“Wardrobe Crisis: How We Went From Sunday Best to Fast Fashion” by Clare PressMore info/purchase

I approached “Wardrobe Crisis: How We Went From Sunday Best to Fast Fashion” by Vogue Australia’s sustainability editor-at-large Clare Press, the way one would a bottle of foul tasting medicine — if I can get this down maybe it will be good for me. Press, who has been not only a fashion editor, but also a brand consultant, and columnist, as well as the presenter of the Wardrobe Crisis podcast, strikes a snappy humorous tone in this her second book. Warning: get out your British English to American English dictionary or Google the many funny slang expressions. These British-isms make sense since the author is Aussie and the book was originally written for the UK market (it was released there in 2016) but must have slow walked here — it was released February 20 for the US and China market.

In our current culture of news immediacy I’m wondering about the two year lag time and if it impacts any new developments in the world of sustainability. I also have been asking myself if the titular “wardrobe” refers to the piece of furniture which holds one’s clothing (the primary meaning across the pond) rather than the repertoire/collection of clothing which one owns. I guess it works either way — the idea being that they are both overstuffed!

Clare Press

The book’s 336 pages are really like two books in one with the first half being an enjoyable vast fashion in-depth look at important design houses from Charles Frederick Worth, to Coco Chanel, Dior to Hermes — the author not only loves clothing but loves their history. The impact of these icons on the fashion world is detailed showing how our “need” for status clothing was shaped. Nowadays social media spurs clothing over-consumption and fast fashion is only too happy to comply, leaving our landfills as overloaded as our closets. I learned several retail terms I was aware of but didn’t realize they had names. In case you’ve ever wandered dazed and confused around a store (I immediately think of Ikea) with its deliberately designed system making one subject to impulse buys, it’s called the Gruen Transfer. The second half of the book illustrates how shopping habits combined with clothing production have come home to roost in various harmful ways, impacting our health, natural and human resources.

By asking about the supply chain through which our clothes are produced, from the fabric to the manufacturing, it becomes eye-opening how many possibilities there are for potential abuse of both man and nature. Since most manufacturing has been moved overseas for lower wages, poor or dangerous “sweatshop-type” working conditions have resulted in countries such as China, Mexico or Bangladesh. The Rana Plaza building collapse was this generation’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. There’s also the potential spread of disease through any sick unregulated “home workers”in close contact with a garment which will end up in some unsuspecting person’s home, perhaps causing “a pox on both their houses,” as the saying goes.

Sometimes it really comes down to choosing the lesser of two evils (or Boll weevils lol) as organic crops, such as cotton can be subject to insect infestations. Poisoning the insects spreads potential carcinogenic risks up the food chain so a better type of cotton seed was developed by scientists; on the contrary there’s the problem of killing off the silk worms after they’ve cocooned the silk which many think is inhumane. Our oceans are full of plastics which impact fish, birds and end up in our drinking water; the dye from blue jeans actually makes China’s rivers, also used for bathing and drinking, run a toxic blue.

So what’s to be done? Press who sits on the Australian advisory board of Fashion Revolution details several solutions for developing nations such as startups involving social enterprise rather than conventional fashion labels. Organizations such as the UN Ethical Fashion Initiative and the International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) link artisanal micro producers with an aim toward empowering people in poverty. The author admits that the product must be something that people want to buy (she mentions several such as soleRebels shoes from Africa, and garments from Studio One Eighty-Nine, a collective of batik artisans in Ghana and New York co-founded by actress/activist Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah) to ensure any kind of lasting sustainability.

Fashion designers who are praised for making an eco effort include Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, Maiyet, “Choose Life” graphic t-shirt designer Katherine Hamnett (who had a go at supplying Tesco with an “organic and Fair Trade” collaboration until she discovered that they were not finding it easy being green), and UK brand People Tree. U2’s Bono and activist wife Ali Hewson are applauded for starting the now defunct company Edun (Nude backwards); Patagonia gets kudos for doing an environmental study of their fleece (they actually found those residual fibers everywhere!) as well as for their 2011 “Don’t Buy this Jacket” ad campaign encouraging a model of less consumer consumption and less factory production. Pharrell’s G-Star Raw for the Oceans which recycles plastics found in the oceans into clothing, is yet another example (when Press interviewed him she was cautioned not to talk about THE HAT). Even H&M is working the eco market despite half of their sales staff being oblivious to their Conscious Collection.

Naturally, Press discusses real fur versus faux, mentioning UK brand Shrimps — one of the only faux fur brands against using a softening chemical process — supposedly they have sourced a faux fur that doesn’t need more treating as it’s already soft. There’s an informative section on Merino wool, sheep shearing and mulesing — a surgical procedure in which a sheep’s butt folds are smoothed out to prevent flystrike — does anesthetizing the sheep make the practice ethical?

In the last chapter entitled “Can We Really Change Our Ways?” Press, who once owned a vintage shop, unsurprisingly endorses vintage fashions. Other popular ways to “waste not, want not” include adding hand work to existing clothing — repurposing, repairing, upcycling, using scraps and fabric overruns. Crocheting is another favored method — no fabric is wasted since you are creating something which didn’t previously exist solely from a spool of yarn. In the eco world there are even those who will buy defective sweaters (with a flaw or a dropped stitch), for the purpose of unraveling the yarn and reusing it.

No matter if you don’t immediately take up a crochet hook, darning needle, or hightail it off to the nearest crafting store — after reading this book, you will no doubt be more aware. Side effects include examining the tags of your clothing with a more discerning eye.

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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