life-ruining guilt.

The fact that fashion is mostly run by women almost makes the whole thing worse. Where's the solidarity? Are women happy little masochists who, at some level, want to make their whole sex suffer for style? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. But calling vertiginous high heels "tools of the patriarchy" may be missing a trick. The anxiety and trauma suffered by women in both the developed and developing world at the hands of other, much more powerful women in the fashion industry is a conundrum to which we do not have the answer. All we know is that it's sad, and that it ruins all the fun stuff about fashion: the joy of dressing up, of disguise, of celebration, of self-expression.

This is not something that we expect the "fash pack" to get their heads around anytime soon, because many of them are too busy taking themselves far too seriously. The only thing we know for certain is that they need laughing at, loudly and urgently. People don't do it enough - only Ab Fab and Hadley Freeman seem to be flying the flag for fashion-based lolz right now. The time has come for public mockery, folks. We need to take a proper look at that Eiffel Tower shaped hat and irreverently giggle. Only then will they realise that a lot of what they do is deeply, fatally uncool.

Models on the catwalk at London Fashion Week 2012 in designs by Mary Katrantzou. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?