What historical fashion can teach us about sustainability

By Alice Healy.

Fashion, trends, and keeping up with the latest ‘style’ seems, at least superficially, or to the more cynical among us, a frivolous concern of aesthetics. Yet, the acceleration of trend turnover, more commonly expressed as the assertion that what was ‘in’ last season is now ‘out’, has a much more sinister impact than just making our pockets a little emptier than they perhaps should be. This acceleration, giving rise to the apt term ‘fast fashion’, has had notable impacts upon not only how we consume textiles, but also the impact these textiles have upon the planet and garment factory workers. 

Such concerns have led to a series of anti fast fashion campaigns and activism, urging the public to consider more carefully the wider social and environmental impacts of what exactly we are buying, and why we feel the need to do so. Quite rightly, these campaigns draw attention to the generally poor quality of fast fashion clothing, the disastrous environmental repercussions caused by their production and disposal, and the ethical concerns engendered by unsafe working conditions and inadequate pay. 

These issues, prevalent within the context of our fast-paced modernity, may perhaps then be reconsidered in light of our evolving consumptive habits – regarding textiles and garments – throughout history. Historical fashion, from the materials employed in garment creation, to sizing, to the pace of stylistic change, may then grant us insight into how we have reached a state of escalating consumerism, and how we may find a new path away from it. 

Prior to the early twentieth century, textiles were created with natural fibres, including flax, cotton, silk wool, hemp and sisal, and dyed using natural pigments made from plants, shells and insects; these included murex (creating the famous Tyrian purple), kermes (from which crimson is derived) and natural indigo. Natural fibres, unlike the synthetic textiles dominant in the textile industry now – ‘about 60 percent of apparel textiles are made of synthetics, including polyester, nylon and acrylic, which are not biodegradable’– are biodegradable, making them an obvious choice for sustainable fashion. While multiple factors impact how sustainable a certain fabric is, including ‘raw material sourcing (farming and petroleum drilling impact), material processing (chemicals needed to turn it into fiber), and end-of-life prospects’, it is clear that natural fabrics, dominant throughout the history of fashion, have a sustainable advantage over their synthetic counterparts. 

The rise of synthetics can be predominantly attributed the cost-effectiveness of man-made fibre, introducing the issue of cost into the question of sustainable fashion. Throughout history, fashion and clothing was a significant expense; fabric was often woven on handlooms (though these were later replaced by power looms), meaning the cost of skilfully crafted fabric was inherently high. Perhaps because of these expenses, fashionable dress evolved at a much slower rate, and the clothes created with these fabrics were valued, repaired and remade in relation to their initial cost. 

Due to the quality and expense of fabrics, and often the personal handwork which went into the construction of garments, remaking and mending were essential to the extension of a garment’s life, especially for lower classes, for whom clothing was a significant expense. These questions of class continue to impact criticisms of the sustainable fashion movement, given the purchase of new sustainable garments are largely restricted to those financially capable of spending more.  While these prices are largely justified, giving greater wages and protection to garment workers, it is essential to note the class dimensions that persistently impact purchasing habits, as they did throughout history in various ways. 

Mending and remaking often included resizing, which allowed clothing to be utilised for a longer period. As our bodies often change size and shape, even over short periods of time, learning how to adjust sizing was essential to fully utilise a garment and get adequate value for money. Also, though historical fashion appears to create a sense that humans in previous centuries were more petite, evidenced by extant garments in museums often being much smaller in waist measurements than one would expect from an adult, this can be attributed to the fact smaller sizes were inherently rarer and could often not be adjusted beyond their seam allowances, thus the respective garments were more likely to survive the passage of time. Diversity in history, especially fashion history, can be easily overlooked, but it provides key lessons for our approach to fashion today. 

Modern standardised sizing, especially for women, often homogenises bodies into a single number, creating unhealthy associations with size, health and aesthetic goals. However, throughout history, fashionable dress was not explicitly centred around a body’s size, but its silhouette; these silhouettes were created by undergarments such as corsets, which could be padded in different ways to create the desired effect. The impossibly small-waisted, pigeon-breasted aesthetic of the Edwardian era, for example, was not created by manipulating one’s diet or exercise routine but was created through material illusion. 

In modern society, a fashionable body is often perceived as one which conforms to Eurocentric standards of beauty and sizing, and people are often expected to change what’s underneath to make fashionable what is on top. Instead of controlling our silhouettes through clothing itself, we have been taught to control our own bodies in order to appear fashionable; the problematic nature of this is conspicuous, and we should, and can, move away from the impossible desire which tells us to make our inherently diverse bodies look the same. 

The history of fashion holds within it countless lessons, especially with regards to quality, rate of consumption, size and value. Though we must not understate the often-harsh economic contexts which necessitated consumer restraint in the past, we can nonetheless take from it what would be beneficial to modernity, now in desperate need of a slower, more sustainable approach to sartorial consumption. In creating a more personal, thoughtful, less judgement-laden relationship with our clothing, we can value the skilled labour which makes fashion possible, and appreciate the beauty and diversity of the bodies which makes our clothing unique to us. 

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