Whilst working in a dress archive with the opportunity to examine countless historic pieces, I realised that the majority of the garments that I was viewing had been altered, mended or totally refashioned. I soon became transfixed with a question. Why and for what reason did these people want, need or take the trouble to go to such great lengths to increase the life span of the garment?
As a society, in need of solutions to reduce waste, it occurred to me that there is a possibility that these past examples could inspire answers to this problem. Could contemporary clothing be designed and constructed (not too dissimilar to their historic forebears) with the notion of durability incorporated into the very seams of their structure. Garments could be designed to be reconstructed into another pre-determined style. The idea of unpicking and adapting could be integral to the design aesthetic. Maybe this could be considered a realistic sustainable design model? I believe so.
There is a lot of information hidden away in these historic garments. A few months ago, I was introduced to the ‘auto chrome’ collection of Albert Kahn. This vast collection of images provides a fascinating archive of visual information of a time before cultural globalization and the homogenization of much of the world’s dress. One extraordinary image taken in 1913 caught my eye. It is of an Afghan man. Staring directly at the camera, he wears a rather stylish but tatty tartan coat. On closer inspection, the coat appears to be constructed from individual pieces of tartan. Where, in 1913 did our Afghan acquire his traditional Scottish Tartan coat? It has been documented that towards the end of the 19thcentury two Scottish regiments were stationed in Afghanistan. It gets cold in the winter in Afghanistan so it would seem sensible to construct a warm wool coat out of redundant tartan military kilts. What a brilliant use of a superfluous wool cloth! Similarly, the case of Mrs Guiney, who in 1954 accepted £5 from the Museum of London for a silk gown that had been in her family for several generations. The letters say the dress belonged to Queen Charlotte however; it no longer resembles the 18thcentury gown that Queen Charlotte might have worn. It is constructed in the style of a fashionable 1890s day dress. The material evidence suggests that the gown had been meticulously reconstructed twice, to more fashionable styles suitable to the dates of women who later went on to wear it.
Two entirely different garments from opposite parts of the globe. Both created from deconstructed garments to then be reconstructed to form other in a different style. What can we learn from these two examples? It is possible to deconstruct one garment and for it to morph into another. If the textile quality is good and the skills are there, why waste valued fabric? Possibly there was an emotional attatchment to these pieces that kept them in service for so many years. We can’t know but this interesting question fascinates me.
There are a number of contemporary designers who embrace the concept of transformation. Swedish fashion designer Anja Hynynen designs to make her garments more durabable. She describes her ethically produced clothing as having a ‘timeless quality hopefully spanning generations’ and positively encourages her customers to hold on to their clothes. Furthermore, she runs workshops enabling them to learn skills to give them the confidence to work with their clothing; to mend, restyle and upcycle. In contrast, Bea Szenfield constructed her 2010 collection ‘Sur La Plage’ by hand from paper. The paper was cut and folded into tiny shapes that assembled to create a series of stunning garments. She selected a material not generally associated with clothing and used it as the foundation for her collection. Her clothing is obviously not durable but a creative and imaginative exploration of material reinvention. Conversely, paper used to be predominately made from old from rags with many people selling their old clothing to merchants only to be shredded and reconstructed as paper.
It could be suggested that these designers are looking at ways of allowing the consumer to interact with their clothing and have the opportunity to engage with the material structure of the garment. Any interactive experience is likely to evoke some sort of emotional response, which could potentially be positive design tool for increasing the life span of our clothing. The research I am conducting examines historic garments like our Afghan’s coat and Mrs Guiney’s dress to assess and evaluate some of the reconstruction techniques and motivations that historically were routinely used to lengthen the use life of garments. Through my investigative research I hope to create a link with these historical refashioning techniques and introduce some as a model within the contemporary sustainable clothing industry.