Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Hi everyone. It’s nice to meet you. My name is Betti, and I’m a self-confessed fashoholic.
The dull rustle of a deep burgundy taffeta sets my pulse racing. The way spun silk grabs the light so mischievously makes my fists clench with excitement. I look forward to the first glimpse of the new Meadham Kirchhoff collection more than I anticipate a visit to my own grandmother, and she always stocks Southern Comfort by the litre. I will happily spend endless hours trawling through the style blogs of green haired pre-teen Harajuku gurus to find my next hit of visual bliss.
But an obsession with the sartorial world comes at a steep price. In the 21st century, ‘fashion’ is edging ever closer to dirty-word territory, eliciting sniggers of distaste and assumptions of vapidity by those who assume that an appreciation of a perfectly cut A-line skirt and functioning critical faculties are two mutually exclusive qualities to possess. “She spends her time thinking of ruffles, can you imagine?” they sniff, before turning back to their expensive cheeseboards and adopted opinions on Thatcher’s funeral.
Such stifled giggles and pedantic jibes sail over my head. The growing, burbling cesspit of unease in my gut is not so easy to ignore.
You see, when the industry you blithely feed your hard-earned bucks into is unmasked time and again as the arch-villain of the economic world, the sheen on that spun silk loses its lustre. It becomes increasingly difficult to justify an appetite for cheap and cheerful spangles when a disaster as huge and as horrific as the Bangladeshi sweatshop collapse strikes and points an accusing finger at the retailers we blindly support.
The deaths in Dhaka are not a one-off. Since 2005, 700 sweatshop workers have been killed in Bangladesh alone. Worldwide, the figure is close to 1000 work-related fatalities every year. Labourers also have to contend with being viewed as living, breathing production lines and are paid a miniscule piece rate for their efforts. Predictably, women workers are particularly vulnerable. Sexual abuse is rife, and some employers even force workers to take birth control and regular pregnancy tests in order to dodge costly maternity benefits.
Rose-tinted, romanticised imaginings of wild-eyed creative genii throwing cotton and colour around an airy studio flanked by jolly seamstresses hand-crafting couture lace are shattered in the face of the reams of hard evidence provided by world-weary employees and undercover journalists. That Gucci show doesn’t look so pretty when you’re painfully aware that the factory workers who stitched the garments were denied access to clean drinking water by their employers.
The false economy of a Primark t-shirt is more bogus than first understood.
So why aren’t we all cutting up our Topshop store cards and picketing the doors of New Look? Perhaps it’s all too simple to shrug off another report of inequity and suffering with a callous reference to economic necessity. Maybe we just don’t give a hoot, although I’d hope that our cultural apathy towards other nations hasn’t advanced that far yet.
My suspicion is that we fashionistas are just not ready to relinquish our love of style, and have been conditioned for too long to see no other option other than complying with the status quo. After years of being told that our choice of dress defines us, we’ve reached breaking point. Not owning that season-defining statement piece is not just an oversight, but a deeply personal failing indicative of a severe and alarming lack of style savvy. No one wants to hear that their inner psyche is passé.
And so we resume our places at the tills, key in our PIN, and clutch our purchases tight to our chest. We show off our acquisitions and congratulate each other on our ability to spend. We try to disregard that gnawing feeling in our bellies, and force ourselves to forget that a human hand made our trinket and suffered for our gain.
But there is an alternative, and it involves – as most solutions do – running back to the rulebook, ripping it up and starting over. For fashion is more than the slavish pursuit of trends and the thrill of the splurge you know you can’t afford.
It’s about embracing the personal style you cultivate over years of absorbing external influences and following internal trains of thought. It’s the vintage shawl your mother passes down which still smells faintly of Rive Gauche. It’s developed during conversations with friends, through admiration of strangers and honed by hours spent browsing second-hand shops that smell vaguely of cat wee. It’s less about what you spend, and more about what you save. It’s an injection of pure creativity that an ‘It’ product will never replicate.
Choose swap shops, not sweat shops and rediscover your inner sartorial spark.