Folk fashion

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

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.