Thoughts on sustainability

When did we stop appreciating the value of what we wear?

Less than a century ago people still made their own clothes or waited patiently for local dressmakers to make their new garments. We valued the skills and time that went into making our fashion and treasured garments or repurposed them until there was nothing left.

Today museums collect and display a vast array of garments from the past that are examples of the skills and craftsmanship of the makers and designers whose work was so clearly appreciated and treasured that it survived to become part of such collections. We value these garments and as the public, flock to exhibitions to see these beautiful pieces and marvel at the work put into those. Yet there is a huge disconnect, in this globalised world, with the makers and processes behind our clothes today.

When exactly did we stop considering the work and skill that goes into fashion and the clothes we wear? Was it around the industrial revolution – when sewing machines were first introduced and it became easier and faster to make garments? Was it when Ready to Wear was first introduced and we could no longer see the time and effort being put in by other people? Or was it when from the 1960s US and European countries began to outsource to the developing world to keep their costs low and supply the demand for affordable clothing.

The term fast fashion was first coined in the 1990s by the New York Times in relation to Armancio Artega, founder of Zara, to describe the mission of his store which said that “it would only take 15 days for a garment to go from a designer's brain to being sold on the racks”. 

Fast fashion has developed from a product-driven concept based on a manufacturing model referred to as "quick response" developed in the U.S. in the 1980s and moved to a market-based model of "fast fashion" in the late 1990s and first part of the 21st century. Fast fashion has also become associated with disposable fashion because it has delivered designer product to a mass market at relatively low prices.

Slow fashion and looking to the past

Museums and costume archives give us a glimpse into the past, to processes and attitudes towards garments. Looking back at darning and mending techniques, dresses designed to be let out during pregnancy or looking back at the Make Do and Mend movement during World War II. 

With the increased awareness of climate change and our impact on the planet there is a slowly increasing interest in repairing, mending and reusing. The slow fashion movement has risen in response to Fast Fashion. With an emphasis on quality, sustainable, ethical production and creating pieces that develop environmental friendly practices in the industry. Leaders in this revolution include Stella McCartney, one luxury designer who focuses on sustainable and ethical practices, and has done so since the nineties.

Fashion Revolution is a global movement with a vision for

"A global fashion industry that conserves and restores the environment and values people over growth and profit."

Fashion Revolution Week happens every year in the week surrounding the 24th of April. This date is the anniversary of the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse. Rana Plaza, a building in Bangladesh, housed a number of garment factories, employing around 5,000 people.The people in this building were manufacturing clothing for many of the biggest global fashion brands.Over 1,100 people died in the collapse and another 2,500 were injured, making it the fourth largest industrial disaster in history. The victims were mostly young women. 

What can we do?

Start by appreciating the clothes that you already have. 

Recently curator Charlotte McReynolds, from the National Museums Northern Ireland, in conjunction with Reimagine Remake Replay, ran a webinar talking about curating and investigating your clothes. It was an interesting take to investigate our own wardrobe in the way garments in a museum are curated. 

We looked at the labels to see the brand; where it was made and what materials it was made from. From here we could look up the brand to see their practices, see if they had traceable information on where it was made, the conditions the people making it worked in and have an idea of how far this garment had travelled to the point at which we bought it. Think about the price you paid for the item and consider how much of that went to the people making it rather than the store's markup.

The more you know about your clothes, the people making them and the processes and materials that go into them the more you begin to appreciate them. Try not to see garments as disposable - the less items you dispose of the less you buy. Supply is driven by demand so if you begin to remember you don't need a new wardrobe for every micro-season, to shop for you and what you love to wear, not just for what the big brands tell you you need this season, the less harmful production is required. Buy things that - in the words of Marie Kondo - "Spark Joy" - for you. Think about your favourite garment - why do you love it? Is there a memory or feeling attached to it that makes you want to keep it? We should love our entire wardrobes like this. 

Support sustainable and ethical brands, your local designers and makers, and  consider shopping pre-loved. If you do have clothes to dispose of, do so considerately - try charity shops, clothes bins or clothes swaps. 

So why not join the slow fashion revolution and do what you can to support the environment, people working in the industry and love and cherish your wardrobe. When lockdown ends and you visit a museum take a look at the quality and craftsmanship in the garments, read up about the processes of mending and darning and consider how we once lived in relative harmony with the environment and what we wear wasn't destroying the planet, and think before you support harmful practices in the industry.