Words by Sophie Benson
Reflecting on the last few months, thinking about what’s been happening in fashion, what I’ve bought, indie makers setting up selling masks, and garment workers. The thing that ties them all together is value.
At the beginning of lockdown, I ordered a suit from Ilk+Ernie. I wouldn’t receive it for weeks, maybe months. This is because the garment workers weren’t at the factory and Ilk+Ernie had no intention of sending them back in a hurry, therefore putting them at risk of infection. It was a different story to the one we’ve all seen elsewhere, where employees of Amazon, Boohoo, and countless other multi-billion pound companies were forced to work through the worst of the pandemic. But that’s what happens when you see people as resources rather than human beings. You think about the income they can generate and not their wellbeing and health.
It’s an attitude that underpins capitalism and it’s rife within the fashion industry. Garment workers are paid the bare minimum, their lives and labour undervalued in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of everything they make. By paying garment workers barely enough to live hand-to-mouth - a £5 dress can make a brand a nice profit if they sell enough of them. And we consumers, apparently, have a right to these dresses, these cheap clothes. Fast fashion brands talk about the “democratisation” of fashion. We “deserve” to keep up with the latest trends, they say, even if that means someone else suffers in order to make that happen.
My next lockdown purchase was a Mara Hoffman dress. It was part of the archive sale, and I had my eye on it last summer when it was first released, but couldn’t afford to part with that much money at the time. But now it was discounted, so I went for it. It cost me £198.74 all in, including shipping and taxes. Now, that is not cheap for me, but I used some money from a ‘treat’ pot that I’d been adding to for about 18 months, so I didn’t feel totally sick about it. Plus, I knew it was a dress I’d have for life.
Should everyone be spending £200 per dress? Are people who don’t, bad? No. It’s not that long since I consistently had so little money that it made me ill with stress and anxiety. £200 is an enormous amount of money when you can barely afford food, and no one in their right mind can just march around saying that’s an attainable amount for everyone to spend. But equally we can’t pretend that it’s just the working class or those at the bottom of the economic food chain who buy cheap fast fashion. If that were the case, we wouldn’t see people taking £1 bikinis on two-week-long holidays abroad or wearing Nasty Gal jeans with Balenciaga trainers.
Fashion is incredibly important for self-identity, self-image and even social mobility, so affordable clothes are, in many cases, a true necessity, but we must come to terms with the fact that cheap clothes - which are designed to be worn for one holiday or one night out, are not. We buy 400% more than we did 20 years ago, and yet we spend less on clothes overall. That’s not because we’re horrible, greedy people, it’s because brands have worked incredibly hard to consistently devalue clothes so that we buy and dispose instead of investing and treasuring.
I bought a mask during the lockdown too. It cost £12 and it was beautifully handmade. I could have got one for less but I know exactly how much effort went into making it, so it felt right to pay that much. And it seems lots of people feel the same, as I’ve seen hundreds of lovely, handmade masks being posted on Instagram which cost that much or more. The people who’ve bought them have seen the behind-the-scenes stories of the maker sat at the sewing machine. They’ve seen them drafting, cutting and sewing, attributed value to that and paid accordingly.
I didn’t just splash my cash during lockdown, I got crafty too and crocheted myself a top. It took a long time. I changed my mind on colours and had to unravel it almost entirely, the yarn kept twisting, it was a whole thing… It took hours and hours and hours to make and it was a product of the other hours and hours and hours I’ve spent practicing and honing to be able to make things like that. A quick look on Google and I see I could have bought a crochet crop top for under £10. Let’s be generous and say the top took me 10 hours to make. That’s £1 an hour, and that doesn’t even take the materials and equipment needed into account. If someone asked me to make them one for £10 I’d be insulted and feel undervalued, thinking of each stitch and every woven-in end.
That’s what brands do to their garment workers with every order made. Bosses and buyers know garment workers sit in hot, often unsafe factories, under pressure, stitching at a pace only experienced hands can - and they decide, with that knowledge in mind, to place the least amount of value possible on it.
Throughout lockdown, we’ve come to understand the value of healthcare workers, shop workers, delivery drivers, friends, and social connection. But if things are to truly change from here, we have to apply that value beyond our own culture and boundaries and give it, in abundance, to everyone who has been denied it in order to make our lives better.