by Rebecca Prentice, Hannah Amey, Maeve Devers, Rifka Fehr, Olive Howland Milne, Alfred Lewis, Phoebe Marsh, Joana Pereira and Amelia Yates
As eight first-year anthropology students and one lecturer at the University of Sussex, we are doing a ‘fashion fast’ between now and Easter. This means we commit to wearing only 6 items of clothing for 6 weeks, while reflecting on the relationship between labour, consumption, and the environment in global garment supply chains.
As students on the module, ‘Anthropology of Exchange, Money and Markets,’ we are taking an ‘auto-ethnography’ approach by using our experiences to probe anthropological debates on class, consumption, selfhood, aspiration, cleanliness, global activism, feminist solidarity, and more.
We are keeping field notes and will be blogging about our efforts here every week.
This activity is a fundraiser for Labour Behind the Label, the UK branch of the Clean Clothes Campaign. As part of the ‘Six Items Challenge’ we will wear 6 items of clothing for 6 weeks with the aim of raising awareness on the catastrophic reality of the garment industry:
‘The garment industry turns over almost $3 trillion a year. Yet garment workers, 80% of them women, work for poverty pay, earning as little as $21 a month. Human rights abuses are systemic throughout the industry… It is an industry built on exploitation and growing under a lack of transparency that makes holding brands accountable difficult. We are dedicated to changing this.’ – Labour Behind the Label
Please donate to our team via this link: bit.ly/sussexfashionfast
Follow us on instagram: @sussex_fashion_fast
Labour Behind the Label is an organization that pressures companies to take responsibility for workers’ rights throughout the entirety of their supply chains. They work with trade unions worldwide to amplify garment worker’s demands and lobby governments and policy makers to protect garment workers’ human rights. Their campaigning has been instrumental in pushing UK retailers to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, ensuring Rana Plaza victims receive long-term compensation, supporting workers in Indonesia to receive legally-owed severance pay, and campaigning with Cambodian garment workers to demand a living wage, among many other cases. (Source: http://labourbehindthelabel.org/who-we-are/)
Many thanks for your support – please spread the word!
Phoebe Marsh’s Fashion Fast Diary (Days 1- 8)
Fashion fast clothing:
- 2 tops
- 2 trousers
- 1 vest
- 1 jumper
- 2 pairs of shoes
- 2 pairs of underwear
- 2 pairs of socks
- 2 bras
- 1 Coat
The night before (Tuesday, March 5th):
Washing and preparing my clothes for the fashion fast, I have no worries. I laugh at the idea that I would be so restrained by my clothing. As a 25-year-old woman I have often convinced myself that I’m too old, and too down to earth to be worried about what people think of something as fickle as my physical appearance. So, I feel compelled to make the challenge a little bit more challenging for myself. As I can only take part for 4 weeks, due to uniform-wearing obligations, I thought: why not limit my underwear as well? Why not hand wash? If anything, I’d be keeping money out of the capitalist juggernaut that is our campus laundry provider.
No issue, I chuckle to myself as I take the Instagram photo of my chosen items, cementing my commitment to my peers on the internet. Hanging my clothes on the wall as a constant reminder and convenient place to reach them, I am suddenly struck with horror. I have picked out the wrong vest top to wear, for 4 weeks. In a strategic game play, I was intending on using my black cropped vest that doubles both as an extra layer on chilly days, and a cracking party top. However, I had accidentally selected and taken a picture of my thermal vest, a vest that is only appropriate underneath clothes or as a pyjama top if you’re feeling sick. NOT a party top by any stretch of the imagination. Swatting away the negative thoughts I try to convince myself it’s not like I need a party top, I rarely go out anyway………apart from this Friday, where I will be socialising and trying to impress my new j-soc friends out clubbing for the first time. It makes me sorry to say, but I don’t think they will be blown away by my thermal knitted top…….
So, what do I do, do I just swap the top? The challenge hasn’t technically begun yet.
For the picture has already entered the stratosphere of the internet, never to be reclaimed, never to be undone. So, I decide in my pig-headed manner, to avoid the social media suicide of deleting an already public announcement, and to stick with my guns. Stay tuned to find out if it’s possibly to make three of the most boring black tops in the world party friendly……..
Day 1 (Wednesday, March 6th)
Getting up, I’m relieved to find my clothes are already picked out for me. Even still, I make the choice of wearing 3 items out of my six; my baggy black tee-shirt, ripped jeans and the loathed thermal vest. For some reason this seems like the appropriate outfit for a day in Brighton, helping a friend buy a dress for a wedding.
Though observing clothes shopping may seem like the perfect torture for someone in my position, I found myself in an opposite predicament. It seems when the possibility of buying clothes or wearing them after purchase is taken away, the urge to buy clothes felt noticeably numbed. This is not to say that I found the materials dull or unattractive, I appreciated their appeal, however I had decided not to partake, and therefore found no longing for them. I can’t help thinking this experience is very similar to my experience of going vegan: it wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the taste of meat or couldn’t see its attractiveness to people who loved steaks and bacon, however I had made a decision not to partake, and 11 years later I am still not consuming animal products.
Back to the clothing. While walking around in Brighton, I wondered why I’d picked my outfits. Did I feel they represent my personality best? Are they the clothes I feel most comfortably in? Do they express my self to the world or keep it contained in? Where I’m from, a small working-class UKIP voting (unfortunately) town, you realise from a young age that being different is not going to help you in creating secondary kinship bonds (or maintaining your primary ones). So, although you may have a slight glitch in wearing clothes in an attempt to define your independence from your other clanspeople, you realise to save yourself from conflicting social relations, it is better to dress more discretely. I feel most comfortable in clothes that hide my silhouette, could be considered androgynous and are easy to travel in. I realise that in my clothing choices I have carried over my fears of not being able to take off and leave when I want to. I wonder about my other classmates who have taken part in this project. I wonder if the ones who have closer, more positive associations with home have reflected that feeling in their clothing choices, and what that would look like.
Finishing the day, I am surprised at how easy I found it. Feeling chuffed with myself I climb out of my jeans and into my comfy trousers. In this moment I scold myself for my ignorance, in believing that rotating and washing two sets of clothing (one which I’m constantly wearing), would be easy. My punishment for this ignorance is staying up past 11 to hand wash and hang up my outfit, and hoping none of my housemates notice me going to class in the same trousers I went to bed in.
Day 2 (Thursday, March 7th)
My day started in the sourest of moods. Wondering why I had been vain instead of weather efficient in my clothing choices baffles my British mind. However, my mood soon changed at the sight of my other classmates, wearing almost obviously practical clothes in their solidarity. It was interesting to see that I wasn’t the only one who was having mild regrets two days in. Oddly enough this wasn’t expressed by our only male squad member.
Taking our group photo, it felt like we were plunging into something both mundane and exciting, trivial yet important. These sproutings of insightful thought were soon stunted by the heavy rain and the realisation I’d left my precious clothing outside to dry.
Days 3-5 (Friday to Sunday, March 8th-10th)
It feels like a treat today to be able to change into another outfit, all be it a pair of jeans and a vest top, which I’ve tied in a knot at the side to give it a “party look”. I don’t know where this idea of a dress code for clubbing comes from on why we feel so obliged to follow it. Later in the evening I attend a glow in the dark paint party (obviously the smartest thing for someone restricted to two hand washed outfits to do…) and was interested to find that although everyone (apart from me) was wearing the same white combo, everyone had embellished themselves in a completely unique way with glitter, paints and UV gel. I felt compelled to join in, and truly relieved to express my individuality as something different from the two black outfits I had confined myself to. Smothering my chin and shoulder blades with glow in the dark glitter, I created a unique but shared uniform with my fellow party goers.
Due to overcrowding, me and a friend decided to finish the night at a club. Getting on the bus, we had completely forgotten we were covered in glow in the dark materials, but soon realised our social mistake. People stared at us like we were aliens (which, on sight of my reflection and the paint peeling off my face they were not wrong). For some reason Mary Douglas’s “matter out of place” came to mind and the idea that although in one small environment it had been allowed and encouraged to cover myself in paint, in another, just minutes away, I had polluted the social order with my small act of creative expression.
After recovering from the evening (and washing the UV stains out of my precious clothes), I went on a date. I felt obliged to let him know this wasn’t my usual date outfit and about the fashion fast. He said he didn’t really notice.
I spent Sunday trying to rapid wash and dry my clothes that I had neglected over the weekend, and remaining in my room as I was restricted to my bra, pants and dressing gown (which I hope doesn’t count in my six items). It reminded me again how certain clothing, certain expressions or lack of them through clothing, is restricted to certain social realms. I can just about get away with walking around mine and my 11 housemates’ place in my dressing gown without causing social tension. However, to walk outside in my dressing gown would most likely elicit a different reaction.
Day 6 (Monday, March 11th)
Still waiting for my clothes to dry, I spent the first half of the day living in my dressing gown. However, the restriction worked in my benefit, as it meant I could do nothing but work in my room. Maybe I could write something on how the dressing gown is the perfect study outfit.
My housemates are still unaware of my lack of outfit changes, maybe it’s like when you get a haircut, and the people you’re closest to don’t notice. The funny thing is, I don’t think anyone’s noticed my lack of outfit change: tutors, lecturers, classmates (apart from those doing the fashion fast), no one has thus mentioned it.
It’s funny to think that maybe a lot of our clothes buying is down to us wanting people to see us in different outfits or to experience different outfits ourselves, and somehow a lack of this means a life lacking in some way. Or so the media would have us believe. TV has shows where characters wear the same clothes all the time, making them iconic (Think The Addams Family, The Flintstones and The Simpsons). But at the same time, we’re hit with a conflicting media discourse known as advertisement, that bombards us with suggestion on how to be prettier, thinner, younger and just generally more attractive (and interesting), by buying what they are selling.
However, we keep buying expecting another top, make-up brush or home-administered collagen will help us in achieving a holistic wellbeing. However, objects only fulfil a few (if any) of our holistic needs, leaving us with a material surplus, that we become alienated from, and leave at the bottom of the wardrobe for months, or chuck in the bin.
Day 7 (Tuesday, March 12th)
I had to take the day off due to a horrendous flu. I didn’t have the energy to wash my clothes, so I carried on wearing the ones I’d worn for bed and ignored the feeling of grossness gnawing away at me. I wonder if I wore the same clothing every day, how long would it take for people to react or say something?
I remember seeing two men at Marseille Station last year and being aware that neither of them had washed for more than two weeks. Instantly I assumed they must be migrating, for they were washing themselves in the bathroom sink and applying a lot of deodorant that was practically redundant. Its strange how smell and appearance could have created a mental imagery in my head of these two men’s lives and what they were doing.
How often do we mentally characterise people on what they’re wearing and their appearance? How does clothing play a part in how we interpret people’s stories? If they’re wearing different clothing would we interpret them differently? The last question is easily answered in the way Muslim women are interpreted by western society on whether they choose to wear a Hijab/burka or not.
Day 8 (Wednesday, March 13th)
Feeling better, I put on fresh clothes; I don’t know if you can call them fresh if you’ve worn the same clothes 3 out of 4 days this week. I wash the clothes from the day before and feel like I’m actively washing the sickness from them. I notice a ritual forming both in the physical action and my mental processing of washing away dirt and possibly “badness.”
Usually due to the (overpriced) laundry service, I am alienated from my laundry cleaning. I leave it in the machine, I go to class, I come back and hey presto it’s clean. I hand the responsibility of my clothes being clean to an automated machine, and have taken that responsibility back, if my clothes are not cleaned in time or properly, it is my responsibility.
It was nice to see in my anthropology seminar, that word of our fashion fast had spread, and there was a recognition of our…what? Experiment? Endeavour? hardship? Whatever people were interpreting it as, the overall reaction was approval, as if in our clothing restriction we were sacrificing for the greater good (?).
I hope it has been in a greater good, however I also hope this hasn’t been a self-indulgent performance that suggests in some way I’m more pious than others, or that I’ve somehow changed how Bangladeshi factory workers are treated. I hope this whole experience encourages people to look at how much material (objects) they want compared to what is actually needed for survival, and whether these ideas are tied to what they feel they need or what they think others expect.
In conclusion, some of the questions that have come to mind during this week are related to consumerism, sense of self and white charity (or saviour) mentality. How is our consumption of clothing linked to our culture’s ideas of what accounts for a person being “on track”? How is our consumption liked with our ability (or inability) to express ourselves? And, do western forms of awareness-raising help or complicate issues in the developing word? I’m hoping by the end of this four-week challenge, I will be able to report back to you if not with answers, then with more refined questions.
Phoebe Marsh is a first-year student pursuing a BA in Anthropology and International Development at the University of Sussex.