Book Review: Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion

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You can’t have missed the media coverage marking the one year anniversary of the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse. Some 3000 workers were inside the Rana Plaza, an 8 storey illegally constructed factory complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when it collapsed at around 9am on Wednesday 24th April 2013. The factories produced clothing for major Western fashion brands including Primark, Matalan, Bon Marche and Mango. 1,138 people died; a heart-breaking consequence of the West’s addiction to cheap, fast fashion.

This is just one, albeit horrific example of the dark side to fashion; an industry built on the image of glamour, wealth and beauty. A new book aims to draw all that’s bad about the fashion industry together into one hard-hitting, brutally honest volume. Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion was written by Tansy Hoskins, the writer, journalist and activist. Case-by-case Hoskins dissects the industry we all love to hate by investigating the plight of the garment workers, the insatiable want of consumers, and the manipulative nature of the media industry. This book surpassed my expectations. There are many books on ethical fashion out there, some more wishy-washy than others. Hoskins attempt is admirable and a credit to her top-notch investigative journalism skills alongside her genuine passion for the topic. If you liked Lucy Siegle’s To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing out the World? you’ll devour Stitched Up much like I did.

“There is no difference between a knight and any other man except what he wears”

This apparent quote from Robin Hood is Hoskins choice of opener. I’m not sure I would have opted to quote folklore whilst arguing for a realist shift in thinking about a multi-billion pound industry but nevertheless Hood makes an important point. Clothing is the most visible way we have to express our identity, status and values. Fashion is a global industry that we all take part in and Hoskins’ book helps us to take a more critical stance on it.

Each chapter looks at a different issue, from the cotton farmers at the start of the supply chain to the models showing off the final product and all of the sizest, racist taunts surrounding them. She delves straight into the politics and doesn’t shy away from an academic treatment of the subject, in fact, she loves Karl Marx, whose rules of labour and capital are called upon in virtually every chapter. Her key message is that capitalism is the root cause of all that’s bad in the fashion industry and individual action alone cannot reform it. Instead, we need a complete transformation of society, a new way of living and working to foster equality and quash class hierarchies. This she discusses in the final two chapters ‘Reforming Fashion’ and ‘Revolutionising Fashion’.

My only problem with the book is this disregard for the individual. Hoskins does a great job of building up a picture of a rotten industry, built on exploitation and greed, but it leaves the reader feeling helpless. Her concluding suggestions for a revolution are, in her own words, a “distant possibility”. I like to dream with the best of them, but I can’t envision a non-capitalist future unless something really terrible happens and we revert back to subsistence living out of necessity – it certainly won’t be an idealistic utopian society.

At one point she says, “As disappointing as it may be to hear this, there are no ethical clothes for sale”. I disagree. She destroys the likes of TOMS, who she says turned “poverty into a marketing ploy” and disregards CSR and ethical sourcing attempts of high street retailers as little more than greenwash. She gives the impression that as consumers we can do nothing right, we have no power (so therefore we might as well just shop?!). But I think there are ethical retailers, People Tree for example, who work with small fair trade groups and sustainable materials, are they not intrinsically a good?

As I hinted at before, this is a book for educated readers. It’s well researched, as evidenced by the extensive notes section and bibliography. It’s not a coffee table fashion book; although it does has some wonderful illustrations inside. It’s a must-read for students studying fashion, media, business, human geography or retail, along with inquisitive souls with a desire to know more about what exactly they have in their wardrobe. If I could make it law for everybody to read this book, and others like it, I would, because it’s important, and real, and something we can all play a part in to create change. I think Hoskins has succeeded in setting out what she hoped to do.

You can buy Stitched Up, the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion direct from Pluto Press for £13.50. Don’t go to Amazon!

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Is fast fashion the cause of all our problems? Or the saviour?

A couple of articles have popped up in the popular press this week. Firstly in the Guardian Lucy Siegle wrote, ‘Why fast fashion is slow death for the planet’ as an intro to her new book, ‘To Die For’. Then a couple of days later the Ecologist wrote, ‘Greening the High Street: Marketing trick or real deal?’ They are both informative, general articles worth reading, and they got me thinking about ethical fashion from a wider perspective.

So is fast fashion slow death for the planet? I think so. In fact, I got thinking about just what fast fashion has done for us. It made us greedy, wasteful and frivolous. It made us demand more at less cost. The choice on the High Street is boggling and at the same time compelling. It made us reach for the credit cards, pushing us into debt. At the same time as we were buying more, we were making less. The manufacture of most of the garments we were buying on the High Street was done overseas. Although this has been happening with clothes for decades, other products and services have more recently been outsourced overseas leading to job losses. So increased debt + job losses = the recession. Did fast fashion play a major part in the recession? The turnover of goods was not sustainable.

Of course, although we don’t make many garments in the UK anymore, a huge amount of people are employed in retail, so in this way the fashion industry provides many jobs. And the choice our High Street offers has world wide appeal. But as Lucy Siegle tweeted last Sunday, ‘Fast fashion action responsible for a number of Sunday Times Rich List entries today. Garment workers still can’t afford to eat’. Your new dress might make you happy, but for how long? As much as I love Topshop, I think fast fashion has done us much more harm than good.

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