The social and the political are tied to clothing like threads of fabrics, so interlaced that they can’t be separated, growing over bodies just like skin. It is patented in my tracksuit like it is in your favourite t-shirt; how much we notice it – the if and the when – is always a question of context.
In her introduction to Utopian Bodies. Fashion Looks Forward exhibition catalogue (2015), Elizabeth Wilson pointed out how, for all our casual dress and uniform-like, standardised clothes, or styles that seem accessible and reproducible: ‘full democracy has nowhere been achieved. Yet dress has, at least in Western societies, adapted to an imperfect representation of democracy in which forms of egalitarianism (…) conceal the persistence and indeed the growth of social and economic inequalities.’ Fashion seems a façade where dreams are flaunted, and then brushed up as they shatter, something like an im/possible. Fashion’s ambivalence, though, makes it equally open to visibility and as such a medium for imagining different outcomes, maybe one of a future not owned by accelerationism and fast fashions treating wearers and workers as variables.
Gradually infused with eco and sustainable ways of ‘instrumenting’ clothes and materials, the possibilities of fashion look towards the future through long-term engagement of what fashion could mean to people and tackle environmental concerns. Point be taken, most sustainable narratives, anti-fashion, anti-waste, re-thinking the system in an ethical turn, are not empty of a religious nuance that, traceable in the ‘Protestant ethics of capitalism’, talk about the righteousness, modesty and purity, in other words, a correct way of consuming (Elke Gaugele & Monica Titon, 2014:170). Good intentions only do not make them bulletproof to neo-liberal strategies and an ever-mutating form of capitalism. For now, they remain explorations, ways of conscious choosing maybe, other types of production, awareness at least. What happens though when alternative practices, like re-purpose and second-hand, are less a choice than the norm? What does that say of how we perceive fashion practices and consumption at the everyday level? Moreover, to whom may these pertain?
Coincidence or not, my first memory of beautiful clothes, my mother bringing me a particular bright-red jacket, comes with a religious undertone. It was after the Romanian Revolution (1989), and I couldn’t have been more than three. My hometown, a former industrial flag in the Carpathian area, was falling into disgrace, slowly sharing the same faith as other massive factories of the communist era. Bankruptcy and unemployment followed, leaving an entire town floating adrift. Through Neo-protestant networks of humanitarian aid, the town, however, received help from Sweden, Germany or Austria. As my mother recounts, piles of clothes, furniture and household appliances were shared through both the neo-protestant church and town’s council. ‘Good quality clothes that endure time’ she said (and in truth, I still wear some of my mother’s sweaters from those gift packages). ‘We are too poor to afford cheap clothing’ – the mantra of purchasing clothes looping in my head; though not wealthy enough to buy new ethically made ones, so we gladly accept free and bargain second-hand ones. If anything, my mum and my town taught me the value of clothes – their material persistence, textures and cut. 27 years later, small second-hand and thrift-shops are standard in my hometown. Those and Chinese merchandise shops, as well as one ‘classic’ fashion boutique that turned out to be an outlet after all. Even in the city I live in now, one of the wealthiest in Romania, its ground zero seems packed with thrift shops and outlets.
Part habit, part ethical belief, my clothes are second-hand, though I highly rely on a sense of style (owing to my mother). There’s a black and white picture of me and her from back then. She has a short haircut – similar to that praised by fashion aficionados in 2014 when stylist Lotta Volkova walked the show for Vetements –, and a white coat that made her look exquisite. I’m nonchalant in my favourite jacket and a new pair of jeans. Poor but stylish.
‘Poor but cool’ is also how the movement and visibility of fashion design coming from former East-European countries is continuously labelled – especially since the success of Vetements, Gosha Rubichinsky or Demna Gvasalia. Tracksuits, the 90s revival of sweatshirts, no fear of logo, no fear of tacky, or kitsch, everyday clothes are posing now as fashion, under the guise of post-soviet aesthetics. This visibility is not without fault. On the one hand, it idealises strategies of dressing and subversion from communist and socialist countries as sustainable and eco-friendly, sweeping under the rug the context and living conditions that called for such practices in the first place. On the other, it brings forward unresolved issues regarding the Eastern European context by recasting a bloc-like representation for a diverse region where ‘east’ is a disputable term.
Zooming in and out, it is worth mentioning that for all the praised new visibility of the ‘former East’ as a driver of creativity, it is also where the textile industry’s work within the EU is being dispatched, along with North African countries. Romania and Bulgaria have been particularly leading in ‘Lohn’ production and export, providing cheap labour while producing clothes for brands like Lacoste, Hugo Boss or Kenzo. Investigative journalism revealed an ongoing practice that started years ago, when the ‘litany’ for Romanian garment workers asked them ‘to remain competitive in the face of international competition, (…) accept their working conditions and feel lucky just to have a job’ (Petcu, 2004: 30/ Ștefănuț, 2016). There are forms of colonial practices still at work, being economically prioritised. ‘Made in Europe’ does not mean sweatshop-free. Instead, in the collective imaginary, associations between labour conditions and cruel exploitation are less clearly expressed. Ironically, the same countries that produce the clothes become their bins.
Setting the pace for fashion and sustainability – as designer Pauline van Dongen argues – is more than buying fast-fashion from ‘ecological’ materials, if the life of garments isn’t extended and enjoyed more. After all, what we wear ‘gives shape to our everyday lives.’ (Dongen, 2017:154) The surface of our clothing and the surface of fashion works thus like a relational map where image, body, and socio-political traits are shared and partitioned.
De-colonizing in this sense always feels like an ambivalent issue, where image-making and discourse should meet an embodied practice of dressing. I don’t wear a tracksuit anymore, but I’m very fond of it, as I am of my workwear as everyday wear seen through a constructivist reminiscence. However, since language always flows both as a way to inform and to form us, the anguish of expressing it is ever so present: I feel like I’m wearing it all on my sleeve and still haven’t found a way to say the ‘I & how’ of my locality.
Edith Lázár has a background in art history. She is currently enrolled in a PhD program in Philosophy at the Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj with a thesis exploring a philosophical theorization of fashion. Taking interest in contemporary artistic practices, she focuses on fictions, dissensus, and aesthetic politics; alternative structures of perception and forms of visibility and the imbrications between art, fashion, practice, and the everyday. She is an art writer for the international platform anti-utopias (in charge of its Fashion Series) and co-founder of Aici Acolo pop-up gallery – a project that reactivates unused or abandoned urban spaces in Cluj-Napoca by transforming them into temporary art spaces.