Detail of a silk dress from the 1830s, from the American Textile History Museum in Lowell
"In the West, apparel has been expensive to produce and has therefore been a high-priced and valuable commodity for centuries. Once fashioned, garments had long and varied lives. A dress or jacket might be born as special occasion wear, then become a garment for indoor sociability, and eventually be worn (and worn out) while doing domestic chores... In some households, garments were turned into quilting squares... A piece of clothing might end its useful life as a rag, and literally turn to dust.
... From the seventeenth century through the mid-nineteenth century, apparel was a primary medium of exchange, second only to metals and precious stones."
--Economist Juliet Schor, in Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth.
I came across this quote today in a book I was reading, and thought it tied in perfectly with our lively discussion and poll yesterday about the price—and value—of sewing today.
In contrast to the history of apparel, we have today's sad reality:
"This history puts the nearly free gently worn garments of the early twenty-first century into sharp relief. The United States has been piling up mountains of clothing that have virtually no value... The production system drives businesses to use natural resources at hyperspeed, and the consumer system makes the resulting products redundant almost as fast. It's a recipe for disaster."
Plenitude (aka True Wealth) is not specifically about the fashion industry (for that, I'd recommend Overdressed), but Schor uses fast fashion and its devastating effects on workers and the environment as a case study for what has gone so wrong in our "business as usual" economy.
As a solution she presents her philosophy of plenitude, downshifting and sustainable living, which is in a large part about creating instead of consuming:
"The second principal of plenitude... is to diversify from the business-as-usual market and "self-provision", or make, grow or do things for oneself... Plenitude aspires to transform self-provisioning from a marginal craft movement into something economically significant."
I haven't finished the book yet, but I've always loved Schor's ideas—she was briefly my college women's studies advisor (before I switched majors to social anthropology and visual arts) and taught one of the most fun, engaging and thought-provoking classes I've ever taken, "Shop Til You Drop: Gender and Class in Consumer Culture."
I think I'll be grabbing those old wornout clothes and sheets I was going to take to be recycled and tearing them to use instead of paper towels!
So what do you think — now that clothing has been so devalued in our society, is there anything we can do to recover that value and respect for our garments? Is apparel doomed to lie on the dollar-a-pound pile of history? Will it ever again be precious as stones?