Turning the (sewing) tables on fashion production

I have a friend who plans what to wear each day for work the night before, carefully laying out the items so she doesn’t have a sartorial crisis first thing. Me, I tend to ‘freestyle it’, flinging open my wardrobe doors when I’m already late for work and hoping that dress I really need to wear for an important meeting doesn’t have last week’s lunch down it.

Either way, we’re both in thrall to the way we dress for work. Even the science backs up something most women implicitly understand, that a carefully curated outfit will make you think and behave differently in the office than if you turned up looking like you spent the morning wrestling with your closet.

It’s called “enclothed cognition”, which describes the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes. It doesn’t matter if your choices resemble Chancellor Merkel’s ubiquitous line in pantsuits, or Liz Hurley’s sequence of plunging necklines; what we wear says a lot about Brand ‘Us’. Increasingly, women recognise the subtle difference fashion brings to how they perform at work.

And, boy, aren’t we paying for it. In the UK, the fashion industry is worth over £26 billion to the economy – globally it’s somewhere north of $2 trillion, and in 2014 the womenswear sector alone topped $621 billion. That adds up to a lot of women buying a lot of clothes – some estimates put it at hundreds of thousands of pounds over a woman’s lifetime – which gives me a sneaking suspicion there are a lot of unworn items kicking around.

Research by charity WRAP confirms this sobering reality, revealing that 350,000 tonnes of used clothing goes to landfill every year in the UK, and a further £30 billion worth of unworn clothes lurk in the back of wardrobes. Sadly there are deeper, darker and more complex problems that stretch beyond those unloved piles of clothes.

Every year on April 24th, organisations the world over mark Fashion Revolution Day. This year marks the second anniversary of the shattering conclusion of the ‘fast fashion’ industry, when over 1,000 workers – predominantly women – lost their lives in the collapse of the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh. Global demand for fashion has seen garment product become a main contributor to many developing economies, but the consequences have been devastating as manufacturers cut corners on labour standards, often due to pressure from retailers who demand cheaper prices but have no oversight of how those items are made.

Carry Somers was one of the individuals instrumental in bringing about Fashion Revolution Day, and commented at the time, “perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the Rana Plaza disaster was that, even a week later, many brands did not know whether or not they had been producing clothing within the building.”

It was an issue that reared its head again when the Fawcett Society faced allegations late last year that their iconic ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’ t-shirt, produced in partnership with Whistles, had been made in sweatshops. Whether true or not, the story pinpointed the disconnect between our elite feminist sensibilities and the gruelling realities of fashion’s hard-working women.

I’m no mathematician, but even I can tell that a £15 frock bought in a lunchtime panic for an office night out cannot possibly cover the costs of material, manufacture and distribution – let alone a living wage for the workers who made it. It’s time to wise-up to our workplace wardrobes and put a little love and ethics back into the clothes which make us feel our best selves.

Fashion Revolution Day poses a simple question: who makes my clothes? It’s a powerful way to remind us all that at the end of that convoluted supply chain is someone just like us, working hard for a better life. It’s a question we should ask every retailer, and then change our spending habits to support those who are honest and positive about the changes they can make.

Personally, I’ve found my move towards sustainable fashion has really upped my style-game, not detracted from it. I make my clothes work harder, which means I focus on good tailoring, durability and a timeless quality to style. It gives me a marvellous excuse to get digging around in vintage stores and really experiment with my look.

I’ll never be the kind of woman to lay my clothes out the night before, but I hope to be the kind of woman who is proud of knowing where her clothes came from. It’s time for a fashion revolution, and what better place to start than making your workday best work even harder for women in fashion.

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