Thursday, 31 May 2018

Wardrobe Diary: turning my teenage fashion choices into family heirlooms

What’s the oldest item of clothing in your wardrobe? Do you have hand-me-downs from siblings, parents, grandparents? We often see jewellery as heirlooms to be handed down through generations, but clothes are more ephemeral, and in recent years, more disposable. 

I’ve been taking part in the Slow Fashion Challenge over on Instagram, and several of the prompts have made me think about the clothes that I have hung on to despite numerous wardrobe clearances, and why I have kept certain outfits despite the fact that I am probably not going to wear them again. 

I’ve never been very good at keeping a diary, but while I’ve been searching through my wardrobe for garments to illustrate prompts like “throwback” and “hand-me-down” I’ve realised that my wardrobe acts as a sort of diary. The trends I’ve tried out, the special occasions and impulse buys that have marked my eclectic clothes-buying habits over the years might only be represented by a couple of items of clothing lurking at the back of my closet (ok, fine, I have a separate wardrobe for my “museum”, please don’t judge me) but they are a great reminder of certain times in my life. 

The burgundy velvet jacket I bought in Rokit in Brighton in the mid Nineties reminds me of the tentative steps towards independence I was taking as a teenager: figuring out how to make my monthly clothing allowance and meagre pub-kitchen-pot-scrubbing wages go further by shopping in the Lanes rather than the Churchill Square shopping centre. Spending a Saturday free from the watchful eyes of parents, rummaging for bargains and defiantly making purchases that I secretly hoped would shock when I brought them home. I’m sure my parents found my goth phase pretty funny, but they kept up impressive poker faces, and even my most outlandish ensembles were met with a mild “you look nice”. 

The neon pink top that formed part of my work wardrobe when I was a shop assistant at Cyberdog in Camden Market during my first term at uni also reveals another side to my personality. Folk music loving, quiet and contemplative me, who currently loves an early night, was also a big techno and drum n bass fan! I may not be able to party all night (fuelled only by cheese toasties) any more, but my music tastes are as eclectic as my fashion tastes, and probably always will be. 

The piece of clothing that started off my reflections on being a teenager was a blue knitted top. Originally owned by my aunt, who was a teenager in the Fifties, it was passed on to my Mum, who was a teenager in the Sixties, before making its way into a box of dressing up clothes that my sister and I wore as children. I liberated it when I was a teenager and I’ve been wearing it ever since. I love having a piece of vintage clothing that I know the origin story for, but I also love having something that links me to other members of my family. It’s a great reminder that my mum and aunt were also teenage trendsetters, exploring their personal style and trying to provoke a reaction.

I’ve been thinking back to the clothes I wore as a teenager because 90s trends have come back into fashion recently, and I’ve been reflecting on the evolution of my personal style. I definitely went through a phase where my reactions to my teenage fashion statements were “I wore what??” My viewpoint has changed over the years though, and now I’m proud of teenage me, for wearing whatever the heck she wanted, for occasionally inviting ridicule but working a look regardless, and developing shopping habits that have stuck with me to this day.

I might be delving back into this alternative form of wardrobe diary in the future, so stay tuned!

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Fixing fast fashion: adding pockets to your clothes

“I like your dress”

If you’ve spent any time on the internet in the last few years, you’ll probably be familiar with this meme. If you’re a person who wears dresses, chances are you will have said exactly the same thing when someone compliments your outfit.

Everyone seems to love pockets, but fast fashion cost-cutting means that they are often left out of dresses, skirts and even some trousers designed for women. Visiting the Balenciaga exhibition at the V&A last year, I was struck by how many of the couture evening coats and capes had pockets; private clients must have been requesting pockets for occasionwear as well as more practical everyday clothes. It is frustrating that at a time when we have devices that help us to live our lives on the go, we have nowhere to store these devices about our persons. My smartphone is at the small end of the scale, and I wouldn’t trust it to stay put in some trouser pockets. Rachel Charlton-Dailey points out the disparity between the sensible-sized pockets in clothing designed for men, and the frequently useless or fake pockets in womenswear in her article for the Nopebook,  Pockets Are A Tool Of The Patriarchy.

One solution is to add pockets to our own clothes, the easiest of course being a patch pocket, a square or rectangle stitched onto the garment around three sides. If you prefer a pocket that is less of a design feature, it’s easier than you might think to add a pocket into the side seam of any garment that isn’t skin tight. I’ve chosen this skirt to demonstrate on as I was going to shorten it to mid-calf anyway, so I’ll have enough fabric to make my pocket bags from the piece I cut off the hem. If you want to add pockets to a garment that you aren’t planning to alter, buying a piece of fabric about 30-50cm wide in a similar material to your garment should give you enough to make two pockets. 

To work out the size of my pocket bag I used my hand as a guideline; allowing at least 3-4cms all the way round means I have a decent sized pocket and enough seam allowance. 

I cut out two pairs of pockets (4 separate fabric pieces) and overlocked them together around the bottom and ‘inside’ edge. It’s easy to do this with a regular sewing machine too: sew a line 1cm away from the edge of the fabric, then use a zig-zag stitch on the edge to stop the fabric from fraying.

I am extending my pocket bag up into the waistband to anchor it more securely, but you can cut your pockets without this if you are short on fabric. If you’re doing this, your fabric pieces will look more like a pair of mittens without thumbs, so you can sew all the way around your pocket pieces at this stage, just leaving the opening for your hand.

You will need to unpick a section of the side seam of your garment to insert the pocket; it’s easiest to start at least 3-4cm below the waistband. I unpicked a section that was 15cm long, then backstitched the ends of the original seam so that they wouldn’t unravel any more. I then marked a 15 cm gap on the open edge of my pocket bag and finished off the edge above and below these marks, leaving a 1cm seam allowance around the open edge of my pocket bag.

To attach the pocket, pin the seam line on your garment to the seam line on your pocket bag with the right sides facing each other. Machine stitch all around the opening of the pocket, then finish off the raw edge with a zig-zag stitch.

You can then press the edges of the pocket so they lie flat and don’t show against the edge of the garment. If you are attaching the top of the pocket bag to the waistband, you can do this by hand if you don’t want to open the waistband up. Otherwise, you can pin the top edge of the pocket bag into place and sew from the right side of the garment so your stitch line will be as unobtrusive as possible.

And... you’re done! Sling your phone, keys or bus pass into your new pockets for a low maintenance life on the go. Now, when someone compliments you on your outfit, you’ll be able to say “Thanks! It has pockets!”

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Fashioned From Nature at the V&A

The history of fashion is deeply personal, with cherished garments surviving for centuries to give us a unique glimpse of someone’s style; a real-life manifestation of high-fashion garments that look impossible, or at the very least highly improbable, if you study contemporary cartoons. It is also global, a complex network of threads that have connected continents along trade routes and supply chains for millennia. It is a history of the search for novelty as well as practicality, of brutality as well as beauty.

Fashioned from Nature at the V&A looks at the complexity of the history of fashion through its relationship with the natural world, how inspiration and exploitation have become two sides of the same coin, and how we can break away from the bad practices that make fashion the second most polluting industry in the world.

The exhibition opens with an exploration of the range of materials that people have used for clothing over the centuries. Some materials that we would associate with years past, like flax (traditionally grown in Northern Europe and spun into linen), are enjoying a revival as we start to look for fibres that require less water for growing and processing. Other materials like baleen (from the keratin plates in a whale’s mouth that enable them to sift microscopic plankton from sea water) which was used for corset boning have thankfully been replaced by modern alternatives like flexible steel, although not before whales were hunted almost to extinction.

The exhibition doesn’t shy away from presenting the problematic past of some of our favourite fabrics; the history of cotton cannot be separated from the history of slavery in the U.S, with cotton plantations in the southern states reliant on slave labour. Wealthy mill owners in the U.K. also benefited from cheap raw materials from our occupation of India, and the exploitation of poorly-treated factory workers during the Industrial Revolution.

We are also shown the ways in which we have plundered the natural world, desperate to capture some of its beauty for ourselves. From the birds of paradise killed and stuffed to adorn accessories, to the wild animals hunted for their fur, and even the silk moth larvae that make one of our favourite luxury fabrics. Iridescent beetle wings decorate diaphanous muslin dresses, they were sought-after and widely used despite their exotic provenance because they were “cheaper and more accessible than an emerald or a ruby” according to a curator from the Natural History Museum in a video that accompanies the exhibition.

The exhibition isn’t all doom and gloom though; there are beautiful examples of how the natural world has inspired more sustainable homages. Exquisite embroidery adorns jackets and waistcoats, and the popularity of bold prints is illustrated by 17th and 18th century textiles, as well as 21st century designer gowns. There are also historical examples of fabrics I’d assumed were modern innovations: I love Pinatex, a faux leather made from pineapple fibre, as a material for shoes, but the exhibition features a dress from the 1830s made from a pineapple fibre that is woven to resemble a fine cotton lawn.

As well as showcasing natural materials and textiles, Fashioned From Nature reveals the unforeseen side-effects of trying to come up with man-made substitutes: the water pollution and chemical poisoning that began on a large scale with the invention of aniline dyes in the 1850s, and continues to this day. It also demonstrates the global nature of the fashion industry by tracking the production of garments from raw materials to shop floor, and the global devastation that the fashion industry can cause, from deforestation to the draining of the Aral Sea.

The exhibition strikes a hopeful note with inspiring examples of fashion innovation that combine great design with thoughtful production. A vast array of fashion textiles, from specially moulded sneaker parts to knitting yarn, can be made from reclaimed fabric waste. Elsewhere, designers are turning other kinds of post-consumer waste into high fashion, a great example being a strikingly chic Salvatore Ferragamo ensemble made a fabric derived from citrus fibre.  Other design collectives are synthesising brand new materials from organic sources, like Bolt Threads bio-engineered “spider silk” and mushroom leather.

Knitting and crochet have always been great ways of producing zero-waste clothing, and designers Katie Jones and Unmade eliminate wasteful overproduction by making their knitwear to order. Fashioned From Nature makes it clear to us that the apparent over abundance of clothing is an illusion that cannot be maintained forever, given the looming spectre of climate change and irreversible environmental degradation. However, the exhibition never suggests that this means we have to give up our love of clothes, or our desire for beautiful things.

My favourite piece in the exhibition was the most beautiful piece of zero-waste clothing I have ever seen. Made during World War Two from strips of salvaged parachute silk, this exquisitely delicate blouse is made from thin strips of fabric, embroidered together to create a fitted shape. Its style is a tantalising mix of a demure shape and daringly sheer fabric, and as I stared at it my imagination ran away with me and I started thinking about the woman who made it. Was she making it for a special occasion, waiting for a sweetheart to return? Was she having to do this painstaking work by poor light in the evenings, tired out from war work? Creating something so soft and light from an object that was part of the destructive machinery of war is the best example I can think of for the transformative power of fashion; we all have to make sure we use this power for good.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

A sustainable life, step by step

I’ve always felt vaguely embarrassed at the thought of referring to a period of change or self-discovery in my life as a “personal journey”. I don’t know exactly why, possibly because I associated it with scripted reality shows, or possibly because I’ve never done that much reflecting before; I’ve just gone on to the next thing. This has all changed recently though; after 18 months of writing an ethical fashion blog and reflecting on the impact that has had on my lifestyle and me as a person, I’ve changed my mind. A journey is the best metaphor for living a more ethical lifestyle, because the only way you can sustain it is by taking it one step at a time. 

I went on holiday to Cornwall and spent most of it walking; after a period of sluggishness and exhaustion it felt amazing to be out in the fresh air, seeing the beauty of the natural world all around me. I didn’t set myself any goals for how far I planned to walk, so I was pretty surprised when each day the step counter on my phone showed I had walked around 12km. Assisted by nothing more than a rucksack of tasty treats and my trusty new Eco Vegan Shoes walking boots, I kept putting one foot in front of the other because I liked the look of where I was heading, as well as taking time to enjoy everything around me.

When I started writing this blog I thought I was fairly well-informed about the fashion industry, but it’s ended up being a steep learning curve, with many more complications and nuances than I had expected. I am by no means leading a perfect sustainable lifestyle, or even the owner of a perfectly ethical wardrobe, but each new fact I have learned has prompted me to take another step towards a more sustainable future.

Following a new path can be daunting, so it’s best to start with familiar terrain and a good view. Looking through my existing wardrobe and reorganising it on a regular basis reminds me that I own plenty of clothes that are waiting patiently to be worn, so I don’t “need” to buy something new. It’s also a good way of working out what I’m avoiding wearing and why; whether some of my unworn clothes need refashioning or rehoming because certain styles just aren’t working for me.

We can follow well-trodden routes without thinking, but stepping off the beaten track means you can discover something really exciting. Shopping sustainably means I have been able to buy amazing limited edition designs from brands that are just starting out, using exciting new materials and innovative production techniques. There is also an extra feel-good factor to this; knowing that I am supporting small business owners who are treating their staff fairly and giving back to the community rather than lining the pockets of billionaires. 

Once you are really enjoying following this path, something that once looked like an obstacle becomes far less significant.  When I first made new shopping “rules” for myself I was worried that I would struggle to find certain items, but this hasn’t really been the case. As someone who enjoys seeking out unusual and interesting fashion, shopping ethically has led me to discover so many unique and beautiful brands, and means I never need to worry about turning up in the same outfit as someone else! As I am spending more time planning and researching purchases, I’m not wasting money on impulse buys that don’t work with the rest of my wardrobe.

Don’t be afraid to ask for directions. There is a wonderful online community of people who are ready to help you live a more sustainable lifestyle. Social media often gets a bad reputation; members of a “community” are judgemental, aggressive or falsely advertise a “perfect” lifestyle. This couldn’t be further from my experience of the sustainable living community; everyone I’ve met either online or in person has been kind, supportive and truthful. The community values collaboration over competition and doesn’t criticise anyone for not being perfect - because none of us are! 

It’s fine to stop and take a break. I’m writing this blog to help make people aware of the possibilities of a sustainable lifestyle, not to make them feel bad if they can’t make the same decisions I can. I have found that living a more sustainable lifestyle has been good for my mental and physical health (I've written about it in these blog posts ) but everyone is different, and I’d be the first to admit that when life gets really demanding I’m not thinking so much about the plastic packaging or palm oil in whatever tasty treat I’m buying for myself. Every small thing you do counts, and no-one should make you feel bad for doing what you need to do to take care of yourself, physically and mentally.

Taking it one step at a time means you can cover large differences without realising. Phrases like “zero waste” and “plastic free” can seem completely unattainable, but once I was committed to making sustainable clothing purchases it seemed like a logical next step to get a reusable coffee cup and water bottle, to take a spare tote bag with me when I go out,  and to get a veg box delivery which means minimal food packaging. There is always more you could be doing, but trying to do it all at once is impossible. Introduce small changes gradually, and you’ll reach a point where this all seems second nature.

Reflecting on where you’ve been and where you’re going isn’t self-indulgent or a waste of time (as past me had sometimes thought) it’s so useful and important to be able to appreciate the progress you’ve made and plan where you want to go next. There is a sense of urgency about this for me, because our disposable culture is already having severe, even deadly consequences, but I also know that this is a path I need to keep following without burning out. I might not know exactly where it leads, but I’ve picked a direction and I’m sticking with it.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Cosplay meets conscious consumerism

May The Fourth Be With You!

I’ve mentioned in a previous post how I enjoy combining my love of ethical fashion and sci-fi and fantasy by looking out for innovative new products that will (hopefully) save us from living in a dystopian hellscape. I also love the ways that the creators of imaginary worlds can critique our own by entertaining rather than lecturing us, and I’ve learned more about myself from fictional characters than I ever would have learned from a self-help book! 

Since today’s date has become synonymous with bad Star Wars puns, I thought I’d commemorate the occasion by putting together a “closet cosplay” (dressing up using clothes I already own) of one of my favourite lesser-known Star Wars characters, showing off one of my favourite sustainable fashion purchases, and musing about how movies can translate their aesthetic and message into merchandising. 

Although the Star Wars movies are a cultural phenomenon in their own right, they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to stories of a galaxy far, far away. While no one could ever replace Princess Leia (or Carrie Fisher) in my affections, I’ve developed a fondness for Hera Syndulla, who appears in the tie-in novel A New Dawn, set a couple of years before Rogue One and A New Hope. It’s a really fun story about middle-management shenanigans, how (and how not) to be a good activist, and how corporate greed devastates the environment. Oh, and there’s a reluctant Jedi and an exploding moon, if that’s more your sort of thing. Hera is a capable woman who lives by her principles, but gets people to join her cause through kindness rather than anger. That’s definitely something I aspire to! 

As a costume nerd, I’m always interested in a designer's background and where they get their ideas, so I was intrigued (but not surprised) to learn that John Mollo, the original costume designer, had a background as a military uniform historian. While his designs for the trio of heroes featured neutral styles with no specific ties to time or place, the uniforms worn by many of the Imperial officers on the Death Star resemble uniform worn by the axis powers during World War Two. Since Hera is working against the empire but isn’t part of the military, I’ve reimagined her costume as a 1940s Land Girl/factory worker style (this definitely wasn’t just an excuse to wear this cute dungarees and blouse combo).

While the rest of the outfit is vintage, the shoes are one of my favourite and most versatile new-ish purchases, from Po-Zu shoes. The silver leather is actually Pinatex, a vegan leather substitute made from pineapple fibres. I’ve been so excited about this material ever since I first heard about it; it combines natural fibres with a high-tech, futuristic finish. Made into shoes with soles from ethically sourced rubber and a memory foam insole, they are some of the comfiest I’ve ever owned, not to mention the most eye-catching! 

I really love the Star Wars by Po-Zu collaboration and want to see more like this: well-designed tie-in merchandise that is functional and versatile, rather than just a novelty item that is quickly going to be discarded. Big movie franchises have a captive audience for branded clothing; clothing that will put a smile on our faces because we are reminded of our favourite stories, and help us to make connections with other fans.

It would be great if we could add to the feel-good factor by knowing that our geeky garments are made ethically and sustainably; independent t-shirt printers Teemill work with Rapanui, whose t-shirts are made from organic cotton in a wind-powered factory; it would be incredible if this could happen on a wider scale. The stories we love are often about someone trying to make the world a better place, standing up against cruelty and greed, and working to improve the lives of people they might never meet because it’s the right thing to do. The fashion industry isn’t just the chain stores on the high street, it’s everywhere we buy our clothes, and there’s room for improvement everywhere. You might not be able to fight aliens single-handed, but you can always ask “who made my clothes?”