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200 Years of Australian Fashion: time line of our perception of clothes

A few days ago I finally visited The 200 Years of Australian Fashion exhibition currently being displayed at National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. I enjoyed every bit of it! The exhibition presents more than 120 works by over 90 designers; from Australia’s earliest known surviving dress (c1805), a glamorous 1950s blue feathered ball gown by Collins Street salon La Petite, and a dress from Collette Dinnigan’s ground-breaking 1995 Paris runway show, to garments created by contemporary designers, such as Akira, Richard Nylon, Ellery and RMIT graduate Toni Maticevski. Stands out newly commissioned work by Dion Lee - conceptual sculptural dress over four meters tall covered in Swarovski crystals that had never been displayed before.

But out of all the astonishing garments I saw at the exhibition I want to pay particular attention to the reconstructed outfit from 1996 Ready-to-Wear collection by conceptual Fashion House SIX featuring work by designers Peter Boyd and Denise Sprynskyj (pictured below).

From day to night

For me it represents the lost art of the past of mending and reusing older garments and partially, the future of fashion as I see it. As Peter Boyd commented, we will glean our knowledge and inspiration from old garments, taking them apart and looking inside. It is like reading a book, there are layers, stratas and we can learn stuff from it.  

Wondering along all those displays at the gallery made me wonder: when did we stop appreciating the art of creating everyday clothes and start thinking that making clothes is easy, simple, takes little time and therefore clothes are cheap and can be discarded as soon as we no longer like them?.. Well, maybe I put it in a wrong way; we don’t think that making clothes is easy and simple. We just don’t think any more at all how and where our clothes are made and how long it actually takes to make a dress or a pair of trousers as soon as we can obtain them so cheap.

In early 1800 much greater proportion of family’s income was spent on clothing than today. Clothes were too dearly obtained and too many scarce hours (often of the mother of the family) had gone into the original stitching to abandon them easily. It was very common for a dress to be remodeled a half dozen times to show modern trends: altering sleeves, waistline height, hems, replacing pleats with gathers or vice versa, changing ribbons and trims, trying new pelerines and collars, and finally to be entirely re-cut and made into a garment for a child.

Ordinary people didn’t have large wardrobes we have today. They made do with one outfit for everyday, one for Sunday at best, and perhaps one another, or parts of another, for seasonal change. Even wealthy people didn’t necessarily have lots of clothes, although, there were fashionistas, like today who enjoyed dressing up, changing outfits and wearing a dress several times at best.

By 1930s an average American woman (I did not find this information for Australia unfortunately) owned about nine outfits (according to Forbes). Today they say it is about 30 with one for every day of the month.

Another interesting study from British celebrity fashion website investigates into how many items of clothing a woman is likely to go through between the ages of 18 and 80. The website polled 1,246 women across the UK and the figures are quite shocking. A woman is likely to go through up to seven pairs of shoes every year, six cardigans or jumpers, five skirts and four coats or jackets. When taking into consideration the averages revealed by the respondents, as well as the fact that a woman's adult lifetime is, on average, 62 years from the age of 18, it appears that women own on average, in a lifetime, 1,116 tops, 620 dresses, 310 skirts, 372 cardigans/jumpers, 558 trousers or jeans, 248 coats or jackets and 434 pair of shoes, bought more likely not for a very high price.

And in spite of the rising awareness about necessity of sustainable fashion, fair wages and green practices in clothes industry Fast Fashion movement that offers affordable trendy clothes with new collection presented weekly or fortnightly is still on the rise. According to Ragtrader report from April 2016 Fast Fashion with the revenue of $1.3bn generated $173.2m in profit with 10.1% annual growth.

Fast Fashion is so tempting and easy. You can buy a pair of jeans for as little as $10. But this $10 will give a few cents to the people who made them and will be loaded with chemicals that were used to dye the fabric, also polluting the environment around the factory and poisoning people that live nearby. I refuse to buy these types of clothing any more.

To buy something more sustainable, I can go to Denim Smith, Melbourne based jeans manufacturer that uses finest Japanese denim that is dyed using earth friendly techniques. A pair of jeans there will cost from $100 to $200. It takes only 23 minutes for them to produce a classic five-pocket pair using best modern machinery and highly skilled workers, which allows them to sell their products for a reasonable price, using responsible and high quality fabrics.

But, for example, if I decide to make a pair of jeans here in Australia myself or on order, the price can increase even more. With the fabric from shops like Spotlight (more likely loaded with harsh chemicals that are used to dye the denim and not at all sustainably produced) and at least 5 hours spent on sewing (this may or may not include the time spent on pattern making), the cost of this pair will be at least $200 and up to cover the materials and my labour at minimum wage rate. If I want something more special and need a few fitting sessions the labour price will increase even more with going up to $1000 for something really elaborate.

Now, if all our clothes were made in that way we would be more likely to treasure them and not discard as easily…

Yes, people are becoming better educated and more aware of how brands are delivering value to individuals as well as the community. Access to information is easier and faster with the growth of the internet and social media, and hopefully there will be a shift in apparel industry where less harmful and more sustainable products will become the norm, not the exception.

But the real answer to shop sustainably is not as easy as simply buying clothes that were responsibly made, but to shop less, treasure what we have and learn the lost art of clothes repairs and alterations. There should be more worn wear repair hubs like Patagonia that give customers the opportunity to bring their old, broken and worn clothing (Patagonia or other brands) to get them fixed, instead of discarding or replacing them.

Extending the life of our garments is the only most important thing we can do to lower the impact on the planet.

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