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.
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.
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.