In conversations about social justice, energy, and our environment clothing doesn’t get a lot of attention. This is in part because individually, clothing items don’t carry that big an embodied energy cost. Another reason is that shirts aren’t as spectacular as cars, or houses or even dinner. It is also kind of a girl thing – although male clothing is just as expensive, men, on average, shop less often and buy less when they do. Women tend to buy the household’s clothing as well as their own, and to engage in recreational clothing shopping. Clothing the household has been women’s work from time immemorial. And because the clothes we wear are tied intimately into how we feel about ourselves, and how others view us, clothing as a subject is somewhat fraught.
And yet, I think there are a number of really good reasons to find and learn ways to make clothing, to prioritize homemade, or locally made clothing (including learning to find it beautiful), and perhaps to create a “Slow Clothing” movement rather like the ”Slow Food” movement currently picking up speed. Maybe it’s as simple as creating a campaign in which each of us would have at least one daily wearable outfit that we’ve made ourselves.
Because while most adults may never urgently need to make clothing (there is enough clothing in the average American adult’s closet to last them their entire lives), except perhaps small items that wear out easily, like underwear, socks and gloves, breaking our dependency on the clothing industry may be at least as important – and powerful – as breaking our dependency on industrial food.
Before the invention of mass production on a large scale, the average American or European had 2 outfits – an everyday one, which was washed weekly and permitted to get dirty, stained, worn, etc… and a “best” outfit that was kept for Sabbaths and special occasions, and was kept clean at all costs. They might also have warm outwear, knitted stockings, or additional items, depending on their wealth and the climate. The poor often had only rags – one of the gifts of industrial clothing production has been such a large surplus that even the poor can clothe themselves reasonably well through donations, thrift shops and yard sales. But that benefit has come with a price as well.
Because each pre-industrial item of clothing was home produced, it was terribly labor intensive to keep a family clothed. The work included cleaning and carding wool, flax and cotton, spinning yarn, weaving cloth, cutting and sewing it, knitting stockings and outerwear, embellishment techniques such as embroidering, lacemaking, etc…, and the work consumed a good part of the time of all the female members of the household (with some help from young boys and elderly men). In fact, in human culture, clothing production, along with food preparation, has been the central work of women in most societies for most of human history.
Industrial cloth production liberated wealthy women (and poor first world women, most of whom are quite rich by world standards) from the labor intensive work of cloth production, made it possible for them to have more and more varied clothing, and made clothing cheap for those who were poor. But it would be a mistake to believe that all women were similarly freed. Because industrialization has never been able to eliminate the enormous quantity of (female, often child) labor required to produce clothing – it has never found a machine that can do all the sewing, for example in a t-shirt. It has reduced that labor somewhat, but in yet another form of Jeavons paradox, that reduction in labor per-outfit has come with an enormous growth the sheer quantity of clothing we wear. Thus, poor people, usually poor women and children, are being virtually (and sometimes literally) enslaved to produce what we wear. Even clothing factories that don’t employ sweatshop labor often get their cloth from places where the cloth is manufactured by slave labor running large industrial machines. We have not eliminated the work of making our clothing – we have merely moved the labor offshore, reduced our own skill levels, and impoverished other people so we could have a lot of t-shirts
It is no accident that clothing manufacture on an industrial scale has always been oppressive work, one in which people have been terribly exploited. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, or the appalling conditions of the Lowell mills of the 19th century are not aberrations, any more than the room full of 12 year old Philippine slaves is now. Every step of industrial clothing production is inhumane and unjust in most circumstances, from the growing of cotton, which was once the product of American slave labor, and is now the most toxic crop produced in the US, putting more pesticides into the ground and water than any other, to the production of silk in India, to the sewing of dresses in factories all over the world. There are exceptions, but just as industrial food production is fundamentally and essentially inhumane, in ways that cannot simply be resolved by a little tinkering, there seems little contrary evidence to the claim that industrial cloth production is equally morally problematic.
Cloth production has always been tied up with colonialism, slavery, and power. Thus, it is no accident that many of the most successful revolutionary movements in history framed their revolutions in part on the rejection of the clothing of their oppressors. Around the time of the American Revolution, for example, poorer women had always worn homespun, but in refusing to buy British cloth imports, women had their own Boston tea party. Urban and upper and middle class women accustomed to buying cloth or clothing imported from Britain proudly wore only homespun, and clothed their family entirely in their own production.
During and before the Civil War, people in the North refused to wear clothing that came from the South, because it was a product of slave labor. Women spun, wove and knitted their own wool and linen clothing, in an attempt to undermine the southern slave economy.
And Mahatma Gandhi, of course, in his famous swadeshi movement, called for a boycott of all British cloth, and for women and men both to work daily at the production of khadi, or homespun cotton cloth, spun on an indigenous spinning wheel called a charka.
In each of these cases, the clothing revolution was a revolution of women, of people who had historically been left out of revolutionary planning. In India, the khadi revolution was the first call for women to be full enfranchised. In America, particularly during the civil war, women took their economic power to boycott quite seriously, and it led to women take new public roles in the anti-slavery movement.
At present, clothing is a powerful, multibillion dollar industry that encourages the exploitation of poor people, many of them women and children worldwide. It supports industrial agriculture, toxic pesticide use and the inhumane treatment of animals (industrial wool production is extremely problematic). It absorbs millions of barrels of oil every year for things like the creation of polyester cloth, the running of industrial machinery, and the transport of clothing made in Vietnam to stores in New Jersey. And it is an industry that is the lifeblood of places like Walmart and other mega-corporations, who make an enormous part of their profits off of our insatiable desire for more and different clothing.
So I would like to propose a “Slow Clothing” movement, one that makes economic and aesthetic and personal inroads in reducing the exploitativeness of the clothing industry.
First, I would suggest that each household strive to create a single outfit for every man, woman and child that is entirely homemade. Now homemade might vary – ideally, of course, we would raise the sheep, spin the yarn and weave the cloth. And this can be done. But even if you buy your cloth (preferring, of course, organic cotton or sustainably produced wool or whatever), and simply sew your clothing, buy your yarn and knit your socks and sweater, each of us should strive to do some portion of the work of wardrobe production.
For those of us who are adults, there are only a few items of clothing that we should need to purchase, if we use what is in our existing wardrobes carefully and wisely. Work clothing will need replacing, but dressy or nice clothes not used for work should last a whole lifetime. Since the average American has 9 pairs of jeans in their wardrobe, purchasing even hard-wearing leisure clothing can be reduced dramatically simply by wearing the same pairs more often and long, patching and mending, line drying (dryers remove fibers from clothing), and the use of coverups, aprons, etc… Women will need maternity items, but these can be widely shared in a community. We can reduce our consumption by trying carefully to maintain our weight, or to lose weight and keep it off, so that we need not carry multiple sizes of clothing. We will need socks and underwear, but these are among the easier items to make – doing the work of handknitting the family’s socks is both satisfying and results in clothes of greater quality.
Children do need more clothes, more often because they change sizes rapidly. But again, we can reduce our needs by making some of these clothes, by engaging in good practice (ie, having children take off school or church clothing immediately and replace it with playclothes), by making repairs (by the age of 10, most children should be able to do their own clothing repairs), and by accepting lower standards for play clothes, which need not be perfect.
When we do purchase clothing, we should send a strong message to manufacturers by buying things that are not sweatshop made, ideally made locally or within our own country, and made both sustainably (ie, organically, and of natural materials) and of high quality. If we can radically reduce our clothing purchases, there will be no reason to buy cheaply made, imported, sweatshop clothing at Walmart – we will be able to afford to purchase high quality, environmentally sound clothing. If we buy locally and nationally made clothing, we can reignite our national clothing manufacturing industry, whose offshoring has done so much economic harm to us.
If I had the power to do so, I would call for a national day of celebration of the homemade, a day when everyone stands up and shows off the beauty of their own handmade clothing – one where little boys and girls go to school dressed in the clothing they’ve made in home ec classes and while working with their parents and grandparents. We could throw out the tyranny of the suit, and of pantyhose, and replace it with a new aesthetic of homemade.