We know from first hand experience that fashion is a very personal phenomenon. The ways in which millions of us dress, style and adorn ourselves is part of life’s ritual, part practicality, part entertainment and, vitally, our means to social connection. Creating a sense of whom and where we are, through fashion, is a dialogue of self-expression and relationships with others.
Fashion also represents social movements, notably of women, for women, as it does much to represent our economic, social, cultural and political standing in the world. Fashion is created mostly, although not exclusively, by women. More than 20 million women are engaged in its activities, it offers livelihoods and access to independence for some, whilst doing so by employing many below the living wage or worst still, harming and even sometimes killing them through the process.
So if it represents and connects us through its industry and its cultural signaling, what are we saying about its great wonders and its atrocities in practice?
Fashion’s political agency is something that I have directly experienced through my role as director of Centre for Sustainable Fashion and through working at Katharine Hamnett. Fashion is testament to the ability to create a public call to arms through visibility that is impossible for politicians to ignore.
In the designing, making and wearing of fashion, we have the opportunity to stand up for what we stand for, so we do well to celebrate that right and campaign for those without that freedom of expression. Historically, communities of makers have been able to provide for themselves and their communities through their skills and collective voice, yet in fashion, the collective voice is still, alarmingly, too often stifled, leaving makers without the ability to represent themselves, their independence and rights to safe and healthy livelihoods. Labour Behind the Label do incredible work in bringing about change and it has been with the support of activists such as Liz Parker, that many of our students at LCF have become better informed of the wider picture of fashion and their ability to stand for change through the development of their own ethical practices.
Whilst fashion can stand up for women, a mass of its manifestations still stands for their inequality. Industrialized fashion systems and modern business models have created fashion as a monster with a tempting façade. Designers are being turned into ‘pushers’ rather than ‘providers’, employed to ‘facilitate’ access to more, more, more. The cycle runs at such high speed that it blurs the picture of what, why and how we are doing here to ourselves and to each other.
There is so much involved in this system that disrupting it needs careful consideration. But fashion is well placed to question itself and do better – it’s the ambition of design to create better than what has gone before.
‘Every new fashion is a subversion against the oppression of the preceding one’ Barthes
But we’ve become so welded to the present that fashion has become in many ways defined by the machine of consumerism, it is holding onto its current forms, rather than moving them on. So it is, therefore, tarred by the devastation that it causes to those employed in its make. It is our privilege and our responsibility as fashion educators to empower the next generation of fashion creators, makers and wearers to subvert the system through the creation of connection through our attire. This offers great possibility when we engage with the social content of fashion alongside its technical, aesthetic and material properties.
A number of LCF designers are demonstrating their political agency and being emboldened in their work through the college and its creative director, Rob Phillips and through the incredible photographic skills of Riccardo Raspa, who is inverting the photographic system as a means to look at fashion from a different perspective. This work will be visible for one night only (and the details are here), as part of Fashion Revolution Day on April 24th.
Fashion Revolution Day is creating incredible momentum, through the bringing together of active citizens – designers, makers and wearers, to ask Who Made Your Clothes? The pieces next to your skin and your image to the world are being turned #insideout to form a new social movement that makes it inappropriate to design, make, sell or wear at another woman’s expense, or without connection to the wider fashion system.
Our students are actively involved in this campaign and we at the centre are too. I, myself, will be in Copenhagen hosting the Youth Fashion Summit from 22nd April – 24th, where over 100 fashion students, including representatives from LCF, alongside students from across the world, will explore fashion from the inside out through a magnifier on the present and a telescope to create visions of new futures.
Our work here and that of Fashion Revolution is not to signal the end of globalised fashion production, but it is to question its goal of short term profitability for a few and to honour a richer variety of fashion and find ways that we might work together towards shared benefit as benefit to all through collective prosperity.