Our clothing is a powerful method of non-verbal communication, and can have a really positive impact if we are able to make it work for us. But what do we do if the fashion industry isn't giving us the chance to say what we want to say?
I've written about about the limitations of fast fashion when it comes to fitting or flattering our bodies, but I've also written about the fun we can have with our clothes, even indulging in some closet cosplay to give us the confidence of our favourite fictional characters when the going gets tough. I strongly believe that clothes should make you feel comfortable, both physically and psychologically, but I also think clothing works well as armour, equipping us to deal with challenging situations by projecting an image of strength, competence or resilience that perhaps we need a bit of help to feel authentically.
I've been dealing with both physical and mental health issues recently, and sometimes the thought of everything I need to do in a day makes it almost impossible to get out of bed. But I know that flopping around in my pyjamas will only make me feel worse, so every evening before I go to bed I lay out a nice outfit, and every morning I force myself to put it on, to brush my hair, apply some make-up. Seeing the person I want to be looking back at me in the mirror reminds me that I am more than my problems, I have the strength to cope with difficult situations and work towards the goals I have set for myself. It might sound shallow, but looking good makes me feel much better about myself; it makes me feel like I should be out and about in the world, rather than huddling at home.
My relationship with my clothes has changed and evolved since I became a more conscious consumer; taking part in Labour behind the Label's Six Items Challenge cemented my view of my favourite clothes as valuable and versatile rather than disposable, and while I'm thinking much more carefully about the clothes I buy new now, I also apply the same scrutiny to the clothes I already own. If my clothes aren't looking their best, or making me look my best, I alter them, mend them, or decide they weren't really meant for me and take them to a clothes swap or charity shop. I remember my dad making fun of the designer logo trend that was popular in the 90s ("they should be paying me if they want me to advertise their brand!"); it wasn't a fad I ever bought into, but I do want to be a good advert now for ethical and sustainable fashion. I want people to see that alternatives to fast fashion are smart and stylish, and to dispel the outdated and inaccurate stereotypes that occasionally still linger around eco-friendly or second-hand clothes. All the outfits I've worn this week feature clothes from swaps, second-hand shops, or are rejected manufacturing samples or things I have made myself!
The fact that the clothes I am now choosing to buy are manufactured in ways that align with my personal values adds another feel-good factor to my wardrobe. I know I'm trying my hardest to have the smallest possible negative impact on other people and the environment; my values are lived, not performative. Ethical fashion blogger Tolly Dolly Posh makes a strong case for ethical and sustainable fashion as a feminist movement, and points out "FEMINIST" t-shirts need to be more than just a slogan stamped on a shirt that has been made in a sweat shop. This was certainly a concern for my friends at The Suffragette City, who didn't want their "Same Shit, Different Century" fundraising t-shirts and bags (created to raise money for Abortion Rights) to be asking for a better world through their slogan only. They chose to partner with Rapanui (through Teemill) a company who make their clothes and bags from organic cotton in an ethically accredited wind-powered factory.
There is an element of privilege here, because ethical products are often more expensive than their fast fashion equivalents, but there are also vast, global issues under the surface: if the average consumer's wages are so low that we are unable to clothe ourselves or our families without buying items made in sweatshops, should we be clamouring for more sweatshop-made clothing, or for global change that results in less wage inequality so that we can all have nice things? Ethical and sustainable brands are usually run by young entrepreneurs, keen to make a difference but aware that they have bills to pay. High street fast fashion brands are run by some of the richest people on the planet, who somehow still can't afford to pay their workers a fair wage. I know who I would rather give my money to!
Ethical and sustainable fashion can be inaccessible for reasons other than cost; this Refinery 29 article features plus-size fashion bloggers discussing the problems they have faced trying to find clothes that fit their values and their bodies. I received a detailed and thoughtful email from my aunt, a savvy charity shop bargain finder (it must run in the family, my sister and cousin have a talent for it too!) who wants to find ethical fashion for older women at a price point she can afford on a pension. Although the new brands I have been looking at definitely seem to have more diverse models, it’s important for all customers to see themselves represented, so that ethical and sustainable fashion will be seen as the norm, as something for everyone, rather than as a niche purchase for people with money and the time to go searching online for the perfect piece of clothing.
So what can we do to get the clothes we want, in a way that is good for everyone? We can ask for what we want! Contact small brands and ask if they can make something in your size (some of these brands work on a bespoke model in the first place to avoid the wastage of unwanted stock, so it might be possible without a large increase in price), or ask what their plans are for including your size in their range in the future. Sometimes a brand has to start with a capsule collection in limited sizes in order to fund a roll-out of a variety of sizes and styles later on. We should also contact bigger brands and ask them to increase workers' wages, or to use sustainable materials. We tend to demand more of smaller brands with accessible customer service when we have spent more (which is absolutely our right as consumers), but blame ourselves for buying cheap clothes that don't fit or are poorly made, and are more likely to give or throw away the offending item rather than complaining. Multinationals need to be made aware of their mistakes too; they are not going to change unless they think customers won't buy their products any more.
It used to be normal to be demanding when it came to our clothes: if we were having an outfit made by a dressmaker or tailor we would select specific fabric, fastenings and trims, have our measurements taken, come back for fittings, and insist on quality materials and finish. The price we pay for low cost fast fashion isn't just the damage to the environment or the exploitation of workers, it's that, unless we are very lucky and exactly the same size and proportions as a shop's fit model, nothing will ever fit us perfectly. Fast and cheap also has an impact on innovation and vision; it's hard for designers to produce unique and inspiring work that pushes the world of fashion forward when they are being asked for eight collections per year instead of two, with high street brands following suit and cutting down on design details to save time and money.
We can support the brands that help us to look and feel like the best versions of ourselves, and ask the brands that are letting us down to do better. I'll leave you with this quote from author and sustainable living advocate Anne Lappe:
“Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want”