Something for a rainy day

Sophie Caldecott

Made to last | PYLOT Magazine

A few months ago I wrote a piece about ethical fashion, vintage clothing, and loving, caring for, and passing down treasured pieces of our wardrobes to the next generation for a new magazine called PYLOT. They’ve kindly given me permission to publish the piece here, and if you are an arty type who’d like to explore some Photoshop-free fashion photography and features on the theme of ‘Craft’, you can buy the magazine here.

All the photographs here are by my talented little sister, Rose-Marie Caldecott.

ethical fashion, vintage fashion, PYLOT magazine

When I was younger my sisters and I used to love taking my grandmother’s 1950s ball gown down from its box in the attic. We would reverentially peel back the tissue paper that swathed it, eager to glimpse the constellations of crystal beads lying clustered in pools of gathered black chiffon.

My grandmother, Pamela Crampton, died when I was twelve years old. I remember her as she was in her later years; a larger than life presence in her small Kensington flat, with her overflowing hat boxes, and stories from her modelling days in Paris. With whom, and where she wore the ball gown that she passed on to us are things I can no longer ask her, but wearing it I feel a connection between us more tangible than our shared DNA. This dress links us; the boning in the bodice pressed the same faint lines into our skin, the same chiffon tickled the backs of our knees. This is the magic of passing on treasured pieces of clothing.

When I think about my own wardrobe, I realise that the legacy I leave my daughter is pitifully small. I am part of the fast fashion generation, the generation of Primark, Zara, and H&M. It is a generation of plenty, of quick fixes, and of waste. We buy cheap, poor quality clothing, worn a few times until it falls apart, thrown away without even an attempt at repair – because, after all, the cost of repair is often higher than the item’s original value. According to a study into the rates of supply and demand by Textrend.org in 2008, British consumers now demand roughly four times the number of clothes that they did in 1980. Each person in the UK consumes roughly 20 kilos of brand new clothes on an annual basis, and almost the same quantity is dumped.

The durability of vintage clothing is impressive, aging much more gracefully over many decades than brand-new modern pieces do in a few months. Rifling through the rails at any vintage clothing shop, it is easy to see how prevalent excellent craftsmanship and good quality were before the phenomenon of fast fashion took off over the past thirty years. Up until the late eighties, trends moved slower. There were essentially two seasons that matched nature’s cycles – Spring/Summer for warmer weather, and Autumn/Winter for colder weather. Aesthetics and utility worked in unison, and clothing was an investment. Where once it was a rare luxury for products to be made abroad, it is now a rare luxury for products to be made locally, by hand.

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Somehow, while we were caught up in all the fun of tulip skirts, military jackets, and flowing boho dresses, the fashion industry underwent a radical change. Realising styles that changed every other week and low prices meant that they could get us to buy more, retailers sold us the lie that our wardrobes need constant updating. In the nineties, Marks & Spencer was one of the last major British high street chains left with factories in England before seeking cheaper labour abroad like everyone else.

Where industry dies, jobs are lost and crafts are forgotten; in 2002 Chanel created the luxury embroidery house of Lesage in France, specifically to preserve specialist skills that are under threat from outsourcing to countries such as India. Indeed, France is famous the world round for its beautiful underwear, when in fact these days most of it is manufactured abroad. Etam now only makes 0.02 per cent of its lingerie in France, Lise Charmel and Chantelle produce most of theirs in Bulgaria and Tunisia, and in early 2012 Lejaby announced the closure of their last French factory. It isn’t any better for the workers in the countries that these companies have outsourced to, either; their wages are approximately five times lower, they are forced to work inhumane hours to meet demand, and as the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh a year ago demonstrated, their working conditions are often critically unsafe.

Lucy Siegle and Elizabeth L. Cline write about fast fashion as if it’s an addiction, and they are right; it is, at least, a psychological one. Recently I’ve been trying to change the way I think about buying clothes, adopting Vivienne Westwood’s mantra of ‘Buy less, choose well’. It doesn’t mean spending more money on expensive clothes all the time, but rather resisting the urge to impulse buy and saving for better quality, ethically produced fashion. I’m still struggling, but it helps to think about the long-term, and what I’d like to pass on to my daughter when she grows up.

It would be sad if our generation was remembered for its’ badly made fashion that snagged and unravelled and left nothing behind except an almighty piece of landfill. If we let them, clothes have the potential to become pieces of living history. I hope that one day my granddaughter will take boxes of my dresses down from the attic and have her own adventures in them.

Why women need net neutrality

I have to admit, I didn’t know what net neutrality was until I saw John Oliver’s rant about it the other week. As far as I understand it, in 2010 various rules were made to protect an ‘open internet’, meaning that internet service providers couldn’t legally block or slow down users’ connections to any online content. This January, the FCC’s Open Internet Order was struck down, and in May a new rule was proposed that, if passed, would allow service providers to charge companies for priority treatment.

In short, critics of the proposed change say that the big kids would be given the upper hand, once again, with small businesses left to struggle against an unfair advantage. Furthermore, the campaign website Save the Internet claims that the new ruling would mean ‘that just a few powerful phone and cable companies [such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon] could control the Internet. Without Net Neutrality, ISPs will be able to devise new schemes to charge users more for access and services, making it harder for us to communicate online — and easier for companies to censor our speech… [They] will be able to block content and speech they don’t like, reject apps that compete with their own offerings, and prioritize Web traffic (reserving the fastest loading speeds for the highest bidders and sticking everyone else with the slowest).’

What really caught my attention about this potential change, though, is this: getting rid of net neutrality and imposing some kind of two-tiered system would surely have a hugely negative impact upon small startups, and, more specifically therefore, upon female entrepreneurs.

In recent years, the internet has opened up so many possibilities for women to be in charge of their own startups, businesses, charities, blogs, and magazines. Allowing women to be able to work entirely from home if needs be, the internet has been a great equaliser, allowing these small businesses to flourish and become successful, even competing with the traditionally predominantly male-led big enterprises and corporations. Think of the sudden growth and success of female-led initiatives in recent years: from popular Etsy shops, to websites like the Huffington Post, and The Glitter Guide, as well as countless others. These days, thanks to an open internet, more and more women are able to make a living and have pursue fulfilling careers that can be shaped around their individual needs. We have seen the rise of female entrepreneurs like Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr, and Natalie Massenet, founder of Net-a-Porter.

The internet has facilitated increased flexibility in working hours, location, and style, opening so many doors that were previously closed to women – and particularly mothers – on a world-wide scale. The fact is, everyone has benefitted from net neutrality, but it is women whose opportunities have particularly flourished in recent years, and I’m worried that all of that progress could be under threat if this law was to be passed. Not only is this a question of freedom of speech, it is also one of equal opportunities and female empowerment. As John Oliver says, though, the internet’s fate hasn’t been decided yet, and the FCC are currently inviting your comments on the matter on their website.

As far as I can see it, net neutrality matters because it has helped broaden the scope of how women can contribute to society, and enabled them to be mothers and entrepreneurs, if they choose to be.

Maybe I have misunderstood a complex issue, though. I’m very open to more information and opinions on the matter, and I’d be very glad to be proven wrong. Do you have any thoughts about the issue? Do comment, below; I’d love to hear what you think!

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Since first publishing this post, my mother-in-law sent me this really useful article by Robert McMillan for Wired on the topic, which explains the issue in greater depth than a lot of other sources. He says that the common narrative, that this new change in the law would create slow lanes and fast lanes, is flawed, because those fast lanes already kind of exist:

‘The concepts driving today’s net neutrality debate caught on because the internet used to operate differently—and because they were easy for consumers to understand. In many respects, these concepts were vitally important to the evolution of the internet over the past decades. But in today’s world, they don’t address the real issue with the country’s ISPs, and if we spend too much time worried about fast lanes, we could hurt the net’s progress rather than help it.

Even Tim Wu, the man who coined the term neutrality, will tell you that the fast lane idea isn’t what it seems. “The fast lane is not a literal truth,” he says. “But it’s a sense that you should have a fair shot.” On the modern internet, as Wu indicates, the real issue is that such a small number of internet service providers now control the pipes that reach out to U.S. consumers—and that number is getting even smaller, with Comcast looking to acquire Time Warner, one of its biggest rivals. The real issue is that the Comcasts and Verizons are becoming too big and too powerful. Because every web company has no choice but to go through these ISPs, the Comcasts and the Verizons may eventually have too much freedom to decide how much companies must pay for fast speeds.’

So we’re right to have a problem with any law that gives increased power to the big companies, but the debate has been framed inaccurately, and we should be focusing on a slightly different facet of the issue:

‘We shouldn’t waste so much breath on the idea of keeping the network completely neutral. It isn’t neutral now. What we should really be doing is looking for ways we can increase competition among ISPs—ways we can prevent the Comcasts and the AT&Ts from gaining so much power that they can completely control the market for internet bandwidth. Sure, we don’t want ISPs blocking certain types of traffic. And we don’t want them delivering their own stuff at 10 gigabits per second and everyone else’s stuff at 1 gigabit. But competition is also the best way to stop these types of extreme behavior.

Though the network will never be neutral, we can find ways of promoting a vibrant market for fast internet speeds that’s open to everyone. At the end of his rant, John Oliver actually comes pretty close to the real issue. Advocates, he says, “should not be talking about protecting net neutrality. They shouldn’t even use that phrase. They should call it preventing cable company f***ery, because that is what it is.”’

So, as far as I can see it, this is the heart of the matter (my emphasis added, in bold):

The problem today isn’t the fast lanes. The problem is whether the ISPs will grow so large that they have undue control over the market for fast speeds—whether they can independently decide who gets access to what connection at what price. “The question is which kinds of fast lanes are problematic and which kinds are not,” says Marvin Ammori, a lawyer and net neutrality advocate.’

My question is this: will the change they are proposing, the change that John Oliver et al are getting all hot under the collar about, make it easier for big companies to assert undue control and put their price on speedy connections, and thus make it harder for the startups and the ‘little people’? It sounds like the answer is yes, and that’s what we have to try and prevent for everyone’s sake - and especially for women.

 

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