Introduction: Fashion & Cultures

The Fashion Values Methods are short form learning resources that provide insights on fashion and sustainability. Each Method takes approximately 30-45 minutes to complete, and introduces you to the core issues, impacts, and industry contexts for each topic.


Welcome to the 'Introduction: Fashion & Cultures' Method.

This Method has been developed to support the 2023/24 Fashion Values Challenge: a global call-out for change-making products, services, and systems. We’re looking for the next innovation in fashion design, media and/or technology. 

The 2023/24 Challenge asks the question “how can fashion value cultures of wellbeing?” 

This year’s Fashion Values Challenge calls on next generation changemakers from around the world to respond to this question with radical, transformational ideas where cultures, heritage and rituals create social and environmental wellbeing. We seek expressions of creativity applied to products, services, and systems of design, media and/or technology, where fashion values diverse cultures of wellbeing.  

Interested in applying? This Method is designed to help you develop your application. It is based on the Fashion Values: Cultures course on FutureLearn, and includes a selection of course highlights to support your thinking as you develop your application.  

This method will introduce you to the relationship between fashion and cultures, exploring the roles of tradition, heritage and history in developing narratives that inform the way we dress and style ourselves. You will learn about the significance of storytelling as a tool through which we can communicate and celebrate cultures of wellbeing, and how you can implement this within your own practice. For Challenge applicants, you will be introduced to the design thinking process, which will help you synthesise and structure your idea for your submission.  


The method is structured into four sections:  

Section 1: Introduction to Fashion Values: Cultures 

Section 2: The Role of Storytelling in Fashion 

Section 3: The Design Thinking Process  

Section 4: Reflections 


1.1 Introduction to Fashion Values: Cultures

 Let’s get started!  

 This section of the Method will focus on building your understanding on the role of cultures in fashion. The following film is taken from our online course, in which Professor Dilys Williams (Director, Centre for Sustainable Fashion and Professor of Fashion Design for Sustainability) introduces Fashion Values: Cultures and has been edited to reflect the key concepts relevant for this Method.  

She discusses the role of fashion as a powerful medium for the exploration, representation and amplification of voices and cultures from around the world. Dilys notes that fashion can paradoxically be responsible for the silencing, shaming, and marginalising of individual and collective narratives. She encourages us to nurture stories of the ingenuity and creativity of humanity in its many forms, in and through fashion.  

Dilys also shares her own thoughts on some of the big questions you may be considering as you move through this Method: 

  • Why are stories so important to fashion? 

  • Why do you think that fashion’s role as explorer and representation of cultures should be rethought? 

  • Who do you think holds the power to tell stories through fashion? 


1.2 The Damaged Fruits of Fashion

“Those who consider clothes frivolous should consider that we live our lives in clothes.”

- Thomas Carlyle 

Fashion contributes to cultures through the collectively generated ideas that are shared about our values, hopes, and assumptions which are expressed and embedded within our clothes, style and ideas about fashion is.  

However, as we just explored in the previous section, fashion can be paradoxical, in that it can also be responsible for the marginalisation of such values. In this audio piece, London-based writer Wilson Oryema explores the tensions between the fruits of fashion and the harm that the fashion industrial machine creates. 

He describes how fashion contributes to human cultures through the multiple benefits it brings, not least through self-enhancement, self-understanding and defining social groups. However, he goes on to say, “this has not been just a fruitful endeavour, as we have damaged the tree which bears the fruit in the process. Now, we also run the risk of shaking the tree dry for all it’s worth, through the globalised fashion industry”. 


We’re now at the end of the section, where we explored:  

  • The relationship between fashion and cultures.  

  • The cultural challenges associated with the dominant fashion system.  

We will now move on to the next section, where we will investigate the significance of stories in fashion and how they relate to culture. For anyone interested in participating in the full Fashion Values: Cultures online course, the content in this section is linked to steps 1.3 and 1.5 for reference. 


2.1 The Role of Storytelling in Fashion

This section will explore the role of storytelling in fashion, and its significance in helping us to better understand the relationship between fashion, sustainability, and cultures. 

Understanding fashion, sustainability, and cultures is about more than examining the multiple garments and traditions of fashion or acknowledging difference in styles across cultures globally. It is also about more than understanding where and how our clothes are made, by whom, for whom and why. Understanding fashion, sustainability, and cultures also requires us to factor in the meaning of fashion and the stories that are told about fashion. It is about recognising whose stories and histories are heard and recognised, and what happens when these stories are appropriated, replaced, or rewritten by the dominant industrial fashion system. 

“Cognitive science scholarship suggests that human brains quite literally process the world through narratives. Literary and cultural studies explore ways that biodiversity shapes stories that communities tell about themselves: narratives of origins, evolving identities, and possible futures. From development studies and policy analysis, scholars show how narratives determine the ways that problems are defined, which actors should do what, and which solutions are desirable. As such, narratives can be a powerful tool to shape the world and mobilise individuals and groups.”

- The Luc Hoffmann Institute, Biodiversity Revisited 

But how do you re-write the existing narratives in fashion which are ‘damaging the tree’?  

Narratives and stories are hard to change, even when we have evidence to contradict them. Therefore, it is important to understand and critically examine stories as a tool in transforming fashion cultures. Stories are powerful ways to deal with the uncertainty of our current times, whether in terms of climate crisis, migration, growing inequity, or ecological emergency.  

“The correct response to uncertainty is mythmaking” [and stories] “are not to cure or even resolve uncertainty but to deepen into it. There’s no solving uncertainty”.

Martin Shaw 


2.2 A Cultural Studies Approach to Fashion

To understand fashion from a cultural perspective, we need to think about how to take a cultural studies approach. Let’s look at this in more detail.  

Cultural studies is a field of analysis that concentrates on the political dynamics of contemporary culture, its historical foundations, defining traits, conflicts and contingencies. It is primarily concerned with how cultural practices relate to wider systems of social and political power. When we talk about a cultural studies approach to fashion, we’re talking about fashion as a form of culture, whereby material objects contain traces and histories of the people who wore, used, and produced them. But we are also talking more broadly about what fashion means: how does fashion bring meaning to our lives beyond a manufactured physical object?  

When thinking about what fashion means, we can look at Carol Tulloch’s theory of style-fashion-dress. In this conceptual theory, Tulloch defines these terms as follows:  

Style enables us to consider the meaning of clothes in our everyday life. Clothes are viewed as a tool to navigate social and cultural life in different ways, and this is constantly changing. Style is therefore not something that is found in a shop. It is how we put clothes (that may or may not be ‘on trend’) together on our bodies in creative and active ways in our everyday life. We style ourselves to tell people who we are and who we want to be. Thinking about fashion in this way, we can see that each of us are active decision-makers, who use clothes to tell our stories. 

For Challenge applicants: What story are you trying to tell through your idea? How does your idea demonstrate meaning?  

Fashion is about the dominant social processes shared in any culture that signify change. This isn’t just about clothes, but other items too, such as food or technology. The relationship between fashion and style, as Caroline describes it, is that “fashion ensures style narratives are always in flux with changes in society”. In Cultural Studies, fashion is about more than the image and artefact. It is about meaning making, social processes and the cultural context of particular styles or dress. 

For Challenge applicants: How does your idea fit into the wider fashion system? How can it re-write old narratives and develop new processes for positive change?  

Dress is about the clothes we wear – what they are made of, the history, how they are made and so on. According to Caroline, dress could be seen as the most neutral of the three terms in that it refers to the process of dressing the body or modifying the body through garments and accessories. 

For Challenge applicants: What cultures have influenced your idea? How will your idea play out in a physical product, service, or system?   


We’re now at the end of the section, where we explored:  

  • The role of storytelling in fashion.  

  • What a cultural studies approach to fashion looks like, and how to apply it.  

  • The concepts of fashion, dress and style, and the relationship between them.  

Let’s now take these considerations and move on to the next section, where we will discuss how to take the stories we want to tell and develop them into real-life, working solutions.  

For anyone interested in participating in the full Fashion Values: Cultures online course, the content in this section is linked to steps 1.6, 1.7 and 1.8 for reference.  


3. Design Thinking

By now you should be feeling more confident in your understanding of fashion and cultures as well as the role of stories in highlighting this relationship, so let’s move on to think about how you can apply these learnings in your own practice. For Challenge applicants who may have ideas but are struggling to conceptualise them, this section will be particularly useful in helping you bring your solution to life. To do this, we will be looking at the concept of design thinking.  

In using design thinking to respond to a challenge, we would usually follow these steps: 

1. Empathise – Time to listen, learn and reflect. 

2. Define – Develop your own point of view, your own values, or your own path for exploration in a subject full of new ideas, knowledge, and data. Create a personalised problem statement. 

3. Ideate – Kickstart your creative thinking and come up with ideas and concepts to respond to your problem. Think radically and expansively to imagine new approaches and practices for fashion. Review and narrow down your ideas to just one for further exploration. 

4. Prototype – Prototype an idea to bring it to life, enabling you to test it. Make adjustments and improvements to your concept that could bring it closer to a reality. Visualise and think about the steps needed to bring your idea to life in the real world. 

The Fashion Values: Cultures brief encourages applicants to cultivate their skills in looking, listening, and learning from and with others in order to nurture multiple rich and diverse visions of fashion’s place in the world. Therefore, the first step: Empathise is particularly important in this year’s Fashion Values Challenge. To develop a strong Challenge application, we’re looking for ideas that have really connected with this first step of the design thinking process and used it to inform the following stages. To fully explore how fashion can nurture diverse and equitable cultures, it is important not to rush this process of observing and reflecting on a wide range of fashion experiences. Through engaging with the fashion stories of others, and developing stories of your own, you can define your own position or criteria to support the cultivation of diverse and equitable cultures through fashion. 

Activity for Challenge Applicants:  

Having been through the key stages of design thinking, why not have a go at the following activity to help embed your learnings from this section. 

Thinking about your application, take some time to consider how your idea has responded to each step in the design thinking process. Remember, the design thinking process can be applied to all kinds of ideas, not just physical products.  

  1. Empathise – what learnings and reflections have informed your idea?  

  2. Define – what is the problem statement for your idea?  

  3. Ideate – How have you responded to the problem statement in your idea? What is the solution?  

  4. Prototype – How have you/are you going to bring your idea to life? How feasible is your solution? 


 We’re now at the end of the section, where we explored:  

  • The design thinking process 

  • How to apply the design thinking process to the Challenge.  

 Let’s now move on to the next section, where we will conclude with some final reflections to help you retain what you’ve learnt in this Method.  

For anyone interested in participating in the full Fashion Values: Cultures online course, the content in this section is linked to step 1.15 for reference.  


4. Conclusions & Reflections

We’re now at the end of the Method. Let’s recap on some of the key topics we’ve covered:  

  • The role of culture in fashion and how these two concepts interact. 

  • The cultural challenges associated with the ‘damaged fruits’ of fashion.  

  • The significance of storytelling as a tool for positive change in fashion.  

  • How to approach fashion from a cultural studies perspective.  

  • The design thinking process as a method for developing ideas and creating solutions.  

Now take a moment to reflect on what you’ve learnt in each section and review your thoughts.

Below are some reflective questions to help you consolidate your thoughts. Reflecting on your learnings from this method will help you develop your Challenge application and help stimulate your ideas. You may want to write out these answers in a journal style entry or a stream of consciousness, or maybe you’d prefer to just consider them in your mind.   

  • What story/stories do you want to tell through fashion?  

  • Which cultures and histories are personally most important to you and why?  

  • How does fashion inform your own identity?  

  • Which individuals/groups do you want to mobilise through fashion?  

  • What is the change you want to see as a result of your idea? 


Other Resources

This method is in conjunction with one of a suite of four courses in the Fashion Values programme. The courses are a call to work towards a better and more sustainable future for all, by all. All courses build on the CSF framework for fashion and sustainability. Fashion Values: Nature, Fashion Values: Economy and Fashion Values: Society are also on FutureLearn. A more detailed look at the CSF Framework can be found in our first online course, Fashion & Sustainability

The Fashion Values Methods are short form learning resources that provide insights on fashion and sustainability. Previous methods cover topics from Fashion Values: Society, Fashion Values: Nature and an introduction to mindsets and shifting fashion perspectives. Each Method takes approximately 30-45 minutes to complete, and introduces you to the core issues, impacts, and industry contexts for each topic. 

For anyone who is interested in this year’s Fashion Values Challenge, applications are open until Midday (GMT) Monday 5th February 2024. For further resources, why not head over to our Voices page where you can find other useful insights into this year's Challenge theme.