In my last post, I finally shared the results of my wardrobe inventory.
I’ve been having another type of wardrobe clear-out recently: launching a Keep & Share sale, to help me clear the cupboards of my ready to wear collection as I shift to becoming a commission-only label, remaking styles from my archive.
But - returning to my own wardrobe - new clothing-related questions are now popping into my head. The question I’d like to focus on this time is: just how long do we keep our clothes? As I've mentioned in my previous wardrobe project posts, there isn’t a whole lot of research on the contents of our wardrobes - and information about the length of time we keep things is particularly scant.
While I have a lot of clothes, I don’t add to my wardrobe very often these days. This is partly because I love many of the things I already have - I know that any new item would have stiff competition. It’s also based on a conscious decision to adopt a slow approach to fashion - informed by my own design philosophy and linked quite specifically to an article I read whilst studying for my MA over ten years ago.
The article was in View on Colour, a trend prediction journal, and argued for a move towards slowness and satisfaction. Here are some excerpts that I found particularly inspiring at the time:
Pollution, over-production, and the possible scarcity of raw materials became a general concern some twenty years ago. The main answer has been recycling … but recycling still demands energy and produces waste. The more definitive solution is to keep.
We want to invest. Buying for now and for the future, designing our own sustainable style as years go by.
Putting together a wardrobe and a home will become a life-long process and something of a quest.
You will not be searching for the perfect object but the perfect object for you. Putting together this alphabet of basic and loyal items will spell out who you are.
These words - particularly the line about a life-long quest - have stayed with me, more than any other book or article about sustainable fashion. I do feel like I have been searching for the perfect ‘Amy pieces’ - and when I find them, I want to hang on to them and keep wearing them for a long, long time.
Flicking through my wardrobe this morning, I tried to figure out the average length of time I’ve owned the contents. It’s hard, because of course, the answer varies - there are recently-acquired items sitting alongside pieces I’ve had for many years. And while I’ve got lots of second-hand/vintage clothes, which might be decades old, I’m interested (right now) in how long they’ve been in my wardrobe, rather than how long it is since they were made.
I reckon I’ve acquired the majority of pieces in the last ten years, and I’d estimate the average at 5-6 years - though this is by no means accurate.
As I browsed the rails, a few older items stood out and so I took them out into the garden for an impromptu washing-line-based photo shoot…
>> The longest-standing pieces are a number of shirts and Indian tops that I’ve had since I was in my early teens (think grunge era). I wore them a lot then, and then didn’t wear them for a long time… but they’ve recently come out of hibernation and feel both emotionally significant and totally right for now, so I’m very glad I kept them.
>> Then there are a few pieces - t-shirts and a sweatshirt - that were handed down to me by family and friends, and so have a longer ‘known life’ (if we include the time worn by the previous owner). The stand-out item here is a well-worn Bob Marley tour t-shirt bought by my parents in 1976. I love to wear it, but keep it for special occasions as it is so delicate, beautifully disintegrating into a constellation of holes.
>> I had a quick look at my shoes, and realised that the older pairs tend to be ‘posh’ heels - I wear them so seldom that they don’t have chance to wear out! The oldest ones still knocking about are a pair of Red or Dead patterned slingbacks - which I loved so much, I bought two pairs. Man, I love those shoes - though I’m not sure I’m ready for that 90s heel again, quite yet.
>> And finally - here I am, wearing what I think is the longest-standing item I have worn continuously, without a break, since acquiring it over fifteen years ago (a Belle & Sebastian band t-shirt), with what I think is the actual oldest item in my wardrobe (a lovely handmade black jacket) - and my most frequently worn garment, my black Old Town trousers.
This post is part X of my ongoing wardrobe project.
You can find an introduction to the project, and links to the first five posts on the Refashioner ReMAG blog, here. Read parts VI to IX, follow these links:
Part VI - an inventory of my hefty mending pile
Part VII - counting my clothes whilst packing to move house
Part VIII - thinking about the idea of rotating clothes for the changing seasons
Part IX - revealing the grand total of the wardrobe inventory
In my last post, I mentioned lots of exciting post-PhD stuff coming up in 2014. I wasn’t kidding - I officially started the biggest, most exciting thing right away on 1st January! I have a new role as Research Fellow in the School of Design at the University of Leeds, working on a 3-year AHRC-funded project looking at design strategies for revitalising local and traditional craft processes and products.
It’s a really exciting project, and I’m delighted to have found an opportunity to continue researching so soon after finishing my PhD. But - you may be thinking - what about Keep & Share? That’s a good question, so I’ve put together a handy FAQ post to answer it (and explain to myself what the heck I’m doing, too).
Q. Will Keep & Share continue?
A. Of course! Keep & Share is basically the umbrella name for all of my knit-related activities - so whatever I’m doing, that’s what Keep & Share is doing. Keep & Share has evolved and changed over the years (I’ll be celebrating the ten year anniversary in August!) so this is just a new chapter in the story.
Q. But will you still be making and selling knitwear?
A. Yes! However - I’ll be shifting to only making pieces to commission, via the atelier. I won’t be keeping ready-to-wear items in stock any more. This is partly because I’m really enjoying revisiting designs from my archive, making pieces to individual customers’ requests - and also to save space.
Q. What do you mean, save space? You can’t be moving from the Keep & Share HQ?
A. Yes I am! The unthinkable is happening. We’ve had eight and a half fantastic years at Lugwardine Court, but the time has come to move on. It’s no good having a fantastic studio in Hereford, if you live in Leeds!
Q. What, so you’re moving right away?
A. Ah, no. I’m keeping the studio for a while, to soften the blow of moving and to give me some time to figure out how to downsize the mountains of stuff in there at the moment.
Q. And what about the knitting workshops?
A. Well, I’ve scheduled one last round of workshops, taking place at the studio between March and June this year - you can see dates on the workshops pages.
Q. And after that?
A. Because I’m now working in research full-time, I won’t have time to keep running lots of workshops any more. However, all is not lost! The plan is that my lovely friend and colleague Marissa Harmon, who will be running the beginners’ machine knitting workshops for me this spring, will take over the mantle. And maybe I’ll find the time to run the odd one, here and there - watch this space!
Q. And what about events - the Travelling Store and Knitting Tent?
A. Well, I won't have as much time to devote to zooming around the country, setting up shop, so I'll be just selling via the website for the foreseeable future. But I'm hoping to squeeze in fun stuff, like the Knitting Tent at festivals - I'll see how it goes.
Q. It sounds like you won’t be doing that much making. Won’t you get itchy fingers?
A. Don't worry! The middle phase of the new research project will involve lots of designing and making. And I’ve got lots of things on my list of things to make for myself, in my new hyper-amateur maker mode - mostly experimenting with the re-knitting techniques I have developed, playing around with them to rework the items in my wardrobe and create new pieces for exhibition.
Q. Hm, interesting. Can you tell me more about your new research project?
A. It’s all very new, so I’ll wait until we’ve got the project website up and running before I try to explain any more...
Well, it's taken me a couple of weeks to getting round to posting this, but thought I should say: I passed my PhD viva! Here I am, celebrating being a doctor of knitting, wearing my thesis cardi (and homemade dress, of course).
(For the academic folk - I was very pleased to pass with minor corrections/amendments - hurrah!)
It's a little bit crazy to think that I only started writing up my thesis on 1st January... and now, at the end of the year, I'm looking forward to getting stuck in to lots of exciting new post-PhD stuff in 2014.
More on that... soon!
An important part of my thesis, and one of my favourite bits, is the metaphor I have developed of fashion as common land. In this post I'm going to outline the metaphor, and explain how it has begun to influence my thinking about individual wardrobes.
The fashion commons - the big idea
First, I'll borrow a couple of paragraphs from my thesis that explain the thinking behind this idea:
In order to explore the theme of openness in relation to fashion, I have constructed a metaphor of fashion as land. The metaphor is linked to my interest in openness because land can be managed as a commons, with its use shared between many people, or privately owned and inaccessible. I see ʻfashion landʼ as a commons, because I believe the resource needs to be open – that is, with all areas accessible – in order to meet the needs of wearers.
I find the metaphor to be productive, because it positions fashion as a resource; furthermore, it places the focus squarely on wearers, rather than ʻexpertsʼ such as designers, manufacturers, stylists or celebrities. Importantly, I find that comparing a transitory culture such as fashion with the tangible reality of land brings some hidden issues into focus and enables an activist attitude.
Now to describe the metaphor itself:
To illustrate the metaphor, I imagine a huge meadow, with the whole world of fashion superimposed upon it. Distributed around this space, I see all of the garments – new, old, fashionable, unfashionable – in existence. The size of this resource is staggering; it is estimated that in the UK, almost six billion items are hanging in our wardrobes (Gracey and Moon, 2012). On a more conceptual level, I see every desirable way of appearing through dress, throughout history: the huge diversity of archetypal garment styles, shapes and details from different geographical areas and historical periods; fabric types and their associated construction methods; and the enormous variety of ways of wearing clothes, and their associated meanings, that make up the worldʼs fashion and clothing cultures.
Fashion depends on this broad, varied, vibrant resource; new fashions involve existing styles revisited, recombined or recontextualised. I see wearers – all of us – moving around the fashion meadow. Because fashion reflects preferences at a particular time, areas of the meadow are accessed at different times and by different people. The way in which individuals move around the commons depends upon the degree to which they wish to stand out or conform. Activity is not evenly spread; some areas may have enduring appeal while others become popular only for a short time, until the ʻerosionʼ of overexposure drives people away. Dant (1999: 93) describes how fashion ʻacts as a living museumʼ and ʻplays promiscuously with the pastʼ. Gibson (2000: 356) similarly describes fashion as ʻa storehouse of identity-kits, or surface partsʼ. Thus, particularly fertile areas may return to favour time after time, renewed and layered with new meanings.
In the thesis, I go on to discuss the ways in which I think the fashion commons has been enclosed through the professionalisation and industrialisation of clothing manufacture, and consider whether folk fashion - the making of clothes at home - can overcome this enclosure. At some point I'll try to summarise all that in another post!
The fashion commons and the wardrobe
Later on in the thesis, I come back to the idea of the fashion commons in relation to individuals and their wardrobes. I see the wardrobe as each person's own little section of the fashion commons - like items borrowed from a library.
Cwerner describes the wardrobe as ʻa safely stored pool of identity tokensʼ (Cwerner, 2001: 80, original emphasis); thus, we can think of the wardrobe as the wearerʼs own miniature fashion resource, from which they construct their identity each day.
Importantly, the construction of identity through dress [discussed further here] takes place during storage, maintenance and disposal of clothing, as well as acquisition and use. So, the unworn items kept in the wardrobe, items which are discarded and the things we mend can be as important for identity construction as the shiny new things that we bring home from the shops. For example:
According to Banim and Guy (2001: 205), unworn items ʻhelp provide continuity or discontinuity with womenʼs current identitiesʼ, thus playing an important role in the reflexive, continuous process of identity construction. They describe how kept clothes ʻallow women to maintain a connection with former, important aspects of themselves and their livesʼ (Banim and Guy, 2001: 207).
Many items are kept in full recognition that they will not be worn again, at least by their present owner. However, much of the conversation that took place in my research indicated an impulse to keep clothing 'just in case'; there was an implicit expectation, or hope, of future use. On one hand, this attitude can be seen as legitimising hoarding; keeping items in case of circumstances which are unlikely to arise. However, from another viewpoint we can see the miniature fashion resource of each individual as a source of resilience; the wardrobe provides wearers with a means of dealing with the contingency of identity construction, and of fashion.
In my wardrobe project, I'm thinking a lot about these ideas. I don't buy many new clothes, because I don't want to contribute to the fashion commons becoming even more vast - I really think we have more than enough already. However, I don't think that I should be reducing my wardrobe just to those things that I regularly wear. Understanding that unworn items are important for identity helps me to feel 'allowed' to keep things I'm unlikely to wear, without feeling that I'm wasting them. Thinking of the wardrobe as a source of resilience helps me to think it's ok to keep things 'just in case' of changing context and changing preferences.
On the other hand, I'm actually happier about discarding things than I would have been before (I do have hoarding tendencies). I'm finding it helpful to think about the fashion commons as a library - albeit a huge, chaotic and uncatalogued library - with my wardrobe housing the items I have chosen to borrow at the moment. This helps me to see the process of discarding items in a positive light: returning them to the commons (via the local charity shop) for someone else to 'borrow'.
Banim, M. & Guy, A. (2001) Dis/continued selves: why do women keep clothes they no longer wear? In: Through the wardrobe: women’s relationships with their clothes. Oxford: Berg, pp.203–220.
Cwerner, S.B. (2001) Clothes at rest: elements for a sociology of the wardrobe. Fashion Theory, 5 (1), pp.79–92.
Gibson, P.C. (2000) Redressing the balance: patriarchy, postmodernism and feminism. In: S. Bruzzi & P. C. Gibson eds. Fashion cultures: theories, explorations and analysis. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.349–362.
Gracey, F. & Moon, D. (2012) Valuing our clothes: the evidence base. Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP). Available here
In October, I was delighted to be asked by the awesome New York-based 'curated fashion eco-mmunity' (and slow fashion champions) ReFashioner to be a guest blogger for their blog, reMAG. Delighted, because when I read their fab manifesto I saw many links with my own philosophy about fashion, sustainability and the wardrobe.
It was perfect timing, too, as I had just been thinking about doing a new project following on from ideas I developed as part of my PhD research, as I explained in my first reMAG post:
As I read previous wardrobe studies – research which surveys real people’s wardrobes, checking out how many items they own, and what proportion of the items are worn – I realised I really wanted to take some time to look at my own wardrobe. I seem to have a huge amount of clothes, though I don’t buy many nowadays … and there are piles and piles of things I haven’t worn for years…
So, in my reMAG posts I’m going to be blogging about this Wardrobe Project: sharing my thoughts as I review the contents of my wardrobe, repair or rework items in need of rejuvenation, and try to ‘design’ ways of wearing more of this treasured collection of pieces I’ve gathered over the years. Along the way, I’ll pick some tasty wardrobe-related nuggets from existing academic research, and my own research data.
I've done five posts so far, so thought this was a good time to gather the links together in a post on my own blog:
Part I - in which I introduce myself, and the project
Part II - in which I look at existing research about the contents of our wardrobes
Part III - the first phase of my wardrobe inventory (underwear & hosiery)
Part IV - in which I patch some pants and darn some socks
Part V - discussing ways of thinking about unworn clothes in the wardrobe
To keep up with the project, keep an eye on the reMAG site - plus I'll add another summary post here with links to Parts VI-X, in due course!
In my thesis, I draw on a number of different areas which I see as parallels for fashion and clothing. For example, I use folk music as a way of framing my idea of homemade clothes as 'folk fashion', as outlined in this post.
Here, I'd like to discuss the parallels that I see between knitting and architecture, and more specifically between re-knitting and the reworking and repair of existing buildings.
The first mention of buildings in my thesis appears in a discussion of the benefits of making. Community architect Christopher Alexander involved local people in the design and construction of their own dwellings, and writes eloquently of the impact of this experience:
'They have made themselves solid in the world, have shaped the world as they have shaped themselves ... They, they themselves, have created their own lives, not in that half-conscious, underground, interior way that we all do, but manifestly, out there on their own land: they are alive; they breathe the breath of their own houses...' (Alexander, 1985: 322)
I love this quote! Various writers on craft talk similarly about the enjoyment of bringing something new into existence. For example, Roszika Parker ( 2010: xx) describes how the embroiderer 'holds in her hands a coherent object which exists both outside in the world and inside her headʼ and explains that this has a great positive impact on the sense of self. In short, knitting - like building - makes us feel alive and solid in the world.
Christopher Alexander pops up again with his writing about the repair and alteration of buildings. In The Timeless Way of Building (1979: 485), he observes that 'at every moment we use the defects of the present state as the starting point for the definition of the new stateʼ. This simple observation translates directly to re-knitting; in the projects that were made as part of the research, the issues which needed to be resolved with the garment - whether holey sleeves or an item that was felt to be boring - were central to the design discussions.
He goes on to discuss conservative repair versus tranformation, a distinction which corresponds with Richard Sennettʼs (2008: 200) ideas of static repair, which will ʻrestore the object to its former stateʼ, and dynamic repair, which will ʻchange the objectʼs current form or functionʼ. In the re-knitting project, I saw the knitters making the same distinction and showing a strong desire to improve on the original item, dynamically transforming it.
Buildings are sufficiently long-lasting for us to see such transformations combine and develop over time. In his book How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand quotes Brian Eno, reflecting on the appreciation he feels for buildings which change:
'We are convinced by things that show internal complexity, that show the traces of an interesting evolution ... This is what makes old buildings interesting to me. I think that humans have a taste for things that not only show that they have been through a process of evolution, but which show they are still part of one. They are not dead yet.' (Brian Eno, quoted in Brand, 1994: 11)
The ʻtasteʼ for evolution that Eno mentions could also apply to garments and the practice of re-knitting.
In the re-knitting project, I was struck by how often the idea of 'wholeness' came up - the need for the alterations to feel part of the garment, rather than stuck on. I was surprised, and delighted, to find Christopher Alexander discussing this idea of wholeness in relation to buildings:
'When we repair something in this new sense, we assume that we are going to transform it, that new wholes will be born, that, indeed, the entire whole which is being repaired will become a different whole as the result of the repair.' (Alexander, 1979: 485)
I agree that in each re-knitting project, a new whole is born; perhaps that's what makes it so satisfying.
Alexander, C. (1979) The timeless way of building. New York: Oxford University Press.
Alexander, C. (1985) The production of houses. New York: Oxford University Press.
Brand, S. (1994) How buildings learn: what happens after they’re built. New York: Viking Penguin.
Parker, R. ( 2010) The subversive stitch: embroidery and the making of the feminine. London: I. B. Tauris.
Sennett, R. (2008) The Craftsman. London: Penguin.
The next theme from my PhD thesis that I'd like to focus on is... (drum roll please)
... my role as a designer.
I launched Keep & Share in 2004, working as a designer-maker to create seasonal collections of knitwear and selling them mainly to individual customers. In 2008 I started to support other knitters by producing patterns and running workshops and projects, while still (of course) creating my own knitwear pieces. My research project has been a continuation of that journey, exploring the ways in which I can use my design practice to facilitate and support knitters to work more experimentally, without conventional patterns. This approach corresponds with the ʻhacktivistʼ designer role described by Otto von Busch:
'This role is not the one of a classic unique genius of fashion. Instead it is in the form of orchestrator and facilitator, as an agent of collaborative change. It is not the divine creator of the original and new, but a negotiator, questioning and developing design as a skill and practical production utility ... It is a combination of designing material artefacts as well as social protocols.' (von Busch, 2009: 63)
When I reflected on the research project, I felt that the role I had developed for myself involved two strands: metadesigner and hyper-amateur maker. First, let's think about the 'metadesigner' role:
In the past my primary design activity was producing ʻclosedʼ patterns for knitted garments, to be produced either by me (to sell) or by amateurs (for themselves). For this project I have been designing fragments of knit processes, gathering knowledge, developing instructions and advice, and creating a structure within which to present these resources.
This new type of activity changes my relationship with finished objects; when I design and make, I have the satisfaction of holding a new garment that I have constructed. As a metadesigner, I ʻmight never see or even be aware of the results of [my] endeavours, changed as they will be by users to suit their own needsʼ (Atkinson, 2011: 30). It is worth considering: does this new role satisfy me as a designer? I think so; by supporting and influencing the work of amateurs, my efforts can have a far greater impact than would be possible when making by myself.
Jones (1991: 205) describes this new role (as adopted by a designer of his acquaintance) in a particularly engaging way: ʻhis role, once heʼd given up part of the design function to his clients, became, as he said, that of professional encourager.ʼ
'Professional encourager' - nice, huh? OK, so now for the idea of the 'hyper-amateur maker':
In this mode, I try out the same tasks as other amateurs, working with items from my own wardrobe – but consciously permit myself to spend more time and energy, and to work with more ambition and courage, than they might feel is possible or desirable. This ʻhyperʼ approach enables me to push the boundaries of my ideas, identify problems and opportunities, and create examples that will, it is hoped, inspire others.
In my last thesis-related post, I discussed identity construction in relation to fashion. I used the same idea to reflect on my own identity:
My identity as a designer-maker has been partially dependent on distinguishing myself from amateur knitters. Like other ʻstudio craftʼ practitioners, I have used the validation of institutions such as ʻthe museum, the media, and the marketplaceʼ (Stevens, 2011: 44) in the construction of my identity.
However, I have become uncomfortable with engaging with a hierarchy that implicitly denigrates amateur activity. Knitting has evolved over centuries of activity by ʻuntrainedʼ amateurs (usually women), via communal evolution and the contributions of talented individuals, who would be recognised in their own communities but are now forgotten. When I design and knit, I am benefitting from the effort of these people, and it feels disrespectful to deny this relationship.
So, my identity now comprises three strands: designer-maker, metadesigner and hyper-amateur maker. I feel that these roles allow me to sidestep the studio craft/amateur craft hierarchy and instead simply enjoy collaborating with other knitters. They allow me to explore design at a 'meta' level and at garment level, and to experiment with making at different scales, from individual stitches to complex systems.
Atkinson, P. (2011) Orchestral manoeuvres in design. In: B. van Abel, L. Evers, R. Klaassen, & P. Troxler eds. Open design now: why design cannot remain exclusive. Amsterdam, BIS Publishers, pp.24–31. [available online here]
Jones, J.C. (1991) Continuous Design and Redesign. In: J. C. Jones ed. Designing Designing. London, Architecture Design & Technology Press, pp.190–216.
Stevens, D. (2011) Validity is in the eye of the beholder: mapping craft communities of practice. In: M. E. Buszek ed. Extra/ordinary: craft and contemporary art. Durham, NC, Duke University Press, pp.43–58.
von Busch, O. (2009) Fashion-able. Gothenburg, Camino. [hard copy and pdf version available here]
It's time to pull another strand from my PhD thesis: the relationship between fashion and consumption. Yes, it's a big one! Here, I'll just try to summarise the issues...
Fletcher and Grose (2008: 1) call for ʻfashion that helps us flourishʼ. They describe how the rich culture of fashion helps us to meet our human needs for identity and participation, and argue that celebrating this positive role of fashion could improve individual well-being and allow new opportunities for sustainability to emerge.
As I went on to explain, this idea is inspiring, but not straightforward:
So - I'm interested in challenging the link between fashion and consumption, whilst celebrating fashion as a means of identity construction (what Breward and Evans call 'the fabrication of the self'). Identity construction is a key idea in my thesis:
In traditional cultures, identities are stable; for example, ʻin nineteenth-century industrializing societies, social class affiliation was one of the most salient aspects of a personʼs identityʼ (Crane, 2000: 4). We now live in a post-traditional world, and identities are less stable; in this context, we have multiple identities and the self becomes an evolving, reflexive project (Giddens, 1991).
One way in which we construct our identity is through our possessions (Belk, 1988). Because leisure and lifestyle, as opposed to work, religion and class, have become more important in constructing identity, ʻthe consumption of cultural goods, such as fashionable clothing, performs an increasingly important roleʼ (Crane, 2000: 11). Woodward (2007) describes the act of choosing what to wear as a practice of identity construction, and dressing as an act of ʻsurfacingʼ particular aspects of the self.
Shops provide us with an endless supply of new clothes, that we can use to construct our identities. However:
As Finkelstein (1991: 145) says, ʻif we are relying upon the properties of procured goods for our sense of identity, then we are compelled to procure again and againʼ.
This neatly summarises the link between the two processes of fashion, described above - a central challenge for sustainable fashion.
In my research, I found that an alternative means of identity construction was taking place, separate from consumption:
When we re-knit, we are able to mould our identity within a single garment, adding new meanings associated with the practice of making.
This project has provided some indications that alternative fashion practices – such as re-knitting – can provide the well-being benefits associated with fashion and meet our needs for identity and participation in ways which are not dependent on consumerism. While a fashion system revolving around these alternative practices would involve much less frequent consumption of new items, it need not be dull; as we have seen from the examples in this research, the process of re-knitting can intensify and energise the relationship between wearer and wardrobe.
Belk, R.W. (1988) Possessions and the extended self. The Journal of Consumer Research, 15 (2), pp.139–168.
Breward, C. & Evans, C. (2005) Introduction. In: C. Breward & C. Evans, eds. Fashion and modernity. Oxford: Berg, pp.1–8.
Briggs, A. (2005) Response [to chapter 3]. In: C. Breward & C. Evans, eds. Fashion and modernity. Oxford: Berg, pp.79–81.
Crane, D. (2000) Fashion and its social agendas: class, gender and identity in clothing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Finkelstein, J. (1991) The fashioned self. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Fletcher, K. & Grose, L. (2008) Fashion that helps us flourish. In: Changing the change: design, visions, proposals and tools proceedings. Turin, Italy, 10-12 July. [View pdf of full proceedings]
Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and self-identity: self and society in the late modern age. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Woodward, S. (2007) Why women wear what they wear. Oxford: Berg.
I'm delighted to report that one week ago I submitted my PhD thesis for examination, entitled Folk fashion: amateur re-knitting as a strategy for sustainability.
It's really satisfying that several people have expressed a desire to read the thesis, and I'll make it available once the examination is over. However, in order to share my ideas in the meantime - and for those who might not have the time to read the full 250-page document (!) - I thought I would start to pull out some of the ideas as short(ish) blog posts.
For the first of these posts, I'm going to focus on the idea of 'folk fashion', a term that I only came up with a few months ago. In June, I saw a fantastic talk by Eric Isaacson of Mississippi Records about the work of American folklorist Alan Lomax. I subsequently read The Man Who Recorded The World, a biography of Lomax by John Szwed - and was blown away by his passion and support for amateur, or homemade, music. So much of what Lomax said about homemade music in the mid-twentieth century can be translated to homemade clothes today, in terms of perceptions of status, originality, marginality, quality and aesthetics.
Here is a selection of edited excerpts from the thesis which explain a little more:
I have chosen to refer to the making and wearing of homemade clothes as ʻfolk fashionʼ; in doing so, I am linking the issues around homemade clothes with those relating to folk music. While some would define folk as either the music of the past or a commercialised style of popular music, I am using the approach of folklorists such as Alan Lomax, who see it as the music created by amateurs for their own entertainment and self-expression (Szwed, 2010). In the mid-twentieth century, Lomax was concerned that localised folk music cultures were ʻthreatened to be engulfed by the roar of our powerful society with its loudspeakers all turned in one directionʼ (quoted in Szwed, 2010: 274); I share similar concerns about folk fashion today.
Fashion depends on a broad, varied, vibrant resource [which I term the 'fashion commons']; new fashions involve existing styles revisited, recombined or recontextualised. Dant (1999: 93) describes how fashion ʻacts as a living museumʼ and ʻplays promiscuously with the pastʼ. A direct parallel can be drawn with folk music: new forms emerge as cultural materials are reshaped and filtered through localised aesthetics (Szwed, 2010).
In terms of folk music, Alan Lomax saw ʻmusical diversity as akin to biodiversity; every song style that disappeared was potentially as serious a tragedy as the loss of a speciesʼ (Szwed, 2010: 390). This viewpoint resonates with the idea of cultural sustainability; I propose the same argument in terms of fashion. The impact of homogenised fast fashion on the material element of the fashion commons can already be seen, in the racks of identikit jerseywear in British charity shops.
In my experience, the desire for a ʻprofessionalʼ look is common amongst hand knitters. It suggests that makers are assessing their homemade items in comparison with the mass-manufactured garments in their wardrobes, and finding them lacking. If we look at folk music, we see the same phenomenon. Lomax (quoted in Szwed, 2010: 349) described how amateur folk singers were perceived in comparison with professional performers: ʻtheir more relaxed way of performing, which is sometimes taken for lack of accomplishment, is often simply a matter of another style and other standardsʼ.
I'm really excited about the idea of folk fashion, and exploring the parallels between amateur fashion making and amateur music-making further in the future...
Dant, T. (1999) Material culture in the social world: values, activities, lifestyles. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Szwed, J. (2010) The man who recorded the world. London: Arrow Books.
Sometimes I wonder whether pop culture throws up the most evocative and moving messages about sustainability and over-consumption.
Take indie pop wonders Johnny Boy, for example, and their genius 2004 release You Are The Generation That Bought More Shoes And You Get What You Deserve. Not only is this, for me, one of the best pop songs of the last decade, but its swirling, euphoric wall of sound pops into my head whenever I contemplate acquiring more shoes, like a voice from the sustainability gods.
In my head, this 7" single is filed next to the 'Shoe Event Horizon' passage in Douglas Adams' (also genius, of course) Restaurant At The End of the Universe:
Many years ago, this was a thriving, happy planet – people, cities, shops, a normal world. Except that on the high streets of these cities there were slightly more shoe shops than one might have thought necessary. And slowly, insidiously, the numbers of these shoe shops were increasing. It’s a well known economic phenomenon but tragic to see it in operation, for the more shoe shops there were, the more shoes they had to make and the worse and more unwearable they became. And the worse they were to wear, the more people had to buy to keep themselves shod, and the more the shops proliferated until the whole economy of the place passed what I believe is the termed the Shoe Event Horizon, and it became no longer economically possible to build anything other than shoe shops. Result – collapse, ruin and famine. Most of the population died out. Those few who had the right kind of genetic instability mutated into birds – you’ve seen one of them – who cursed their feet, cursed the ground, and vowed that none should walk on it again. Unhappy lot.
Are we approaching Shoe Event Horizon? With a fashion industry built on ever-increasing volumes of production which shows no regard for the consequences, it sure feels like it to me.