Take a step back into history before you walk into the future, so that no lessons are missed


Whilst talking about present developments in the business world of fashion, I cannot help but delve back into history. For, no current affairs could exist without those events of the past which have given life to new thoughts and processes. In fact, history is a beautiful thing in itself, because we can always look back on it, travel through time and see how one event led to the next.

So when teaching about the very modern topic of fashion advertising and advertising psychology, I started asking myself: “When was advertising invented?” The point in history that I found most relevant as an answer to my question was the industrial revolution of the UK, Europe and the USA. This was the first time in history, that supply clearly outweighed demand. In fact, it outweighed it so much that in order to sustain production, the market had to be motivated to buy products in large quantities. Thus advertising was invented, first as ads in newspapers, in order to inform and persuade the masses to purchase certain products, and later as billboards and radio ads. From then on, advertising developed into a sophisticated discipline of the modern marketplace which we know today.

And now we can connect the dots: our modern consumerist culture is a result of mass production which started somewhere in the middle of the 19th century. We might even go as far to say that “Spinning Jenny” is responsible for how we consume fashion today.


Image credit here.

Most importantly, when looking at history, there is always some kind of lesson to be learned.

In the case of the Industrial Revolution one must ask, “Who operated these great machineries which mechanically produced so many goods?” It was men, women and children. Thus as I am taking a step away from my main course topic, I want to remember those who had to suffer. If you read about the daily life of those factory workers, it makes you terribly sad.


Image credit here.

I suppose that from my class, I want us all to take home a lesson about humanity, ethics and social responsibility. And this lesson can easily be applied to our modern times. Look at what is going on in production facilities such as Bangladesh, where Western low-price consumption is catered to by third world sweatshop workers who pay with their lives. The Guardian recalls the disaster of the Rana Plaza in an extensive article, “[i]n the darkness after the collapse there are many voices: sobs, sustained screaming, calls for help and water, moans of pain, prayers, howls of grief.” It sounds no better than the conditions of the Industrial Revolution workers.


Image source.

Despite the sad element of people repeating their mistakes, the beauty of history is that it happily provides us with suggestions on how to do things right and that we do have a choice to improve the present and the future.

Here, for example, is a company which, under the name of “Industrial Revolution II”, is helping production sites to become ethically responsible.

And even in Bangladesh there seem to be a few parties who are taking responsibility for the past disasters, a delegation of the European Union Parliamentary Subcommittee on Human Rights has met with important people in the country, urging the improvement of workers’ rights.

So, after a brief excursion into the past, I can continue telling my class about advertising for fashion today, including corporate responsibility as well as responsibility of the individual.

Do you use historic references in your classes which are not pure history classes? Have you researched any historic events which you found to be important for your teaching? What are your thoughts on social responsibility and the ethics of fashion?

Opening Image credit here.

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