There are many lessons we can learn from our predecessors on this earth. Most of these involve observing their behaviour and learning from their mistakes. There are few occasions where one can look at history and think ‘they did it better back then’.
However, when it comes to historical attitudes towards clothing, we must look to our ancestors to help us overcome our undeniable global environmental crisis.
As with most lockdown hobbies, I’ve found sewing to be extremely difficult. So, much to the disappointment of my lifelong obsession with period costume, I wasn’t going to be able to whip up a full 18th century court gown during the first week. This led me down a YouTube rabbit hole to the world of amateur historical costuming, or ‘CosTube’, as they call themselves. I was completely captured by this bizarre world I’d discovered. One where people trade in their jeans and converse for clothes from the past. Recently, I stumbled across a video that enlightened me to a deeper meaning behind this madness: sustainability.
The first, widely used, domestic sewing machine was brought to the market by William Jones in the 1860s. Before this, all garments were made by hand. Instead of spending 14.5 hours making a simple men’s shirt, one could be made in an hour. This invention transformed the way in which humanity viewed clothing and created a continuing culture of ‘disposable’ fashion.
As we look at the gorgeous silk gowns and intricately embroidered jackets that existed long before the sewing machine, we can see the vast amounts of time and energy that went in to making clothes
Fashion historian and vlogger Bernadette Banner spent 250 hours reconstructing a 15th century dress using historically accurate practice. Banner is no amateur seamstress; she has a whole degree in costuming.
Before industrialisation, most clothes were made in the home. This was incredibly time consuming and before the invention of the industrial loom in 1785, fabric was extremely expensive, and the cost of labour made garments extortionate. If you were going to make or buy a dress, it had to last. This quality of sewing is why there are still so many surviving garments today.
Fast fashion has changed the way we look at our clothes
The average garment owned by a British woman is worn seven times. It is almost impossible to think about clothes as investments when the industry is making clothes that frankly have a sell-by date. Garment production has exceeded the point of ridicule. Quality is sacrificed for quantity and price, meaning we own more clothes designed to ‘expire’. The clothing produced on this planet equates to 14 items of clothing for each person, every year.
Part of industrialisation was time speeding up. Styles changed much more slowly than they do now. A 1770s dress is easily distinguished by the wide skirts, conical bodices and three-quarter length, lace-trimmed sleeves. The 1800s can be recognised for its empire-line waists and short jacket fronts. Going into the mid-19th century we see off-the-shoulder gowns with dropped, voluminous sleeves.
The point is: decades can be easily defined by a silhouette. Furthermore, as wide skirts were replaced with big bustles, styles changed in a pattern that made it easy for people to adapt their existing clothes to make something more appropriate for new trends.
Nowadays, it would be hard to define a year, let alone a decade, with a single shape
Fashions change faster than the weather and instead of adapting the clothes we already own, they are thrown into a charity bag (or in many cases, the bin) and replaced via ASOS next day delivery. Clothes shouldn’t be as easy to replace as they are today. In Pakistan’s garment sector, 87% of women are paid less than the minimum wage. 300 million people who produce cotton are still living in poverty. This wouldn’t be the case if we reduced the production of low-cost clothes but replaced them with those of better quality.
While historical clothes were made out of unprocessed, natural fibres that were better for our bodies and our planet, 63% of our clothes textile fabrics today are derived from petrochemicals, or plastics. On top of this, less than 1% of materials used in our clothing are recycled into new textiles and fibres. Remember jeggings? Everyone owned a pair and two years later, they’re nowhere to be seen.
Where did they all go? They all still exist. The caringly made historical clothes of our ancestors still stock our museums; like the billions of plastic bottles that humankind have produced, our clothes will haunt the oceans for millennia.
The fashion industry accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. We must slow down fast fashion. This isn’t just a job for the textile industry. Our clothes have to last longer, both by increasing quality and slowing down trends. There is no point owning a high-quality garment that will be thrown into landfill the next year because it is no longer fashionable. The media need to work harder to extend the longevity of styles and promote re-wearing. Why is it ‘news’ every time Kate Middleton wears the same dress over again? It’s nonsensical.
There is a reason that I, myself, managed to replicate a £50 Urban Outfitters top in less than a day but was completely perplexed when it came to historical garments. Without boring you with details, the sheer attention to detail in pattern cutting that created the perfect silhouette with the least amount of fabric, is truly astonishing. It only takes buying a few vintage pieces to realise how much quality has been compromised in the last few decades, let alone centuries. ‘They don’t make them like that anymore’ has never rung truer; in a state of climate emergency, we should be looking to our ancestors to help us change the way we look at fashion.
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