THE WAY WE WORE
As fashion reckons with the current way of doing things – gross excess, wasteful practice and hasty schedules – is reinstating the ways of the past the key to our future? By Alice Birrell.
As fashion reckons with the current way of doing things, is reinstating the ways of the past the key to our future?
Have you heard the legend of the origin of pleated skirts? It goes like this: a woman, wanting to find a unique skirt, searched the landscape for inspiration. A flower with many folds gave rise to a beautifully crafted, pleated creation that was worn by women far and wide. This isn’t the stuff of fashion fairytale but an important story in the 5,000-year-old history of Miao dress, the technicoloured clothing worn by the Chinese ethnic minority, which includes lavishly embroidered cloth, regal silver headpieces and carefully pleated skirts, and how it wound up as the unlikely inspiration for Marni’s newest collaboration.
The Italian house’s creative director Francesco Risso, who has just released the collection, citing disillusionment with fast consumption in fashion and lack of purpose, isn’t the only one turning away from now to look back. Designers, concerned with the fate of diminishing artisan numbers and local manufacturing in a throwaway culture, have highlighted the skills of some of the world’s oldest makers. Simone Rocha engaged Aran knitters of the tiny windswept archipelago to make Irish oatmeal knits the “colour of the unbleached wool from the sheep”. Marco Zanini recently used pinstripe fabric from 1772-founded English firm Fox Brothers on suiting and Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen spring/ summer ’20 famously employed a beetled fabric woven at William Clark, the oldest linen mill in Ireland.
This month the Met presents About Time: Fashion and Duration, examining the change from a local industry in the 19th century to the global one we know today, and “the temporal impulses of fashion over 150 years”. There is a signalling of a returning to the past, not only in the expected ways for inspirational fodder, but instead as an interrogation of the practices, ideals and philosophies that govern how we dress.
“The current wave of this renaissance has come from the widespread desire to be more sustainable,” says Carolyn Denham, co-founder of fabric and haberdashery supplier Merchant & Mills, which supplies McQueen for its bespoke tailoring service as well as brands like Barcelona-based Heinui, whose seamstresses hand-sew clothing. She points to an environmental impetus and discomfort with the pace at which we make clothes, and the time we keep them – which Greenpeace reports is around half as long as 15 years ago for the average person. “The huge amount of resources that clothing uses is no longer acceptable. Some of the industry is taking on these challenges and we see modern eco-considerate factories turning to traditional sources.”
Denham has noticed a surprising rise in dressmaking among individuals who are making their own clothes, something she says has grown from the ground up. “We saw a real desire to reclaim forgotten skills. The quality of fabric, construction and style brings a practical, emotional fulfilment greater than the instant buy-now click of the mouse.” She says her customers “earn a wardrobe more considered, more conscious and personal”.
Consider the fact off-the-rack machinemade apparel is a relatively new idea. Even into the early stages of the 20th century, clothing was habitually made by the person who would then wear it – only the wealthy in Victorian society could take an illustration of a desired dress to a seamstress, while the middle class were left to copy high-fashion designs themselves. Mass production seldom occurred, usually only for military uniforms. Indeed, factory production began roughly a mere 250 years ago and average sizing was only introduced into American around 1940, when tailoring to fit was still commonplace.
The drive to question why we’ve abandoned smaller, considered production goes further for some, and becomes existential. Winner of the 2020 International Woolmark Prize, London-based Richard Malone is known for challenging the whole fashion system of creation, shirking usual seasons – he will present numbered collections only in future – and offers a bespoke service, making to order to decrease waste. Beyond solely his core sustainable values, he is convinced history has something to offer us. “We need to rethink the system, and this is just the beginning of that. Really, it’s about moving backwards,” he says.
Malone employs ancient hand-weaving, uses plant-based dyes and does all his pattern-making himself, just like couture masters of old. “All our processes are really vested in tradition and rich histories,” he says. His constant return to working class dress codes – he draws on the practicality and utilitarian nature of uniforms, and solemn respect for ritual in dress he observed growing up in Wexford, Ireland – is because “they have longevity embedded into their very fibre”. In other words, they were made to last, to weather the wearer’s life with them. “They are also extremely egalitarian between men and women and represent something incredibly beautiful to me personally.”
His sentiment manifests as a respect for quality, one that is reminiscent of a time before fast fashion and the sea of synthetic fabrics fashion finds itself adrift on now. “The older generations had it right in that they purchased better quality accessories, had them repaired and kept them for decades,” says Jenny Velakoulis, general manager at Evans Leather Repair in Melbourne, a family-run business founded in 1956. “A pair of leather shoes cost a lot, so you were more inclined to take care of them. Quality is a lot harder to come by these days. Things are stuck together with glues rather than stitched – shortcuts are taken.”
She says clients are beginning to see the value of investing in more costly, higherquality items, and re-servicing or repairing to keep them for longer. “People come in with an old Chanel bag or Gucci make-up box looking to get it restored.” She admits their processes can take time and money, but the result is customers trust them with treasured pieces. “All our work is personalised and we don’t compromise.” This means sourcing leather from overseas, remaking bag handles from scratch in their workshop if needs be, re-dyeing, re-waxing and carefully colour-matching even difficultto-reproduce metallics.
This kind of repair goes hand in hand with the make-do-andmend catchcry that is being heard more frequently. Tom Lee, senior lecturer of design studies at the University of Technology Sydney,
“We need to rethink the system, and this is just the beginning of that. Really, it’s about moving backwards”
notes the appeal of the custom. “While the practice still remains fringe in many respects in Australia, visible mending workshops, where the aesthetic quality of repair is highlighted, rather than hidden, are on the rise,” he says. Sew Make Create is one Sydneybased collective teaching people to sew, while Thread Den in Melbourne is another. “Repair is one of those issues that seems to unite people across political divides, and people born before the 1970s often have much to say with regard to how … repair skills were both more common and more useful.
“Patagonia is an example of a clothing brand that have made product durability a central focus of their brand for some time now,” he continues, pointing to its mending services. The brand reports making 40,000 repairs at its Nevada centre every year, while Nudies and Levi’s will fix jeans, English heritage brand Barbour re-proofs waterproof jackets, R.M. Williams re-soles, and Australian label Arnsdorf will repair for life.
Lee points to the counter-culture appeal of a patch-up. “It’s antiestablishment, or at least has that feel. The punks were obviously very keen on DIY. Repair suits a certain liberal attitude.”
And while mending was a necessity in wartime, and the same could be said now of our finite natural resources, not everything can be repaired. He points out that barriers do exist in things like common consumer electronics if people want to repair things themselves (a movement – ‘Right to Repair’ has sprung up in the US campaigning against built-in obsolescence and prohibitive designs that mean users simply can’t open something up to fix it). He’s cautious about calling it a widespread return. “I sometimes wonder whether there’s a lot of aspirational repair, and less actual repair. People need services that make it easy. The industry needs to make it part of their branding.”
LVMH, for one, is making efforts to safeguard traditional knowhow. Its Institut des Métiers d’Excellence offers training programs in Italy, developed in collaboration with Fendi and Loro Piana, to train new generations in artisanal skills like savoir-faire in tailoring. Last
“We saw a real desire to reclaim forgotten skills. The quality of fabric, construction and style brings a practical, emotional fulfilment greater than the instant buy-now click of the mouse”
year they expanded the program to knitwear and women’s dressmaking, with the goal of preserving passed-down knowledge.
Other efforts at reintroducing older, slower fashion models include nearshoring – bringing manufacturing back home – like Maggie Hewitt, who makes 95 per cent of her Maggie Marilyn collection in her native New Zealand. Established department stores like Harrods in London are revamping their long-standing services including in-house tailoring, with workers trained to fix everything from a hem to an elaborately embellished gown. Capsule wardrobes and classically focussed labels like The Row, which look more like the condensed wardrobes of times past, are having cut through in a world of choice. Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga may employ computer technology to make his tailoring, but the goal is very traditional: perfectly cut suits.
But, the question remains, can the ways of the past fix our present problems? Lee says it isn’t clear-cut. “Personally, I don’t think there’s any value in reinstating past ways unless the outcomes lead to more sustainable consumption and production. It’s easy to get caught up in nostalgia when the present seems disagreeable,” he says, noting the answer is somewhere in between. “That might mean abstracting or being inspired by some aspects of the past, but this ought not to be at the expense of making positive impact at scale.”
While sectors of fashion dip here and there into history, there are shining examples. Marni’s cross-cultural collaboration is one, Alexander McQueen’s support of historical mills is another, as we invest in durable clothes over trend-driven fashion. “Glass bottle milk and juice deliveries are currently growing rapidly in London. Who knows what else will be reintroduced that, at once, has the look of the past and the future?” Lee says. “Hopefully, in the fashion sphere, the recent trend towards fast fashion will come to be seen as a blip in a far longer history … In that sense, the past seems very modern, a place we’d like to get to in the future.” Fashion might do well with a few more looks over the shoulder.