Imagine standing in front of a mirror in your favorite outfit. Feeling good? Now remove anything advertised or editorialized in a fashion magazine. Now anything you saw on a blog or style website. Finally, strip off any piece made by a corporation. Keep going. Are you in your underthings? Naked? This is how I felt while reading Tansy E. Hoskins's Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion. Despite my relative knowledge about the ills of the fashion industry, I was astonished at my ignorance. But as I read, denuded in that ignorance, I began to better understand this thing I've been calling "ethical fashion".
Stitched Up uses a simple, workable, and inclusive definition of fashion: changing styles of dress and appearance adopted by a group of people. With this definition at its foundation, the author reveals how utterly broken the fashion industry is. Some would call Ms. Hoskins unqualified to write this manifesto on capitalist industry and fashion. But as an accomplished journalist and activist, she felt that "no one has adequately explained this omnipresent element of life". And who better to expose the ugly underbelly than someone who has no stake in its success, and of her own confession, loves fashion? Despite that love, Ms. Hoskins takes the industry to task, enumerating social consequences and environmental destruction. Not that she's aggressive in her tone — the book is informative and matter-of-fact in its revelations. But don't expect kudos for purchasing your TOMS. According to Hoskins, ethical, green or otherwise beneficial fashion cannot exist within the confines of capitalism. An audience of mindful consumers will find information, not encouragement within the pages.
In a chapter entitled Buyology, Ms. Hoskins writes, "fashion is not about answering human need, but about producing corporate profit". With this in mind, she never encourages "conscious consumerism"; instead she emboldens readers to examine fashion within the context of capitalism: from its roots in classism all the way to its imagined end. But rather than feeling at fault, consumers should feel empowered. Stitched Up does not condemn consumers of cheap fashion; it reveals how a commodified market creates false needs to keep us all shopping. Consumers are encouraged to incur debt for possessions, supporting the capitalist belief that we should be judged by our material worth. A lack of use value inherent in those possessions compounds the problem — planned obsolescence and a "throwaway culture" keep us firmly on the hedonic treadmill. Ms. Hoskins's message is clear: don't blame consumers for giving in, blame the system for its perverse rewards.
Using history and statistics, Stitched Up exposes how the fashion industry came to be this way. Chapter after chapter, the beauty, dieting, advertising, media, and fashion industries are indicted as conspirators of this broken system, recklessly engendering eating disorders, wanton consumerism, and exploitation. Ms. Hoskins's solution is evident (overthrow capitalism), but the process is undefined. The final chapter, Revolutionising Fashion, is set in a future post-capitalist society where fashion, design, and creativity are collective pursuits. It's a future free of the chains of capitalism and its inescapable isms (and no, we're not all wearing Mao smocks). I long for this outcome and I don't know how to get there. But that's not the purpose of this book.
Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion exposes the atrocities, violations, appropriation, and coercion of the fashion industry, and in the process, our unconscious complicity. Stripped of your ignorance, you will feel naked. But by the end of Stitched Up, you'll realize that you always were.
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