The inaugural Arts and Humanities Festival of Research took place from 19-20 May 2022, tackling the theme of “Confronting crisis: Arts & Humanities perspectives on a changing world”. Papers from the departments of History, European and International Studies and Digital Humanities amongst others were presented. The research panels prompted lively discussion and debate on diverse topics, from identity to public memory, resistance and aesthetics. There were also many commonalities and connections across papers, demonstrating the rich opportunities for collaboration and sharing of knowledge that exist within the Art & Humanities faculty at King’s. My own response to the theme was drawn from reflections on my PhD fieldwork and posed the question: Can fashion rental confront the environmental impacts of the fashion industry?
In the context of growing awareness of the detrimental impacts of the fashion industry on both people and the planet, rental is often positioned as a more sustainable solution. As an alternative model of ownership, renting fashion could be a way in which to reduce waste and extend the lifecycle of garments. My research is concerned with how various actors engaging with fashion rental understand practices of borrowing and lending clothing in terms of sustainability.
My methodology incorporates mapping interactions and connections on Instagram, analysing the discourses found in posts created by and about rental companies, qualitative interviews with actors that use rental and, autoethnography, which involves using the rental companies myself. It is my own embodied experience of using these companies which shaped much of my reflection on the conference theme.
Since my BA degree in fashion, I have been concerned with sustainability, both in my creative work which used waste materials and in my own fashion consumption, which is primarily second hand, and increasingly limited to what I “need” or will last for a long time. This approach is echoed by many of my interview participants who are concerned with reducing their fashion consumption and using rental as one way in which to do this. However, since undertaking fieldwork, and being exposed to the many new and exciting garments available to rent, I find myself increasingly drawn to the brands and pieces presented to me and wanting something “new” for every occasion.
This became particularly apparent to me after deciding to rent a dress for my birthday last summer. After much careful consideration, I had chosen what I felt was the ideal dress for the occasion and submitted my rental request beforehand. However, a few days prior to the event, my rental was cancelled, and I found myself scrolling manically through alternatives to find a replacement. As I documented this incident in my reflective journal, I realised that:
“This somewhat manic last-minute search for a new dress is prompting me to wonder if I would usually be so concerned to have a new outfit to wear for a birthday meal if rental was not an option? It is perhaps somewhat contradictory that rental seems to align itself with slow fashion but as someone who very rarely buys new clothes (brand new or second hand), the option to rent seems to have encouraged me to consume more.”
Reflecting on my own experiences raises the question of how far such models can go in challenging relationships with fashion consumption, particularly when they are frequently promoted using familiar fashion discourses of seasonal change and a desire for the new. This has led me to revisit my own values and concerns as a consumer and how my practices are informed by debates around sustainability and fashion. It also raises interesting methodological and ethical questions regarding my participation in the field, particularly when I share my rental experiences on Instagram.
Framing these reflections within the theme of ‘confronting crisis’, positions my research and fashion rental alongside broader debates surrounding the environmental impacts of the fashion industry. Rental offers an opportunity for the life cycle of clothing to be extended through use by multiple wearers but this approach places emphasis on individual action rather than wider system change. This highlights the need to confront the fashion system as a whole in order to address its role in the climate crisis.