Philosophy and Fashion: Learning about Sustainability from the Past

Could an ancient Greek philosopher have an opinion about modern fashion?

Yesterday I listened to BBC:s podcast In our time about the ancient philosopher Epicurus—and his theories can, believe it or not, be applied to today’s fashion industry. Epicurus taught that the meaning of life was to get as much pleasure out of it as possible, while avoiding pain. In the first case it is also important to avoid overindulgence—that will hurt us later (too many cups of wine, maybe?). The second part was not just about avoiding physical pain but also about the state of ataraxia, or tranquility: freedom from worry and anxiety.

Now, back to today’s world; fashion and clothes are not just ways of avoiding the pain of being naked on a cold winter street, but also (to a lot of people, at least) pleasure.

However, with fast fashion cycles constantly changing and an industry set up to churn out an endless stream of garments, in order to sell, we the consumers need to be made constantly dissatisfied—sure, the need might be suspended for a while after buying something new, but soon has to be reawakened. Otherwise, we won’t keep buying.

But if we could let ourselves be satisfied with our garments longer and resist the constant craving, we could perhaps find ourselves a little closer to Epicurus’s old atraxia. And this sounds like slow fashion to me.

I’m no philosophy expert and my view of Epucurus might be naïve—I might even have misunderstood him—but I do know enough to use his teachings to ask questions: What is the point of fashion? What is the point of buying clothes? Do I get what I want?

Epicurus quest for pleasure was individualistic, and everyone has to answer these questions for themselves but I dare to say this: The fashion industry should sate our needs, not fuel them.