How Can Vintage Clothing Contribute to a Sustainable Fashion System?
The current trend for fast fashion and instant gratification is a major contributor to the environmental fallout that is being widely discussed in the news on a daily basis. Mass media has made it easier for consumers to gain access to every new fashion trend and also to continue to buy things they may not really need. Luckily, it has also given those same consumers easy access to second hand and vintage clothing through sites like ebay. Vintage clothing is one of many viable solutions to the problem of textile and fashion industry waste. Whilst second hand clothing can be seen as contributing to a more sustainable fashion system, it is by no means a long term or even a sole solution in itself. Ultimately fashion designers will need to find ways of producing garments that are at the same time creative, marketable, and environmentally friendly. By taking into account Jonathan Chapman’s theory of ‘Emotionally Durable Design’, creative minds can create products that will bond in some way with the wearer and therefore be kept longer and worn for many years because of that bond. Braungart and McDonough’s rejection of the ‘Cradle to Grave’ lifecycle of goods in favour of the ‘Cradle to Cradle’ theory promotes the idea that there must be deeper thought given to each and every product manufactured and its continued use and existence in the ecosystem. These arguments together with the current and historical trendiness of vintage clothing lend credibility to the use of vintage clothing in a sustainable fashion system.
Waste Not, Want Not
They say that change is inevitable, and for the fashion industry, its time has come. In recent years, there has been a shift in not only the availability and affordability of fashionable clothing, but more importantly in the amount of fashion consumption. We have become a society of easy access to what some have termed ‘fast fashion’. This leads to extreme waste in that all of these clothes, once they have exceeded their usability by their initial buyer, must be disposed of in landfills or sold on the second hand and vintage markets. As banks continue to fail and the economic system of our society is in question, people will develop more of a need for cheap clothing options. This need could lead to more environmental degradation. A solution must be found in which affordable clothing is available that also ties into the need for sustainability and eco mindedness. These environmental and economic issues both lead to the question: How can vintage clothing contribute to a sustainable fashion system?
The use of vintage clothing will not, in itself, create a solution to the problem inherent in fast fashion. It is only a small part of a large overhaul that is needed and that is slowly taking place in the industry. Using vintage clothing and fabrics as resources for fashion will address the large amount of space taken up in landfills by clothing and could potentially put an end to the fast fashion system itself by creating for people a desire for one of a kind garments and not the look that we see on the streets today because of the likes of Primark and other high street retailers.
The use of vintage clothing in fashion is not a new thing. Vintage clothing used as a fashion statement goes back decades but has not been largely accepted in high fashion circles until recently. The new trendiness of vintage and the change in social stigma of the wearing of vintage coincides with the need for viable solutions to the years of industrial waste produced by the fashion industry.
The collection, ‘Colic’, will be presented in Spring 2010. The collection will utilize vintage and textiles in order to illustrate the need for up and coming designers to be aware of the issues at hand and actively engage in solutions to these issues. It will also seek to conceptualize the lifecycle of a garment by linking it to reincarnation or rebirth in a new form.
Various sources will define ‘vintage’ as anything from the late 1800′s to the 1980′s. The most accepted seems to be that anything made before 1920 is labelled as ‘antique’, anything between 1920 and the 1970′s as ‘vintage’, garments from the 1980′s are called ‘retro’ and from the 1990′s onward, ‘second hand’. The terms used to describe ‘not new’ clothing are many and varied, but for the purposes of this paper, we will be using the term ‘vintage’ to describe clothing made from the 1920′s until the end of the 1980′s.
Sustainable Design Philosophies and Strategies
Our generation, as well as those before us have ‘watched while the greenhouse effect, the loss of species diversity, contamination of the biosphere, soil and ocean pollution, and other issues took the media’s attention.’ (Braungart and McDonough, 2009) In turn, these issues have taken our attention and the need for change in all aspects of our lives is apparent.
‘you may be referred to as a consumer, but there is very little that you actually consume-some food, some liquids. Everything else is designed for you to throw away when you are finished with it. But where is “away”? Of course, “away” does not really exist. “Away” has gone away.’ (Braungart and McDonough, 2009).
Michael Braungart and William McDonough make the point that although well intentioned, many of the ways we determine to offset our consumption or make our consumption ‘less bad’ are not really effective. In some ways they are detrimental to our own health or even the health of the environment we are so desperately trying to save. (Braungart and McDonough, 2009) Creating new lines of organic clothing to make consumers feel better about their mass consumption and consequent waste, does nothing to solve the problem, as those garments will soon be discarded to end up in landfills alongside their non-organic cousins to pollute and cause more environmental degradation. No matter how well intentioned and environmentally friendly the manufacture, their death and interment are still dangerous to humans and our environment.
Braungart and McDonough’s idea of ‘Cradle to Cradle’ basically says that instead of trying to create ways to be less wasteful, more energy efficient, or ‘less bad’, we should instead be focusing on ways to make the products more effective from the moment they are manufactured through their first life and continuing on into a second or even third life. This continues until the product has reached the end of its usefulness as an object and begins its decomposition. They feel that this process should also create the least harm to the earth by decomposing in a good and useful way to the environment. Essentially, there is no need for any of the waste that we have been burdened with for decades, even centuries.
Braungart and McDonough even go so far as to layout a blueprint for Eco-Effective living living in five steps: First, ‘Get free of known culprits’. In other words, make an effort to avoid things which are known to be harmful to the environment. This includes making a conscious promise to not just cut down on waste and do harmful things less often, but to rethink everything we do so that our habits are consistently for the good of the environment. Making sure that a product can be easily composted by not using harmful materials in its construction, for example, is every bit as important as making sure it is energy efficient.
The second step is to ‘follow informed personal preferences’ or do not choose things just because of their environmental effectiveness. Creating new spaces and communities by using what is already there and making it even better than before can create some choices for product usage. Just because a product is environmentally sound doesn’t mean it is the most effective for its job. We must use the most appropriate product that has the most eco efficiency. The third, ‘Creating a passive positive’, means that we must be open to improvement in all aspects of our lives and the products we use on a day to day basis. Something that may be the best today can quickly be proven to be quite harmful and as technology and knowledge changes, we must be prepared to change with it. We shouldn’t get too caught up in one way of doing things.
Step four is to ‘Activate the positive list’. Meaning the redesigning of products based on the passive positive qualities of its components. Braungart and McDonough say that we should be aware that there has to be a certain amount of experimentation and development in the evolution of environmentally safe design.
The final step is to ‘reinvent’. By opening up the design arena to welcome new opinions and new ways of making and using products, we will create an environment that nurtures innovation and invention. We can’t continue to do things in the same way we have for decades. Change must come.
We must take responsibility for the world that we are currently in possession of, because someday, it will not be ours anymore. It will belong to the next generations. Braungart and McDonough quote Thomas Jefferson’s 1789 letter to James Madison, in which Jefferson points out that, ‘The earth belongs….to the living….No man can by natural right oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeeded him in that occupation, to the payment of debts contracted by him.’ (Braungart and McDonough, 2009)
It would seem that, at this stage of our understanding of environmental issues and solutions, we are merely swapping one evil for another. It must be remembered though, that even if these impacts on the environment cancel one another out, the use of vintage clothing can bring about a larger change in attitudes about fashionability and how we obtain ‘fashion’. If we can create more of an attachment to our clothing, we are more likely to keep it and wear it longer. Because vintage fashion tends to be individual and has a ‘history’, it emphasises this emotional attachment and could create a need in consumers for more of an emotional reaction to their clothes. There is a movement that emphasises this sort of theory called ‘Emotionally Durable Design’ and vintage fashion could be seen as providing this. (Chapman, 2005)
‘Unfortunately our desires and interests tend to change but the things we surround ourselves with generally do not, so it’s all too easy for these relationships to break. To prevent this, designers must create things which have a deeper beauty than their immediate function and we, as consumers, must view our potential purchases thinking not merely of immediate gratification but also of a long life in their company.’ (Anderson, 2006)
According to Jonathan Chapman, we could effectively reduce the current cycle of consumption if the things that we consumed were simply designed better. We wouldn’t throw away something that is still useful if we had an emotional attachment to the object, which could be linked to the design or functionality of the object itself. This theory deals more with the psychology of our consumer culture and aspires to identify why we discard some objects quickly and why other objects are kept for years, generations even, of use. This essentially goes along with Braungart and McDonough’s argument that if things were better designed, they would not be ‘less bad’ but better. At the same time we could develop more of an attachment to these objects because of their long lifespan and intelligent design. The two could essentially go hand on hand.
Along the same lines, products are consistently being designed with no thought given to their recyclability. Products that are designed for durability are often too durable in that they will not decompose easily in landfills and also can’t be easily taken apart and made into other things because of the mixture of materials used. From the first concept in the design of a product, there must be a thought spared for the final days of that product. If this essential part of a products life cycle is ignored, it could very well make an energy efficient environmentally friendly life, in the end, die a very intensely harmful death. (Milani 2000)
This leads into the idea that by choosing items that we already have, saving them from landfills, and reusing them in an environmentally viable way, we can not only cut down on the need for completely new items being manufactured, which is essential to environmental well being, but also forces us to be creative and innovative ourselves in the remaking and restoring of these items and this has a positive effect on our personal well being as well. (Fletcher, 2008) Again, this idea would seem to coincide with Chapman’s idea of emotionally durable design.
Consumers, however, don’t usually think about any of these issues or solutions when buying a product. We don’t consider the effects that the coveted item has already had on the environment before it ever even reaches the store. The waste created by its manufacture could be leaking into streams near the factory, thereby affecting the groundwater of an entire community. The carbon footprint of the item’s trip to the store shelf could be massive. On the other hand, we don’t usually consider what happens to the product once it has passed its usefulness. (Shreve, 2006)
‘The idea of local sustainability is not limited to materials, but it begins with them. Using local materials opend the doors to profitable local enterprise. It also avoids the problem of bioinvasion, when the transfer of materials from one region to another inadvertantly introduces invasive nonnative species to fragile ecosystems.’
Until we begin considering more than just our gratification through things that we use, the environment will never heal from the decades of neglect that we have inflicted on it. We have reached the very last step on the very edge of a large precipice. We must now begin looking at ways that we can slowly and carefully make our way back to the safety of solid ground. This can only be done if everyone makes a commitment to living in a way that is not only less detrimental for the environment, but also gives back to the earth that we all share. Designers of new products have a large task in front of them. They must not only have new and innovative ideas for clothing, architecture, automobiles, household items, etc, but they must also navigate the dangerous road of environmental acceptability. Taking into account the environmental impact of our ideas is not something that we’re used to and it will take years, and most likely generations before it becomes second nature in the creative process.
Relationship to the Fashion Industry:
The Past, Present, and Future of Vintage Clothing
Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, (Fletcher, 2008) points out that in the UK alone, the total waste in clothing for an average person is almost 40kg annually, with almost 30 kg of that waste going into landfills. This huge amount of clothing and textile waste then contributes to environmental issues of ground, water and air pollution. This is especially true of the cheap materials, mostly synthetics, that take longer periods of time to disintegrate that are used in the production of garments that are many times worn only once or twice and then thrown in the bin. (Fletcher, 2008) This means essentially that we have become a society that lives in cheap and sometimes poorly made garments as well as living in the pollution that the discarded carcasses of these pieces are producing. We have become a ‘throwaway society’ (Packard, 1960) in many ways and shop for new things and toss out the old on an almost daily basis. We must change our habits or come up with a viable solution to the problems that our habits are creating.
There are several ways of solving these issues through the use of vintage as well as second hand clothing: ‘reuse of products…repairing and reconditioning…recycling of raw materials…’ (Fletcher, 2008) According to Braungart and McDonough, however, it is not enough to merely reuse second hand clothing. There must be an effort to make these garments as environmentally viable as possible and give them more than just a second life. They must have a third, fourth, fifth and so on. One solution might be to keep redesigning a garment, never losing any fabric, but making as much change in that garment as possible. Another solution may be to take apart different garments and putting them back together to create completely new looks. In this process it would also be useful if these garments could be sorted by fabrics, making them easy to recycle and compost.
For many years, eco fashion has been something that was seen as a bit unfashionable. Mike O’Neill of Jimi describes it as, ‘that hippie crunchy granola thing. Unfortunately most commerce is about perception.’ (Hohle, 2006) This is true in that, in past years, most products made from recycled materials were t-shirts, sneakers, and other active wear. This type of clothing may appeal to a certain type of consumer, but not necessarily to the fashion and trend conscious consumer who contributes most to the detriment of the environment by their affinity for the new and fashionable.
Being environmentally aware for many years has almost gone hand in hand with being anti-fashion. The fashion industry itself is often regarded as wasteful, gluttonous, and self absorbed. Quite recently, however, the industry has begun to embrace the idea of eco-friendly design. Conceptual and avant-garde designers such as Martin Margiela have begun using vintage pieces in many of their collections. Margiela has done many garments made of different garments or accessories, such as his glove vest and ski glove coat (left) and many other designers are taking note and following in similar footsteps. Each piece would obviously be a one of a kind, but that shows in the $15,000 price tag. The problem with this type of sustainability in a high fashion setting is that, ‘earth friendly design is still a boutique kind of thing: expensive, fabulously designed, but beyond the aesthetics and price range of the average K-mart shopper.’ (Shreve, 2006) Vintage clothing, however, is readily available, most often cheap, and has recently become quite sought after by celebrities, artistic types, and trendsetters. It also has the advantage of being environmentally sensitive because it is re-circulating and recycling. Add to that the uniqueness of style of the clothing itself and it becomes a very viable fashion as well as environmental resource.
Vintage clothing has been in vogue for the last fifty years, although it has not always been acceptable in high fashion circles. In the 1950′s, it became the fashion of the beatniks or ‘beat culture’ to buy up second hand furs and silk dresses and tops from twenty years before. This could be seen as a youth subculture rebelling against the dominant fashion of the day, which was starched and proper with no hint at sexuality. (McRobbie, 1989)
This fashionability continued into the next decade when hippies began to search out antique Victorian clothing as well as army surplus. This was still considered shocking by some in that the stigma of anything that had been worn before regardless of the quality, being infested, ill fitting and lower class. (McRobbie, 1989) It was in the sixties and with the rise of youth culture, that this seemingly rebellious style began to make its way into the fashion system and onto the high street as an acceptable way of expressing oneself.
Clothing shops such as Granny Takes a Trip began to spring up. The owners of the shop had previously had a market stall selling only vintage antique clothing. They eventually opened their shop which sold real vintage, often reworked, along with reproductions of the originals to many celebrities including the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix. (Gorman, 2006) This was the beginning of the celebrity endorsement of vintage clothing as a personal style.
Other shops also began to open selling not actual vintage, but still relying on the mood and the silhouette of past generations to give them influence. The most famous was Biba, which opened its Big Biba store in South Kensington in 1974. The entire store from fixtures to fittings was a vintage heaven. Everything styled on art nouveau and art deco themes. This high profile embracing of old things was another boost to the popularity of reusing old ideas even though the clothing offered was new. (Turner, 2004) It also fed into the need for an emotional attachment to clothing and a feeling of dressing up and fun associated with ‘new’ designs.
At a showing of the documentary ‘Beyond Biba’, much of the question and answer period afterwards was taken up by women telling stories about the dresses and accessories that they had bought at the store decades ago. Many of them still had the garments in question, having grown attached to the memories associated with them as well as the time period that the designs represented. (Beyond Biba Premier, July17, 2009) This would seem to tie into Chapman’s theory of Emotionally Durable Design. The garments themselves were designed so well and the feeling that customers internalized in relation to the pieces, created a kind of emotional bond to the feeling and therefore an emotional bond to the garments. So much so that they are lovingly kept and passed down to next generations as heirlooms. They can then be reworn, thereby contributing to a sustainable lifestyle fuelled by emotional attachment.
Luckily for consumers and for the environment, there are still many of these older, better quality items left. They can be found easily in most second hand and vintage clothing shops as well as online on sites like ebay. Many are just as affordable as the cheaply made, poor quality options available on the high street. This is especially true now that the stigma of wearing second hand clothing has disappeared and the emergence of a ‘vintage’ market has increased the demand for these items.
There are problems with vintage clothing involving the environment as well and these must be considered in any argument for their use. The materials used to make many of these garments were very long wearing and therefore use much energy decomposing over long periods of time in landfills, therefore keeping them out of landfills seems a good solution. However, a good percentage of garments were made from more delicate fabrics and require special dry cleaning or separate hand washing. One of the biggest uses of energy by fashion is the ’usage’ stage of a garment’s life. (Fletcher, 2008) By re-circulating these garments and reusing them, we are having another environmental impact because of the high amount of energy needed to launder many of them. There is an exception to this rule however in many of the garments manufactured from the 1960’s. The use of polyester and other manmade textiles are very easy to launder and generally do not require tumble drying or dry cleaning.
Another problem with the use of vintage is that it isn’t necessarily a long term solution. There are only so many vintage garments out there and only so many times a garment can be reused or remade. Because of this, it is clear that the use of vintage as a sustainable fashion source is not a plausible long term solution, nor is it a solution in itself. It will be successful only if used in conjunction with other sustainability options such as those mentioned in Chapter Three.
In the end, the viability of vintage and second hand clothing and textiles as a sustainable resource for the fashion industry lies in the fact that it effectively avoids the use of virgin resources by reusing over and over what is already in existence while leading to an emotional attachment to the pieces themselves through association with a historical period, an individual, or a particular time in an individual’s life.
Relation to Collection:
Transitioning from Old to New
In the collection, ‘Colic’ not only will the use vintage designs for inspiration be apparent, but also the deconstruction of actual vintage clothing for reuse in those designs will create a mood for the collection itself. There is a vital need for our generation of designers to consider using vintage in our designs as a small step toward sustainability in the fashion industry. There are many reasons to have strong feelings about vintage as a personal source of sustainable design.
Vintage fashion has many important functions for consumers, for the industry, and for the environment. Vintage has the advantage of making the wearer everyday feel as though they are playing dress up by putting on a piece of clothing from another fashion era. It creates a sense of individuality in that the wearer isn’t wearing the same dress or coat as hundreds of others. A personal design philosophy has always been that when you put on your clothes in the morning, there should be a bit of that little girl playing dress up feel.
Important for the industry is the fact that vintage buying and selling has finally come into its own and become ‘cool’ and trendy. Smart designers are taking full advantage of this and marketing their own versions of vintage clothing or, in the case of Susan Cianciolo, remaking and remodelling actual vintage to create entirely new pieces. In many of her works, as in the dress above, Cianciolo uses fragments of garments to make whole garments. The effect is homespun and artistic with an eccentric feel. She is taking pieces from the past and creating something completely new, but with ties to the past.
In this collection, the positioning of death within life and vice versa will be shown. Every day things pass away, whether it is people or animals or even fashion trends. Even as a person dies, there is a baby born somewhere to take his or her place. It is the same with fashion. One trend or colour story goes out of fashion, while another replaces it. If used as a sustainable resource in the fashion industry, vintage can enjoy one, if not multiple rebirths, many very different from the garment’s initial purpose.
Looking into the idea of reincarnation and reinvention will also provide inspiration. In the Buddhist religion, it is believed that a new life is not at all the same person as in the previous life, but that there is still an element of that past life there. It also brings in the Hindu belief in Karma and how present troubles can come from past transgressions that weren’t fully resolved in the period between lives. This relates to the concept of sustainability in that we, as the current generation, must try and reconcile the sins of the past. In this case, those sins involve the abuse of the environment by the fashion industry in our throw away culture. The use of pieces of clothing that, in the past, fed this greed and gluttony in order to create something new and different that respects and doesn’t hurt the environment is what will be aimed for. At the same time, it will also be fashionable and desirable.
By using vintage clothing and textiles in a contemporary fashion line, not only consciously promotes the cause of sustainability in the industry, but as Susan Cianciolo is doing, pushing ‘the boundaries of contemporary art and modern fashion.’ (susancianciolo.com) ‘Colic’ will be making a social commentary with designs and conceptualism as well as acting on those ideas by using a sustainable source of textiles.
Modern fashion must keep up with the times and what could be more contemporary than the realization that we cannot go on using the earth as a dumping ground for other generations to clean up. We must start now by using every resource available to us to counterbalance the death that we have sentenced our old clothing with a new life that it can have as an entirely new and completely individual article of clothing. By creating one-of-a-kind pieces, I hope I can create emotionally durable design that would not be discarded after the season is done, but would instead be cared for and loved and quite possibly made into another piece of clothing at an even later date. This is something that I believe a designer should help their customers with and I feel that it would be good practice for shops to offer a service whereby customers could bring in their old or recycled clothing and have it made once again into a new and exciting piece of clothing, while still retaining the emotional attachment they had to the original garment.
As designers about to enter the industry, our generation has the power to create a revolution in the way consumers and the industry use fashion itself. We are at a critical place in fashion and environmental history. We must do our part to not only create environmentally friendly fashion, but we need to make change on a larger scale. By using vintage and attempting to create a more emotional attachment to the garments bought by consumers, we have the power to eventually eliminate fast, cheap, cookie cutter garments and ring in a new era of environmentally friendly and durable fashion
Vintage is the New Eco Chic
There are as many solutions to the environmental crisis facing the planet as there are causes for it. Fifty years ago Vance Packard called us a ‘throwaway society’. He accused manufacturers of creating a ‘planned’ or ‘built in’ obsolescence in their products whereby they would need to be upgraded for new items in a short time. Consumers are constantly in search of the next big thing in cell phones or the newest ‘it’ car. They aren’t happy with the trousers bought two years ago because the waistline is a quarter of an inch too high and the colour is a bit off from the shade that is considered ‘this season’. Turnover of product is made even faster by the cheapness of many of the items, which is reflected in the quality.
The fashion industry is one of many that have contributed to the current environmental problem and it is only one of the industries that will have to come up with solutions to change habits and long accepted practices. Although it doesn’t provide a one hundred percent solution to textile and fashion waste, the use of vintage or second hand clothing does provide an important piece in the puzzle.
Chapman’s ideas involving emotionally durable design apply to vintage in that there is an automatic emotion evoked by a piece of clothing worn in a different era by someone the new wearer may or may not know. The uniqueness of the item itself can also add to the attachment value of the garment. One is less likely to throw out a dress that is almost a one of kind or that has been altered in some way by the wearer. If the item seems more like an irreplaceable old friend, the more likely it is to stay in the wardrobe as opposed to ending up in a landfill tainting the groundwater of present and future generations. The emotional response that one gets from the instant gratification of purchasing a new article of clothing can be replaced by the emotional response that one might get from wearing a garment that triggers a memory or a mood.
The idea of Cradle to Cradle design is somewhat satisfied by the use of vintage in new garments. Using vintage clothing alone would only be a short term solution to a problem which would seem to go against Braungart and McDonough’s theory, but in other ways the use of reconstructed vintage clothing and textiles is the perfect example of Cradle to Cradle design. It not only avoids using virgin resources, but also creates an opportunity to remake a single garment over and over into other similar or dissimilar items. Vintage deconstruction can also be used to make garments that are intrinsically recyclable if several garments are taken apart and like textiles are used in new individual pieces.
Buddhism speaks of the many reincarnations of a soul like a dying candle flame lighting a new one. Even though it comes from the same source, it is a different flame. The collection ‘Colic’ will offer the opportunity to view clothing as a living thing that can be born and reborn many times. Each of these rebirths, just as in reincarnation, can provide new experiences and memories to be added to the ones that remain from the previous wearer or wearers, but not necessarily in the same form from incarnation to incarnation.
The fashion industry has for decades lived in the moment with no thought given to the future. What was ‘in’ for the season was the most important aspect of the business. Top designers have dictated what the appropriate and inappropriate trends for the public to be seen in are, while fashion magazines have religiously made their ‘in’ lists and ‘out’ lists. The media has fed this fast fashion mania by providing easy access to all the latest and greatest trends. This same media has in recent years made being environmentally aware fashionable and current. The fashion industry as a whole has been slow to respond and it appears to be up to the new generation of designers to find solutions to the environmental crisis, which is ever increasingly in the public eye. This public not only wants to feel that they are doing their part environmentally, but also wants to be fashionable. Add to this scenario the fact that the current economic climate is creating the need for affordable fashion options and you have a perfect place for vintage clothing to step in and offer a solution.
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