Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ethical fashion - a rebuttal

Somehow I know that I am going to regret this post...but here goes....

Recently I posted a comment raising reservations about anachronistic 50s fashion on Gertie's blog that brought forth an avalanche of comments making me feel like the judgemental and humourless boiler suit feminists of my university days. The jist of my comment was that I am concerned about the return to 50s fashion because it was not a great time for women and why would we want to go back there. While these fashions are extremely glamourous (and presented so in the equally ambiguous Mad Men TV show), they are also physically restricting and convey messages about women as frivolous, decorative and perhaps submissive. A theme among the retorts was that women still experience discrimination today so why focus on 50s fashion.

My instinctive response is why make it worse for ourselves? Virtually all of the women who wear these frocks in Mad Men are wives, secretaries, models, or waitresses. The one professional woman in the piece, Peggy, is at the bottom of Sterling Cooper’s white-collar hierarchy and knows it. Today's professional woman didn’t merely reject this world. She burned it to the ground and danced on its ashes. But there are many who would welcome 1950s values and discriminations to rise phoenix like from these ashes.

Then there are those who took the view that whatever feels good is ok. But is it? I've been mulling over this last point for a week now and have concluded that it is not. I'm not confining my thoughts to vintage fashion. Rather than doing any more 'tub thumping', I just want to put forward some questions that I've been discussing with my daughters and my friends.

  1. How can we enjoy fashion and glamour without being overtly sexualised in what we wear?
  2. Are stratispheric stilleto heels or wedges the modern equivalent of foot binding?
  3. Should we consider not just what a store bought garment looks like and costs , but where it is made and by whom?
  4. If we make garments, what should we know about the environmental and social impacts of the fabrics that we buy?
  5. How many clothes do we really need? Just because we make them ourselves is it ok to be so acquisitive?
On the last point, I read an interesting piece in the Herald about a New York girl who wore the same dress every day for a year. Apart from the obvious questions of hygiene, it is a little bit thought provoking about how much we really need.

Well that's enough for one day from the old boilersuit. And if you don't agree, don't kick too hard...It hurts.


  1. Hey, it's your opinion and you are entitled to it :-) Thanks for getting me thinking, not sure where I stand (I sit on the fence far too much - seem to be able to see both sides most of the time!! Sometimes I wish I had stronger opinions on some things, oh well!) but your post is certainly thought provoking, I hadn't really attributed fashion to how women are thought of and treated.

  2. Hi Gail,
    It is 8 am here and early for me to articulate an opinion let alone formulate one.....but here goes.
    1. Did you graduate from my alma mater,wedged between Parramatta and Victoria Roads somewhere in the Glebe locale? No need to tell....Loved your comment about your boiler suit days.....
    2. The 7 day dress project while creative and clever,reminds me of 13 years of school uniform,where one struggled to individuate their uniform and somehow make it "different" then the others. Both loved and hated those days....
    3. I struggle with the ethics of sewing garment accumulation-do I NEED this item??? Can't my basic black wardrobe suffice???
    4.It can all be reduced to the comfort level and world view. I cant wear stilettos,but I love leather. I love some vintage patterns,but my mother was very well educated in the 50's and 60's so for me,the fashion was never a sign of restricted times for females..... And yes I should pay more attention to fabric origins and ethics....
    A great post Gail. I will ponder this again sometime today....

  3. Ugh, I'm sorry you felt hurt by my post. If it helps, I think you should feel great that you started such an interesting discussion! There is a BIG part of me that shares these concerns, which is why I was so happy you brought them up. You've made me think extensively about this stuff, and for that I thank you. :) I totally disagree with those who say we should just wear what we want and that makes us empowered. Thinking critically about this stuff, and then making your own decisions based on those thoughts is what makes one empowered, I think.

    You go, woman!

  4. You presented your point of view in a non-offensive and reasonable way. I became aware of fashion in the late sixties as a child and I believe that is why I'm attracted to the styles of that era. I like the construction details and the elegant looks, however I will not subject myself to the undergarments of the times;-)Personally I separate the fashion from the political issues but I certainly see the connection.

  5. I can certainly relate to some of the issues/ points you have raised. As a beginning sewer, and someone who (used to) buy many garments, but wears the same 4-5 staples day in and day out, I began thinking about this over the last few years when the impact of our consumerism began to eat at me; having kids will do that to you, wanting to leave the world a better or at least, "the same" place for them and all that.

    I love following a handful of blogs, but I have noticed, and asked before, of the women who seem to be churning out garments and buying fabric like there is no tomorrow (and yes, i have fallen into the same trap of building a stash), what they actually DO with all the garments they make. Some make a tally at the end of the year, and I am staggered by the number of items made. Do the surplus/ unwanted/ unflattering items go to goodwill? Or do they just get trashed? It is something to think about, when so many pple in third world countries can barely cover their nakedness and so many people and animals suffer for the production of much of our "fashions".

    Thanks for the post...

  6. Such an interesting post - great questions to ask. I've been thinking the same thing myself recently - I churn out a huge number of garments, and my wardrobe is full. For me, sewing is a creative process, I do it for several hours a day when my son is asleep, and it means I can do something entirely for myself.

    But, yes, what to do with all the clothes? I wear everything I make. About twice a year I do a big cull that goes to the Sally Army. Because I am a visually creative person who likes handmade things, I need to produce "stuff," in the same way an artist might produce thousands of drawings in a lifetime. My clothes are my sketches. I do try to avoid muslins if at all possible - the Sally Army don't want them!

    I try to slow myself down by making complex time consuming things with lots of details. In that way, I add several garments to my closet per season, which is probably on a par with most women, sewers or non- sewers alike.

    How have you resolved the tension between the need to create and the responsibility to not be too acquisitive?

  7. This was a very thought provoking post. I know it's going to keep me thinking for a while about subjects I haven't considered in years (I did a little research into foot binding while at University. It was eye opening).

    I meet my need to constantly create by sewing for other people as well as myself. I have five kids and I like to make their clothes. I get a sense of comfort knowing that their clothes were made lovingly by me, not in some third world sweatshop.

  8. This is a great post Gail. It raises so many questions. I think sewing amateurs like ourselves, limited in time and who even with mounts of fabric stash cannot compete with the huge quantities of what is industrially produced and rejected every day in the world. Our fabric acquisitive tendences may be nothing but the translation of a strong desire of craftsmanship and future sewing projects fusing in our minds.
    Let's enjoy sewing as a creative process, especially those who feel this need to make and create something with their own hands.
    As to the image of the women in magazines in the 50s, I think the reason it brings about a kind of nostalgia today is more related to that period's aesthetics than condition of the women in society.
    Anyway, by raising those questions you bring up awareness and that's how we progress. I'm not sure that was the case in the 50s.

  9. Hi Gail, I had a tough time getting my thoughts together to comment on Gertie's blog, and even now I'm not confident I can offer my thoughts succinctly... concisely... but I will try. I think at the root of this vintage styling – gender inequality topic are two issues and a truth:

    1. How we dress and the message we intend,
    2. How we are perceived and the message someone else receives.

    Truth: How we dress is a form of self-expression, and therefore a valid form of communication.

    Many of the comments on Gertie’s original post stayed on the first issue – that is, that our ability to choose freely what to wear is itself a benefit won by countless feminists past. “I declare that I am a liberated, modern woman by wearing what makes me feel happy, comfortable, and confident.” Got it! Great.

    Most complications arise with the second issue, though, which I don't recall was addressed by many if any commenters. Others may or may not receive the message we intend, and at an extreme, the implications of that miscommunication can be harmful. Staying away from any criminal or deviant behavior, and focusing on typical daily social and professional interactions, these miscommunications can lead to undesired consequences.

    It’s easy to say we’re liberated and shouldn’t care what others think. In fact, the louder you say it and the more times you repeat it, the more empowering it is! It just isn’t a very productive stance, and most of the time, it isn’t true. We do care what others think of the way we dress. Anyone who denies that she will wear different clothes to please different people has had few successful job interviews!

    How we dress is so powerful because most people we see in a day will judge us based on how we dress and present ourselves visually, and then will look for consistency between that and what we say and do.

    So what I’m trying to say is that all these communications, and miscommunications, are sooooo subjective. Both for the person sending the message and the person receiving the message. I’m not comfortable speaking in generalities. I can’t say that a woman wearing a full skirt with a cinched waist is setting back women’s progress just by what she’s wearing, but it helps me form an opinion when I hear what she says and how she acts.

    Thank you for offering a safe space here to process this a little more. I actually have about a zillion more thoughts on the topic and the others you brought up, but I don’t want to overstay my welcome. :)

  10. Hi I came to you from Antoinette's blog. This is what I said there:
    On the idea that retro styles = acceptance of gender oppression. Look further back at what was going on before the 50's. Each era brought advancement of equality in humans. Each era also brought advancement of technology, including fashion technology. The women of the 50's were embracing what was new and pushing the boundaries of those who came before them - in many ways. The combination of today's technology, and advancements in it, make it possible for fashions to change at a much faster rate. But it also brings ideas and history closer as well. Look around and you'll see a huge range of fashion history from the ancient Greeks on up to this moment's live wired clothes. Certainly there were other periods even more oppressive of women, but we still embrace what we want of their fashion.
    I'm not sure one can find any era of fashion that isn't "physically restricting and convey messages about women as frivolous, decorative and perhaps submissive" Technology changes the appearance of the elements but they're still there. Gender differences exist in modern fashion and let's face it, a woman can dress "manly" with much less notice than a man who dresses "womanly". I hope the future doesn't prove the movies right with unisex jumpsuits. HAHA!

  11. A thought provoking post. As it's late here my brain can't quite get around this one, but by tomorrow I will have pondered this a little more because I am interested in this discussion.

  12. Thank you Gail for commenting on my blog. I am one of those people who loves fashion and Mad Men. I'm very aware of being among the first generation of women who escaped the chains that bound women to men before the 60's liberated us.
    Although I love the fashions, there is just no way I would ever wear those undergarments needed to carry off those fitted beauties.But I recognize that there are lovers of all things retro in the world and respect their choices.I don't believe that these people choose to make or wear fashions from the past because they condone the politics of the times. It's just a love of fashion,in my opinion.
    I admire you for taking a stand on these issues expressed in your post. It's people like you who ,in the past,caused the shift in thinking that resulted in our(women) much loved freedom from the constraints that other generations of women had to bear.
    As for our excessive consumerism,I know i'm very guilty of that and I give several times a year to organizations who find uses for my excesses.I'm very aware of this problem because I just spent the morning cleaning out a closet which was stuffed with clothes and I felt mad at myself the whole time.What to do .I have so many ideas and plans for all that fabric in my stash that more stuff will find its way into that closet or to Ottawa at my DD's house.
    I enjoyed reading this post.God Bless!

  13. You raise many interesting, thought provoking questions. I read the 50's threads at Gertie's, but didn't comment since the 50s were a very different era in Germany: maybe the first time people felt to live in a stable democracy, and a time of economic growth after many very, very lean years. I do feel the same, however, when people have fun reenacting the middle ages in costumes or games, and I can't shake thoughts of illness, hunger and injustice, all that in a very short life span!
    For what it's worth here are my thoughts on your questions:
    1. I think about this often, because I love to make myself "pretty", but don't enjoy getting too much (male) attention. My answer is dressing somewhat modestly, which means I let others' perception dictate my style choices. Not ideal. I think the only solution would be cultural. If we stopped looking at a person's gender first and foremost, if we stopped sexualizing everything up to detergent commercials, we could dress more freely also.
    2. Yes. Anything that hurts. I think there's a difference between 50s fashion and vintage fashion today, too: the girdles!
    3.Oh yes. Although that is not as easy as only buying US-/Australian- or German-made. By exporting labor we's also supporting developing countries. But the working conditions should be controlled, and safety and health be ensured.
    We have a lot of organic groceries in Germany, but the clothing sector is sadly lagging behind.
    4. Same as 3. I would pay more if I could get (close to) the same selection and quality. It's even harder to follow through with fabrics than with clothes, though. There is hardly any information on fabrics out there. My one fabric piece by "Westfalenstoffe" (see my last post) is the proud exception.
    5. I try to follow the rule in sewing as in everything I do or consume: Know the point of enough, where more won't bring you happiness. Yes, this may mean fewer (maybe prettier) clothes.
    Keep up the thoughtful posts!

  14. Hi there,
    We at TOOA subscribe to the most stringent ethical standards out there - including oeko-tex and Fair Trade. We are a small company and we are trying very hard to ensure that we are beyond reproach on matters of ethics and sustainability. For that reason we have started with a smallish range to ensure maximum auditability.
    What we also have is a pretty darn good (and totally secure) online store ( and some really nice guilt-free clothing for women. Please have a look at the website and contact me if you have any questions at all. Also - if you have any comments, suggestions, requests etc etc - we are really keen to hear them
    Many Kind Regards

  15. My dearly beloved and I are self employed. Thus, I can wear whatever I want. I choose to wear clothes that flatter my figure, as my husband wants me to do, and I can put a blazer over the dress or skirt and top to make it appropriate for office or meetings. I enjoy the fact that after 30 years I can still turn my husband's head, but I recognize that there are many women not in my employment situation. We all have the right to wear what we want, and it's up to us as individuals to be comfortable in our skins. Similarly, I think shoe choices are dictated by what the wearer likes, and I don't think I have the right to judge them. I do feel that we have lost a lot by shipping our clothing manufacturing jobs overseas, but my son the economist would disagree with me. (I tell him it's his right to be wrong.) And I don't see where I can do much about where my fabric comes from. You do raise issues that everyone ought to contemplate, but my son the economist who has the right to be wrong points out that each place that a textile manufacturing venture moves to becomes obsolete, and the factory moves on, because the workers become better trained and educated, and expect better living and working standards. So, maybe our buying from 3rd world countries does ultimately help them. There are many issues woven into these questions, and sometimes my head feels like it may explode as I contemplate them! Have I added to your puzzlement yet?

    As for how many outfits we should have, well, I want a million, but storage is an issue, now isn't it?

  16. Gail,
    You asked about the Knipmode magazine. It is not an offshoot of BWOF as far as I know. It is alot like BWOF except it is in Dutcb so I had to translate. Here is a link to their English website:;jsessionid=7BA4FAF6E2738233471051D6F836D450?

  17. Gail, your thoughts are well articulated, and I don't have much to add. I personally struggle most of the time, with a feeling that I can not look "too nice", or I'll not be taken seriously in business. By looking "too nice", I don't mean wearing 'sexy' clothes (I would never do that in a public setting), but I mean simply wearing modest clothes that flatter my physical being.

    I didn't get interested in fashion until I hit my late 20s. As a child of the 60s/70s, I eschewed fashion, and would never have dreamed of dressing to 'attract' men. I think that was a result of my reaction to feminism. I shunned sewing and cooking, too, until my late 20s.

    In the 80s (when I hit my 20s), I became more comfortable with myself. Most importantly, at this time in western culture, our society started 'allowing' women who look good to be successful as professionals, even if the women were 'pretty'. Again, this seemed to happen in the 80s, full force (remember how Gloria Steinem was not taken seriously by many in the 60s, because she was considered 'attractive'?).

    Because I remember well the time when girls (including me) were told we could be teachers, nurses, or secretaries, until we quit to get married, I still struggle with this all the time. (Don't get me wrong - teaching, nursing, and secretaries are skilled professionals - it's just that back in the 60s, those were the only professions easy for girls to enter).

    It's so safe to just put on a pantsuit and blend in. At the same time, it's more fun to dress in a way that complements who I am. When I give a presentation or speech, I usually succumb to safe and, even frumpy clothing, because I don't want to be evaluated on my looks. So, that shows how I struggle with this all the time.

    I haven't given this much thought in the past few years; thanks for fertilizing my thoughts. More to ponder for me. Thanks.

  18. I must confess, I have always cringed at the thought of 50's fashion, for much the same reasons as yourself. I did read an article once that pointed out that the frilly aprons of the 50's were actually a symbol of liberation of women because they were designed to be attractive items to protect clothes at cocktail parties rather than workday clothes worn by women in the kitchen...this opened my eyes to the different ways that people can view the same things.

    I returned to sewing several years ago when I stopped work and no longer needed a uniform and found myself with nothing to wear. It is only now, about 5 years later, that I feel I have enough clothes that I am not sewing out of desperation anymore. I also am opposed to mass my solution (however ineffective it may be) is to only make special clothes, out of good quality fabric, that I will hang on to. When I consider the cost of a garment, I also take into account that it is my leisure activity, and on a per hour basis, is cheaper than many leisure activities (eg going to the movies). Also, the time it takes to sew slows down the could buy a bagful of garments in one afternoon's shopping, but only get part of a garment made in the same time.

  19. Go boilersuit! These questions absolutely need to be raised. Thank you for stepping out and asking us to think about it. It's much easier not to.

    I'm a 38 yo feminist who loves to wear sexy clothes but does believe that stilettos - and waxing of the ladybits - should definitely be interrogated for their potential to be on the footbinding spectrum.

    For discussion: what are we choosing when we choose painful sexy (different for everyone but I suspect many of us have been there, examples would be stilettos or clothes tight enough to make us hold our stomachs in or sit very straight) over comfortable sexy - for example, a tight knit dress, or a low top and formfitting jeans.


  20. I am little late to the post, but I just wanted to share some ideas. I often look to fifties fashion and the vintage patterns I have, are fifties patterns. I share your concerns, I hate restrictive clothing, still I looks to the fifties for inspiration, why ? Because in my youth I would have fit in fifties dresses without a corset. This stuff looks good on me, slim tops and circular skirts work. To find jeans that fit is much harder, than to find skirts which fit. Most skirts that are vaguely associated with the fifties works. If I dress fifties style it just will look great on me. Even now that I have gained some kilos, most people do not believe my weight, because it sits on my tights and booty, and wearing wide skirts hides it. Not that I try to hide it, but it makes fitting easier if I have to fit only my waist and not also my hips and tights, which between them hog around 3 dress sizes.
    So even if I am no fan of Dior's restrictive clothes, corsets, etc. wearing fifties inspired clothing for me, is much easier and comfy than a lot of things made for ease of wear. My tights hate to be constrained and having lots of excess fabric at the waist is unwieldy too. Excluding all the pain inducing torture instruments like high heels and bones naturally. But the fifties also bought us the ballerina, which I live in during summer. So I like Gerties blog and her sewing, because she makes the stuff look modern and not nostalgic. And this is a great inspiration. As are Dior's dresses, even if I will never wear the underlying construction work or the tons of make-up. For me all these 60ties mod dresses and 20ties flapper dresses would be much more damaging to morale, because I would have to run around in a shapeless tent. I am not immune to form and this would really depress me and probably get me on hunger strike. With fifties fashion I can dress the curves nature gave me, as much as somebody who has broad shoulders, may feel comfortable in 40ties clothes, because the clothes fit their body. No amount of wishing will make a 40ties dress or a mod dress work on me. If I dress my body, I will look vaguely fifties inspired, if I want or not. So why not go and look at the patterns from the beginning ?