I’ve recently finished reading two books about fashion, which on the surface might seem quite far removed from each other but in some ways are very similar. ‘To Die For’ by Lucy Siegle is a gripping expose of our addiction to ‘fast fashion’, and the resulting devastating human and environmental costs that the big brands would prefer us not to know about. For something a little lighter, ‘A Vintage Affair’ by Isabel Wolff is a frothy novel about a London woman who starts her own vintage store with a few mysteries and love complications thrown in for good measure. In essence these books both have messages about placing more value on what we wear and appreciating the back history of where our clothing has come from.
We’ll start with the appetiser then get stuck into the meat. ‘A Vintage Affair’ was quite simply great fun. I have to admit that even though I was looking forward to reading this book, I wasn’t expecting a great deal. Overly girly covers often put me off and make me suspect the writing won’t be up to scratch (when *will* publishers realise that chick lit doesn’t have to come in pink?). But this was well written with likeable characters, and an engaging storyline that moved along at a cracking pace.
It was obviously enjoyable to read about the main character, Phoebe, opening up a fantasy vintage store chock-full of 80s Vivienne Westwood, 30s Madame Gres, 60s Balmain, 50s Dior and all manner of other treats. But there is also a mystery to sustain the action; an old French woman is selling off her life’s wardrobe but reluctant to explain the story behind the child’s blue coat she won’t give up. Meanwhile Phoebe has a tragic secret of her own that she refuses to talk about, and not one but two men come along to stir things up. All in all a great read if you are looking for something light and entertaining.
‘To Die For’ is clearly much more serious, but ten times more enthralling. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. There have been a few books in my life that have entirely changed the way I think; this is one of them. Everything we are not being told about the way Big Fashion comes to us is exposed, and it is truly, uncompromisingly, shocking.
Siegle starts out by explaining the economic background to the way we buy now. In the 1960s we were spending something like 10% of our household budget on our wardrobes. Today, that figure is more like 5%. Yet despite spending less, we are now buying more than ever before. And the prices keep falling, and we keep buying. If you are anything like me, you’ve had moments where you look into a bulging wardrobe and even then feel you have nothing to wear; yet I’ve never been rich or even well-off by any stretch of the imagination. So just how can they make things so cheap? Where do all the extra materials come from? And what happens to the vast amount of clothes that are being discarded after we’ve had our fix?
The path from brand to maker to fibre producer is winding, and not something most of us are able to follow. Siegle explains exactly how it is that sweatshops are still in existence in this day and age, and how appallingly few international measures there are in place to ensure safe working conditions and a living wage for those who sew our clothes. Essentially we are leaving it up to the brands to act according to their own morals (I’m sure you can imagine how well that has been working).
The problem is that none of us know exactly what is going on. One of the most important messages that I have come away from this book with might sound surprising: we have to spend more. Spend more, buy less. It seems illogical. But the more we binge on cheap clothing, the more we send a message to these companies that price is all we care about. We all know that price isn’t necessarily an indicator that something has been made ethically; but let’s be honest, the odds are better, and you are showing that you won’t be seduced by price alone. And then companies are going to have to start really thinking.
She goes on to talk about the terrible damage done by cotton farming and processing, the plight of farmers in poorer regions who can barely make a living due to subsidies given to farmers in richer nations (the agricultural suicide rates in these areas are truly awful), government approved child-labour for cotton picking in Uzbekistan, the damage done to life-sustaining water systems from leather dying, and the ‘desertification’ of regions due to over-farming – you might be surprised to hear that one of these is due to the luxury wool cashmere. Several years ago when certain sanctions were lifted and cashmere became ‘cheap’, demand grew and the few regions to support Kashmir goats began over-grazing. One of the largest of these has suffered to such a degree it has become virtual desert. Quite a price for affordable luxury.
Hearteningly, the book finishes with what we CAN do to change the unsustainable trend of fast fashion. Many tips are simple, things which us vintage girls already do – shop second-hand, buy vintage, swap clothes with friends, and take care of what you already have. But she also explains how to find out whether a high street offering is ethical or not, talks about some of the new designers taking more account of social and environmental issues in their work, and how to avoid the marketing ‘greenwash’ that some brands put out to seem more ethical than they really are.
There are tiny parts of the book I don’t agree with (you probably all know my stance on Livia Firth’s Oscar dress, which was supposed to be ‘green’ but was in fact created by CUTTING UP ELEVEN INCREASINGLY RARE 1930S DRESSES TO MAKE JUST ONE DRESS WORN FOR ONE EVENT, GAH!), but this has been the most eye-opening book I have read this year, and one which has changed my entire way of thinking. I do hope you all get a chance to read it.
Note: in the interests of disclosure, I was sent ‘To Die For’ to review by the publisher