It all began with an NPR All Things Considered piece–as so many of the interesting things in my life tend to do–that seemingly most of my department heard. In an odd moment of end of term synchronicity, everyone was talking about the snippet (no one heard the whole thing) about the new book on fast fashion by Elizabeth Cline called Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s definitely on my to read list. Her argument about fast fashion, the industry term for the rapidity chains like H&M, Forever 21, and Zara can churn out new product, is a compelling one. That kind of fashion is cheaply made in horrific working conditions in the developing world, and it’s even more alarming after the collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh last month, which at last count killed over a 1,000 people. I was in the H&M in Chicago last year, and one of the sales clerks told us that the store in NYC was open 24hrs, he presumed so that when you ruined your little party dress while out, you could go buy another right then.
Yet, Cline’s solution–she stopped buying fast fashion, continued to vintage shop, reused/repaired/made over older items/ started buying higher end, made in the US pieces like JBrand jeans–is just not a rationale one on a large scale. She champions a return to sewing our own garments, which I laud her for, but has she actually felt the fabrics at a mass chain like JoAnn’s? It’s not like they’re produced in a better fashion or in higher quality than the clothes she is critiquing. Admittedly, I’m working from what she said of her argument in the All Things Considered piece, so maybe her argument is more nuanced than this, but I suspect it isn’t because this type of argument rarely is. It’s the same one we got about fast food and the locavore or slow food movement. Changing your individual consumer habits is important–how else do we affect changes like the wide spread use of compact florescent–but typically, it’s not enough on a larger scale. Indeed, the only reason my house now has every light-bulb as a compact fluorescent is because I signed up for the free weatherization program from my electric company. They replaced all the old light-bulbs that hadn’t gone out yet that I hadn’t changed to a compact fluorescent because I was frugally waiting until the bulb actually went out before changing it over. For them, it’s low cost measure that helps them with energy grid overload. I would have eventually changed every light-bulb over, but I wasn’t going to do it until there was an actual need upon my part–i.e. I needed a light to work. And full disclosure, the overhead light in my office hasn’t worked in like a year because there’s either a short or the connector came loose in the ceiling fan box. The fan works, which is what I mostly care about, so I haven’t had the inclination to fix it. There’s the difference between an individual and corporate change.
Individual consumer choices aren’t just driven by a rational based on what does the most good for changing industry practices. Some people can and will make choices based on that aspect, but most won’t because most have other factors that outweigh how the clothing was produced. We demand that college students and other entry level workers entering the work force dress a certain way, but we don’t pay them enough for them to buy higher end clothing. Because I had student taught in college, I had enough work oriented clothing that I never got in trouble about dress while I temped during the summer. I remember one poor girl repeatedly was told she couldn’t wear “going out clothes” to work, yet she couldn’t afford to go buy a whole new work appropriate wardrobe. And, I wasn’t actually dressed as I should have been, but as a temp worker, no one cared enough to tell me otherwise.
Again, I feel like the argument being made here (and remember I’m working from the interview not the full book) is one that completely ignores the class dimensions of the first world. Most people in the US do not make enough to buy higher end garments or have the time to make clothes or afford higher end fabrics to sew with. Sewing is now a leisure activity, which is why most places you buy fabric at are stores that cater to hobbies.
Just as the women in the comment section of this NY Times piece on Jockey’s new bra fit system lamenting the lost, mythic, helpful and fully knowledgeable sales woman of the department store of the 1960s? (70s? 80s? I’m not sure when this person ceased to exist) seem to miss the fact that department stores no longer make the revenue to employ such people at what they’re worth. They also complain about the $60 price point for a bra that’s all but custom fitted, so I’m just not sure what people want here–custom fit or mass produced? There’s no way to have both.
Bespoke and made to fit clothing costs. Clothing in non-synthetic fabrics costs. I read a lot of historical murder mysteries, usually set in the early 20th century. I love the way these books talk about clothing, particularly Jaqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, which features a trip to Liberty in one novel. Maisie and another woman spend the afternoon feeling the lush fabrics. There’s a nostalgic thread that runs through these novels and in these arguments for a lost time, when things were supposedly slower and were made with eye an to craftsmanship, which is just uniformed at best and foolish at worst. The Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century made the same lament about furniture, other household items, and fashion. It’s not a coincidence that Liberty fabrics were part of this movement; their use of pattern mimicked the medieval designs preferred by the aesthetes. They’re still made today, and run about $36.00 a yard in the US. It takes roughly two and 1/2 to four yards to make a dress, depending on the pattern, size, and how much extra you give yourself for mistakes, etc. Just the fabric, not any of the extras–zipper, buttons, sewing thread–is $90-$144.
Inherently, this is an argument about taste and class wrapped up in a good dose of nostalgia. If you can afford these well-crafted objects, then you’re advertising both your class position and your good taste. If you can afford to eat local only or buy expensive, eco conscious jeans, then you’re saying more about your class position with your consumer choice than you are about the fast fashion industry. If you read a nineteenth-century novel, you’ll quickly see that getting bespoke clothing broke most people. It’s where Pip starts to go wrong in Great Expectations. In the Little House on the Prairie series, the later books spend a lot of time detailing just how labor intensive making your own clothes actually was. People started buying ready made clothing because it was cheaper and freed up time for other leisure pursuits. If you don’t have to spend hours making your own patterns (Butterick’s didn’t start making paper patterns until the 1870s), making a mock up in muslin, and then making and fitting the actual dress, then you could do so many other things.
Don’t get me wrong: Cline or Michael Pollan or anyone else working on these issue of capitalist, first world consumer habits are doing really important work in raising consumer consciousness. We need to be thinking about these things. It has me thinking and reviewing my own clothing buying habits. I just wish that the nostalgia for this mythic past where goods were somehow pure of any production taint took the class dimensions of the argument more seriously. Yes, the garment industry in the developing world is appalling, but we have our own poor right at home who are also victimized by the outsourcing of production, who have to buy cheap mass produced goods, and who don’t have the time or resources to make their own clothing. None of these issues have a simple solution.