Last Friday evening I donned my ethical thinking cap and headed down to Manchester’s beautiful Whitworth art gallery (a huge, sprawling, redbrick institution, which is part of the university and is housed in the middle of a park) to hear a lecture by journalist Lucy Siegle about her book ‘To Die For: is Fashion Wearing Out the World?’ Well, lose the question mark and swap the words ‘is’ and ‘fashion’ around and there you have your answer.
We all know by now that much of the garment production in far-flung lands is morally troubling, and that sweatshops are still very much a thing of the present. Many of us do our bit by avoiding the obvious ‘bad’ shops such as Primark – I do this too, and buy fairtrade where it’s made easy and quick for me to do so. Then I’ll head to H & M or Urban outfitters to spend money because for some reason to me these feel like ‘OK’ shops. So why is this the case? Well, that’s something I’ll look at and doubtless draw some conclusions about during my Secondhand Safari when I remove the possibility of going to any of these places.
I haven’t read the whole book yet, but it’s insightful stuff. A quick trawl though online reviews shows that they’re generally positive, although there are some murmurings about the fact that Lucy doesn’t necessarily tell us what we can do about all of this – apparently the facts are presented and we’re largely left to draw our own conclusions – and there’s also the expected criticism that she hasn’t gone far enough. This always happens with things like this; somebody makes an ethical point about clothing or whatever and unless they literally then dress in rags and run through the streets flaying themselves then to some people the whole point the writer’s making is negated.
So, I should say from the off that I’m finding the book fantastic and effective. She makes a potentially tricky subject easily readable, her style is super accessible and just a few pages in I’m learning a lot. And believe me, most of it’s not pretty.
Her lecture was awe-inspiringly great. I’m not sure that she took a breath throughout, and her passion for her subject (in this case ‘cotton’) was palpable. I asked her what she made of Vivienne Westwood’s recent comments that people should buy less, buy better and make things last for longer and she said that she loved that.
But afterwards when she was signing books in the foyer I brought up the issue of secondhand shopping and I really got the impression that firstly she’s not especially a secondhand shopper herself, and secondly that she doesn’t find it altogether appealing (although a spot of upcycling takes place later in the book I noticed as I flicked through). The introduction to the book confirms this; ‘Why give fashion the time of day? Why not dress exclusively in old clothes and charity shop finds? … It is simply untrue to say that all fashion is superficial, needless and stupid, and to ignore the semiotics of style. The way we dress is fundamental to our self-expression.’
I agree with all of the above, but why lump charity shop finds in with ‘old clothes’ in the disparaging sense that it’s mentioned here? I’m with both Vivienne Westwood and Lucy Siegle in the common planet-preserving cause they’re both working towards in different ways, and I salute them every step of the way with what they’re doing, but this has made me realise even more than I did before that there’s some way to go when it comes to removing the stigma surrounding secondhand shopping. Hmmmm… food for thought.