An Anti-Capitalist Approach to Fashion

Tansy Hoskins at with Susie Orbach at the launch. Photo by Ruby Wright

Tansy Hoskins at with Susie Orbach at the launch. Photo by Ruby Wright

There hasn’t yet been a book that links fashion and capitalism so directly, so ‘Stitched Up. The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion’ by Tansy Hoskins, is something of a first and Tansy teases and picks at the threads of the industry, pulling them to unravel dark undersides that are, so she argues, caused by the system that governs the fashion industry – capitalism. At the book launch last week, fashion and it’s practices were interrogated by Tansy, her panel of guest speakers and a packed and engaged audience at the Rag Factory (how very fitting) in East London.

The book sheds light on the  fashion industry’s unsavory practices by addressing a range of issues from the exploitation of workers along the supply chain, from garment workers’ rights, working conditions for models, the pressures and problems of a one-size-(zero)-fits-all aesthetic, the role of the fashion media, to the emphasis on people as consumers rather than citizens. All these issues were touched on as the discussion developed throughout the evening, a heady evening where one alternated between feelings of individual guilt to hope of collective action. As Tansy said at the beginning of the evening, “fashion is a lens to look at capitalism through.” And the various problematic threads that run through the industry were scrutinized during the evening, with not much offer by way of defence.

Tansy had with her a real (as in, an actual object from the industry) Miu Miu dress she’d picked up in a Richmond charity shop (for £25, if you’re asking) and used it as her introduction to why she’d felt compelled to write the book. The dress, as a concrete object, served as a reminder; the industry is real, it not only creates objects and wealth but ideologies and mythologies as well. The dress holds is the physical embodiment of the exploitation that is attempted to be hidden from Western eyes.

As the first book to address fashion from an anti-capitalist perspective, Tansy’s hope is that people will be able to see more clearly what fashion represents i.e. largely the best interests of corporations and their profit margins. But discussions about fashion need more than this too, so as not to be in danger of ‘victimising’ fashion, of seeing fashion only as a form of exploitation is to neglect it’s role as creative, engaging and inspiring. Something, that at the end of  book Tansy recognises, “fashion will never be free without an end to capitalism. And yet fashion can contribute to the remaking of the world. It has the ability to replace the old with the new, to makes us hope and dream”.

After Tansy introduced her book, Nadia Idle, of War on Want, discussed the issues around workers rights and the Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops campaign; Leah Borromeo showed her film ‘Dirty White Gold’  and Dunja Knezevic of the Models Union told how she’d created the first union for the industry. Last but not least, Psychotherapist Susie Orbach offered insights into her work around bodies, highlighting the link between capitalism and the negative feelings many of us (if not all of us) experience in relation to our bodies. As she put it last night, “one of our greatest exports is body hatred.”  It is through these feelings that the outside worlds gets inside you, accentuating her point that it is impossible to be separate from our world and the systems around us. “Fashion fashions our bodies” asserted Susie.  But can we dare to occupy our own bodies, embody them even, rather than constantly sculpt them, continuously fashion them?

And how then can ‘we’ divorce ourselves, or at least protect ourselves and vulnerable others, from the system that we live in?  How do we become considerate and critical actors working from within?  Susie Orbach’s approach to the body and bodies addresses this: we inhabit our bodies, they are part of us and we are part of them. The same could be said of  nature. We are part of it and it of us, inseparable and entwined. This discussion brought to mind the work being done through Dr. Kate Fletcher‘s Craft of Use project as while “garments may be sold as a product, they are lived as a process”.

Members of the audience wanted to know what they could do to address some of the issues raised – particularly with the Rana Plaza collapse being much discussed. Should they boycott certain stores?  Should they stop consuming altogether?  The resounding conclusion was none of the above.  Boycotts were seen as outdated and numerous examples were given whereby garment workers had denounced the idea of boycotts, fearing for their jobs. Again and again the point was reiterated that we are citizens, rather than consumers. This means that we should think beyond our purse strings, beyond consumer power, looking to a more ethical and perhaps moral response, that departs from a compassionate form of consumption – as citizens we are not, and should not be defined by what we buy.  At the same time, never before has it been so important for designers to think about what and how they design, a point that was also made during the evening’s discussion.

To counter the uncomfortable truths revealed in the book and at the launch will take more than a let’s-all-buy-ethical response or strategic boycotts. Garment workers and models need to be listened to and supported with unionisation. International accords on Health and Safety need to be legally binding and obligatory. Catwalks need to be more representative and diverse, portraying beauty in all shapes, sizes, abilities and colours. And fashion can be this space, a place for inspiration and debate, it can contribute more to the discussion than pretty frocks – it can, embrace diversity and yet address adversity. Fashion as an appeal as something more than shopping, as Tansy says in her book fashion is “truly glorious and enthralling” and “an incredibly skilled and demanding art form”, that can hopefully play a role in a world that people want to see.