Clothes: a manifesto

What do women really want from fashion? When Rebecca Willis put this question to dozens of women of different ages, the replies were loud and clear. They want more style, less speed – and more sleeves

Rebecca Willis | March/April 2013

Magazines are not, as a rule, great listeners. The communication they have with their readers is largely one way; even the arrival of online comments has done little to change this. But if most are a touch hard of hearing, fashion magazines can seem stone deaf. "This is what you should wear!" they bellow. Or at the very least, "This is what you should want to wear!" The people they’re addressing rarely get a word in.

So we thought we’d start a conversation. Instead of telling, we’d ask. Is the fashion industry—that colossal, frenetic, inexorably whirling machine—producing what women really want? Does it give them the clothes they need, when they need them? Is it, if that isn’t too frivolous a concept, making them happy?

To find out, we conducted a straw poll, sending out a questionnaire to more than 40 women. They ranged from 18 to 84, were different shapes, sizes and nationalities, and lived in a variety of places across the westernised world. None was on the bread line, but they had a wide range of incomes. The only things they had in common were that they took the time to answer our questionnaire, and were not part of the fashion industry: it can be a teensy bit self-regarding, and it’s too easy for those who work in it to lose touch with the role clothes play in everyday life. We wanted to hear opinions from outside the bubble.

From the answers we received, it quickly became apparent that most of these women love clothes. But they also have some serious gripes about what’s on offer. In fact, “gripes” might not be strong enough a word: at times what came across was actual anger.

Women are sick of low quality, overpriced, poorly made, ill-fitting clothes that don’t last. They are fed up both with too much choice, and its twin: too little they want to choose. They enjoy looking at the beauty and high-art escapism of couture, but when it comes to what they actually buy, they are more exercised by quality and cut than bells and whistles: they want their clothes to fit properly and not fall apart. They are not fooled by the fads and fancies of the current season, the bogus now-ness of fashion; they know it’s a game whose objective is at least partly to keep them consuming. And they resent it. The constant change means that they can’t rely on a particular shop or designer from one season to the next. Women’s bodies may change a bit, but not that much, and certainly not every season: they realise, at some point in their lives, what suits them and what works for them, and after that they want only so much variation. They long for consistency, to have favourite shops and designers they can rely upon; they would be loyal to a brand if only they could. They want to have love affairs with their clothes, not the tawdry flings that are offered.   

In an industry powered by the idea of change, that might seem counter-intuitive. But there is a market out there for designers who treat women with respect. It’s a different economic model, certainly, but these responses strongly suggest retailers could shift from quantity to quality, from fleeting gimmicks to modern classics, and still have a successful business. More than that, they’d have the hearts and minds of real women. 

Our evidence for a Slow Fashion Campaign is set out below. We know that asking the fashion industry to change its ways might be like David taking on Goliath. But look how that turned out.


We asked women to sum up the state of the fashion industry in a single word. Here are some of the replies. Absurd. Fleeting. Aspirational. Excessive. Profligate. Feckless. Dismal. Mediocre. Exploitative.

Women are deeply concerned about the behaviour of the fashion industry and its impact on our wallets, our sanity and our planet. Yes, most of us do love clothes; yes, there is something in the air that makes us go out shopping for something new even when we don’t need it; but that doesn’t mean we want to be ripped off and treated as idiots. We don’t like being conned into feeling we have to keep buying more things to be "on trend". Thinking women have no illusions about the main purpose of the fashion industry: it exists not to provide us with clothes, but to extract money from us. As a 27-year-old Londoner wrote, "its primary concern is the bottom line"—and she wasn’t talking about VPL. We know we are being manipulated, and that—as a 53-year-old living in Sydney put it—"it plays to our vices, including lust, envy and pride". 

"Looking at gorgeous clothes can be like going to a museum, with works of art you can try on," wrote a Suffolk-based respondent. But just because we can feast our eyes does not mean we are automatically blind to fashion’s shortcomings: "increasingly poor quality", "horribly inflated prices", seasons that are "way out of kilter with the weather", promoting certain colours destined to date, "the shift to selling stretchy clothes which profit the labels and don’t need to be cut to fit"…and that’s before we address the issues of skinny models, photo-shopping celebrities, and the tyranny of a look that is "thin, boyish and, all too often, white". This is the diet we are being fed by the industry, and it is not a nourishing one.


Instead of sheaves of multilingual washing instructions bulkily attached to seams—which we know are really about retailers covering their arses—we want more information about how clothes are produced. No one in our survey found clothes-care too complicated, but many wanted to know that what they buy is produced in acceptable conditions. There are a few retailers who make this their raison d’être; the occasional television documentary gets made about conditions in sweatshops. But where else can we get reliable information about the ethical and environmental standards that might influence our purchases?

"I am so cross about the whole disposability promoted by the industry"; "there’s just too much of it, the world doesn’t need so much STUFF"; "the industry is wasteful and encourages a buying habit that is not environmentally sustainable"—these are typical of the comments we received. One Parisienne wrote that she "can feel sick wondering where the rails of unsold clothes will end up". When people feel this level of disgust, they want to take action—not necessarily by not shopping, but by shopping more carefully. Women trying to do the right thing feel disheartened: "I always prefer to purchase garments made in countries with decent labour standards, and I will pay a premium for them," said a 30-year-old in Australia. "But every year more and more labels move manufacturing to China, and it feels like a losing battle."

There is assumed to be an equation between price-tag and planet-friendliness. "If I buy from high fashion/luxury retailers, I expect good ethics and sustainability," said a 28-year-old interior designer from Londoner. Whether she’s getting them, she has no way of knowing. The rate at which the West consumes fashion may well be bad news for the planet; if women aren’t even getting what they want, that is adding insult to injury. So Fair Trade labelling for clothes should become mainstream and governments should legislate to make it happen. It is not acceptable for multinationals to fudge the issue of their subcontractors’ activities: greater accountability and greater transparency should be the way forward. We need to make toxic manufacturing practices bad for business.


It would be great if we could traffic-calm fashion, the way we do on roads where people might otherwise get knocked down by hurtling cars, and put a speed limit on how often shops change their stock. At the high end, designers’ stress levels would benefit from having to produce no more than two collections a year; on the high street, fewer unsold garments would end up being shredded. Because while the broad scope of fashion today can be liberating—there is less of a single dominant look, it’s more "anything goes"—the speed of it is definitely not. 

This pace is partly a consequence of tolerance and plurality: because there are no longer "must-have" items, every retailer is trying to offer all things to all women to ensure it gets a piece of the action. Having a lot of choice is not necessarily a bad thing—but even though your dream dress might be out there, somewhere, stock changes so often you’ll probably miss it. This frenetic, breathless experience is missing the point for most of us: we want better clothes, not faster ones. And as a 50-year-old in New York said, "Why do shop assistants look so wounded when you ask for jerseys when its snowing and they have their summer range installed already?"


"Born to shop" reads the T-shirt. Not true. It’s nurture, not nature, that means a whole generation is being raised to shop—partly because they exist in a consumerist, novelty-seeking culture but also, quite simply, because their clothes fall apart. My dress came open at the seam this morning because the seam allowance was so meagre: an apt metaphor for the small margins of an industry based on volume. 

Whatever happened to quality, to clothes that last more than a season, that are well-cut and well-made out of fabrics that feel good and hang properly? Except in small, artisan pockets of resistance, craftsmanship seems to have died, just as it has in contemporary art: clothing has become conceptual—an idea, a notion—while the execution of that idea, the skill with which it is made, is no longer valued. It used to be that the higher the price the better the quality, and if that were still true it would be easy; we’d just buy less and pay more. But it’s not. You can pay a significant sum, and usually the fabric will feel nicer, but the buttons will still fall off, the hems will descend like a first-night curtain and the sequins will come undone in a long row like a magician’s trick. 

When we asked the question "should clothes be built to last?" only one of our respondents said "no". Women want a smaller choice of better-made clothes. Leave the infinite variety to us.


When we asked women to rate their interest in fashion and style out of 10, style trumped fashion overwhelmingly. Even the 53-year-old Londoner who doesn’t consider herself fashionable, tries not to go shopping, and has never been asked for her advice about clothes, rates style 7/10 (fashion gets zero). That’s because style is personal, and—crucially—something that can’t be bought. No one admits to striving to look "fashionable"; they would prefer to look "well-dressed", "considered", "confident", but above all "stylish". And they would rather receive a compliment addressed to them ("You look great!") than to their clothes ("What a great dress!"). They want to look good and are only slightly interested in looking "now". Whatever our little complexes, the bits we try to hide, however much we may use clothes to give our confidence a boost, we still want to look like ourselves.


Above all we would like our clothes to fit us. We want more petite and tall sizes; we want half sizes, in clothes and in shoes; we want legs and sleeves in several lengths; we want in-house alteration. In other words, we want retailers to behave more like old-fashioned dressmakers and cobblers and to treat us—or more specifically our bodies—as individuals. The market needs "a middle way between couture and off-the-peg, a bit of pin and tuck", as one 27-year-old put it. A lot of women said they pay to have their clothes altered, adding to the price-tag; and many dream of having someone to alter their clothes and make them fit properly. What we want, in other words, is the very thing the fashion industry doesn’t give us, and is unlikely to provide as long as it’s obsessed with piling high, selling cheap, and making quick. 

Cut will always vary from one designer to another, that’s why we eventually work out which labels and high-street chains not to bother with. But why not have a universal sizing system, particularly in the era of internet shopping? Believe it or not, there is a European standard for labelling clothes sizes, which rejoices in the name of EN 13402. No, I haven’t seen any signs of it either. Instead, it’s common for women to have at least three different sizes in their cupboards; one of our respondents pointed out that she "owns and wear garments ranging from size 10 to XL". And then there is what’s known as "vanity sizing", calculated to flatter you into buying because you can fit into a smaller-than-usual size. As a 49-year-old florist from Ireland put it: "I used to be a size 12 and now I’m a size 10, but I haven’t got any thinner." We want clothes to flatter our bodies, not our minds.


Not all women as they get older relish the prospect of dressing in baggy cardigans, comfort waistbands and fluffy slippers. It’s true, though, that comfort does become more of a consideration. What is surprising, despite all we hear about the West’s ageing baby-boomer population bulge, is how poorly served older women still feel by the fashion industry. "Fashion is pleasant until the age of 60," writes an 84-year-old former architect, "after that we are forgotten." And stereotypes prevail: the industry, says a 78-year-old retired solicitor, "should accept that women over 60 don’t all want to dress in black bombazine". Whatever the effects and restrictions that come with it, age doesn’t necessarily wither our pride in our appearance. Perhaps when today’s young designers get their bus passes, they will at last address this. Our challenge to them? Don’t wait that long. 


Fashion historians of the future may note that it was early in the 21st century that the sleeve—long on the endangered list—finally became extinct. The ubiquity of the shift dress may be partly because sleeveless clothes have one less variable to fit. It also reflects society’s infatuation with the toned body and with youthfulness in general. The triceps problem—colloquially known as bingo wings—becomes an issue for a lot of women as they get older. But not only them—our poll had women from their late 20s to their late 70s lamenting with one voice the shopping time they have to waste playing hunt-the-sleeve. Designers: shoulder the problem, and put a sleeve in it.


The gap between fashion and reality yawns widest when it comes to high heels. The September 2012 issue of American Vogue showed 416 pairs of shod feet, of which 348 were high heels. That means just under 20% were flats. We are being conditioned to see heels as normal and desirable, and, because of fashion’s obsession with an elongated silhouette, to think that fashionable clothes require high heels. Yet the vast majority of the women we polled said they wear heels either rarely, never, or only for evenings and special occasions. Only a handful of late teens and twenty-somethings said they wear them regularly—one, who is a lawyer in the City of London, said she wears "3.5 inch heels from the moment she reaches her desk" (not before, note). In other words, they are not part of daily life for most active, busy women.

We know it makes sense: "heels permanently shorten calf muscles and alter vertebral alignment" wrote a New York-based doctor. An Englishwoman of 53 was more vehement: "heels cause lasting damage. What I most hate about very high heels is the way they play to the porn aesthetic. Many women seem to have swallowed the idea…that expensive high heels equal power, when in fact they enfeeble and enslave the wearer to a pre-Pankhurst state, unable to walk briskly and independently and endangering long-term health—just as corsets and foot binding once did." Perhaps we should be lobbying for shoeboxes to carry a government health warning.

Women’s relationship with heels is not, we admit, straightforward. When asked whether it is necessary to suffer to be beautiful, the answer was often "no—except for high heels." The fashion industry could help us help ourselves by not pushing heels at us all the time and by funding Heels Anonymous, which would offer a 12-step (of course) programme to wean us off them. Or it could just start designing clothes that look good with flatter shoes and show them on models whose heels are planted firmly on the ground.


We want clothes to do the job they are meant to: raincoats, for example, should be waterproof; winter coats should be warm, not just warm-looking; swimsuits should not become transparent or stretch out of shape when wet; pockets should open for the purpose of putting things in. And we prefer clothes that solve a problem, rather than create a new one. Often a purchase sets off a chain reaction of other purchases: gel pads for under the soles of our feet, tights in a different colour, a slip to stop a dress being completely see-through, a vest to go under the too-low top, Spanx to hold the tummy in. Sometimes this is part of the fun of playing with our appearance, sometimes it’s throwing good money after bad. The classic in this category is the dress that requires a new bra. A woman in our poll regretted her "expensive dress with a deep V at front and back which is impossible to wear with a bra…or without". Would someone please convey to designers that a lot of us want our bosoms kept in a safe place?


Most of the women in our poll felt that a world without fashion would be duller, sadder, greyer and less fun. Some said they wouldn’t mind a fashionless world, "except that it creates jobs" (and, no, they don’t all work for The Economist). In the end, most of us recognise that "clothes are a means of defining yourself, changing your mood and showing the world who you want to be." But the actual process of obtaining them is often a horror story. 

So, dear retailer, if you are listening—and we hope you are—there’s a big market out there which is not just ripe for the tapping, but actively longing to be tapped. Women want to find brands that "provide interesting quirky variations on classic themes"; brands that make clothes that fit us: each of us, not Mrs Average, whoever she is. We don’t want to waste time every season working out which label fits us this time. We want consistency, because life is short and shopping should be only a small part of it. We don’t want to be unfaithful, but you make it so hard to be loyal because of your obsession with novelty and change. We know that the things that are so “today” now, will say “yesterday” tomorrow. 

The Slow Fashion Campaign starts here. Our motto will be "more taste, less speed". That’s taste not in the snobbish sense, but as in the OED’s definition: "the ability to discern what is of good quality." Because there is a want of taste in the way the customer is being served. And if the campaign has any success, then the planet will be greener and the fashion industry will have us eating out of its hands while it laughs its way to the bank. And then everyone should be happy. Oh, wait, I nearly forgot: when do we want it? NOW.

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.