Have many heritage traditions become contemporary takes on luxury?
Yvon Chouinard once said, “the solution for a lot of the world’s problems may be to turn around and take a forward step.” In our global quest for modernization, efficiency and productivity, we have often looked to the future for our answers, forgetting the value of the lessons of the past. You don’t have to look any further than DIY culture to see a revival of sewing, cooking, weaving and a variety of other crafts. But while we may be experiencing resurgence in all of these things, there’s a pressing question: who is taking advantage of them?
The food movement often gets criticized for food gentrification, taking certain ingredients that were once staples to communities of many backgrounds, and turning them into luxury items of the elite few, the “culinary rebranding of traditional foods.”
The fiber and textile movement is currently facing a similar struggle: in the world of fast fashion, cheap clothing, and mega consumption, some of our most traditional means of clothing ourselves – things we as humans have been doing for centuries – have become the pursuit of those with wallets big enough to afford them.
Whether it’s attempting to live a “minimal” lifestyle or seeking out natural fibers, some of the most longstanding traditions of society when it comes to how we live and how we dress have gone from normal to signifying characteristics of the elite. Here’s a look at a few of them, in the hope that we can take a serious look at our culture and work towards normalizing these and making them a part of our normal, everyday existence again.
Minimizing (as symbolic for having too much)
If we are to find a sustainable path forward, it is clear that we need to question many aspects of our modern system. We need to question our desire for consumption; if we all bought fewer items, could we then afford to buy things higher in value? Compare today’s wardrobe to one in 1930, where the average American woman owned nine outfits, and those outfits all came at a higher cost. Taking inflation into consideration, a women’s dress in the early 1900s would have run you upwards of $200; compare that to the $9.99 options we have at our disposal today.
Ironically, in the face of this mass consumption, we seem to be obsessed with the idea of minimizing.
Consider New York Times bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Cleaning Up by Marie Kondo. Gaining support of everyone from Gwenyth Paltrow to Martha Stewart, the “KonMari method” as it’s known, is a reflection of Western society’s consumption illness. We have far too many things; getting rid of them eases our consumption guilt, and allows us to take a look at why we buy things in the first place.
There is a difference between the luxury of minimal living, and minimal living because it is all that you can afford. If we are able to get rid of things, it is a sign that we are living in excess, a sign that we bought far too many things in the first place or, perhaps that we are boring too quickly from so many options.
Natural fibers as the new luxury
For centuries we have been wearing natural fibers, the clothing of our ancestors is part of a natural system that has since time immemorial provided us shelter from the elements. Clothing made from natural materials goes back to the earth, just like the core of an apple, or leaves of a tree.
Introduced to our closets in 1951, polyester has quickly outgrown the demand for natural fibers, far surpassing cotton and wool; our wardrobes are literally filled with petroleum. By 2025 we are expected to produce 99.8 million tons of polyester. The result is that nowadays, natural fibers are a selling point for brands that cater to upper markets. While they kept us clothed for centuries, natural fibers have today become synonymous with luxury.
Mending wasn’t always for hipsters
Today, it’s often cheaper to buy something new than to fix it. Planned obsolescence paired with decreasing manufacturing costs as well as a global labor force living and working in dismal conditions has contributed to today’s throwaway culture. Why fix a pair of jeans if we can just go out and snag another for less than $20? Instead, mending has become a type of a political statement.
Mending of course didn’t used to be revolutionary, it used to be normal, a way to extend the lifespan of clothing when money was scarce and investing in new clothing wasn’t an option. From Japanese boro to reworking old clothes, mending throughout history has been a symbol of poverty not today’s vision of cool. Because today many of us have the luxury of choosing between mending an item of clothing or buying a new one, a patch can be an outward expression of our moral values. It is important for us to understand our privilege in choosing to mend our clothes. Hopefully we can normalize mending, so that it is neither an indicator of wealth or poverty; it is simply an act to extend the life of our clothing.
Tailoring not just for the elite
Just like mending can extend the life of a piece of clothing, so can tailoring. A dress that fits a little too big can be taken in, made to fit the wearer. Historically, tailoring was a common expense for men, while women made their alterations themselves. As the craft and knowledge of sewing has dwindled, more and more women have turned to tailoring (if they have the budget). That’s particularly true for those on the red carpet. There’s a reason celebrities look good in their clothing; it fits.
While the number of tailors in the United States has shrunk dramatically, there’s big business in custom tailoring for the elite. Tailor Christy Rilling was recently profiled for her tailoring work that can be seen on the red carpet at events like the Met Gala and the Oscars, not to mention on the cover of Vogue.
“Unfortunately, I think the sewing industry is dying in America. I’m hoping that I can inspire young people to not forget about tailoring or sewing as a career,” Rilling told Racked. The sewing industry is dying because as our clothes become cheaper and cheaper, we don’t want to invest in the kind of alterations that will make them look good, so instead of having a wardrobe of a few outfits that we feel great in, and have invested in because we know they will last, we have a wardrobe full of a lot of pieces, most of which sort of fit, and probably won’t last.
How do we change?
We can turn the tide on culture, but as Chouinard said, it may require turning around, and then taking a step forward. We need to revive American industry, revive craft, and dismantle our current consumer culture. Only then will be bring back and normalize the traditions of those before us, making us more resourceful and more conscious consumers, no matter where we are on the socio-economic ladder.