What does Karl Marx have to do with Karl Lagerfeld? At first glance, not much more than German heritage and eccentricity. Yet capitalism and fashion are inextricably intertwined, and each illuminates the other to reveal much about the world we live in.
In 1844 Friedrich Engels, co-author of the Communist Manifesto as well as a factory owner’s son, described the most common factory accident in the cotton mills of Manchester: “the squeezing off of a single joint of a finger”. Entire fingers, hands and arms were also trapped and lost in the machines – often followed by infection, then death. Workers, many of them children, faced constant ill-health from breathing fibrous dust, and deformities from the repetitive nature of machine work. A particularly horrible but not uncommon cause of death was being caught in the straps that powered the machines: “Whoever is seized by the strap is carried up with lightening speed, thrown against the ceiling above and floor below with such force that there is rarely a whole bone left in the body,” wrote Engels. “Death follows instantly.”
The Manchester cotton industry – dependent on cotton grown and picked by African slaves – began the mechanised mass production of textiles and fashion. Fast forward through the same industry for one hundred and seventy years and what do we find? The Manchester mills are now luxury flats and manufacturing has travelled overseas. Yet industry standards are as low as ever – if not worse.
The Pearl River Delta is a colossal industrial zone in China covering nine cities. It recently saw the largest strikes in recent Chinese history as more than 30,000 workers took action against Yue Yuen, a sports shoe supplier for Nike and Adidas located in Guangdong. Despite its deceptively lovely name, the Pearl River Delta is also famed as the place where 40,000 fingers are lost or broken each year in industrial accidents. Engels would have recognised such factories.
Nor has it become any easier to breathe in fashion’s factories since Engels wrote of fibrous dust causing “blood spitting, noisy breathing, pains in the chest, coughs, sleeplessness…ending in the worst cases in consumption (TB).” Guangdong is responsible for half the world’s production of blue jeans. Sandblasting is used to distress jeans. The dust this produces enters the lungs of workers sanding for 15 hours a day and causes the deadly lung disease silicosis.
To the west of China, Cambodian garment workers are paid $61 a month and are gunned down and imprisoned for striking to gain an increase. In Bangladesh, the fashion industry recently presided over one of the worst industrial incidents in human history when 1,138 workers were crushed to death at Rana Plaza having been forced inside the unsafe factory. A year on from the tragedy those affected are still waiting for compensation.
As an illustration of how capitalism operates, fashion is perfect. The inequality and exploitation are straight out of the past. Just as Queen Victoria wore dresses stitched by seamstresses who went blind in the candlelight, so today’s society it-girls now wear dresses stitched by Romanian sweatshop workers paid 99p an hour.
Society is as it is because capitalism requires inequality. The fashion industry makes this painfully clear. Giant monopolies make billions in corporate profits because millions live on poverty pay and at permanent risk of maiming and death. Corporations purposefully choose countries and factories where wages are very low, pensions and sick leave are non-existent, and the people in charge will keep it this way.
In corporate terms, the “fashion” part of all this is just an excuse for exploitation. It provides the perfect facade of choice and empowerment. It gives the impression that we are all in this together, that we are somehow part of H&M or Gap and have control over the corporations. The glossy idea of “fashion” hides the labour of millions of deeply exploited labourers. It hides the terrifying environmental impact of fashion, and the sexism, racism, and alienation enshrined in the industry. It hides too the cultural lock-down that we find ourselves in, the dictation of our common cultural heritage by a handful of white male European shareholders.
Fashion allows exploitation to pretend to be something else, when in fact the beating heart of the fashion industry is not creativity but profit. To understand this, you need look no further than the writings of Marx and Engels, more than a century ago.
Tansy E Hoskins is the activist author of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion. She writes for the Guardian and Business of Fashion. As a political commentator she has discussed fashion, politics and change on Woman’s Hour, BBC Breakfast and Channel 4’s Ten O’Clock Live.