By Susan Vincent
Okay, here’s the thing. According to the United Nations, a truck full of textiles and garments gets dumped or burnt every second. Measuring this way, how many trucks full of waste clothing got thrown away in the time it took you to read to this point? Maybe around ten?
We all know that fast fashion is an ethical and environmental disaster. We know we have to consume less and reuse more. So let’s take a look back in time and see if we can learn anything from the practices of the past.
Any curator of costume will tell you that many – perhaps most – of the garments in their collections bear the signs of repair and alteration. For those skilled enough to read them, these seams and stitches are eloquent testimony to a garment’s changing life and also to the changing age, shape and desires of its wearer. Clothes are astonishingly malleable, although most of us have forgotten this. They can be made bigger or smaller; they can be augmented to assume a different shape; they can be cut apart into new incarnations. Surface decoration comes and goes, function changes, and one colour transforms to another.
Here are just four examples, one for each century.
This Armenian cope – an ecclesiastical vestment – dates from the seventeenth century. It is made from Persian velvet with an embroidered panel, or orphrey, edging the front. But the main body of the cope is constructed of joined-together pieces. Their shape and size – as you can see in the close-up – show clearly that they were once part of other garments. One or more of these was cut up, its scraps and panels husbanded, and carefully pieced together to form this new item.
The second example is a baby’s jacket that may have originated in India. It is made of a linen chintz, with four ties added as closures – both practical and jaunty – and dates from the second part of the eighteenth century. Like the cope, it has been sewn from reused fabric, either unpicked from an adult’s garment or cut out from a bed cover.
Here is a dress from the nineteenth century. Unlike most of the garments in museum collections, it has a documented provenance: we know exactly who wore it and when, and how it was altered and why. It belonged to a young woman called Amelia Beard (1844–1918; married to John Welles Hollenback in 1874), who lived in Brooklyn, New York. She first wore it in 1862, to be bridesmaid at the wedding of friends. Around ten years later, in response to a last-minute party invitation and finding herself with ‘nothing to wear’, Amelia adapted the gown to its present Polanaise style, the fine cotton muslin re-sewn as an overskirt cut away at the front and gathered high behind.
And from the 1920s–30s, here is a delicious pair of silk lounging pyjamas. (The item is not in the public domain so I can’t include the image, but you can see it on the Met’s website here.) When originally made the legs were wide; sometime later they were narrowed for a new look.
While the signs of reuse lie within existing garments like these, they live also in documentary evidence. Letters are a great source for this. Look at Jane Austen’s to her sister Cassandra, for instance.
The trend at the time was for dresses to be cut fuller towards the hem and increasingly trimmed at the bottom
with frills and borders. When Jane reports to Cassandra on the modishness of this, she adds:
‘You really must get some flounces. Are not some of your large stock of white morning gowns just in a happy state for a flounce, too short?’(Letter dated 14 Oct. 1813)Cassandra must have agreed and got busy with her needle, for twelve days later Jane enquired: ‘How do you like your flounce?’
The Austens also adapted the colour of garments, to change the purpose or extend their life. But dyeing – undertaken by a more or less skilled professional – could be expensive and the process hazardous for fabrics:
‘My Mother is preparing mourning for Mrs. E. K. – she has picked her old silk pelisse to peices [sic], & means to have it dyed black for a gown [...] how is your blue gown? – Mine is all to peices. [sic] – I think there must have been something wrong in the dye, for in places it divided with a Touch. – There was four shillings thrown away; – to be added to my subjects of never failing regret.’ (Letter 7 Oct. 1808)
Should we be trying to copy the reuse employed by Jane and Cassandra and almost every other wearer in the past? Is it possible to move forward to the future by going back to older ways?
We mustn’t kid ourselves that the Austens or any of our other forebears were any better than us. I’m sure that if they’d had the opportunity, they would have done precisely as we have. Theirs was a practice of necessity; ours – until environmental disaster forces our hand – is a moral choice. And in our time-poor and materially rich lives, it will take both commitment and resolve to change our habits, and the investment of buying better-made garments in the first place.
But one thing is certain. In producing cheaply, buying easily, and discarding without thought, we have not only misused our resources and polluted on a global scale. We have also killed the wonderful, ongoing life of our clothing.
1. Waistcoat (close-up on armhole alteration), 1610–20, silk and linen, V&A Museum, London, no. 179-1900
2. Cope, first half of 17th century, velvet. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1914, no. 14.67
3. Detail of cope
4. Baby’s jacket, c. 1760–c.1800, linen chintz. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Gift of Jonkvrouw C.I. Six, 's-Graveland, no. BK-1978-784
5. Evening dress, c.1877, cotton. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, Gift of Amelia Beard Hollenback, 1966, no. 2009.300.3290
6. Evening dress, back
7. Journal des Dames et des Modes, 5 October 1813, Costume Parisien: ‘Coeffe à la Chartreuse. Par-dessus de Perkale’. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, no. RP-P-2009-2432