Monday 14 February 2011

Riches-to-Rags - Our Fashionable Stories of Stuff

I confess. I was once a fashionista. I worked for Vogue and Harpers and Queen and Elle, I observed catwalks, I styled shoots and interviewed designers in swanky restaurants – Jasper and Issey and John – and when the Japanese were In wouldn’t have been see dead in the capital cities of the world without a black turban and black lipstick. No one saw my hair for a year.

“You’re wearing your coat inside out,” said my friend Alexander in Rome. "I can see the hook”.
"It’s a fashion detail," I said. "It means this jacket is by Jean Paul Gaultier."

It was the most expensive beautiful thing I owned, a moody tangerine cotton frock coat with gold buttons (well this was the 80s!). Alexander, who was studying for the priesthood, laughed. He didn’t know anything about Jean Paul Gaultier. But he knew the work of a clever devil when he saw one.

Sometimes l think about the clothes I used to own and it shocks me that I remember my wardrobe more intimately, more joyfully than I remember my friends of that time. The question I ask myself now is: is this because we were damned, fallen angels trapped in the colourful lures of the material world, or is it because our relationship with matter, with the fabric of the earth, has never been truly celebrated or understood? Or is it that our letting go of Stuff, our powerdown, has become the most urgent and most interesting story of our times?

When I joined Transition Norwich the very first conversation I had was about fashion. It was with Helen. We were sitting at the Arts, Culture and Well Being table at the Unleashing, discussing the lecture on Peak Oil by Ben Brangwyn, and she asked me:

“What are we going to do about last’s year trousers?”
“We’re going to have to wear them and not worry about them,” I replied.

The truth was I had given up worrying about this year’s Look a long time ago, when I had chucked my job as a fashion editor and gone travelling in search of Life without a Hemline instead.

I now wore thrift store clothes and darned my own socks. My coat was worn. I hadn’t visited a dry cleaner for a decade. It was a different time. In 1998 I had tried on a hand-knit in Gap and felt the sweat-shop labour of children and had shuddered. Conscience and the consequences of the fashion business had pricked my consumer bubble.

This week we’re going to be writing about that wake up call that millions of us are experiencing as we connect with the planet, with our fellow human beings, and the decisions we are making to turn our materialistic world around. What it takes on the inside to shift that fierce possessive love of things to loving the earth and its peoples in relationship. As the Spring collections are starting up in Paris, Milan, New York and London and Norwich (once the weaving capital of Britain) is having its first fashion week the Low Carbon Life crew are going to look at clothes in Transition, waking up to the facts behind the textile industry, celebrating charity shop style, making our own hats, mending our shoes, our own stories of stuff.

The picture is a photograph of a wild cotton plant in Arizona, one of the most lovely bushes in the world. Because our consumer story, like the story of Sleeping Beauty, starts with a needle and cotton. With the very first industrial machine, designed in the North of England in 1764, the Spinning Jenny. If you follow the thread you find out who is in charge of the wheel . . .

Photos: cover and inside picture of last century's trousers from Vogue's Modern Style; desert cotton flowers by CDC.


  1. I can confirm for those of you who have not met Charlotte that she always looks fantastic in her vintage clothes.

  2. It's interesting that you recall your earlier years as if it were a previous life, and feel amazed at how your values have changed with the passage of time and what you have learned. I feel just the same, having worked in software in the city of London during the 80s and for a major bank in the early 90s. Kinda embarrasing, but perhaps excusable with the innocence of youth and the excitement of the times. My point being: we perhaps shouldn't judge those who still operate at the coal face of commerce, and be optimistic that once they come to realise the folly of a lifestyle focused on money and superficial values they might change to see the world from the perspective which we now see...

  3. Greetings from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada! One thing that's become really fascinating to me as I powerdown is the "plain dress" idea that certain Quakers, for example, adhere to. I've worn "ethical only" clothes for years, but recently found myself buying a lot (A LOT) more clothes than I needed. The same began to happen when I frequented thrift stores, and I began asking myself who *wasn't* going to have access to those clothes if I bought (so many of) them.(I live in a pretty economically disenfranchised area) That's when I began to become really interested in the concept of "enough" where clothing is concerned. As well, I began to realize that my own reaction to buying (too much!) clothing had to do with being drawn into a consumer lifestyle that insisted I should look a certain way. "Plain dress" resists both "too much" and corporate ideas of appearance (though it can substituted other ideas . . .)

    Less optimistically, I also read accounts of people who spent a great deal of money (and resources!) to "go plain."

    But I still found the idea really compelling. So my decision (since I already sew) was to add nothing new to my wardrobe that I hadn't made myself (that would certainly take care of "too many," given how much time I don't have);that required a commercial pattern (which takes care of "dress like this"); and that required significant curves in the pieces. This last one eliminates waste, to a really large extent. You can almost always use up squares of fabric; it's kind of hard to use up weird curvy bits.

    The important thing I decided (in a very transition-like way!) is that I'm not purchasing a new wardrobe--I'm mapping out a transition strategy to less clothing, that is less complex, and less engaged with deeply consumer culture.

    I'm wondering if the next part of the process will be to use only organic and/or local fabrics! Now *there's* a challenge . . .

  4. Hi
    I am really pleased to have found this blog... and to see that Norwich is a transition town.
    As a final year textiles student at NUCA working with natural dyes weaving and felting I have an interest in all things 'slow' and I have been working on my own 'slow textiles' manifesto. I am passionate about working with local materials using sustainable and zero-waste processes wherever possible. I would love to set up a 'slow' collective of textile and other art makers in East Anglia
    visit me at or email slow.stuff at
    I look forward to hearing from you!

  5. Hi anonymous
    I read a fascinating book called Enoughness - breaking free from the world of more... by John Naish...
    also really envious that you live in Vancouver, one of my favourite places online is MAIWA on Granville Island... wonderful blog about textiles and people and processes...
    my biggest dilemma I face as I leave university to become a textile designer is making more 'stuff' and I hope to stay true to my ethos of make less but make better....
    best wishes