Kate Fletcher’s latest book Craft of Use: Post-Growth Fashion was published last week, launching with it a whole series of questions for debate and discussion about the life of a garment after it is bought. The book recognises that garments that are bought as a product are lived as a process, and that the way we use and wear our clothes can be more valuable and interesting than the state in which they were bought.
Flicking through the pages of Craft of Use, I discovered the stories of garments uncovered in thrift shops or found on the street that somehow fit the wearer perfectly- almost a fated match- and tales of clothing altered or adapted by the wearer. We often feel that our clothing shapes and frames our bodies, but, in reality, the relationship between the wearer and worn, the covering and the covered is far more nuanced than that. The body that inhabits a garment, and indeed the creativity and ingenuity guiding that body- as referenced so clearly by Craft of Use- can, and often does, have as much impact on the clothing.
I was reminded of an essay I read during my MA that explored complex relationship between body and garment: Kitty Hauser’s ‘The Fingerprint of the Second Skin’ (2005). The article outlines a series of bombings and robberies that took place in 1996 in Washington DC. The perpetrators had taken steps to hide their identity- balaclavas, gloves and the seemingly anonymous uniform of an oversized parka, jeans and trainers. Ironically, however, it was their clothes that ultimately identified them.
Clearly revealed to CCTV cameras were the patterns of wear and creases on their jeans. These jeans bore the marks of the specific and individual way that the wearer washed and ironed them, what they carried in their pockets and even how they moved. During the investigation, twenty-seven pairs of jeans were removed from suspects’ houses and sent to the FBI, later to be used as evidence resulting in the prosecution of one man. Dr Vorder Bruegge, who conducted the investigation, identified twenty-six features creating a ‘distinctive barcode pattern’ in each pair of jeans. Each man’s garment wore the shape of his body, making them as individualized as a fingerprint. His jeans became as unique as his genes.
However, his investigation also revealed something about the relationship of the maker to the garment. The clothes he investigated revealed not only the individuating patterns of the wearers’ bodies, but also those of the makers’ hands, exposing the otherwise hidden relationship between garment, maker and wearer. This feels particularly pertinent to Fashion Revolution Day, and the white signs bearing the slogan ‘I made your clothes’ that are dominating the internet this week- or, at least, the parts of the internet with an interest in ethical fashion. According to Hauser, the hands that made your clothes may not be so far removed at all.
There seems to be a general conception of clothing as something that appears, as if by magic, on the shop floor, and, once bought, ceases to have value. However, this simply isn’t the case. As proven by both Kitty Hauser and Kate Fletcher, clothing has a much longer lifespan, extending out both before and after the point of purchase. The moment you hand over money in exchange for a garment, its lifecycle and its potential to change don’t end. In fact, at that moment, the garment is opened up to a whole host of new possibilities for alteration or adaptation. Craft of Use shares the stories of people whose relationships with their clothing didn’t end at the point of purchase; these clothes, like the bodies they inhabit them, changed and developed over time. As hems are let down, holes patched, or a garment crafted into something completely new, the individuation and the unique mark of the wearer’s body intensifies. We rely so heavily on clothing to create and demonstrate our identity, yet how can it truly signify our individuality if our wardrobe is constantly being overhauled. The pieces that really demonstrate our unique personality are the ones that have been worn for years, torn, mended, shortened, let out, modified to keep up with our changing tastes (and size!) It is these garments that really bear the ‘fingerprint of our second skin,’ as well as demonstrate our creativity and individualism.
Kitty Hauser, ‘The Fingerprint of the Second Skin,’ in Christopher Breward and Caroline Evans (eds) Fashion and Modernity, (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2005) pp 153-170