Old mending techniques in Vogue UK

When even Vogue promotes picking up needle and thread, a reinvention of old solutions to new problems related to sustainability might soon hit the masses. By Charlotte Bik Bandlien, researcher SIFO, editorial board PERSONAE & Ingun Grimstad Klepp, head of research SIFO

In the November 2009 special issue of British Vogue “More dash than cash”, Estonian model Carmen Kass shares her best tip: “When your best cashmere gets eaten by moths, don’t rush to the tailor to fix it. Mend it yourself, as your imagination allows, without caring for colour or pattern. The result is a one-of-a kind piece”. Textiles have historically been very expensive and thus had to be utilized in an economic way. Knowledge on how to do this has gradually vanished, making the techniques scarce - and thereby potentially exclusive. More and more examples of this “exclusiveness” are now re-emerging within contemporary fashion. Old mending techniques are in vogue.

The basis for this article is research conducted within the project Textile Waste at SIFO; the National Institute for Consumer Research in Norway. Using the textile chain as an example, the main objective of this project is: How can a multidisciplinary approach to waste reduction, including natural sciences, social sciences and cultural studies, contribute to reducing material flow and turn waste into a material resource? The project focuses on the potential to reduce volume along the lifecycle of textiles, and SIFO has developed a reversed system analysis in which the traditional cradle-to-grave approach has been replaced with a grave-to-cradle perspective. Thus, the point of departure is textile waste. In a reversed life-cycle approach, the starting point is the two final phases in the production/consumption process; the user-phase and the recycling phase. It is at this point that waste is potentially transformed into resources.

Vogue is perhaps not the place to look for the newest and freshest ideas in this respect, however, its position in the fashion business makes the publication of this special issue an important sign of the impact of the phenomenon. The symbolic effect is strong, as Vogue certainly plays an important role in “fashion-ology”; a term coined by Kawamura, a Japanese fashion sociologist at FIT referring to how what we perceive as “fashion” is a joint social construction rather separate from the material aspects of clothing. For this issue, Vogue invited designers to customize high-street pieces such as a hood from American Apparel decorated with woollen pom-poms made from yarn. Other designers were asked to turn recycling material such as plastic bags into “DIY couture”. Fun and fabulous, absolutely, but how are these purely aesthetic alterations to be understood? It is time to dive into a cultural-historical documentation of various textile techniques.

The objective of a now ten-year-old study was to track the changes in the way different techniques for economizing with textiles have been referred to throughout the twentieth century, and the material for the study consisted of 80 Norwegian needlework books, in addition to periodicals and ladies´ magazines. The development is clear: from numerous time-consuming and specialized techniques at the beginning of the twentieth century toward fewer and far simpler techniques at the end. The presentation of the techniques is also changing. In the earliest period, utilising everything “to the last rag” seems like an implied matter of course. Later, this kind of work is given a moral significance, and finally, it is completely liberated from economic as well as moral parameters. Technically, this development is shown through a change from stressing advanced and invisible techniques; making the mended or re-sewn garment as similar to the original as possible, to stressing the techniques´ potential for a unique aesthetic expression. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the techniques for economizing with textiles disappear completely from the books.

The 1970s was the golden age for the aesthetic emphasis, due to the new ideology of art education in the schools and of the idea of the creative human, a growing ideology of leisure time as well as an “anti-fashion” movement. Thus, the textile techniques´ potential for a unique aesthetic expression found in the November issue of Vogue was in fact previously associated with “anti-fashion”. This apparent paradox is accompanied by another. Titles in the magazine in question include “Vogue’s A-Z of pound-saving tricks”, “Thrift-chic heroines” and “380 tips on glamour for less”. The discourse throughout the issue is about saving money, however, when you open the magazine you see the regular ads from corporations making their billions from luxury goods – side-by-side with these “pound-saving tricks”. Why? Social distinction. Eclecticism, or “sampling culture”, is the obvious sociological solution to the problem of diffusion of our time as well as the obvious ideological reflection of it – providing potential for social distinction; the driving force of fashion mechanisms. What we are dealing with is the ability to interpret and compose complex stylistic expressions, mixing high and low, in the same way, at the same time; coinciding dynamic valuations.

Vogue certainly promotes a more eclectic style than usual in this special issue, a style that has become a signature in aesthetically influential social groups, “the King Midas crowd”. As one of the titles says, “It’s not what they wear, it’s how they wear it!” Yes indeed. But Vogue is Vogue, and where other publications have been showing thrift-shop-fashion for years, Vogue asked Amber Le Bon to create an autumn wardrobe from her mother’s closet; “But will Yasmin lend her the Alaïa?” The term “prosumer” within trend analysis and marketing describes a growing tendency; consumers who wish to take part in the production, mostly in terms of the design. The DIY movement and the renewed interest in handicrafts are also factors pushing this trend, and Vogue distributed some classic Vogue patterns among their own stylists and editors who unearthed their sewing machines in the attempt to bring the garments up-to-date.

Regarding clothing and environmental impact, there are three basic rules: reduce, reuse and recycle. Despite the changing role of women, changing relations between work and leisure, and today’s lack of skills and poor quality textiles seemingly making mending techniques redundant, old forms of economizing with textiles are being re-contextualized, given new interpretations, and thus may have their renaissance – providing a reinvention of old solutions to new problems related to sustainability.