Combining industry insider interviews with a fascinating historical narrative, Stitched Up delves into the alluring world of fashion to reveal what is behind the clothes we wear
Tansy Hoskins, Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion (Pluto 2014)
What does Karl Marx have to do with Karl Lagerfeld? What does neoliberalism or economic crisis have to do with the fashion industry? They are inextricably linked. Despite fashion being ‘capitalism’s favourite child’, the industry has been hit hard by the economic crisis. The impact on production was not just ten million jobless Chinese workers, but shock waves through the upper reaches of the industry, with the fashion designer Giorgio Armani saying: ‘We are all feeling the crisis. It touches us all. Stores are buying less than last year. We cannot ignore it.’ The precarious nature of the fashion market has led one fashion CEO to state: ‘I feel like I’m having a black tie dinner on top of a volcano.’
The fashion industry lays out in sharp relief all the ins and outs of capitalism – the drive for profit and its resulting exploitation, the power that comes from owning society’s means of production and the very real need to overhaul the unstable system we are currently living in.
Despite being unstable and unfair, capitalism is protected because it is often ‘too close to the eyeball to be objectified’. Like the traditional saying the fish do not talk about the water, few people (up until the financial crisis) ever talked about capitalism as a system. Instead, life just seemed like life, not life under capitalism. Stitched Up is not an attempt to write a definitive book of fashion, but an attempt to make capitalism visible by discussing its very real impact on the fashion industry and by showing how the very concept of fashion is part of the social process of capitalism. Along the way, some fundamental characteristics of capitalism are illuminated and explored.There exists a conceptual impurity to the word ‘fashion’, an impurity that some may accuse Stitched Up of contributing to. This book includes discussions of companies ranging from Chanel to Walmart, Louboutin to Tesco. I have not written separate books on ‘high’ fashion and ‘high street’ fashion, but have placed the two together. I have taken this approach for several reasons. First, there is a shrinking distinction between high fashion and high street fashion. In the Spring of 2013 River Island joined Topshop and Whistles as a contributor to London Fashion Week. Similarly J.Crew showed in New York and in Paris H&M held a show at the Musée Rodin.
Versace, Marni, Stella McCartney, Lanvin and Maison Martin Margiela have all done collections for H&M. Isaac Mizrahi, Missoni and Prabal Gurung have designed for Target in the United States, and Jean Paul Gaultier and Karl Lagerfeld both spent time as creative director for Coca-Cola. Famous couture houses rely more on sales of perfume and bath oils for their profits rather than $50,000 dresses. Mass-produced sunglasses, ‘It bags’, boxer shorts, cosmetics, designer t-shirts and jeans with the word ‘couture’ printed on the label make up the majority of profits for the ‘high fashion’ industry. So why discuss only the pollution caused by high street brands in China when ‘It bags’ are being made in the factory next door? Why discuss only the issues of body image and race representation on the catwalks of Paris and Milan when Topshop and H&M display the same exclusive aesthetic? Why pretend over-consumption is a problem only with regards to the cheapest brands?
Fashion is a social production. All of the materials and skills that give rise to great works are socially produced. Just as the greatest pianist needs a socially produced piano to play on, so the most lauded designer needs socially produced pencils and paper, materials, a set of skills learned from teachers and a history to both follow and rebel against, not to mention huge assistance in the form of design teams, administrators, financiers and, often, domestic staff. Numerous copyright lawsuits against brands like Zara show just how much inspiration the high street takes from high fashion. Yet high fashion houses also rely on the high street to popularise their ideas and their brand (as well as continually doing their own thieving). Ignoring social production leads to the mystification of fashion. The point of this book is to unpick and demystify the fashion industry and its ideology, not add to its carefully cultivated mystique. Therefore ‘high fashion’ gets no special pedestal. Instead, this book uses a simple, workable definition of fashion: ‘changing styles of dress and appearance adopted by groups of people’. This is an immediately controversial position, one that some accuse of being Procrustean (after the legend of Procrustes who chopped people’s legs off to make them into an arbitrary size). Fashion, it is claimed, is purely a European concept indistinguishable from capitalism, with Burgundy in the 1400s named as the ‘cradle of fashion’. Whilst I do not dispute this analysis of the origins of fashion, I do take issue with the way this definition has allowed ‘fashion’ to be historically guarded for a demographic that is rich and white.
There is a prevalent myth that those outside this demographic do not ‘do fashion’. That what Paris/Milan/London/New York produce is fashion but what everyone else produces is just clothing or apparel. Everybody else – the vast majority of the world – has been relegated to being ‘people without fashion’, which translates to ‘people without history’. Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, stated: ‘Of the crimes of colonialism there is none worse than the attempt to make us believe we had no indigenous culture of our own; or that what we did have was worthless.’ This racist approach allows for the dehumanisation, and therefore guiltless exploitation, of the so-called third world. As the Marxist art critic John Berger has written: ‘The last need of imperialism is not for raw materials, exploited labour and controlled markets, it is for a mankind that counts for nothing.’
Defining fashion as Western also looks woefully out of date with regard to design and production as it is today. Countries as diverse as China, Colombia, India and Nigeria have vibrant industries, while neoliberalism and austerity have downgraded European wages to the point where corporations are scrabbling for the attention of Chinese consumers who may soon have more purchasing power than their European counterparts. For all of these reasons I have chosen a definition that is deliberately open and inclusive, material not ethereal, and which does not mystify the fashion industry.
The reality is far from mystical. In 2008 I went on a research trip to Dharavi, Mumbai’s infamous city-within-a-city slum which houses over a million people. We walked through overhung alleyways lined with workshops filled with child workers losing their eyesight as they stitched clothes. A lot of the workshops were live−work units with rooms housing entire families perched on top. We climbed a rickety ladder to speak to a line of children working at a loom. Other children sat on the hard wooden planks of the floor sewing beads onto luxury shawls. ‘Small fingers for difficult little beads,’ our guide said shaking his head sadly.
Later, turning a corner, the smell of goat skins hung up to dry in the searing sun hit the back of my throat and made me gag – to the amusement of the tannery workers. Skins dripped onto the dusty floor as around the courtyard people in workshops sewed bags and wove strips of leather into belts and jewellery.
‘Do you make things for international clients?’ I asked one of the workshop owners.
‘Yes, of course,’ he laughed and pointed at me. ‘For you.’
He was pointing at my belt, bought the evening before. Woven leather sprayed blue and gold by people I now knew worked without protective equipment or masks. Their work, their lungs filling with paint fumes, their children going without an education, all to provide shops with accessories that are worn once or twice before being replaced. Victorian England’s slum factories, staffed by children as young as seven, have not been banished to the history books as examples of cruelty: they still exist.
This book will not mystify the fashion industry because, above all, Stitched Up takes the position that whilst items from the fashion industry can be viewed as signs of the times or products of social consciousness, they should also be seen as products of industry. A dress is not just a structure of meaning, it is also a commodity produced by a corporation and sold on the market for a profit at huge environmental cost. The designer is a worker, whose work exists to enrich their company and earn them a wage – no matter how extravagant. Paris Fashion Week is just an expensive sales pitch. By analysing the fashion industry as an industry, Stitched Up aims to keep the discussion of fashion firmly in the material world and to recognise that there is nothing academic about the struggles of those women and men seeking to free themselves from exploitation and oppression.
|Working It! A London Fashion Week Fringe and Book Launch for 'Stitched Up The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion'|
|13.02.2014 19:00 - 22:30|
|The Rag Factory|
|London: Book Launch with author Tansy Hoskins of 'Stitched Up The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion'|
|25.02.2014 19:00 - 22:00|
|Calder Bookshop, 51 The Cut, London SE1 8LF|
|Newcastle: Stitched Up: exploitation, gender and race in fashion capitalism|
|06.03.2014 18:00 - 19:30|
|Bar Loco, 22 Leazes Park Road, Newcastle|
Tansy Hoskins is the activist author of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion. She has worked for Stop the War Coalition, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Islam Channel. As a political commentator she has discussed fashion, politics and change on Woman's Hour, BBC Breakfast and Channel 4's Ten O'Clock Live.
More articles from this author
- Stitched up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion
- Tears in the Fabric: a portrait of grief and struggle in Dhaka
- Rana Plaza: It is not consumers who have blood on their hands
- Miley Cyrus – race, class, and gender in the pop world
- Swaziland: Striking teachers sacked
- Clara Lemlich and the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand
- Sofka: The princess who became a communist