Sarah O’Toole: Fashion – A Haunting

“We are haunted by somethings we have been involved in, even they appear foreign, alien, far away, doubly other.” – Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination

I don’t know how or when it happened, but the knowledge slowly crept up on me that my wardrobe is haunted. For years now, there has always been a sense of unease about it – murmurings that I would ignore or laugh off, like stories of cold children’s fingers brushing your neck as you walked through a forest at midnight. That slightly rueful laugh, I’m sure you’ve heard it.

“Penneys’ finest, probably made in a sweatshop, but sure it was only five euro!” That, or, “Apparently since people complained about it, they’ve rectified everything”. There are ways of acknowledging situations in order to make them disappear – and yet, I felt my garments quiver at their weak seams as I justified their provenance.

I’m a theatre-maker and performer by trade, and I suppose I could describe what I do as ‘raising ghosts’. Whether it’s working with Stanislavsky or radical protest performance, we enquire into the given circumstances of an object, a text, a space, and through imagination we bring to life what is not immediately evident.

For instance, there is this exercise where you take an object; it could be anything to hand, the more banal the better – a plastic bottle, a scarf, a music stand, a mobile phone – and you observe it intensely. You take note of what you’d usually take for granted – size, shape, weight, markings, colours, patterns, dents, stains – and then wonder how those little damages might have happened, how it might have been brought into being, which leads you into imagining the circumstances of its being put together and then on into the previous life of this object before it came into your hand.

It’s an interesting exercise with a family heirloom, and you can be as fantastical as you wish with your imaginings. Let’s say you’re staring at a cardigan which you bought recently on the high street, or for even better value, in a supermarket. You might not be able to help feeling as though someone is walking across your grave, as you summon up the existence of the person who might have sewn that top together.

She’s female, living somewhere like Bangladesh. She passed the seams of that cardigan under a sewing machine as fast as she possibly could because the factory was under pressure to deliver an order that day. She did the same with many like it, that morning, that week. If the fashion buyer has not investigated whether the factory actually has the capacity to process the order, she sometimes has to work through the night, often across several nights, until it is done. She’s not allowed to speak to her co-workers, not allowed to take toilet breaks, she’s paid a pittance and there is the threat of physical violence if she unionises in order to fight for better conditions. If the factory can’t deliver this cardigan for the low price that you were so delighted to get, the label will just take their orders elsewhere.

As you examine a sequinned detail on the shoulder, you feel those children’s fingers again, brushing against the raised hairs on your neck. “Please,” you whisper. “Don’t be real.” But then you see a village, and a middleman going from house to squalid house, dumping piles of this garment in front of a tired-looking woman. She will be paid a tiny amount for each piece embroidered by hand, and once her children come home from school, they must help her work into the night in order to put food onto the table. No audit can account for this assistance. And there are ways of auditing situations in order to make certain things disappear. 

Once you face the spectres haunting your wardrobe, you can’t unsee them. And they don’t go away. The illusion that you thought you were buying in that particular garment dispels and the seams scream suffering. Once you’ve watched a documentary like The True Cost, in order to confront your fears head on, you learn that you are not really getting a bargain because what you are holding in your hands has cost many others dearly. In an article discussing her wonderful book, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, Avery Gordon talks about the sense of a ‘something-to-be-done’ which lingers around a haunting. 

“Haunting…is distinctive for producing a something-to-be-done. Indeed, it seemed to me that haunting was precisely the domain of turmoil and trouble, that moment (of however long duration) when things are not in their assigned places, when the cracks and rigging are exposed, when the people who are meant to be invisible show up without any sign of leaving, when disturbed feelings cannot be put away, when something else, something different from before, seems like it must be done. It is this socio-political-psychological state to which haunting referred.”

But what can you do? Boycott the labels? Their version of a ‘something-to-be-done’ is to blame the factory suppliers and take their business elsewhere, where the situation will most likely replicate itself again because the real problem has not been addressed. The reason why garment workers are willing to work under the most inhumane of conditions is because they desperately need jobs. However, it is the demand for cheaper prices that is putting the squeeze on the labourers further down the supply chain. That is why ethical fashion is notoriously expensive, because it is realistically priced. Every time you buy a top for a few euros, you intensify that race to the bottom, where volume of sales is everything and quality is nothing because the tops are going to be thrown away after a few wears anyway. 

It wasn’t always like this. In her book, To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? Lucy Siegle outlines how our buying habits have changed since the mid-1980s. It’s not insignificant that these changes coincide with the years of Thatcher and Reagan and the onset of neoliberalism and its attendant globalisation. The former is a change in world-view which puts profits and massive corporations ahead of everything (in case you haven’t heard legislation is currently being developed to allow corporations to sue nation-states if they are hindered from making profits) and the latter is what conveniently dematerialises the human and environmental costs of our buying into the spectacle of modernity. Our  backstage crew in the developing world has been rendered ghostly.

And it doesn’t work in our favour either. Because it’s easier for us to buy things to make us look like rich people, we are being fooled into thinking we are rich. We are being distracted from the fact that what is most valuable in life – community, education, healthcare – is being stolen from us. We sense these absences as a different kind of haunting, and we frantically consume in order to convince ourselves that there is something there. As Siegle puts it:

“You now demand roughly 4 times the number of clothes you would have in 1980. You will spend at least £625 a year on clothes – but remember that’s just the average. And you are getting a lot of bang for your buck (or clothes for your pound.) In one year you’ll accumulate in the region of twenty-eight kilograms of clothing (again, this is the average) – adding up to an estimated 1.72  million tonnes of brand new fashion being consumed on an annual basis in the UK. But the really arresting thing is…that almost the same quantity of fashion that you buy you will end up dumping prematurely in the rubbish bin.”

We need to look at what we consume by really thinking about what we value. Both for the environment and for the sake of our fellow human-beings around the globe. Fast fashion is intensely damaging to the environment because of all the processes that go into making the fabrics in the first place, and because it takes hundreds of years for discarded clothes to biodegrade. Buying sustainably – that is, second-hand, vintage, recycled and up-cycled clothing – is a way of addressing this (or, even more fun, up-cycling your own!), but it still doesn’t address the consumer behaviour that creates the demand which causes all these problems.

Siegle has a suggestion which seems counter-intuitive at first, but makes a lot of sense when you think about it. When it comes to new fashion, it’s possible for us to even increase the amount of our income we spend, but on far fewer items of higher quality clothing. Instead of going for the ‘value’ brands like Penneys and ASDA which have done so much to drive prices down, we can go back to the mid-market and show that we are willing to spend more on items that will last us longer. We can emulate French women’s style and become experts at the capsule wardrobe, we might even be able to afford to buy from the more expensive ethical and fair-trade brands. 

As corporations take more power in this neoliberal world, shopping is voting, and your custom is adding a little power to entities that can and do have influence at a governmental level. (Only look at how we in Ireland are held hostage to tax-avoiding corporations in order to see that this is true, then you can imagine the situation the developing countries are in.) We can use the awesome power of the internet to investigate brands and choose which ones to support. It makes supporting smaller outlets or buying from local designers or even making your own clothes a much more enticing prospect. But more importantly, we need to find ways to lobby for legislation that will change the way labels deal with the factories in their supply chains, forcing them to take more responsibility. 

There are even fun social ways of engaging in fashion activism. For instance, instead of throwing clothes out, why not hold a night where all your friends come round and you can sit together, drinking wine and going through your mending? Or if you’re bored of your wardrobe, why not hold a great big clothes swap? Get your friends and acquaintances to bring all the clothes they don’t want, place them in piles on the floor, and then everyone can choose some new ones! Or get some sartorially skilled friends to help you hold an up-cycling evening. While you’re mending, swapping or sewing you can share information by showing a documentary about the fashion industry or form plans on how you can most effectively lobby for change. 

And while you are sitting together, take a moment to feel a sense of solidarity with those other living, breathing women around the world who are making our clothes. They need us to recognise their labour, to value what they do and to become conscious and active on their behalf. Being able to look like Kim Kardashian or Kate Moss at a moment’s notice is not the definition of wealth, but rather its negation.

Real wealth starts with remembering who and what is real, what matters and investing in that.

Sarah O’Toole is a theatre practitioner, activist, writer and occasional mountaineer! She tweets at @sashavonthulen, instagrams at @sashavonthulen and blogs at Posting Capitalism

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