Fashion Course Update: Size matters

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“This week the Department of Agriculture and the WPA in New Jersey set about getting women’s figures taped; they started a WPA project to measure 100,000 women. Later this research will be continued in five other States. Each subject—matron, maid, scrubwoman, show girl—will be taped in 59 different places, special recordings made to check the “sitting spread.” The purpose: to create a new, unified system of sizing women’s clothing.” This is an excerpt from an article published in the TIME magazine in 1939 titled, “Women: No Boondoggling.” It heralded in a new era – an era of uniform sizing in the fashion industry. The drive to develop a standard method of sizing individuals was based on the calculation of American manufacturers that they were losing close to $10 million every year due to a lack of standardised sizing. Before this, sized were usually measured according to age (so a size 16 would mean clothes for a 16 year old) and after a certain age, on the basis of bust size. The underlying assumption behind this lax attitude to sizing was that women were generally supposed to know how to sew. So alteration should not be an issue, that is if they weren’t making their clothes from scratch in the first place. Sizes were also not as important as they are to us because people before us simply did not shop as much as we do. We have gone from having 2 fashion seasons a year to as many as 104 seasons.

The Department of Agriculture and the WPA ended up collecting data from 15,000 samples, but given the fact that mostly white women from lower sections of the economy (to earn the participation fees) volunteered for this exercise, and that the people collecting the data had no computers to analyse the data collected, the results were far from conclusive.

The effort to find a universal method of sizing was undertaken again in the 1940s by the Mail-Order Association of America in conjunction with the National Bureau of Standards. This time they mostly used sample sizes taken from women serving in the Airforce, creating a sizing system that was once again, fairly arbitrary and hugely non-representative of the population at large (given that women serving in the Airforce were arguably some of the fittest women in the country). They came up with sizes on a scale ranging from 8 to 36, with variations for height – represented by T (Tall), R (Regular) and S (Short) – as well as ‘-‘ and ‘+’ signs to show variations in girth.

This was only the beginning though. Government sizing regulations were more or less ignored by manufactures as the average size of the American woman increased – leading to the development of what we now know as ‘vanity sizing’, so much so that the Department of Commerce withdrew its standard sizing regulations altogether after a point. Already based on an inaccurate and underwhelming system of sizing clothes, the fashion industry – at least in terms of sizing – was now in free fall. To attract customers and to keep women happy, sizes were continuously downplayed. In fact, a few quick online searches will show you how a size 8 in the 1950s is nothing like a size 8 in our day and age. It isn’t so much a bad or a good thing, as it is inconvenient. To give you context, Marylin Monroe was a size 12 in the 1960s. Today she would be better suited to finding clothes in size 6. In the end, it boils down to the fact that the sizing system is flawed and outdated, and I honestly don’t know why we still bother with it. Because, you know, like Stanley Tucci says in Devil wears Prada – “2 is the new 4 and 4 is the new 6.” If you’re a size 6? That’s the new 14. Or not. We don’t actually know what we’re doing anymore.

I have 4 pairs of jeans that fit me perfectly. 2 of these are 26-inch waists, 1 is a 27-incher, 4 are  28-inchers and 1 is even a 24-incher. If I measure my waist with an inch tape – I’m a 27 inch waist. So, um, you see my issue. And this is a fairly common issue. I’ve read up on fashion bloggers talking about how they will try on at least 4 versions of the same clothing item in the same size to find the right fit. So, if sizes on clothes aren’t telling us what size to buy…what is the point?

It was bad enough going through the (unnecessarily) embarrassing ordeal of finding clothes that fit you in a store. Now we have to do it for clothes we buy online? Less embarrassing for sure, but way more frustrating. Did you know almost 40% of clothes bought online are returned due to sizing issues? Now, as frustrating as this is for us, I can’t imagine it is any better for the online retailers. They lose a lot of money covering ‘free return and shipping’ expenses. Let us take a step back for a minute. Yes it is a hassle finding something in your size (only if you’re a size 10 or less mind you, finding clothes beyond that range is a whole different nightmare). But do you ever wonder how the economics of all this works out? The companies we shop from (for the most part) manage to not only stay afloat, but also do quite well in the market. Which means they make up for this cost somewhere along the production line / supply chain. If they aren’t compromising on the speed with which they produce clothes, or the convenience their customers so dearly cherish – the cost must be coming out of some other stage. Like it says in the ‘True Cost’ documentary, it is either made up by upping the human cost or the environmental cost (usually both). I’ve spoken a fair bit about the moral, human and environmental implications of the fashion industry, so I won’t repeat myself here. I promise to stick to the sizing issues, but this is still something to think about.

So where do we go from here?

Is it the ‘one-size fits all’ stores akin to Brandy Melville’s? An approach where you simply put out clothes in different sizes but never label them – allowing all your customers to try out clothes in the same size. The marketing strategy behind this being, presumably, that women feel better when they pick out and fit into the ‘small’ label in clothing stores (regardless of how meaningless that ‘S’ on your clothes has truly become nowadays).

Is it technology? You’ll notice a lot of start-ups promising accurate sizing based on advanced body measurements and 3-D printing. This might very well be the future, but I think there is some time in this yet.

Or is it back to the basics for us? Like Tina Sondergaard’s boutique in Rome. A boutique that makes clothes to measure for each and every individual that walks into the store – allowing for alterations in the design as and when you feel like it – for a hefty price of course.

I don’t have a lot of faith in the first option. Mostly because I can see how that might lead to a lot of bad fitting clothes all round. I think it might come down to this – if the second option becomes economically viable at any point then that might work for the masses, with the elite turning to human labour and treating it like an exotic and coveted commodity – kind of like how they did with technology when it first came out.

Sources:

  1. Eliana Dockterman, ‘Inside the fight to take back the Fitting Room’ TIME Magazine
  2. The Bizarre History of Women’s Clothing – TIME Magazine
  3. A Brief History of Sizing Systems – Medium

Feminism and Consumerism

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This is a topic very close to my heart. I believe in the first, and live with the realities of the latter. I’ve wanted to write about this for quite some time now, and I probably will again many more times. But I haven’t had the time in the past 24 hours to do this topic justice. I asked my sister for a bit of help, and she was kind enough to send me a write up on this. So, I can’t take any credit for the post today – it is all her.

Eyeliner sharp enough to cut someone, the increasing height of heels over time, makeup always ‘on point’…sound familiar? Women around the world, once powerless, are now capable enough to buy their way to confidence. How many of us really feel comfortable with just the way we are? How many of us can accept the way we look? And how many of us actually stop to think that the ‘powerful-female’ view sold to us by companies is just a money-minting tool that capitalises on the rising importance of feminism and women’s independence and its increasing link to purchasing power in popular culture?

Consumption by women everywhere has seen an explosion in recent times. ‘Women: Saviors of the World Economy?’ was a news item introduced by CNN that brought attention to the heightened earning and spending power of modern women. This can be seen as a breakaway from gendered roles of men as the primary breadwinners and their control over a family’s wealth.

The development of patriarchy along with the emergence of settled societies pushed women into a model of economic dependence on the man as women were increasingly seen as primary caregivers. Post world war, mass employment of women in workplaces like factories, offices etc. was by and large one of the most important events for feminism.

With the invention of television, and expansion of product advertising, a consumerist society became the norm. In the late 20th century and early 21st century, the women who didn’t work, were given complete control of the domestic sphere, which influenced many companies to make these house-wives their product targets. They recognized that a woman was responsible for shopping for her entire family and therefore, produced goods and services that emphasized on their domestic roles. And in this model, women for the first time became the chief consumers. A survey done by FemmeDen in 2009 showed that women either make decisions for or purchased 80% of the total products / goods for the family.

Marketing tropes have, however, changed over time in consonance with the change in the ideas of feminism and gender roles. They have progressed from the older model of advertising women in familial roles to a newer model of independent decision takers, money-making, sexually emancipated beings. These trends intersect with the modern market’s underlying crux; consuming allows one to express their individuality and articulate their autonomy. For the longest time, men exercised financial control over women. So the newfound ability of women to spend the money they have earned independently has spurred consumerism in an attempt to establish their identities as ‘autonomous’ entities, free from the control of men.

This led to a second wave of feminism in our market society, that is, ‘judgment free pleasure’. However, this hasn’t aided freedom from a patriarchal society and its implications. Rather, it has become more important to have the freedom and power to acquire the goods that one wants in service of projecting an independent image and lifestyle. Contemporary marketers and advertisers are more than aware of the trends conflating women’s independence and consumerism and capitalize on it.

This renewed interest in marketing to women coincides with the rise of discourses that links women’s independence to consumption or the ability and freedom to consume.

An example of this is the De Beers campaign for the ‘right hand ring’ that ran nationwide in 2004. The ‘right hand ring’ was initiated as an ad campaign by De Beers to encourage women (with means) to purchase diamond rings for themselves, as opposed to, or in addition to the standard tradition of men gifting diamonds to women (for purposes of engagement or otherwise). The campaign deployed slogans of empowerment, stating, “Women of the world, raise your right hand!” Other ads that ran for this campaign stated, “Your left hand says ‘we.’ Your right hand says ‘me.’ Your left hand rocks the cradle. Your right hand rules the world,” and, “Your left hand is your heart. Your right hand is your voice”.

Another example is the change in the advertisements of beauty and clothing brands. Earlier, before the upsurge of feminism in mainstream, beauty brands often banked on women’s insecurities and feelings of inadequacies. Your skin is too dark? Lighten it with fairness cream. Your face has too much acne? Get rid of it with an acne removal cream. You feel you’re too fat? Don’t worry there’s vanity sizing. Too much hair? You ‘need’ waxing. And in turn such insecurities have, throughout history, been institutionalized, instilled, and cemented in women by such beauty products. Many of these brands based their product advertising solely on the grounds that a woman ‘needs’ these products to be the best she can. The idea behind these beauty products being projected as ‘need’ based rather than ‘want’ based products is that such materialistic goods can act as supplements for intrinsic confidence. This has become a vicious cycle. The more women use these products, the more they feel they need them.

This cycle needs to be broken. In lieu of this, in 2006, Dove launched their ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, which was an unconventionally fresh look for an ad campaign, unlike any before it. Instead of showcasing photo shopped, airbrushed models, the ad highlighted the beauty of imperfection by hiring ordinary women. In a positive response to this ad campaign, Dove’s revenues for this year were one of the highest to have been made by any cosmetic company in history.

A problem with linking consumerism with feminist ideologies is that it can sometimes be too presumptuous in assuming that having the ability to spend means independence. It does not. Even dependent women form a large part of the demand for these goods. Another problem is the moral implication. The idea of ‘womanhood’ shouldn’t have to be sold. And yet another is that autonomy cannot be equated with independence. Blind consumerism is not the answer to breaking patriarchal norms. We need to realise that no one is perfect. Women are not perfect, and that is alright. Nobody can be perfect. Nothing can replace inner confidence, intelligence and an inherent sense of comfort with oneself. Telling someone ‘not feel insecure’ sounds condescending at best. The effort should be towards accepting oneself for what they are; insecurities, warts, and all.

My fashion course: Part 1

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Two months into my self-imposed sabbatical from work, I decided to get down to the real reason I took a break. I worked as a corporate lawyer for two years, straight out of university. Yet, for some reason, I could not see myself continuing down this path for much longer. It wasn’t anything dramatic. I didn’t hate my job or my boss. On the contrary, I was good at my job and my former boss is genuinely one of the best people I have encountered – both within and outside of a work setting. These things happen rarely, I know. Who gets a great job and an even better boss? Right yeah, so all those things notwithstanding, I still did quit. So, if not this, then what? Isn’t that the million-dollar question. Honestly, I had no idea (I’ve written about quitting without a plan before, so I’m not going to repeat that here).

I saw a great video by a YouTuber I love on what she did when she quit without a plan (coincidentally, she also quit her job as a corporate lawyer). She talks of how she used the double diamond method to decide what to do next – it’s a design strategy technique that helps people who are confused try and gain some perspective on the kind of life they would like. I’ll be honest, I didn’t use the design strategy diligently. But I did pick up from her video that she used her time off to try new things that she has always been interested in but never had the time for. I thought, yeah ok, this is something I can do. So armed with my free time and recently collected bonus, I set out to seriously try everything I have ever wanted to – till I landed on something I liked, or ran out of money, whichever came earlier.

I’ve always had a creative bent of mind. Regardless of whether I have the talent to back it up, this is something I enjoy doing, and I am trying to get into the habit of talking about my art unironically. I know (at least this is what I gather from all my reading online) that this is something a lot of creatives have a problem with. Talking about themselves, or their art, or even the fact that they are employed in the creative industry (if you can call it that). I’ve been painting my whole life and so I thought maybe I would kick it off with a course in fine arts. I didn’t really want to pay for any course for painting (I started with acrylic – this is the medium I work with mostly) and so I mainly learnt whatever I could (which is a lot) from YouTube. Three weeks into this, I landed on a video explaining how to use Procreate for beginners. For those of you who don’t know, Procreate is a digital art software for iOS users. I really liked the convenience of digital art so I moved on to that (I know there are upsides and downsides to the whole digital v. traditional art discussion, but I’m a little lazy so the idea that I could paint without taking out paints, mixing them, taking care of my brushes etc. really appealed to me). Digital art led me to video editing – but I abandoned this quite quickly. Not because I didn’t like it. I liked it too much. I’ve filed away video editing in my head as something I am going to learn later in the year – along with website building and designing.

By this time, I had spent a lot of time online on YouTube. Then I thought to myself, ‘if I’m going to spend so much time learning these skills, why not get some sort of official certification showing I’ve learnt them?’ I know there is a lot of pleasure to be derived from learning for the sake of it, but I let a little capitalism seep into my thinking. So, I started googling online courses / short courses I could take while I’m on my break. I landed on the Parsons’ website – and they had a host of online courses. After going through their catalogue of online masters and short courses, I decided on the ‘Fashion Industry Essentials’ Parsons teaches in partnership with Teen Vogue.

A little disclaimer here – what I have condensed into a few paragraphs took me two months to complete. I will take some time to talk about all the things I learnt in detail, but not in this post. Also, while Parsons has a great set of courses, you should know that these are quite pricey. This should in no way deter you if you actually do want to learn something. There are institutions like MIT that put up their entire course work online. There are individuals like Brandon Sanderson who teach put out their entire teaching material online for free. If you really want to learn, almost everything is available for free. I chose to pay for the certificate course because, well, I’m still a little old-school and I wanted the comfort of having a certificate to show for my time spent.

The course itself is quite nice – if a little underwhelming. It is taught in the way that most online courses are. There are instructive vides for every module, and at the end of each module, there are assignments we must complete. In addition to the compulsory assignments that all of us have to complete for a grade, we also have optional assignments we need to complete. Where the course really gets interesting is in allowing us to see the work of other students and in the kind of assignments they hand out. Coming from a non-creative background (so to speak) I was initially a little hesitant in uploading my work. I skipped a few of the optional assignments because I wanted to expose myself as little as possible. But looking at the work of others made me realise that I’m not as out of touch as I think I am. Plus it is always great to see what others are up to. In a book I love (and will never stop advertising) called ‘Show your Work’ the author talks about how no one creates in isolation. All creativity is a product of the things we see around us – all of it comes from borrowed ideas and inspired thoughts.

As part of the first assignment in the course I need to create a Pinterest mood board. The idea being that I should capture my personal style, or a style aesthetic that really resonates with me. The prompt for the assignment encourages us to look through fashion magazines and mood boards of other fashion houses to decide what aesthetic or style vibe we want to settle on. For example, if I think my style as a designer or as a chic arbitrator is ‘grunge’ then I should create a board with images from the 90s grunge era, black clothing, models with uneven hair and disoriented expressions. I haven’t completed this assignment yet. I’m leaning towards an effortless chic look. I want my mood board to be something almost everyone can resonate with. Like going into a shop and buying a classic LBD. It has been done so many times before, but if done right, it can be a whole new movement all over again. Right now, my research has brought me to the conception of Channel No.5, and the unforgettable ad campaign of the company starring Marilyn Monroe. If I haven’t done a good job of explaining the visual I am going for on my mood board, I really recommend you check out this advertisement, because it captures exactly what I am looking for and trying to show. I’m going to link my mood board once I am done with it so I can hear your thoughts on this. If you have any other suggestions in the meanwhile, I’d love to hear those too!

If I could just be thinner…

‘Heroin Chic’ is a term that came to be associated with a certain style of fashion photography, reaching widespread recognition by being associated to the death of the prodigious photographer that made it famous – Davide Sorrenti. I first came across the term in a short clip of ‘Good Morning Britain’ I was watching a couple of months ago. They had on a panel discussing the controversial Cosmo Cover featuring Tess Holiday. While Piers Morgan (famously) barraged the person in favour of the cover shoot, the lady against it made a point that stuck with me. Why do we have such an issue with people being dangerously overweight, when we don’t extend the same level of concern to people being dangerously underweight?

We know that thinness has been venerated since I can remember, and she says the same thing on the interview, multiple times in fact. And ‘heroin chic’ is just this veneration of thinness taken to an extreme. The look is characterised by the waif-like thinness (all bones and sharp angles). But more than that, it is also the stingy hair, the dark circles and the unhealthy pallor of skin that makes this look distinctive. Now, models have almost always been dangerously thin. But before this, before the whole Kate Moss look (perhaps the most recognisable face associated with this style), models were also chic. In fact, according to Rebecca Arnold, what made this images more striking was not just how the models looked, but also where they posed (dingy hotel rooms and elevators) and where the images appeared (on the cover of glossy fashion magazines unused to such exposure). I had come across these images a lot – they’re all over my Pinterest feed too – and I’ve always been fascinated by them. I know the term, as well as the entire movement associated with it, has been criticised a lot. But there is something about this disconcerted and washed out women, posing with abandon in a very ‘f**k the establishment’ way that appeals to me. In fact, a lot of the art I make uses these models as a reference. As aesthetically pleasing as it is, I have to admit, it has had a negative effect on my eating habits and in the way I perceive my own body.

As a disclaimer, I have to mention, I’m thin enough. I have never been considered overweight in my life. I have a healthy diet, and I used to exercise quite a bit in my teenage years. I’m a trained dancer too. So, by all accounts, I am what can be considered ‘conventionally fit’. I am also not someone who is too affected by what I see online. I know that a lot of the images we see on social media are doctored. I dabble in digital art, and I know enough about filters to know that you can, quite easily, completely change the way you look online. It isn’t that hard to loose a few pounds and edit out any other ‘imperfections’ your digital avatar may have. I’ve never suffered from any serious mental illness and I was raised in a very happy and functional family (one where your parents stress how important it is to be happy, to do what you love, and even go to the lengths of supporting you while you figure it all out – what a drag, I know). But I want to tell you, that even with all this, even armed to the teeth as I was with self-confidence, I noticed a steady decline in my appreciation for my own body as I started spending more and more time online.

It started with checking out Pinterest to look for art inspiration and references. Without meaning to be, I was drawn to images of these beautiful, extremely thin and flawless, but clearly unstable women. I wanted to paint them. But to paint them meant I had to look at them a lot. In time, my Instagram feed turned into a reflection of my Pinterest feed. Good for art references, bad for self esteem. Believe me when I tell you, that in the last two years I have tried every diet I could get my hands on. I started with the Keto diet. I moved on to intermittent fasting. Then I started skipping lunch – in what I referred to as the ‘Prince Charles’ diet. I don’t know if he actually does this, but in one episode of the Crown, Camilla’s character mentions that he never has lunch because he thinks it is bad for his health. I didn’t even research to check the veracity of this claim. I just started skipping lunch. I don’t know if any of this made a difference. It probably did – though I never checked my weight to confirm. I know that sounds odd. Why go on all these diets if you’re not going to check to see the results? The thing is, I was never convinced I was losing any weight. Every time I looked at myself in the mirror – I thought I looked the same, if not bigger. And I didn’t want my suspicions confirmed.

Added to this were the many, many times people around me told me I was acting weird. I didn’t need to lose weight, I was already so thin, If I lost anymore I would just disappear, what is important is I eat nutritional food instead of going on all these new-age diets – I have heard every variation of this coming from my family and friends, but mostly my mother. If you have struggled with developing healthy eating habits and positive body perceptions for yourself, you know how useless these comments are. Yes, I know all of this logically. But it doesn’t change how I look at myself in the mirror every morning. It’s like my brain is split in the middle. I look at other women who look the same as me, or may even be slightly larger. I love how they look, and I would tell them the same things my friends tell me if they ever told me they wanted to lose weight. But I just can’t seem to be as forgiving of myself. I hold myself to a different, harsher standard than those around me. I can easily recognise the signs of someone else having an unhealthy relationship with their body or weight, but I just don’t think of myself in that way. There is a term to describe why we do this I think, ‘optimism bias’. We just don’t think the negative things we hear about or see around ourselves can ever happen to us – ‘yes, eating disorders are a thing, but I don’t have one. I just want to be fit and healthy’.

But here is the thing, it does apply to us. It applies to me. I still go on diets every once in a while. I still freak out about not fitting into the pair of jeans I bought as a sixteen year old. I still dream of how I would look if I could just eat less, exercise more, and be a little thinner. But I’m trying to be a little better about it. I try not to think about it all the time. I also started journalling about my food habits. I watch a lot of cooking shows that talk about having a healthy diet – and I enjoy these. I’ve started cycling every day, and generally being a little more conscious of how I treat my body and how I think about it.

ZARA: First amongst equals

Who doesn’t love Zara? With its runway ready looks, ever changing styles and affordable prices, it comes as no surprise that Zara has grown into the behemoth it has. The flagship brand of the fashion group ‘Inditex’, now the largest fashion group in the world (owning a host of other equally familiar brands like Pull & Bear, Massimo Dutti and Berksha, amongst others), is a pioneer in the field of ‘instant fashion’. And as bad as the phrase sounds, its overall effects are much worse. In case you didn’t know this yet, instant fashion is bad people. Or fast fashion, whatever you want to call it. And while Zara may have spearheaded this movement, it is one of many that continues to profit off of it. More on the others later though. I want to take some time to talk about the leader of the group, and my favourite brand till recently. Very recently.

So what makes it so popular?

I am not going to go into the history of the brand or its exponential rise (others have written a lot about this, and they’ve done a far better job than I could hope to do), but I will take some time to talk about why I think the brand is so popular.

Zara brings high end fashion looks to us, without either having to wait for the, usually slower seasons, of high end fashion houses, or the prices. Basically, Zara is to fashion what Instagram is to social media. Its quick, it is never ending and it is FAST. Not only does Zara get us what we want, it gets us what we want twice a week. Yup, that’s how many times a week Zara introduces new collections. Hold on, maybe this isn’t shocking when I put it like that. Before the advent of fast fashion, the fashion industry had about 2-4 seasons per year on average. Now it has 52. That is a new season every single week of the year. And Zara, overhauls its entire collection twice a week, amounting to a staggering 102 seasons a year. Do we even need that many collections? Actually, no. We absolutely don’t. And still, we buy obsessively.

Zara uses what is referred to as the ‘sell-out’ technique. The clothes being changed every single week are very much a conscious part of their marketing strategy. It is not so much that the designers at Zara are overflowing with creativity (I honestly don’t think they are, if you shop there enough you’ll know all the clothes look the same all year round), but more to do with the fact that if you change quick, and change often, customers, nay CONSUMERS are going to keep coming back to check what’s new, and they will inevitably buy something every single time for fear that it might ‘sell-out’ the next time they come to the store.

Another thing Zara does, and I had no idea this was a thing before I started researching for this blog post, is take into account the opinion of the customer and make sure their next connection reflects what the customer wants. Apparently the brand also uses tracking technology (RFID) to track how well particular pieces are doing and change their production and sale strategy on a weekly basis depending on the feedback.

Of course I shop there, I love Zara!

Now, I’m not going to lie. I love their clothes. Correction, I used to love their clothes. Is there anything better than walking into a Zara store on a free day with a wallet full of money? I’ve spent many happy hours shopping at Zara. I’ve spend equally as many happy hours on their website, fantasizing about how good I would look in each and every one of those suspiciously similar clothes. Hey, in fact, I even made it a point to visit the mother store when I was in Madrid a couple of years ago. But somewhere along the line, I realised a couple of things.

First, don’t all the clothes look the same? To be fair to them, if I had to come up with that many collections in a year, I probably would run out of ideas too. There is only so many times you can release the same blazers. I know lots of women who religiously hit Zara every weekend or so to check out what’s new and to add to their ever growing collection. It really is like Instagram. You get a dopamine hit just from entering the store, and the endless supply of “ever-changing” styles is akin to the infinite scroll.

Second, the clothes don’t do it for me, they’ve never done it for me and I don’t think they ever will. I’ll explain what I mean by this. Has it ever happened, that you’ve bought something you were convinced you looked great in? You know it’s a bit of an unnecessary expenditure, you convince yourself it’s a ‘collector’s item’ and that ‘you’re going to wear it all the time, so really you’re getting all your money’s worth’? And as soon as you buy the item you realise two things in quick succession; the clothes don’t look as good as you thought they would – they’re not as new, as quirky or as cutting edge as you were told (and honestly why would they be, you and all your friends have bought variations of this clothing item a hundred times before), and that you actually only ever wear it once or twice? What’s worse, buying excessively actually makes you feel bad about yourself. By all accounts, there seems to be a positive correlation between our consumeristic tendencies and our growing dissatisfaction with life. Just the fact that we are called ‘consumers’ of clothes, should be an indication of how wrong we have gone. Did you know that in the world of retail shopping, there are items we are supposed to use (washing machines, cars, and yes, clothes) and goods we are supposed to consume (food, drinks, cigarettes), and the entire idea behind ‘fast’ or ‘instant’ fashion is to make us feel that the goods we should ideally use (clothes used to be worn more than once back then) should be CONSUMED. Ok, that little tit-bit aside, the short point I was trying to make was that the more I bought, the unhappier I felt.

The thing that clinched it for me though was watching the documentary ‘The True Cost’ by Andrew Morgan. I know I’m a bit late to the party, and the movie has been out for some time, but for those of you who haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. A lot of the themes I am going to break down in this blog are a reiteration of what Morgan says in his film – that the cost of producing the clothes we wear is unacceptable. Think about it. There is no way any of these companies can produce at the scale and pace that they do, without engaging in a host of unethical practices along the supply line. And oh my god, do they. Seriously, if you haven’t yet seen the documentary, watch it. So, as much as it hurts me to say goodbye, I have stopped shopping at Zara. I don’t advocate an extremist boycott for everyone though, I know they have great clothes and I know it doesn’t make sense to stop shopping there if that is the best and most affordable option available. Don’t get me wrong, it is not my intention to either force my changed (newly) shopping habits on any of you. Instead, I do want us to become more conscious of what we buy and how often we buy it. Do we really need all those clothes?

Suggestions: To watch, read (if you want)

  1. ‘The True Cost’ by Andrew Morgan, accessible at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxhCpLzreCw
  2. Priya Patel, “Zara uncovered: Inside the brand that changed fashion” BBC News, accessed at: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-49268965
  3. Martin Roll, “The Secret of Zara’s success: A culture of consumer co-creation” Martin Roll, accessed at: https://martinroll.com/resources/articles/strategy/the-secret-of-zaras-success-a-culture-of-customer-co-creation/
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  7. Tori DeAngelis, “Consumerism and its Discontents” American Psychological Association, accessed at: https://www.apa.org/monitor/jun04/discontents

DENIM: The Devil and the Deep Blue Jeans

YSL famously said, “I wish I had invented blue jeans. They have expression, modesty, sex appeal, simplicity – all I hope for in my clothes.”

Blue jeans, after essential clothing items (underwear et al.) are the most popular clothing item. Ever. They’re popular for good reason too, they’re probably the most versatile item in all our closets. It is the one fashion item you can bet with some certainty all of us own.

According to Fashion United, on average, women own 7 pairs and men own 6. We only wear 4 of these though. I own about 8 pairs and my sister (even though we share the same size) owns an equal amount. But the number isn’t static. People acquire as many as 4 new pairs a year on average. I can attest to that, guilty as charged. I just ordered myself a new pair (a really cool high waisted, wide set pair that is all the rage on social media – more on that later) last week. I guess that makes it 9 pairs now. Apart from being an undeniable staple in everyone’s fashion closet, jeans are also hyper-polluting, in the way they are created, but also in the way they are disposed of.

Part 1: How is it made?

There is some debate about where the first pair of jeans were produced. Scholars are divided on whether the first pair was produced in Nîmes, France or Genoa, Italy. Some even say it wasn’t either of these fashionable and exotic locations, but rather Manchester, New Hampshire that saw the first pair of jeans. Regardless of where they came from, they were undoubtedly here to stay. But how exactly are jeans made?

I’m not going to get into what organic and nonorganic cotton is – the difference, and all the politics attached to that. That’s a whole other thing, and maybe another time. For now, it’s important to note that the cotton we most interact with, what is known as ‘conventional cotton’, is nonorganically produced. Cotton is by far the most toxic crop we produce. More than 16% of all pesticides produced globally are deployed in the cultivation of cotton, even though cotton takes up only 2.5% of the total arable land of the world. That is some serious concentration of chemicals. And the chemicals aren’t benign either. Apparently, eight out of ten of the pesticides used to grow the cotton we know, and use are classified as ‘hazardous.’ I know there is a lot of research going on in the field of how microfibers affect us, and wearing clothes produced from such toxic fibers can have a detrimental effect on our health, but I haven’t done any deep research into this, so I am not really qualified to dive into this. I just know it can’t be anything good.

You know what else it takes to grow cotton? Water. Lots and lots of it. To produce 1 kilo of cotton, it takes, on average, about 10,000 liters of water. This is just to produce the cotton, mind you. It takes a lot more to process the cotton to make it into wear-ready clothing. In fact, by all accounts, if the fashion industry keeps using water at the pace at which it uses it right now, we going to need about 40% more water than the world has to give by 2030. That isn’t the future my friends, it is right now.

The fabric of jeans is made up of an exterior side called the ‘warp’ (made up of multiple yarns, usually 2-3, and deep blue in colour) and an interior side / underside called the ‘weft’ (made up of a lighter shade and composed of a single yarn). There is also a higher quality of jeans – called ‘selvedge’, usually the tighter and more substantial jeans that have been designed in a way to avoid the fraying at the edges.

Originally, jeans were dyed using organic indigo dye (again, one of the most commercial crops ever), but eventually, as with everything else, the industry moved on to the use of synthetic indigo. Most of this, at least until 1897 was produced by a German chemist known as Adolf von Baeyer and commercialized by BASF. Synthetic indigo had the advantage of being impervious to the normal wear and tear affecting natural indigo. It wasn’t seasonal either, which meant it could be used in the production cycle the whole year round. It did have the tiny disadvantage of using a lot of chemicals – most of which have been proven to be harmful both to the environment and the humans that are involved in the production of it, or even use it – but given the commercial benefits, as with everything else, the ecological and human costs have brushed under the carpet.

But jeans weren’t always available in the multitude of styles, hues, colors and cut you are familiar with now. No, till not so long ago (the 70s) you had to have real dedication to get your jeans to look and feel good. Jeans came “unsanforized” which meant they had to be washed a couple of times to shrink down to size and worn for a good 6-8 months to soften up to your body shape. It took years to achieve the frayed look we can so easily walk into stores and buy now. This is the happy outcome of a little technique called ‘stonewashing’. As the name suggests, the jeans were washed in industrial sized washing machines with stones, yup, actual stones, to get the look we had earlier worked so hard to achieve. As you can imagine, it took up a lot of resources (especially water) and can only be described as an environmental disaster. And this is just one of the treatments. There are several other washes, including ‘stoneless wash’, ‘acid wash’, ‘moon wash’ and ‘monkey wash’. After that, it was a race to the bottom. In addition to the resources, it takes to produce the jeans in the first place, an inordinate amount of resources need to be spent to achieve looks which result from the NORMAL WEAR AND TEAR of this material (washed out look, frayed edges, cuts and others). There are people and machines employed in workshops to cut up denim so we can strut around in the latest rendition of ‘boyfriend jeans’ or ‘distressed jeans’ or whatever else the powers that be tell us is an ‘essential’ for the season.

Just to give you an idea of scale, some of the older machines (very much in use in a lot of the developing countries fashion houses outsource their production to) take up to 20 liters to whitewash / stonewash 3 pairs of jeans. Post treatment of the jeans, the residual water has an almost tar like quality, riddled with God knows how many chemicals at this point. If this wasn’t bad enough, where do you think all this hyper-toxic wastewater goes? For the longest time, before people had really started talking about the polluting effects of apparel production (or in fact, any other production) the water was released untreated into the waterways / rivers of the producing country. Xintag in China (the ‘jeans capital of the world’) discharged enough water into the East River to turn it opaque, so toxic and uninhabitable that ALL the aquatic life in the river died many years ago. The riverbed till this date contains unacceptably high levels of lead, copper, and cadmium, none of which sounds like the kind of stuff rivers should be full of. All so we could have an extra pair of jeans that we probably won’t even wear.

Part 2: Who makes it?

When you think of jeans, you think of Levi’s. And rightly so. It was Mr. Strauss, a fabric manufacturer, who paid for the patenting of what would later become jeans, and later the business partner of Mr. Davis (the brains behind the patent) who would lay the foundations of modern-day denim use. Levi’s was and remains the largest producer of jeans, and what it doesn’t sell itself, it produces for other companies. The company produced the world’s first pair of jeans in 1873, and the originals are still stored in the company’s vault. Then came the 501s. With the exception of the introduction of the belt loops instead of the original suspenders, the design for the 501s remains the same as the original. It is a piece of history to be sure. For all those of you who own a pair or have ever bought one, you know the pair never goes on sale. It also comes with a little booklet explaining exactly why the pair is iconic. The belt loops are strong enough, allegedly, to withstand the full weight of the chasse of a car…some car. Jeans made Strauss a wealthy man, one of the wealthiest in the state of California. But their time in the sun was just beginning.

Then came the women’s liberation movement. Everyone needed a sturdy, but casual and fashionable statement piece. What could be better than jeans? The cut was amended, to adapt to the lines of a woman’s body. Calvin Klein, one of the next major players, declared that “Jeans are sex – the tighter they are, the better they sell.” This, coupled with the scandalous (and eventually banned) advertisement featuring Brooke Shields talking about how nothing comes between her and her Calvins ensured that the company cold as many as 4000 pairs within weeks of the ad’s debit, and many millions in the months post that. The dominance of jeans had been cemented.

From then on, it was the same story we see everywhere else. More players came into the fold – Tommy Hilfiger, GAP, Guess and what have you – and the competition was no longer about producing the best quality jeans or the newest styles (there are only so many you can have). It also became about producing them as cheaply as possible. As with everything else, this led to major cost cutting, primarily through shifting production off-shore (Vietnam is amongst the largest suppliers of jeans, along with Bangladesh and China) where companies could successfully avoid all responsibility for labour law violations and environmental consequences. So long as the Thames doesn’t turn opaque, it really isn’t their issue.

And this is just the water pollution caused at the production stage. There is also the air pollution and the solid wastes.

Part 3: Afterlife

We produce as many as 1.2 billion pairs of jeans (approx.) every single year. Most of this is fast fashion, 50% of which is discarded within a year of purchase. For everyone who thinks their conscience is clear because they donate to charities or recycle the material, think again. Less than 1% of the material used to produce our clothes is recycled, the rest of it sits in landfills. In fact, about 1 truck full of clothes is being discarded every second. Very few of the clothes donated are used by charities in the developed part of the world. Some of it is shipped to Asia and Africa, where again, not a lot of it is used. The ecological impact of shipping these clothes alone is a nightmare.

Now, even though this entire post has been about the denim producing industry, this is by no means the only kind of cloth-production mired in high environmental and human costs. But I wanted to start here. The entire idea behind jeans used to be that you buy a couple and they hopefully last you a really long time. They were supposed to be durable. Now, they’re marketed as an ‘essential’ fashion item that needs updating many, many times a season. I think we need to take a breath here, and think about whether we really need to step out every couple of months to buy a new pair of jeans – which look more of less like the 7 pairs we already own. Even if it is that pair of wide cut high waisted jeans you’ve had your eye on for sometime now.