What you wear is what you get

It may not be possible to return to simplicity or austerity, but sustainability can move from being a trendy buzz word to actual practice, if consumers – women – make that choice

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Thursday, October 06, 2022, 10:43 PM IST
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Representative Image | Pixabay

The culture, evolution, values, social attitudes of a society so often rest on the clothes people — particularly women — wear.

In Iran, people are out in the streets protesting the hijab forced on women by the morality police, following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody. When the Islamic Revolution in Iran overthrew the Shah and installed hardliner Ayatollah Khomeini, the women were pushed back into purdah, and it was even worse in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

In India, women are fighting to be allowed to go to school wearing the hijab; elsewhere, men (sometimes women) in power dictate what women can or cannot wear. Jeans, T-shirts, short or sleeveless dresses cause the most offence to these upholders of Indian culture.

While the whole weight of tradition falls on women everywhere, fashion and science can converge to create a show stopping catwalk moment that goes viral. At the Coperni Fashion Show, model Bella Hadid walked on the ramp nearly nude and had a dress spray painted on her by two men. Then a woman came in to cut a slit in the dress and the sleeves were adjusted off the shoulder.

Joanna Nikas writes in thecut.com how the dress was created, “In 2003, Dr Manel Torres created Fabrican — a liquid fibre, bound together with polymers, bio-polymers and greener solvents, that evaporates when the spray reaches a surface, in this case, Hadid’s body. According to Torres, the fabric feels like suede and can be manipulated like any other. Hence the woman who cut a slit into Hadid’s dress. But that texture can change depending on what fibers are used (can be natural or synthetic fibers) and how it is applied…Enter the Coperni designers — Sébastien Meyer and Arnaud Vaillan, known for their innovative designs like a glass bag-- who created a design of their own. That design was realised using the Fabrican and 3-D technology, and built, in front of a fashion crowd and Kylie Jenner, on Hadid’s body. It moved like a second skin, fitting her body seamlessly. In fashion, this technology can be used to make a whole dress, à la Hadid, or even to repair old pieces of damaged clothing."

Considering the labour-intensive and often exploitative processes involved in the clothing industry, from farming to spinning, weaving and sewing, if this technology is ever made affordable, it can revolutionise the way we dress.

In the history of the world, empires were built and economies grew on the manufacture and sale of clothing; today, fashion houses make fortunes from the insecurity of people over not being trendy enough. So they buy and discard clothes at an alarming rate, which is not just wasteful but destructive to the environment. In her book, Worn: A People’s History of Clothing, Sofi Thanhauser writes, “Textile making has been damaging the environment for centuries, but today the industry produces a full fifth of global wastewater, and emits one tenth of global carbon emissions.”

She adds of the clothes buying trends between 2000 and 2014, that “consumers came to buy, on average, 60% more clothes than they used to, but kept each for half as long. By 2017, one garbage truck of clothes (5787 pounds) was burned or sent to landfills every second.” Hers is the latest in the small list of books that have explored the history of the world through textiles. Following the trail of five fabrics — linen, cotton, silk, rayon and wool — she rightly observes that “there is scarcely a part of the human experience, historic or current, that the story of clothes does not touch.”

While people demarcate their wardrobes into office wear, smart casuals, formals, party wear, beach wear, resort wear, wedding wear, and so on, the fashion industry prospers on the labour of poorly paid workers — mostly women — in Asian sweatshops, doing backbreaking work in bleak spaces.

It suits the fashion industry to sell, through extravagant fashion shows, their spring, summer, fall and winter collections, so that those who can afford it replenish their wardrobes frequently, and others buy cheap rip-offs in street shops. The cosmetics, jewellery, shoes, bags, accessories and fitness industries piggy back on clothes.

In the old days before the machines came in, people made clothes by hand—whether they were the rough-hewn garments worn by the poor, or the fine bespoke outfits flaunted by the rich. While men can wear the same basic black suit everywhere, women have to dress for the occasion and never repeat a dress lest other privileged people look down on them.

When petroleum based synthetic fabric arrived and was sold cheaply, the poor switched to that due to its affordability and durability. See the household help everywhere, dressed in bright synthetic saris, that are simply not suited for their kind of work, but save a lot of time on the maintenance that cotton needs. And cotton, which used to be the choice of the poor, is now worn by the wealthy, never mind that the cultivation of cotton uses up huge amounts of water, fertiliser and pesticide causing ecological disasters.

The term slow fashion is trending now and then there is pre-loved clothing and rent-a-dress options for those who want to be stylish without spending a fortune. But being unstylish is not an option.

Fortunately, in India, despite the rise of powerlooms, the handloom sector is not destroyed yet. Designers work with traditional weavers, and popularize Indian cotton, muslin, silk and linen across the world. However, as the older artisans fade out, their skills might just die with them. In the past, there were tailors to stitch new clothes when required, now it is cheaper to buy ready-made and get the garment altered to fit. Malls and shopping areas with attractive displays encourage impulse buying, when earlier, people bought new clothes only on festive occasions.

Celebrities and film stars, who are the setters of fashion trends in India are increasingly opting for western designer wear. Comfort has never been a concern for high fashion; history has recorded the tortures women have suffered for the sake of fashion, from rib-crushingly tight whalebone corsets, voluminous ghagras, complicated kimonos and ridiculously high heels.

In this age of walk-in closets, Thanhauser writes of visiting a house built around 1740, which had no clothes cupboard. “A single hook or a peg rail sufficed… Each member of the family owned two sets of clothing: one for Sunday, and one for every other day of the week.” It may not be possible to return to such simplicity or austerity, but sustainability can move from being a trendy buzz word to actual practice, if consumers – women – make that choice.


The writer is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic, and author

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