A lot of ethical and sustainable fashion can seem “crafty”. This can occasionally be embraced by some, but leads the general population to retreat quickly amidst whispers of “hippy,” “hemp sack,” “barefoot” and “primitive”.
I actually do have an issue when people decide to ethically recycle something like a pair of jeans and it ends up looking like this:
Ethical fashion (that anyone really wants to wear) these days seems mostly the domain of the bespoke, the tailored and the rich. These are seen as the traditional and old fashioned methods that highly skilled workers create in the first world and only the rich can afford.
But is ethical fashion “traditional” or “old fashioned”?
What is its place in history?
The clothing that you bought from the vintage shop. Your grandmother’s dresses that she had handed down from her grandmother. We romanticise these things and believe that, if we went back to the “good ol’ days” (rather than living our modern, wasteful lives) then we would be more sustainable. More ethical.
But when were these good old days?
Maybe we should go back to Dickens and Gaskell and the 1800s industrial revolution in England.
Charles Dickens’s world, that he wrote about in Hard Times in 1854, was completely interwoven with the industrial world. The poor beggar boys, the factories pouring out smog:
It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.
Elisabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South is also set in North England at a similar time and glimpses the dirty city life, the cotton mills and the workers. A man’s body is found in the river drowned with his swollen face dyed purple from the dye house waste. A girl dies from breathing in cotton particles.
At these times life in industrial England was bleak. It wasn’t until around 1860 that laws began to come in to reduce and restrict workers to ONLY working 12 hour days, 6 days a week. This was a huge step and even then dye and bleach houses and finishers were excepted from this law and were expected to work much longer hours. The conditions in these these factories and the diseases people, including many children, died from were horrific.
Consumer attitudes though, although we now use China and India to do a lot of our manufacturing, have not moved.
These attributes of Coketown** were in the main inseparable from the work by which it was sustained; against them were to be set off, comforts of life which found their way all over the world, and elegancies of life which made, we will not ask how much of the fine lady, who could scarcely bear to hear the place mentioned.
We haven’t wanted to know where our clothes have come from for hundreds of years.
How far back do we have to go then?
When were we not using slave labour to harvest raw materials? When were we not pouring foul chemicals into our water systems?
The problem feels more acute now as there are so many more people and the impact is on a greater scale, but our clothing industry has almost never been ethical or sustainable.
I would argue that clothing more or less stopped being ethical when we first got someone else to create it for us.
This makes it hard. The idea of sustainable and ethical clothing is new. We have no assurance that it will work. We have nothing to look back to and work from. We are pioneering a new lifestyle which is exciting, but so challenging.
It is like sailing off into a huge sea and just hoping that maybe you’ll find a whole new land on the other side and praying that you don’t fall off the end of the earth.
Mind bogglingly challenging? Yes. Backwards? No.
** Dickens’s “Coketown” was probably based on 19th Century Preston, although it may have been any mill town and was almost a smaller version of Manchester.