If we believe we can make a difference as individuals, we need to wear that on our sleeve.
In fact, we need to wear it everywhere. Our clothing choices matter, and the revolution starts in our closet.
In her quirky new book, “Fashion Manifesto,” Swedish fashion journalist Sofia Hedström undresses our culture’s addiction to cheap clothing. That isn’t really news, although she provides fresh insights as she makes her case. She also gives it a personal slant as she describes, month-by-month, how she went a year without buying any clothing.
What really makes this book enjoyable and useful, though, is the “Style-Savvy Recipe Collection” taking up two-thirds of the book. This consists of 50 vivid photos by Anna Schori, accompanied by descriptions of how ordinary people, mostly in New York City, Sweden and Iceland, have reinvented their used clothing.
Hedström, who lives in New York, originally wrote “Fashion Manifesto” in Swedish, and it was published in Sweden in 2011. A friend of hers, Sarah Snavely, translated it into English, according to the publisher, and a few of the clothing transformation descriptions don’t work particularly well in translation. But more often, Hedström’s writing has a welcome brand of Scandinavian charm and wit.
She also has an edge, making it clear that the proliferation of cheap clothing is neither socially nor environmentally sustainable. Lamenting that many of us have become fashion slaves, she puts this into context: “Clothes cost money to make, and when the retail chains drive down the prices, our clothing is almost always manufactured by a very different kind of fashion slave from us, one who works twelve straight hours and is denied six months’ salary when quitting the factory job before the contract’s end.”
Chemicals used in clothing are another hidden cost affecting both makers and wearers of products. “A few years ago I broke out in hives after wearing a new pair of tights,” Hedström writes. “My dermatologist informed me that much of today’s apparel contains anti-molding agents, such as dimethyl fumarate, in order to withstand the long distances it travels.” (With a little additional research, I learned that dimethyl fumarate is banned in Europe but not in the United States.)
Hedström conveys a sense of urgency, now that the production and marketing of clothing has been sped up to a ridiculous extreme. “Since the turn of the millennium, fashion has almost exclusively dealt with trends,” she observes. “Trend hysteria has never been healthy, but throwaway fashion became truly sickening when stores started treating slightly dated clothing like rotting fruit.” She describes a desperation clearance sale at a retailer and a store disposing of a huge number of new shoes in a Manhattan dumpster.
Ultimately, it’s our choice as consumers whether to follow the fashion industry’s lead. When buying clothing, Hedström proposes we ask questions such as: Where was this item made? Is it made out of high-quality materials? Does it bear any official organic logo or fair trade certification? What are the business policies of the store? She advocates boycotting retailers with a history of selling clothing produced under unsafe, inhumane working conditions.
Ideally, we would purchase relatively little new clothing. We would buy well-made used items and find creative ways to reuse and personalize even our worn-out clothes.
That’s where the examples come in. Jette in Iceland steams a cotton dress in a large pot with rusted old chains, creating a striking effect resembling an animal print. Michael in New York City turns an old lady’s long pleated skirt into a pair of harem pants that he constantly gets compliments on at parties. Rachel in New York saves stained shirts by embroidering flowers and hearts over the stains. Iman in Sweden turns a dress into a turban.
For each of the 50 DIY clothing reinvention projects described, there’s a gorgeous full-page photo of the re-created clothing item and its maker. On the opposite page is a short summary of the tools and ingredients you need, how to do it and a few comments from the person being profiled.
Here’s what Jennifer, who makes her own stylish arm warmers from sleeves of old sweaters, wrote: “(Living in) New York has forced me to be strict about what I bring home to my apartment, and that is why I have also learned to remake what I already have. New York is like one big recycling center. No store in the world can beat the woman on 16th Street who is the same size as me and puts her old clothes out on the street.”
This book might be too indie/alternative/hipster for some local readers and not enough for others, but I found it truly inspiring. Clothing is the new food. Here in the Seattle area we have witnessed a widespread uprising against cheap, unhealthy corporate food, and we can only hope we see a similar response with clothing. We can take back control of our closets.