The Normalisation of a Fast Fashion Mentality in Films and Television

A famously extensive wardrobe in Clueless. Costume design by Mona May. Paramount Pictures, 1995.

During the earliest years of the film industry, actors would generally wear their own clothes as costumes. In short films set in the present-day and centred on only a few locations and story days, numerous specially designed costumes were simply an avoidable expense. Furthermore, actors’ everyday clothes complemented the ‘naturalistic’ elements of those films which sought to create the illusion of reality for cinema’s largely working-class audience.

By the late 1910s, the draw of extravagant costuming had become apparent, and films, now increasingly aimed at a middle-class audience, began to place greater emphasis on the consumption of clothing. Developments in the technical and narrative complexity of films also demanded more specialised costumes in greater numbers, and sartorial excess – in both design and quantity of costumes – became crucial to the film industry’s role as producer of fantasy.

The growth of the continuing television series from the mid-twentieth century onwards necessitated a similar abundance of costumes on screen, but with the need for frequent costume changes intensified by the high episode count and rapid turnaround time of many series. Moreover, seasonally scheduled series could keep abreast of fashion changes in their costuming to an even greater extent than films.

Viewers have consequently become accustomed to unique costumes for each story day of a film or television series, especially in those produced for a middle-class and/or female audience. Multiple costume changes within a story day are also common, and characters do not often wear the same costume twice in a given production (excepting ‘hero’ pieces worn throughout). This is sometimes true even when an extensive wardrobe cannot be justified by, say, a character’s socioeconomic circumstances. Subsequently, whether they are bought, made, or hired, single-use costumes normalise the fast fashion mentality that clothes should be acquired more frequently than they can be worn.

Costume and fashion are not entirely comparable, of course, but they do impact each other both stylistically and commercially. The practice of using a costume only once in a production thus appears dated within the context of recent discourse on fast fashion. Yet, the effects of this practice on the consumption of fashion, and vice versa, remain undertheorised. The challenge lies in critiquing certain industry customs whilst respecting costume design’s status as art, business, and significant appeal of films and television.