The fashion commons

Monday, December 9, 2013

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. 

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


Radical closet refashion: the first five posts

Thursday, December 5, 2013

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. 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 ReFashioner blog - plus I'll add another summary post here with links to Parts VI-X, in due course!

[Later addition: here's the summary post, for Parts VI-X]


Re-knitting: parallels with architecture

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

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 ([1984] 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. ([1984] 2010) The subversive stitch: embroidery and the making of the feminine. London: I. B. Tauris.

Sennett, R. (2008) The Craftsman. London: Penguin.