A Five-Minute History of Fast Fashion in the UK

From the 1800s up to the present day, Britain's fixation on fast fashion has a long and complex story.
Lauren O'Neill
London, GB
fast fashion brands
Collage: VICE

When you think of the phrase "fast fashion", you likely envisage something pretty specific: quickly-made clothes catering to micro-trends (currently: massive puffy sleeves and excessive ruched sateen), sold at a low price point by retailers like Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, ASOS and In The Style.

These clothes are frequently advertised by Instagram influencers (though there are now more TV ads being placed during shows like Love Island and Ibiza Weekender, aimed at capturing the shared target demographic of young women), and, importantly, the companies selling them overwhelmingly operate online. As a result of their popularity, more and more clothes are being purchased through the internet: in 2018, 24 percent of all apparel sales in the UK were online, up twofold from 12.2 percent in 2015.


But fast fashion has been around a lot longer than the likes of I Saw It First and Miss Pap – it just wasn't so obvious, because nightly reality dating shows and virtual targeted advertising didn't exist.

The situation is more dire than it's ever been – these days, an estimated 10,000 items of clothing are sent to landfill every five minutes in the UK – but it's important to remember the momentum for the wasteful fast fashion landscape we now inhabit has been building for decades, bolstered by the British high street, wider retail culture and a decline in clothes-making or mending skills.

Lauren Bravo, author of How to Break Up with Fast Fashion, tells me the modern iteration of the high street has an understandably huge part to play in the proliferation of fast fashion in the UK, especially when it comes to how clothes are perceived by many consumers.

"Over the past 25 years or so on the British high street, fashion purchases that we once might have saved up for, thought about for a few weeks or months, then worn and worn to death once we had them, we now treat as almost disposable items," she says. "Something to buy to lift our mood, like a chocolate bar, to wear a handful of times and then cast off when we're bored." (This sentiment was reflected in a survey of VICE UK's Snapchat followers, with 23 percent of 9,549 respondents saying they buy garments and wear them once before throwing them out.)


A closer look at the history of the high street shows that, in many ways, we've been building towards the desperately wasteful status quo for the last 200 years.


The high street as a concept began around 1870, when markets started to become shops as a result of urbanisation. Bethan Alexander – senior lecturer at London College of Fashion and course director for MA Fashion Retail Management – points out how, even at this early stage, industrialisation in the UK was bringing about new manufacturing processes that would lay the groundwork for the future. "One could argue that the UK was a pioneer of fast fashion," she says, "because of the innovation seen within manufacturing methods back in the 1800s, with Arkwright's spinning innovations, which shifted to garment making with the industrial revolution."

The high street began to flourish around the turn of the 20th century, aided – grimly – by imperialism siphoning wealth and goods extracted from former colonies into Britain. But, Bethan continues, it was only after World War II that "consumers became more receptive to the value of purchasing mass-produced clothing. This coincided with the creation of many fast fashion retail companies, like H&M, Zara, Topshop, Primark" – all of which were launched between 1947 and 1969 – "and all focused on low-priced, trendy clothing. Mass production and mass consumerism – as well as mass marketing communications – took off in the 1950s, which triggered a shift in manufacturing to off-shore factories, which were more competitive on price, to enable even lower prices."


As time has gone on, globalisation has prevailed and the shift to off-shore manufacturing has been definitive. Often, fast fashion companies exploit cheap clothing production labour in places like Bangladesh and China, where, as Lauren puts it, "workers are often paid poverty wages and factories put under enormous strain to produce clothes faster and faster and cheaper and cheaper than their competitors".

Alongside lower prices, faster turnaround times allow brands to be truly trend-led, offering shoppers a lookalike pair of tiny sunglasses or a duplicate diamanté belt days after Bella and Kendall have been papped wearing it. We've been moving towards the current state of play since 1989, when the phrase "fast fashion" was coined by the New York Times in reference to Zara boasting that it took them "15 days between a new idea and getting it into the stores".

Zara opened its first UK store in 1998, and since then – Bethan notes – they have "arguably been the game-changer retailer in fast fashion, not only competing on fashion at an affordable price but on speed to market and scarcity, encouraging a 'buy now or it's gone' consumer mentality towards fast fashion purchasing, where today one in three young consumers consider garments worn once or twice to be old."

By the mid-2000s, the next stage of fast fashion had arrived. While Zara encouraged shoppers to get stuff before it was gone, Primark's selling point was that it could supply items quickly and they were really, really cheap. Primark expanded rapidly onto the UK high street, after buying 119 retail locations from the Littlewoods chain. Their extremely cheap price points were a revelation among UK shoppers, and the company has maintained a foothold in the market by organising their entire brand around the concept of good value (I personally remember marvelling at how a T-shirt could cost £3 when the Birmingham Primark opened, and for what it's worth, my hallowed hometown is now home to the world's largest Primark).


Writing for Forbes in 2019, strategist Jeroen Kraaijenbrink noted that Primark "clearly compete on price. But it is not just price. It is price combined with an overwhelming large number of fashion items to choose from in their stores. At the bottom line, they sell the kid-in-the-candy-store feeling, the Oh-My-God-I-can-buy-all-of-this-and-still-have-money-left experience. That is their value proposition and that is why they are successful."

Partly as a result of the success of more-is-more retailers like Primark, in Britain we now purchase five times the amount of clothes we bought in the 1980s, and more clothes per person than in any other country in Europe. The growth of internet shopping only intensifies this never-satisfied appetite: by 2024, 51.1 million people in the UK will shop online for clothes. No wonder that, in 2019, sales for the Boohoo Group – which comprises Boohoo, boohooMAN, Pretty Little Thing, Miss Pap, and Nasty Gal, as well as the more traditional retail chains Karen Millen and Coast – surged past £1 billion for the first time.

The aspirational, reality TV-adjacent bent of largely online brands that aggressively restock their websites (in some cases daily) with new, trend-led – and therefore disposable – designs is particularly harmful. But most people do still buy their clothes in physical high street stores, like Primark and H&M, where price points tend to be even lower, further encouraging that idea of disposability.


Still, it's important to remember that issues around fast fashion aren't black-and-white. The industry's impact on the environment and on workers both in Britain and abroad cannot be understated, but there also are some communities who rely on it. Cheap high street fashion can be a godsend for individuals and families on low incomes, while online fast fashion retailers – in particular ASOS – have been instrumental in widening options for plus-size people, as well as challenging preconceived ideas about what plus-size fashion "should" look like.

One way to change the fast fashion industry without negatively impacting the less affluent and underrepresented communities it currently serves would be through new regulation and legislation. This, however, will likely be an uphill battle: in June of 2019, the government rejected recommendations from the Environmental Audit Committee to add a 1p garment tax onto clothes sales, to raise money for better recycling processes. They also rejected all of the other recommendations made to them by this cross-party committee of MPs.

Fast fashion – whether normalised on the high street, or trend-led and online – is unfortunately the UK's new normal, a symptom of capitalism in overdrive, with profits held in higher regard than the planet. Climate activism has forced some large companies like H&M and Zara to make commitments to sustainability (Zara say they will use 100 percent sustainable fabrics by 2025; H&M hope to be carbon positive by 2014). But for as long as clothing is embedded in our national psyche as a disposable luxury, rather than something to be kept for life, it's going to take a lot more than these kind of gestures to change minds and shopping habits.

As such, for Lauren Bravo, it's most important that we as consumers change our attitudes. "We need to rethink the way we approach clothes; that commitment-phobia has to end. Social media is obviously a massive culprit in all this, driving us to feel we ought to be buying more, more, more – but I also think social media can be a force for good," she suggests. "Let's get influencers proudly wearing the same outfits again and again, and renting and swapping clothes instead of showing off their latest #gifted hauls. Trends catch on quickly, and I think that could be used to our advantage. If fast fashion became terminally uncool, it could really help drive us forward – or, rather, slam on the brakes."

For the sake of the planet, let's get our foot on the pedal one way or another.