May 23, 2016
Journalist Clare Press‘s Wardrobe Crisis: How We Went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion (Nero, $30), is engaging, funny, and important. It whips along fashion’s historic timeline, nails its swivel points and tricky issues, posts a host of Things to Do and Stuff to Think About without banging on, and is a rollicking good read besides.(This review by Voxfrock editor and freelance journalist Janice Breen Burns, first appeared in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.)
The global garment industry has spun itself into a tangled web of modern moral dilemmas in recent years, and fashion journalist Clare Press is just one among many trying to make sense of it and a way out. A genre has mushroomed. But Press’s book has a better shot than most at being read by the young women – fashion’s core market – who could solve some of the worst sins simply by changing their frock-buying habits.
Press’s message is well put and more palatable for the fashionable masses. She delivers a back story of fashion (how we got here), and a message to buy less, mend more, pay for quality, and seek out the who, how and where of clothes’ origins (where we should be going) in the quick, sugary vernacular of a glitzy glossy.
The venerable house of Cartier, she writes for instance, was “the go-to tiara joint for Euro royals”. Grace Kelly hid her “possibly preggers belly” behind a Hermes bag (the “Kelly”, naturally). Christian Louboutin didn’t go broke, he went “belly up”.
Press’s prose is light, upbeat and often funny. Her ideal readers – hopefully the caring consumers of the future, who won’t buy a frock without ticks by a trusted auditor checking every step along its supply chain that it did not exploit, pollute, endanger or kill on its way from seed to rack – will warmly relate.
Her research is deep and densely detailed (“academic rigor” sprang to mind), but spiked with hundreds of wonderfully off-piste anecdotes, harvested from the annals of fashion and cleverly curated for curiosity and glamour value. A perfect balance of engaging (but true) fluff and formidable fact.
In one typically engaging page, she swings from the Tudor queen Elizabeth’s pearled wigs and penchant for ermine fur on her 3000-odd gowns (“Bess was the boss, and she dressed like it…”), to Marie Antoinette’s metre-high wigs – poufs au sentiments – set with miniature gardens, street scenes and the odd battle ship in full sail. Press finishes the page with a visit to burlesque star Dita Von Teese’s two-room wardrobe, racked to the rafters with frocks and shoes including two pairs of the laboriously hand-embroidered Christian Louboutin $US6295 Marie heels customarily sold in Faberge egg-shaped boxes.
Press’s crash course in fashion is elegant context (and should come in handy to readers fond of spouting frocky facts at dinner parties). But her main agenda and revelations are less pretty; that fashion is essentially cruel and stupid, driven by speed and greed at the expense of human rights and a healthy planet.
She musters a mountain of evidence. Some of it is truly awful: live skinning and plucking of animals, deaths and cancers of thousands of agricultural and garment workers by chemical poisoning, child and slave labor resulting in grinding poverty. A village in China has a river that runs deep blue, dust drifts blue in the streets and drops, forming stinking blue puddles when it rains.Why? Jeans.
And, then there is Rana Plaza. In April 2013, 1133 people died and 2500 were injured in the collapse of that garment factory complex in Dhakar, Bangladesh. The cost of Cheap was never higher and fashion never more reviled.
Press admits the litany of horrors simply can’t be reconciled with the popular cultural line that fashion is fun! Sexy! Fabulous! “The idea that our fashion habits may be contributing to such misery and devastation doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?” Press writes. “The problem is that the sheer scale of this encourages ostrich behaviour.”
Until recently, that head-in-the-sand culture might have relegated Wardrobe Crisis, and certainly other heavier, harder-line studies of the global garment industry, to the fringes of publishing, perhaps to be read by a niche rabble of vegans, academics and fashion ethics pioneers. But now, Press writes, “I believe we are at a tipping point. The ‘faster, bigger’ (fashion industry) is starting to sicken us.”
In Wardrobe Crisis, she counters those sickening bits with dozens of engaging first-hand in-the-moment accounts of her meetings with ethical visionaries, people having a crack at changing their plot on Planet Fashion. She fired off dozens of emails and criss-crossed the world to interview them: fashion designers and activists Katherine Hamnett and Kit Willow of KitX, Simone Cipriani, founder of the UN’s Ethical Fashion Initiative, Bethleham Alemu, founder of Ethiopia’s multi-million-dollar global shoe brand sole Rebels, others tracking human and animal rights abuses, or spinning yarn out of oceanic waste and milk byproducts.
By the end of Wardrobe Crisis, it’s their stories that leave a distinct taste in the mouth: sweet and hopeful.
Janice Breen Burns, firstname.lastname@example.org