First let me say that this post might be a surprise to those who have known me longest. In high school, I was the brainy girl. I was also slender, and a bit of a fashion plate. But back then I was all about DIY and vintage (still am, strongly) and I turned up my nose at those who have no personal style but want to buy whatever is latest in the shop windows (still do, strongly.) No offense, folks, but that’s not style, it’s just a way to show off disposable income. Wearing whatever they put in front of you, without asking yourself, “Does it suit me? Is is comfortable, flattering, appropriate?” is worse than a crapshoot.
When I went off to college, I became somewhat radicalized. But becoming aware of the sexual politics of women’s clothing, the history of costume, and the ethnic / class issues of dress were nothing compared to learning the pollution and environmental impact of the textile industry. To DIY and vintage were added free trade textiles and thrift store re-useables.
This didn’t quite fall by the wayside, but I admit: I love to quilt. Worse, I joined a recreational group that required medieval clothing, and learned to sew garments for myself, ones that required major yardage. And I still loved fashion design, which is a fascinating and fast-evolving tradition of artistry and craftsmanship. The people who buy fashionable clothes as status symbols without regard for taste still make me roll my eyes, but the creative folks make their living off them, so who am I to complain?
These two sides have finally dovetailed in my mind. If this comes across as a pure rationalization, let me know.
Designer clothes (not licensed or unlicensed knockoffs in chain stores, but actual designer clothes) are made in small batches, by skilled (usually union) labor, from carefully sourced materials not mass-made. These are not shoddy jeans with a logo on the pocket, cut by a programmed machine and sewn on a factory assembly line by a Chinese teenager doing 17 per hour. They are handmade by skilled cutters and seamstresses, working in good conditions, for good money. That they were designed by an artist of reknown doesn’t make them cheap, either, but let me add: those jeans will last a lifetime.
Once upon a time, even mass-produced garments were made beautifully and built to last. Unexceptional 50s and 60s tea dresses from Sears Roebuck now look as good as very pricey items from Saks and Bergdorf. It’s one reason so many vintage garments have lasted so long as they have. I am sorry I no longer live in a nation that can afford to dress its low-to-middle class in ILGWU-made garments rather than third-world concoctions of mystery fibers and harsh chemical dyes. But we are a nation of consumers, and would rather have a dozen pairs of mystery jeans than a few pairs of L.L. Bean or just one Denim of Virtue.