FASHION’S AUSTERE PAST

 

Limitations can be freeing.
Designing less,
with less,
can free the fashion industry so much more than we may think.

 

The very concept of fashion depends on change. A steady cycle of trends has fueled a global business of buying, wearing, tiring of, and procuring new clothing for centuries. In the beginning of fashion as we know it, a fad originated in the aristocratic strata of royals and their ilk. It then traveled over vast seas via word of mouth, illustrated print publications, or even carefully attired fashion dolls for adults. It took time for every aspect of fashion to unfold. The communication of an idea took time, the harvesting of materials took time, the making of fabric took time, and the sewing of a garment took time—it all moved at a patient pace.

Mechanization changed all of that. First there were machines to take over manual labor, and then computers to quicken the machines. Today’s fashion system moves faster than any hand-sewing seamstress could have dreamed. The trend cycle spins so frantically that there are casualties—human and environmental. The clothing industry is a massive drain on natural resources and an astonishing producer of waste. This is not news, but with the grim realities of climate change feeling less like worse case scenarios for future generations and more like current concerns, the issue is heating up. A current UK risk assessment of climate change draws parallels between the threat of global warming and that of nuclear war. If tides are to stem, the clothing industry will need to amend its ways.

The good news is that it is possible for the fashion industry to change for the greater good, and quickly; it has been done before. With its back against the wall, the fashion system has pumped its brakes during times of war, slowing production and conserving resources. When World War I broke out it hobbled Paris, the heart of the fashion business. The War required a redirection of raw materials, labor, and wealth over the course of an arduous four years.

A change in wartime lifestyle, as well as a limited availability of materials led to a different approach to design. Garments simplified over the span of The Great War. As women of all classes were mobilized into supportive action, their clothing had to serve multiple functions. An unforeseen practicality in design became necessary. Ensembles that could go from volunteer charity work to more formal social calls were favored, outmoding the long-standing tradition of wearing a number of activity-specific garments throughout the day. The lack of leisurely motorcars in cities like London and Paris meant women of means were walking more, and comfort was generally more important than the capricious whims of fashion. This is not to say that practical overtook pretty, but there was a clear shift in what was desirable.

 

At the apex of WWI, the silhouette streamlined. Industry-established yardage limits on in-demand fabrics like wool led to carefully plotted designs, patterned with conservation in mind. In its February 1918 issue Vogue encouraged its readers dressing on a war budget to invest in smart, durable clothing that could be worn multiple ways. It recommended smaller businesses—tailors, dressmakers, milliners, and cobblers—that were thriftier hidden talents in big cities. The magazine even recommended having previous seasons’ garments re-made to fit current styles. The war turned Vogue, the biggest publication in luxry fashion, into an advocate for shopping smarter and locally, and even for recycling.

World War II took the example of conservation in the fashion industry during WWI to a more formal, widespread level. The governments in both America and Europe set up ration systems for clothing and fabrics. Manufacturers were held to limits of fabric per garment, and shoppers were allotted a certain number of coupons to use towards the purchase of garments. Rationing was a vast and extreme measure meant both to allow the war efforts to meet their full needs on the front, and to prevent clothing shortages at home. Production was supervised for quality and quantity with the goal of producing less more efficiently. The system wasn’t perfect, but it was an impressive, largely effective way to meet an unprecedented threat to the stability of the clothing industry.

Beyond changing production and consumption methods in the clothing industry, both WWI and WWII led to see changes in fashion and culture that played out over the subsequent years. To be certain, no one of sound mind would ever welcome the horrors of war to induce cultural development. However, there are historical examples of designers and modes that flourished under the restrictions. During WWI women were performing tasks that had been reserved for men, working long days in pants, coveralls, and uniforms that allowed for an ease of movement that few women had experienced. The increase in range of motion made an impression. The short beaded dresses that adorned the backs of dance-obsessed women in the early and mid-1920s were the freest garments women of high fashion had yet been encouraged to wear. Designers like Lady “Lucile” Duff Gordon, Gabrielle Chanel, and Jeanne Lanvin created limitations.

Today there are designers who are similarly challenging themselves to stay within parameters of limitations, albeit they are self-imposed. Inspired by a desire to work sustainably, a handful of fashion makers are following the principles of the smart pattern cutting of the Zero-waste movement. They are making dents in counterbalancing the excesses of the clothing industry, but they are just dents. More fashion designers and conscientious consumers should be inspired by the examples of austerity in fashion’s past. Change for the better is possible—quick, effective change can and has happened. Let’s just hope we don’t need the active atmosphere of utter destruction to do what it takes. Austerity can be beautiful. Limitations can be freeing. Designing less, with less, can free the fashion industry so much more than we may think.

Previously featured in AGB issue No.6