Fashion, the industry and the idea, can seem ephemeral, hopelessly divorced from reality, and unworthy of serious attention. Why spend one’s breath discussing 60s European designers, the development of the trouser, or the intricate mechanism of a corset, for example, when social, political, economic, and environmental concerns beckon? Yet fashion is connected to all of these concerns, and understanding fashion allows one a very visceral connection with history, not only a country’s or a group’s history, but, in often unexpected and poignant ways, one’s own history. Through the garments we wear, discard, save, pass on, fetishize or castigate we can discover a good deal about our drives, whether subconscious or conscious, our prejudices, and our hopes. Fashion is, at least in part, about the manner in which simple bolts of cloth and bundles of skins, designed to cover our bodies and protect us from the elements, become inculcated with our dreams and desires, which are then spread from person to person, moving across nations and cultures and socioeconomic classes, both shifting and staying the same.
For example, I can track my own history through a mixture of memories, pictures, and the few pieces of clothing I’ve saved, which allow me to sensually connect with that time and place, to go back, for a moment, in time. For example, I still have, somewhere in storage, the yellow birthday dress, with its overlay of iridescent rainbow lace, I wore when I was four, and the black leather western belt with its tooled surface and metal buckle, adorned with a picture of a racing horse, that an older me acquired when I became horse-mad. I must also confess that I still have the first garment I bought myself: a yellow cotton blouse, now tissue-thin, with a brightly-colored parrot embroidered on the back. The purchase, in retrospect, seems to foreshadow a somewhat eclectic, unsophisticated approach to fashion, based primarily on mood and desire rather than either practicality or a distinct sense of style. I am sure I was drawn to the color and the bright design, particularly in the middle of a long Alaskan winter, and a desire to go beyond the normal sweatshirts and jeans of our regular everyday wear, but on a purely style front, it was not the most auspicious of beginnings.
Examining that garment and its fellows, stretching on through the decades, is, however, instructive in more ways than simply a walk down memory lane. I often note that one can understand many of the economic shifts in the United States, and attendant social/cultural/political concerns, by examining garments down the years, particularly their labels. My oldest clothing is all made in the U.S.A., then in Hong Kong or South Korea, then Mexico, Turkey, or India, and, most recently, in China, the last such a powerful player internationally in garment-making that is difficult to find garments that are not made in China. The story of the move of manufacturing industries, from steel to toys to clothing, from the U.S. to other countries, the growth of globalization and its impacts, positive and negative, and a whole history of the 20th and 21st centuries can found in those tiny labels.
If I look at my vintage clothes and, I must confess, the oldest clothes I own, because, yes, I am that old, I can also trace a part of the history of labor in the U.S., because these clothes bear union labels, reminders of the great clothing manufacturing centers, such as New York, of the past, the workers, male and female, who labored there, and the beginning (and now, largely, demise) of powerful clothing unions. The early conditions for those workers before the establishment of safety rules and general regulation of the workers’ hours and working environments were often difficult, even dangerous, as in the case of the nonunionized Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and the tragic 1911 fire that led to the deaths of 146 female garment workers. In that case, improper (more properly, none) safety procedures and employers more interested in constraining rather than protecting workers led to countless deaths, a horror all-too-recently repeated in factory fires and building collapses in India, killing hundreds of garment workers.
In response to the problem of unregulated garment manufacturing and its cost on workers, as well as due to a greater urge to be sustainable (given that the cost of fashion on the environment is very high), I’ve become interested in fashion recycling as facilitated by thrift stores, consignment stores, and simple clothes swapping between friends and family members. In addition to these reasons, I’m also drawn to the economics of such recycling (read: I am cheap) and the socio-cultural aspects of fashion recycling and thrift/consignment shopping. Cruising round these stores, I like to observe my fellow shoppers and draw a little picture of who goes to these places and why and what is bought/not bought. Entering a new store, or simply returning to a place I haven’t visited for a time, I like to observe the clusters of other customers and listen to their discussions as they buy for prom, a wedding, a new interview, or plan a style makeover. As I go through the racks, I play a little game of treasure-hunting: how many layers of the 70s, 80s, and 90s must be excavated to find something more modern and fabulous—or what is fabulous about those earlier decades that can easily compliment or revitalize a contemporary outfit?
I’m often intrigued by the thought of who bought a garment originally, where she wore it, and what moods played out inside it, though sometimes thinking too much about a garment’s earlier inhabitant, and the reminder that she sweated, ate, and did who know what else in the garment can be less than pleasing, even disturbing. I particularly love vintage clothing, given the sense of history, and often craftsmanship, in these earlier garments, although I’m disturbed that vintage now seems to encompass decades that I distinctly remember, thus forming just one more way in which I am repeatedly reminded how old I am.
An interest in wearing vintage and a desire to buy sustainability and frequentt thrift/consignment stories is not unusual now, but this was not always the case for previous generations. For example, I still remember my grandmother’s reaction to my interest in a second-hand coat from a flea market. I didn’t have a chance to ask her why she reacted so strongly and so negatively to this, thought I suspect a number of reasons might have been in play, such as the idea that only the very poor couldn’t afford to buy new clothes, that old clothes might be dirty, full of lice or other crawlies or begrimed through work, or simply a lack of interest in going backwards in any way, wanting only to move forward to the newest, the latest, the next.
I get little opportunity now to indulge my habit for thrift/consignment shopping because there are limited options in my little ‘Bama town, though I do circulate through the one place downtown every week, often with little luck. This is because the store is relatively small, with only a slow turnover of garments, and the ‘Bama fashions still seem somewhat alien in my eyes. ‘Bama clothes tend to the colorful, to light fabrics, often synthetic, and to designs full of draping and flouncing and ruffles and bejeweled whatsits. Dresses are often, to my eyes, rather short in length, their diminutive nature an attraction given the heat, but offering little forgiveness for the realities of working life—i.e. sitting, bending down, reaching up to grab the edge of a projector screen and not conveying an unfortunate message (or simply revealing too much flabby flesh). Of course, many ‘Bama girls look very nice in their micro dresses, but they are much braver (and younger) than I am.
In contrast, in my previous home state of Oregon, the fashion tended more to earth tones and less brilliant colors, and to tout sustainability (for example, products from clothing companies that use organic or recycled fibers, eschew synthetic fibers, and create their garments using wind, solar, etc., power. On the whole, Oregon fashion is more utilitarian: in Oregon clothing you don’t worry about standing, sitting, or such, you are well-covered, though you do occasionaly worry that your fascination with fleece and rubber-tipped shoes has reached an unhealthy junction and that going beyond shades of blue, brown, black, and green might be desirable… (to be continued)