Ten Ways to a More Ethical Wardrobe

Most of us would like to have a more ethical wardrobe. Most of us don’t. It’s not a case of active ill will, or even apathy – it’s a matter of not knowing where to start. Or what to do.

After all, clothes don’t come with labels saying how many toxic chemicals were used in their manufacture, or how many hours of unsafe, underpaid or even forced labour went into their production.

Made in Sweatshop (10139206873)
Which makes it hard to know whether the item you are buying is supporting people who desperately need the work, or taking advantage of their desperation to effectively transform them into your outsourced slaves.
Which is why it was not only informative but invigorating to read Lucy Siegle’s book To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? Because she not only points out the problems, but suggests a few solutions. I’ve collated ten of them here for your consideration.

1: choose your fibres carefully. Production, useful life, disposal. Some man-made fibres are actually less unfriendly to the environment in production than, say, cotton; but on the flip side your grandchildren’s grandchildren will be cold in their graves and the stuff still won’t have rotted down. I recommend Siegle’s book for a more in-depth analysis of the pros and cons of various fibres. Organic cotton and wool are two of the better options.

2: mend. Siegle suggests putting aside 10% of your clothing budget for mending; you get more Little Old Lady points if you do the mending yourself. Personally, I take my shoes to a cobbler for resoling and mends (considerably cheaper than a new pair of good shoes), but I try to do other mending myself – buttons, hems, darning…

Elderly cobbler 2
3: buy second hand. Alas, the nature of fast-fashion means that the quality of second-hand clothing is considerably lower than it once was: if you expect people to move on to something new after two or three wearings, there’s no need to make the item durable. Not to mention that if you’re a sweatshop worker paid by the item, there’s a lot of pressure to construct the garment quickly, not well. Still, good items can be found, they just take a bit more finding than they used to.

4: swap. Either casually, among friends (it helps to have friends of similar taste and/or size) or at an organized swap. As with buying second-hand, it gives the garment a useful second life, rather than consigning it to the dump.

5: make your own. I was delighted to read Siegle’s line, “In many ways knitting is the perfect cornerstone for the burgeoning ethical fashion movement.” I can knit my own socks, hats, gloves and so forth; my next big batch of skills to be acquired is learning how to sew my own clothes. Obviously, this is a long-term, take-it-a-step-at-a-time proposition. Still, the freedom inherent in being able to decide for yourself what cloth, cut and colour you want, instead of being forced to choose from a limited number of options, is very alluring.

Costume workshop at a theatre, Prague - 8581
6: launder carefully. We tend to forget that some of a garment’s eco-impact is neither in its birth nor in its death, but in its life with us. Wash your clothes in cold water, air-dry where possible, and don’t wash your clothes unless they actually need it. (You don’t need to launder a garment just because it’s touched your body. Unless you have some sort of oozing skin disease…) Avoid dry-cleaning too, if you can – the ‘perc‘ which is most commonly used in dry-cleaning is not only carcinogenic but neurotoxic. And in any case, most things marked ‘dry clean only’ do not explode in a ball of flames if you gently hand-wash them.

7: re-use materials. One garment can be refashioned into another. A sheet can become a dress. A pair of jeans can embark on a second life as a skirt. A hideous knitted monstrosity from the op-shop can be unravelled for the wool and reknitted into something much more appealing. (Unless it’s glittery mohair. Not much can be done about that.)

8: buy from ethical brands. This takes a fair bit of digging, as nothing pleases the corporate pocket-book more than marketing to the fair-minded without actually putting their money where their mouth is, but happily there are those who will do some of the digging for you. Baptist World Aid’s Ethical Fashion Guide is compiled for the Australian market, but globalization being what it is, people from all over will find it useful.

Dhaka Savar Building Collapse
9: move slowly. Don’t allow yourself to be rushed into purchases, either by lack of planning (hole in the last good pair of socks!) or by cunning marketing ploys. Do your due diligence. Plan ahead. Savour the pleasures of anticipation. Don’t buy anything unless you’re sure that you’re making a good decision, one that you’ll be happy with tomorrow (and all the years to come).

10: consume less. As Dame Vivienne Westwood says, “Buy less. Choose well. Make it last. Quality, not quantity. Everybody’s buying far too many clothes.” Wearing the same things over and over again is not a penance when each item is something you love, something which tells the world a bit about who you are, something that is a pleasure to wear.

Lucy Siegle writes at the end of To Die For, “Free of the constraints of endless consumption, you can have a wardrobe that is more sustainable, more valuable, more enduring and more you.”

warm enough?
Doesn’t that sound wonderful? If you’re anything like me, there’s a fair way to go yet, but we can get there – one step at a time.

Wardrobe Cheats: The Doily Cap

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that when you rely on a simple solution, you will find at the last moment it won’t work. Last weekend, I hosted a Pride and Prejudice marathon for a few friends – the BBC miniseries with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, naturally – and I thought I’d dress up a bit.

Benethom

Not being the kind of wonder-woman who can whip up a full historical outfit in a day or two (while writing a best-selling self-help book and raising a tankful of orphaned cuttlefish), I decided to wear the Empire-est clothes in my regular wardrobe, and Regencify the accessories.

Being in possession of a bonnet, my thoughts naturally turned first to that – but no sensible Regency woman would wear a bonnet indoors, in her own home. What she would wear, especially if she was a respectable married woman such as myself, is a cap. White, lacy, frilly – you get the idea.

Lodovico Giori Portrait Charlotte Luise Bennecke

Actually, even unmarried ladies of A Certain Age would wear caps – going bareheaded was a sign of being in the market for a husband. And from the Regency point of view, I am a lady of A Certain Age already, having passed the grand old age of twenty-seven. Jane Austen herself took up wearing them at about that age, “and they save me a world of torment as to hairdressing,” she wrote in a letter.

The classic cap-cheat is, of course, to simply plop a large round doily on one’s head. Nothing could be easier! Until one reaches the charity shop and finds there are no large round doilies to be seen. Clearly, there has been a lot of dressing up going on in these parts lately.

Dressed young female Brielle

Desperation drove me to purchase a large rectangular doily, rejecting the genre/gender-bending little-old-lady yarmulke look suggested by the small round doilies on offer. Like Lydia Bennet, I would have to tear it apart when I got home and see if I could make it up any better.

After one or two false starts, I found a simple, suitable solution. The moral of the story: do not be abashed by staring at your reflection with a doily over your head. You look a fool; it will pass.

I pinned the two short ends together and sewed it up into a tube which would fit over my head. Then I realized my mistake and unpicked nearly half the seam.
I then turned it right-way out and ran a ribbon (all right, a shoelace, but I’ve replaced it with a ribbon) through the doily at the end-of-seam line, pulled it tight and tied a bow.
Now I had a sort of lace beanie with an enormous frill hanging off the top – a frill nearly as large as the cap itself.
This I arranged over the cap, and voila! a lacy cap with two rows of scalloped edging, and a bit of ribbon dripping down the back.

Portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen
Jane Austen is not impressed.

It’s so soft and comfortable I find I keep putting it on – as Jane Austen noted in her letter, it’s just the thing for a bad hair day.

What are your secrets for wardrobe short-cuts? Please share!
And remember: dressing up is not just for fancy dress parties, Hallowe’en, or cosplaying at ComicCon. Dressing up is for eccentrics.

Teapots and Tarnish

There’s something very community-oriented about a teapot. I have a friend who’s considering a teapot tattoo for this very reason. By virtue of its capacity, the teapot suggests the inclusion of more than one person, and by virtue of its contents it promotes communal relaxation, recreation and refreshment.

Tea Party (1905) by Louis Moeller

I decided to have a tea-party this weekend, and I had already issued the invitations when I came to a sudden and somewhat dreadful realization. While being amply supplied with loose-leaf tea (Ceylon; Earl Grey; rooibos with manuka; green with jasmine), I had only one teapot, and that a small one. There was only one possible solution: mount a raid on the second-hand shops. I heroically volunteered.

Too much choice is stressful, so I made the selection process simpler by rejecting out of hand any which were one-cup, cracked, or lacking a built-in strainer. This reduced the pool of possibles to three, which I duly bought.
So, in addition to my original teapot, a wicker-handled blue with Chinese characters, I now have a round little green pot, a larger honey-brown pot, and a 1 1/2 pint silver pot, which is rather reminiscent of a watering can. (Please do not embarrass the management by suggesting the concept of a matching set.)

The problem with the silver pot was that it wasn’t silver. I mean, it was EPNS (electro-plated nickel silver) but in colour it was more like the sheen on a car-park puddle. Not the sort of look that encourages one to drink the contents. I bought it in the hope that it was just tarnished, and behold, my hope was rewarded.

A George III silver teapot by Alexander Field. Fellows-1443-106-1

Not being a fan of the reek of silver-polish, I used a handy little trick passed on to me by the Caped Gooseberry’s mother. She has a history of providing handy tips: when I was eight, she demonstrated how to break an assailant’s nose (without assistant assailant) – a great first memory to have of one’s mother-in-law.

The silver-polishing trick requires hot water, tin foil and washing soda – still available at the shops in this day and age! The tin foil lines the sink or bowl; the hot water is added and the washing soda dissolved in it. In goes the tarnished silver and off goes the tarnish. Remove, rinse, dry. Voilà.

According to the back of my washing soda packet, the soda and tin foil react to produce hydrogen, which removes the silver oxide, aka tarnish. That’s the science, anyway. Frankly, I’m not too fussed as long as it works and doesn’t asphyxiate me. Plus there are bubbles and fizzy noises!

Teaparty

What are your household tips and tricks? And do you have any hints for tea-partying?