A couple of weeks ago I attended a very lovely wedding wearing a twenty-year-old dress. A dress I also thought was very lovely and had last worn at a wedding in 1999. It still fit, just not the same way it fit twenty years ago. In 1999, it hung loose, due to skinny shoulders and the lack of boobs. Then, it reached my ankles. In 2019, it is form fitting and ends at my lower calves. The magic of good quality stretchy material–its ability to take length and add it to width when needed.
Whether or not this dress would be considered in style for 2019, I don’t know, but I got away with it and was happy to do so. It is a very simple design with a timeless pattern of blue with black leaves. It seems you can’t go wrong with leaves. They come and go so often that no one questions their appearance. For years this dress lived in a garment bag in the back of my closet, me checking in on it occasionally with the distinct intention of someday wearing it again. It had previously been worn twice in a six month period. When the opportunity to don it one more time arose, I was excited. I tried it on when the invitation arrived and was very pleased with how it fit, thanks to my current yoga regime and some middle-age boob growth. Then I carted it off to the dry cleaners, happy to have my wardrobe in place for under twenty bucks.
If that dress had distinct sleeves or a waistline that placed it in a certain time period, or had been a colour that no one had seen in the stores for longer than they could remember, it might have been an outright fashion faux pas. And then again, it might not have, because these people, the people at this lovely wedding by the ocean in Nova Scotia probably wouldn’t have cared.
But there are people who do care. I know this because, years and years ago, I studied fashion design and merchandising. I entered the program because I was a very good seamstress and I loved to create things. Plus I was a big proponent of freedom of expression. I believed that one’s wardrobe was key to individual expression. However I learned very quickly that fashion was not the industry for me. I knew this before I graduated; but felt, after investing all that time studying, I had no choice than to give it a shot.
This shot lasted a very short time. It started before I graduated. I worked part time at a small company where I coordinated and packed outfits for home fashion parties that sold garments as if they were Tupperware containers. This was the opposite of Holt Renfrew but was still a snobby little place where competition was cut throat and labels meant everything.
After graduating, I got a job at a well-know ladies wear manufacturer. In the factory a couple hundred immigrant ladies spent hours on end bent over sewing machines doing piece work. They did not get paid for holidays or sick days. They could not afford to get sick. Once when the air conditioner broke down in the factory, they still had to work in an unbearable temperature. I couldn’t look these ladies in the eye. And this was in Canada. The garment district of Toronto. They were just beginning to outsource to factories in China and then India where working conditions could be much worse, but the amount of money saved outweighed everything.
I was a poor east coast kid making just above minimum wage, and I was judged there. Judged because of the clothes I wore, those basic sale-rack finds, that I hoped would get me through. By where I got my hair cut, at the time, a department store beauty salon. By the car I drove, a Chevy Chevette, before I had to sell it and take the bus, as opposed to an Audi or a Mercedes Benz. By where I was from, my Nova Scotia accent said it all. Employees didn’t smile or, for that matter, talk much to each other. I had to get out and I did.
This experience changed my whole outlook about fashion and trends and individuality. You see, consumers are like sheep. They don’t realize it but they are. The fashion industry actually decides what people should wear and then offers a selection of these choices. They decide what is in style and what isn’t and they profit greatly by it because they change the style yearly. Consumers just follow their lead.
And it isn’t just clothes. Did you know that there is a committee that meets twice a year to decide the latest colour trends? These people choose the colours that affect everything from fashion and furniture, to automobiles and house paint. From kitchen accessories to children’s toys. Nothing you or I choose is really based on our own original thoughts. When I was in the fashion program, there was a statement made by one of my instructors that I would never forget. He said, “By the time the latest trends reach the mass market, they are already out of style.” You and I are the mass market, and the fashion industry thrives on built-in obsolescence.
So I chose not to play catch up. I chose not to be trendy. I deliberately chose not to be a sheep.
Today the fashion industry is one of the largest polluting industries in the world, second only to the oil industry. Most garments are manufactured in countries with little or no environmental regulations. Toxic wastewaters are often dumped right into rivers. The industry uses huge amounts of fresh water. For example, it can take up to 200 tons of fresh water to dye a ton a fabric. The production of cotton alone uses such a large quantity of water that it has turned former bodies of water into deserts. Water is a precious resource. There are places in the world where people do not have access to fresh water, yet the fashion industry destroys tons of it. In addition, many mass-market garments are made from cheap synthetic fabric that deteriorates quickly when laundered, thereby releasing microfibers into the water. These microfibers are affecting the oceans and making their way up the food chain.
Fashion changes so often, that it has become disposable. Those distinct cut-out shoulders of 2018 will not survive into 2020. Their owners will not want to be out of style, so many of these garments, up to 85%, will end up in landfills. Synthetic polyester fabrics are not easily biodegradable. It can take up to 200 years. About 10 million tons of used textile waste was sent to landfills in the US in 2014. In Canada, the average person throws out 81 pounds (37 kilograms) of textiles annually. These days, the average person buys 60% more items of clothing every year than they did 15 years ago; but they only keep them for about half as long. This works out to approximately 3 years per piece of clothing. Consumers only recycle around 15% of their used clothes. As I mentioned above, and it is worth repeating, 85% will end up in landfills.
In hindsight, I am so glad I decided long ago not to be a sheep. And even happier that I got to wear my twenty-year-old dress again. I plan to take it to my local environmentally-friendly dry cleaners before I hang it back in my closet with hopes that I will get to put it on once more in the next twenty years.
References and more information:
The Recycling Council of Ontario https://rco.on.ca/