Made from flannel, it’s as comfy as a bed-sheet and if you match it with a leather jacket and boots, it’s a tiny bit ‘Westwood-meets-the-burbs’. That’s if you’re squinting. If you don’t squint, I could pass as a brickie. Win-win.
Either way, I pretty much love everything about my new shirt, except the price. At the checkout, I nearly keeled over when it flashed up.
Too cheap. Way, way too cheap. Let’s look at the costs – a metre of fabric, 14 buttons, sewing thread, and the airplane or boat that brought it here from Bangladesh. Can’t leave much for the people who made it, can it?
As Clare Press points out in Wardrobe Crisis, ‘Fashion remains ones of the most labour-intensive industries on earth, and human, not robots, still cut and stitch out clothes.’
I think of the human hands that touched my shirt. Cut the cloth. Stitched the seams. Sewed on those 14 buttons.
If I paid $6.50 for all of that, how much did they get paid?
A generation ago the idea of an adult-sized shirt costing the same as a loaf of bread would have been unthinkable. Yet here we are, and it’s how we got here that interests Clare Press.
Her book is like a potted history of fashion over the last 100 years. However, if you’re worried that this is a book of style over substance, don’t be. It’s OK if you don’t know your bag-bug from your backyard bug. While there’s enough ‘fashiony’ detail to satisfy the ‘clothesy’ among us, there’s also a huge amount of detail about the human and environmental cost of fast fashion – the irony being that the cheaper clothes get, the higher the price paid by the people who make them, and the greater the toll on our planet.
With a background in fashion and journalism, Press has a witty and entertaining writing style that seeks to find narrative and personality in her subject matter. While some of it makes for truly depressing reading (rivers running blue in China’s seat of denim production) there are also positive stories of designers doing the right thing. Big names like Stella McCartney, and little ones too, like the label Petite Mort that uses fur from the one-million-plus animals that become roadkill in the US each year.
When it comes to the quirky side of sustainable fashion, Press seems to have a nack for sniffing it out. There’s the lady that knits jumpers out of pet hair that’s fallen naturally from the animal, and the company that’s trying to make fabric out of spoiled milk. Humans are nothing if not ingenious, which is probably why we’re in this mess.
According to Press, the reasons behind the mania for fast fashion are many and varied – we could blame Sarah Jessica Parker (as Carrie Bradshaw) for telling us that it’s OK to spend an entire salary on shoes, but we could also blame the polarisation of wealth, the savvy marketing machine that creates a new ‘must-have’ ever season, or the internet for the way it has created a savvy customer that demands convenience and speed.
But all of those don’t quite get to the nub, which for me, is fairly simple. Fast fashion exists because it can exist. Because we can make it, and we can buy it. Simple as that. The trickier bit is – how do we reign it all in?
Clare Press has a few ideas. For a start, we could start by asking better questions about where the clothes on our backs come from? Who made them? How much were they paid and under what conditions were they working?
We can also make better choices – buy organic cotton, shop vintage and overall, shop consciously. Change is possible. You only have to look at the proliferation of farmers markets to know that people are interested in where their consumables come from. If it can happen with food, surely it can happen to fashion?
I have a feeling Dame Vivienne Westwood would hate my $6.50 shirt, even though it evokes the semi-punk style she has always adored. The rebellious British designer has always taken the unconventional approach and has served as somewhat of an industry leader when it comes to matters environmental. As Press notes, when Westwood opens her new Paris shop this year, there will be two words inscribed above the door. ‘Buy less’ it will say… Then again, it is a shop, so presumably, you should still buy something.
These inherent hypocrisies are as much a challenge for the industry as they are for the consumer, especially those (like me) who want to do the right thing but have a wardrobe stuffed full of clothes that have no doubt caused harm to the environment, and the people who made them.
What’s a well-dressed person to do?
Specifically, what’s a well-dressed person to do with a $6.50 shirt that now makes them feel morally bankrupt?
Well, here’s what I’m not going to do. I’m not throwing it out, or giving it to charity (just in Melbourne, the Salvos tip fees are $3 million a year) and I’m not going to keep it hidden in the closet in shame.
Here’s what I will do. I’m going to honour that shirt, and the underpaid person who made it, by wearing it well. By caring for it so that it can serve me for the next ten years. And when it’s no longer wearable, I know it will make a fabulous dusting cloth or shoe polisher.
With me, this shirt will have a long life, and more importantly, I’m not going to buy another one like it ever again. As Clare Press says, ‘It’s impossible to determine the true value of something when you don’t know how it came to be, or what it means. My grandmother’s silver sandals meant freedom – what does your seventh pair of jeans mean?’
For more information on Wardrobe Crisis, visit Black Inc. Books