I started sewing again as an adult with the purpose in mind of being able to sew interesting and inexpensive clothes that fit well and covered my body enough to meet my personal and religious standards of modesty. But as I've sewn more seriously for the last seven years and blogged about it for the last four, I've found two other reasons to continue to sew my own clothes: fairness and responsibility. I didn't know very much about the environmental and human rights issues in the fashion industry when I started sewing and buying my clothes and fabric secondhand. It was a practical decision, based more on saving money and being able to find things that were more to my taste than what I could find in stores. As I've become more aware of the many problems that beset the creation, consumption and disposal of clothing, it has given those old habits a new value. Buying second-hand clothing and fabric and using my own time and energy to sew and mend them offer me a way to wear clothes without feeling a profound sense of guilt.
That profound sense of unease and guilt over personal enjoyment of fashion causing harm to other people and to the environment is at the heart of Clare Press' Wardrobe Crisis. Press works as an editor at Vogue Australia, and has worked all of her career in fashion journalism. Her inside-view of the fashion industry strongly shapes her book: much of it focuses on high end fashion and the way that it trickles down into fast fashion. She looks at the fashion cycle in great detail, and also delves into the history of fashion through the 20th century and into the 21st, showing how the fashion industry has changed and how it became a globalized behemoth worth $2.4 trillion a year at the time this book was published in 2018. One of my favorite bits of fashion history that she included in this section was the surprisingly Utopian ideal behind the development of shopping malls in America. What was meant to be a social center like the marketplaces of Europe became instead a vehicle for manipulation of customers by companies. That feeling of becoming lost in the mall and shopping mindlessly is now known as the "Gruen transfer," ironically named after the disappointed socialist who had so hopefully created the first malls.
While packed with facts and written in a conversational tone, sometimes the first half of the book could feel very irrelevant and distant from my personal experience, focused as it is on high end runway fashion, furs, labels, and money. There is much in the book to feel melancholy about---much to feel depressed by. The second half of the book felt more widely relevant because it covers quite a bit of the science behind the production of clothing and why it is so toxic to the environment and to the (often poor) people who turn the fabric into garments. The chapters about the history and creation of different fabrics like rayon and nylon is especially eye-opening. It made me realize how important it is to be very careful about our fabric choice as sewers, because sewing our own clothing is not quite enough to make those garments ethical or environmentally sustainable.
The last chapter, entitled "Can We Really Change Our Ways?" looks closely at the conundrum of clothing: it is harmful to over-consume it, but it is also empowering to have choices and enjoy what we wear. Buying second-hand or dead-stock----anything that already exists----is our best choice to clothe ourselves without harming people or the earth further. Tamara DiMattina, the founder of "Buy Nothing New Month," points out that there shouldn't be any stigma about wearing pre-worn garments: "when you book into a luxury hotel, you're not given brand new sheets, are you? You are using a towel that's been used by someone else, then laundered... No one goes to a restaurant and thinks, ewww, that cutlery has been used before, and yet people think it's gross to buy it second-hand..." She goes on to say: "I am no expert in sustainability. I'm just one person who thinks that through some very simple changes we can do better by ourselves and the planet."
In some ways, this was a tough library book to read because so much of the information in it is so disheartening. But I agree with DiMattina, and with Press that it is worthwhile to try to make those "simple changes." There is a saying in my church that "by small and simple things great things are brought to pass," and I do believe that if we each individually change our relationship to clothing (and food, and public transit, and so many other things that we make choices about daily) that we can make a difference together, and make this world a little better for everyone to live in.
Mr and Mrs Rat
Mr and Mrs Rat like to sew.