Friday, January 29, 2016

On fur, sweatshops, prison and unfair labor practices

Republishing: Original post January 29, 2013  How far have we come?

"The only things that do not change are dead things. Clothes are exceedingly vital and alive." 
-Jacques Worth, 1927
Which of these is this coat? Alive or dead?

And this leopard?

I have written many posts over the years on this very topic (see my old blog to follow the path this post will lead), trying to wrap my head around all of the complexities of treating people fairly, compensating them for their work, and consuming resources responsibly.  I know these things are important.  I know that people are passionate about these things. I know that everyone, every  single  person on the planet matters equally. I know that we need to take a good look at ourselves, how we fill our closets and bellies, and how we treat one another.

The caption of the original photo above, (from my family's collection) originally from TWA Aviation Press Pictures, reads, "NY International Airport, February 11, 1960. Glamourous Eva Gabor, who appreared on the Jack Parr Show last night, is pictured wearing a leopard coat prior to boarding a TWA Jetliner to Los Angeles where she will enjoy a brief visit."

The airport had not yet been renamed JFK, for obvious reasons... but notice the mention of the leopard coat? My, how times have changed.

Or... have they?

This coat would have been quite a status symbol in those days, but would now be a very unpopular item (to put it mildly), if worn by any celebrity. While such a coat, which once turned heads, now turns stomachs, are animal rights just the popular issue right now, due to the marketing efforts of groups like PETA? Does it matter that her coat was once an actual leopard?  Yes, it does.

This got me thinking (again).  We celebrate the person wearing the item, cooing and sighing as they float down the red carpet, as the TV correspondent breathlessly calls out, "Who are you wearing?" The name assigned to the garment is almost always a brand or a fashion icon, but what an interesting experiment it would be to try those interviews on the bustling streets of midtown Manhattan, or Boise, Idaho, or Phoenix, Arizona.  Would they know?  Would they care?  Would you? Do we?

I know there are always other fish to fry, but I want to specifically turn your attention to an article on sweatshop labor, offered by BBC News. Do we think about the human price paid when we buy $5 T-shirts? According to the article, workers in Burkina Faso would love to stop laboring for such low wages, but, unfortunately, cotton is their only cash crop.

I also noticed an article online this morning about Riker's Island inmates wanting to learn about fashion theory. This is said to be the most popular of the course offerings for the prison population's female inmates. Students also learn, as part of this course, about third-world sweatshops and fast-fashion retailers, in addition to exploring their own potential.

It seems that when we talk about making clothing, we inevitably end up talking about bigger issues as well.  Here in the US, we talk about outsourcing, and how low wages are being paid to foreign workers to keep our clothing prices low.  But we also talk about social consciousness and a more global perspective on how our decisions impact all of us.

Excerpted from a Times Style Section article on the same topic:

"Chyiome handbag designer and Project Runway alum Anna Lynett Moss teaches the class, which tackles cultural identity and design process by narrowing in on provocative style and design approaches. “People with creative training are in a unique position to envision innovative alternatives to some of our deepest social problems,” she explained to Of a Kind. The designer and humanitarian—she is developing a socially—conscious accessories line with the UN–chooses talking points that range from fashion shows to magazine spreads to educate and enlighten."

Read more:

Here's the kicker, on Facebook this morning, I was inspired to click on the face of a person I vaguely recognized from high school, who is connected to another friend from high school.  We weren't friends because we were in different grades and didn't hang out with the same groups of people, but I recognized her name, and noticed she had become an author.  Because we (my family) are avid readers, I clicked through the link to her book, and was just FLOORED... positively FLOORED by the "Jean's Story" section of her profile, and then downloaded the book to my Kindle immediately.   I hope you will click through to the link, but if you don't choose to, just know that she was actually going to the same high school I was every day, just after climbing out of miserable conditions, and assisting her mother in a Chinatown sweatshop. Her name is Jean Kwok, and a video of her discussing the (fiction) book can be found here.

So, I'm having one of those astounding "You mean, right here? In my lifetime?  My peers?" kinda moments.

Clothing.  Everyone gets dressed everyday.  But it symbolizes something far greater. Bigger stories can always be told surrounding the process that results in a wearable item. Heads are needed to design it, hands are needed to create it, and hearts are needed to appreciate and love it. In our Project Runway culture now, we should be more aware than ever what it takes to make our clothing.

So now, here's my bigger point... as you read this, "Who" are you wearing?  You pulled on a sweatshirt you randomly snatched up for a few bucks at a huge discount store.  Or maybe you made it yourself.  Or maybe a well known artist or designer made it. Could your clothing be made in a prison work program, a foreign work camp, a local sweatshop? Does it matter where it came from, and who made it? Yes.  Clearly it does. More than we realize.  And more than we are willing to admit.

Let's make something ourselves, shall we?  With our own hands, head, and heart.  Need to go fabric shopping?  I've got you covered.  If you want to find fun places to shop in the garment district, sharing the creative energy of a group, come along on a Speakeasy tour.


  1. Mimi, there is so much to say to respond to your post, that I simply can't put into the right words, I'm afraid. I feel very strongly that we as a society need to stop buying disposable, cheap garments from retailers who do so much to promote cheap labor sweatshops around the globe. I'd like nothing better than to change our collective buying habits and bring production back to areas that need the work and income, along with increasing the wages earned so garment workers everywhere can begin to make something resembling a living wage. That being said, I have serious doubts that these habits of our society can be reversed. Thank you for bringing this back to the forefront - I've been thinking hard about it since I read a great book, and wrote this post

    Oh, and in answer to the question what am I wearing today? Jeans - from Janee's Originals! (with a sweater and knit top from Kohl's, however, she says sheepishly...)

  2. Whoo hoo! Yay for "Janee's jeans"! I really do think there is a heckofalot to say here... and I could write post after post about it, twisting and turning in so many ways... but it makes me think of an exhibit currently at the Museum of Natural History here in New York right now. "Global Food", it's called - and one of the points made early in the exhibit is that 1 in 8 people are hungry, when the world food supply is ample enough to feed everyone. Much like clothing... where there are just piles and piles and piles of things... and we can all get dressed, in clothing made by people who can be paid a fair wage, if we could just make what we consume, and not always try to race to the bottom in a neverending price war... So much to think about.

  3. Did you know that because of Jackie Kennedy the Somali leopard remains on the "endangered species" list to this day? By choosing a leopard coat instead of a mink (Jack K. preferred the mink) she started a craze for leopard coats that nearly cleared the jungles of leopards in Somalia, and the species has never really recovered.

    1. I think I remember hearing this sometime long ago. Wow.

  4. Mimi, thank you for a wonderful post, so thought-provoking and right on the money. I'm absorbed in this issue at the moment, and my reading consists of 'Over-dressed - the shockingly high cost of cheap fashion", "The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy" and "Deluxe - How Luxury Lost Its Luster". I highly recommend all of these books if you are interested in this topic. More questions are being asked daily about the high cost to society and the planet from the mass production and consumption of textiles. I love the aesthetic of beautifully conceived Prada or Louis Vuitton garment and think about how I can make my own version of one, but I don't particularly like the economy and values underpinning the luxury or mass produced clothes markets. There are some people who are striving for a revolution/evolution from fast-paced to slow-paced fashion, with one of the strongest proponents being Natalie Chanin, formerly of Project Alabama and now of Alabama Chanin (see website by the same name and read some of the journal posts). What an inspiration. She is doing, not just talking. I'm still just talking. I'm sitting here in my Gap T-shirt contemplating the mountains of beautiful fabric I have which has been produced in environmentally unfriendly ways. It is making me more uncomfortable by the day and I'd like to find a way to reflect better environmental and social values. Thanks Mimi for starting the discussion.

    1. Oh, you are preaching to the choir on Alabama Chanin! While not my aesthetic, I totally get that completely! I have read "Deluxe" and "Overdressed", seen the tear-jerkingly heartbreaking "Schmatta" HBO special (highly recommended), and I think... if we all care so much, why do we ALL have that $8 sweater somewhere in our wardrobe? If we care, we ALL have to stop supporting what we claim to be against, right? And, frankly, it isn't even difficult to do. If we ask or check on where and how things are made, we can make wise choices.

  5. So, part of what I was saying (anonymous, because I can't insert my name in the post for some reason) is that the fabric we enjoy is one of the by-products of the luxury/fast production market and so it is part of the "value chain" too, whether those values are founded in ethical principles or otherwise. By making my own clothes, I can eliminate contributing to slave labour conditions, but I am still part of the fast/mass market production chain and I am enjoying goods that are known for depleting the earth's resources. Studies have been conducted which demonstrate that some of the biggest designer names on 7th Avenue are amongst the highest users of polluting and envirnonmentally destructive fabrics. I love my fabrics and I feel bereft that that exact such a toll on the planet and yes I'll continue to love and cherish my fabrics despite this, and continue with my pursuit of the fabric stores of the garment district because that is one of the best pastimes in the world. But, it would be wonderful to see some leadership and stewardship towards more environmentally friendly practices, and for people all over to show there is an alternative to mass production (again, see Alabama Chanin's inspiring example). I have heard that Net-A-Porter has established a "green challenge" for designers stocked by the store. It would be great learn more about this, and to see some of the insanely wealthy clothing and luxury brand companies start working to a step change here.

    That example about Kennedy and the leopards of Somalia is astonishing...

  6. Ok, so I'm a lot older than all of you; I have vivid memories of Jackie O and my aunt had a mink coat, a fox collar, and a whole host of other real furs. Back then, people didn't know any better and yes, fur coats and wraps were status symbols.

    I love your righteousness and lord knows, we need more of it. At the same time, as much as I hate to burst your bubble, just because you make your own clothes doesn't mean you're not contributing to the sweatshops worldwide. That mountain of fabric, for the most part if not entirely, was made overseas in a sweatshop by small children and overworked adults.

    There's hardly any textiles made in the USA anymore. The big mills are all closed and the small ones are few and far between.

    So when you're shopping in the garment district, just bear in mind that you might be minimizing your impact but you're not blameless in this mess and you don't have much control over it unless you start spinning your own thread and weaving your own textiles.

    I do weave my own yarn from my dogs' hair which is fun and cool but I also buy crappy acrylic yarn amongst other things and I'm sure it's all made in India, China, and the Philipines.

    I'm just saying that non of us are blameless in this and if you're not rolling in money, you will continue to buy those $8 sweatshirts because you can't afford not to.

    1. I hear ya, Ruth. Only noticed your comment today - sorry! And yes, there is exploitation going on in many places, at many levels. I have personally worked for US and Italian textile manufacturers, who were not participating in such abuses, and I usually look at the selvages of my fabric, and generally (but not always) read where the fabrics is made. That is also a choice we have.

    2. There are many links to corporate responsibility resources who give stats on child and bonded labor in the textile industry. Widespread in India, not so common in China, etc. More than could be shared here, but well worth looking into. Call me out of touch, but I don't think anyone needs an $8 sweatshirt. In many cases, you can find better quality than that (for less!) at the Goodwill.

  7. That's one reason I sew with pre and post-consumer waste. My wardrobe is approx. 1/3 each home made, thrifted, and new RTW. When I purchase RTW, I look for more responsible manufacturers (EF, NYDJ, Nordstrom house labels, etc). I'm not vegetarian. And my wardrobe is not 100% socially responsible, but I try.

    I want to point out that less developed nations are shipping their groundwater abroad, embedded in cotton exports, while they lack enough water to grow food. They do it to gain exchangeable foreign currency so they can buy petroleum (charged in petrodollars) and things they can't manufacture themselves.

    It's a vicious trap.

    1. Lots of food for thought, here. I can't really say I know how to respond to this, except to acknowledge that we are all connected. Globally connected. And what we refuse to acknowledge, choose to ignore or continue to exploit will all come back on us somehow. I think there will likely be a price to pay, of some sort. I'm interested in doing a bit of research to look at a time when the process of getting clothing was different. I know the general choices that were available to the public, but not the specifics. I want to see what it was from all angles, how it has changed, and who has benefitted and who has lost in the process. I was readng the blog of a sewing friend earlier today, who has decided he will no longer strive to make all of his own clothing. I can't help but think... "with all of the sewing you do, when would you imagine that you have ENOUGH clothing?" I think that is another huge obstacle in this. How much clothing is enough?


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