We have a fashion problem. No, I don’t just mean that older women often struggle to find clothes they like/can wear/can afford on the high street. Professor Julia Twigg has written about this – how older women ‘have long been subject to social pressure to tone down, to adopt self-effacing, covered-up styles’, although she says to some extent this might be changing. To me the bigger picture is that the fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world (Lindsay Brown, 2019), using massive quantities of water and producing waste. Did you know that when people return clothes bought online on a ‘try before you buy’ basis, it is common for the returned clothing to end up in landfill? (Harriet Constable,BBC). The drive towards cheaper and cheaper clothes – some worn just once or twice – also means that poorly paid garment workers in low income countries work for long hours in unsafe conditions.
However, many younger people are becoming more active in fighting climate change and recognising that everybody’s well-being is ‘corrupted and compromised by the political and economic systems that promote and support our modern, consumer-focussed lifestyles’ (Extinction Rebellion) I argue that working for change in the way we produce and use clothing is one area where older generations can contribute to thinking differently about what we are doing.
I remember wartime and post-WW2 austerity and make-do-and-mend. Fabrics were in short supply so people had to be inventive: wedding dresses made out of curtains, socks for the troops hand-knitted, clothes and shoes repaired and passed along until they could not be repaired any more. The expectation was for things to last and be cherished, not thrown out after a few wears because ‘fashion’ changed.
So it is encouraging that there has been a move by some young people to shake things up a bit by making businesses that re-use clothes instead of letting them be thrown away (Sarah Butler, 2018, The Guardian). I believe that those of us who are old enough to remember how to improvise, how to alter and adapt clothing, and how to repair and mend, have a lot to offer younger people by sharing these skills. It will be a small contribution to cutting down on the waste of energy and water, but a big contribution to intergenerational understanding and changing how we all think about the clothes that we wear.
Teresa Lefort in conversation with Caroline Holland
Please feedback on this topic. All contributions to the debate gratefully received.