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Why Fashion Matters in an Era of Strategic Competition

Fast fashion and the decline of Americans’ fashion sense is a soft power disaster for the US.

Words: Leo Blanken and Cecelia Panella
Pictures: Latrach Med Jamil

Clothes matter. Every person chooses how to present themselves to the world as they stand in front of their closet in the morning. It is commonly understood that these choices have importance at the individual level as the wearer balances comfort, practicality, identity, and aesthetics. At the aggregate level, however, the relationship between style and security (writ large) is far less appreciated.

Dressing well (and caring about how others dress) could strike some as petty, but we posit that exploring it will allow us to flex our collective muscles for thinking about the truly “omni-domain” aspects of the emerging global competition space. This is even relevant for the realm of irregular warfare, defined as “a struggle among state and non-state actors to influence populations and affect legitimacy… favoring asymmetric and indirect approaches,” as it shows powerful linkages among economics, influence, and the realm of culture.

The average American dresses badly; this is demonstrably true by simply looking out the window. Americans spend too much money on ill-fitting and poor-quality clothing and footwear — all of which are designed, manufactured, and priced to be essentially disposable. This current era of “fast fashion” is disastrous for our nation’s national security.

Can Americans improve the United States’ competitive edge — and dress well too?


Fast fashion is characterized by speed and cheapness. Though it is a phenomenon whose origins can be traced all the way back to the 18th century English textile mills of the Industrial Revolution, its roots are firmly planted with US firm Brooks Brothers’ 19th century creation of “ready to wear” (as opposed to bespoke) suits for men. This innovation mirrored a general quest for efficiency via economies of scale and new technologies across all manufacturing sectors, often to the distress of Luddites and other critics who bemoaned the impact of such industrialization on handicrafts.

This trend toward the mass production of cloth and garments, however, has taken a radical turn since 1990. The fall of the Soviet Union prompted the United States to embrace a grand strategic vision of hegemonic liberalism that was predicated on minimally regulated global markets. Late developers, such as China, created strategies to leverage these conditions through industrial policies (based around cheap labor, poor environmental practices, and intellectual property theft) in a “race to the bottom” for low manufacturing costs. Global labor markets responded by relocating the production of many goods — including almost all clothing — to such countries. In recent years, this phenomenon has increased in pace and scale with frightening speed.

By and large, Americans are wearing disposable, shapeless, synthetic, infantilizing clothing that deepens the perception of them as being enslaved by the globalized, hyper-consumption economy of their own making.

Whereas fashion retailers only used to introduce new items with the changing of the seasons (2-3 collections per year), fast fashion companies like H&M and Forever 21 can move from concept to shipped product in a few weeks, and they introduce new items on a daily basis. The rise of social media has allowed for an even faster mechanism of “ultra-fast fashion” in which Chinese producers identify trending items online, rapidly mimic them while ignoring intellectual property rights, and then deal directly with American consumers online with no retail middlemen. This rise of fast fashion and China’s masterful exploitation of it has serious implications for US security through four mechanisms: trade competition, US labor markets, the environment, and soft power.

First, the fast fashion phenomenon has allowed strategic competitors, such as China, to create export-driven industrial policies that have fueled their methodical climb up the high-value, high-technology ladder. In other words, their dominance in high-technology sectors today would not have been possible without their strategies around low-technology manufacturing in previous decades. American consumer habits continue to feed this trend: in 1960, the average American consumer bought fewer than 25 garments each year, and 95% of those items were made in the United States; today, the average consumer buys 70 items of clothing per year and less than 2% of those items are made in the United States. Clothing continues to be a major part of global economic competition, as the size of the market currently stands at $1.7 trillion dollars, with China being the largest exporter and the United States being the largest importer. Simply put, the American addiction to fast fashion has contributed to the rise of — and continues to enable — its greatest strategic competitor.

Second, fast fashion has helped to gut opportunities for the American working class. The most visible mechanism for this is the off-shoring of manufacturing. Less obvious, however, is the steep decline of the crafts that maintain and repair higher-quality clothing, accessories, and shoes — and are cost-effective and environmentally-friendly occupations that are based on sustainability. Every American city used to boast large numbers of tailors and cobblers who resoled shoes, resized garments, and replaced hardware on beloved handbags.

At one time, clothiers constituted the lead employers in New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Boston and were instrumental in supporting vibrant local economies while wardrobing the emerging nation: as the English Lady Emmeline Stuart Wortley observed in 1851, “A mob in the United States is a mob in broad cloth…If we may talk of a rabble in a republic, it is a rabble in black silk waistcoats.” Such artisans are still necessary to maintain respectable wardrobes and should represent vibrant career paths for young people, but these trades are declining precipitously. While maintaining such skilled vocations may not provide as direct a link to national security as, say, the semiconductor industry, creating skilled-labor employment opportunities that cannot be easily offshored will contribute to a resilient economy.

Third, fast fashion is an environmental and human calamity. The industry as a whole is the world’s second-largest polluter. It is responsible for 20% of global water usage, produces up to 10% of all carbon emissions, and uses more energy than aviation and shipping combined. Fast fashion increasingly relies on synthetic fiber (plastic), which enables the production of ultra-cheap clothing, yet is destined to be worn a handful of times before ending up in a landfill. Beyond the environmental impact, human rights abuses are rife within the fast fashion world, and it is at “extreme risk” for becoming “modern slavery” for groups such as China’s Uyghur population in Xinjiang. These problems are destined to get worse, as clothing manufacturing has doubled in the last 15 years, and its rate is continuing to trend upwards. Given that climate change is now being recognized as a grave threat to national security by the Department of Defense, this environmental devastation that fast fashion is causing should be of concern to US policymakers.

Fourth, most Americans dress embarrassingly poorly. To some degree, this may seem like a subjective opinion — but it is not. Look at pictures of Americans from past decades. At the movies. On a college campus. Or just walking down the street. Representative pictures from today are almost too horrific to post. By and large, Americans are wearing disposable, shapeless, synthetic, infantilizing clothing that deepens the perception of them as being enslaved by the globalized, hyper-consumption economy of their own making. This is a soft-power disaster. Having once been the cultural brand to emulate, Americans are now at risk of becoming a visual joke: “wearing a fanny pack, baseball cap, printed T-shirt, jean shorts, and sneakers. It may seem like a funny, if harmless, image, but…the stereotype of the ugly American has become intractable.”

Contrast this with the 1965 “Take Ivy” project, in which four Japanese observers stalked the Ivy League campuses to document the fashion choices of America’s East Coast elite. The text of the resulting book provides straightforward fashion advice, but the sub-text reveals a profound interweaving of US culture and power — through the vehicle of style — to which other societies at the time openly aspired. If it is true that the “battle of the narrative” is critical for strategic competition, this is a significant aspect of the battle in which the United States once dominated but is now losing.


What is to be done? At the institutional level, nations need to continue to push for environmental laws and bargain for trade agreements that ensure a path toward sustainability in the global clothing industry. Public and private entities can work to raise awareness of the pernicious effects of fast fashion and promote sustainable alternatives.

At the individual level, consumers should become more knowledgeable about clothing and style. This goes beyond understanding the environmental and social impact of one’s purchases. Simply becoming attuned to the beauty and cultural worth of fine garments will change spending habits. This could involve studying the essential principles of style, visiting museums that take dress seriously, and watching the many YouTube channels of tailors and cobblers that explain how quality garments and shoes are made and should be maintained. We recommend that consumers explore the implications of their clothing purchases and seek out the many sustainable and socially conscious brands that are currently emerging. We further recommend that every person choose one worn item from their closet (or buy a quality, vintage item second-hand), research it, and then discuss it with a craftsperson for its revitalization.

Two caveats are necessary before charges of snobbery are leveled against us. First, this is not an argument solely for formal wear, as innovation in casual clothes is synonymous with the American experience. One can, however, elevate casual clothes by exploring durable yet smart, natural materials. Beyond the obvious one — denim —American heritage natural fabrics such as Wabash, Hickory, chambray, corduroy, poplin, and flannel allow people to build wardrobes of functional but thoughtful items.

The second point is in regard to money. The average American adult already spends roughly $200 per month on clothing. The prescriptions presented here would not require an increase in this spending but, rather, a redirection of that money from many cheap items to fewer high-quality items (along with the attendant tailoring costs). The endorphin release from “retail therapy” that comes with frequent, impulsive purchases should be replaced with the gratifying contemplation and appreciation of fewer (but better) fashion choices.

In sum, global competition is about more than aircraft carriers and artificial intelligence. Those interested in security must wake up to the fact that the socio-economic and cultural realms are just as important for the nation’s future. Though fashion may seem trivial, understanding and shaping aggregate outcomes in this space will cognitively pave the way for success in other domains moving forward.

Leo Blanken is an associate professor in the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School, where he serves as the academic co-lead for the Applied Design for Innovation program. He is the author of “Rational Empires: Institutional Incentives and Imperial Expansion” and is co-editor of “Assessing War: The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure.” He also collects and DJs rare funk and soul records from the 1960s. He would like to thank Pearlyn Lii for her valuable insights on this topic.

Cecilia Panella is a faculty associate for research in the Department of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, where she co-leads the Applied Design for Innovation curriculum. She holds a graduate degree from Johns Hopkins SAIS in US foreign policy and international economics.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Naval Postgraduate School, the Department of the Navy, or the Department of Defense.

Leo Blanken and Cecelia Panella

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