KINITA SHENOY | 30 AUGUST, 2020
Exploring how our womenfolk approached sustainability through fashion and tradition
Our desi mothers and grandmothers have been passing down saris and hand-sewing dresses for years – why aren’t they the face of sustainable fashion?
Sustainability is steaming hot right now. A growing industry across the globe, sustainability is a marketing buzzword that brands use with abandon. The face of this trendy tree-hugging is invariably young, white women on Instagram (or Tik Tok if you’re Gen Z – ever heard of a VSCO girl?). However, most of us Indians (or even South Asians) actually grew up with the most powerful sustainability influencer we know – our mothers and grandmothers.
While sustainable or ethically-produced clothing brands are having a well-deserved moment in the sun, it’s interesting to explore how our womenfolk approached sustainability through fashion and tradition. Of course, much like any other smart choice our mothers made while we were growing up, we saw repurposed fabrics and hand-me-downs as mildly embarrassing.
This may be because the dynamics of class and wealth play crucial roles in the battle for sustainability. In the 90s and early 2000s, the world was seeing an economic boom fueled by industry, open markets, and consumption. India was no different. To buy – particularly to buy new, and buy foreign, was a way of wealth signaling.
Our slow, careful and intentional methods of re-using fabric, sewing clothes based on patterns, or mending tears started to lose their lustre when malls and fast fashion became commonplace. In fact, across the world, people have bought 60% more garments in 2014 than in 2000, but kept them for only half as long. Indian women’s growing entry into the workplace also made it more and more difficult and cumbersome to spend hours on unpaid pattern and dress-making.
Vidya, a writer based in Dubai, retrospectively celebrates the skill and time that went into her childhood garb: “When it comes to fashion and clothing, one of the best skills to help you live sustainably is knowing to sew. My mum is an expert seamstress. I grew up wearing clothes she stitched for me: dresses in silk with little details like buttons or lace or fancy zips. I always enjoyed that attention to detail, but I perhaps appreciate the value of her labour a lot more now. I very rarely got to buy new clothes in those days — only for special occasions a few times a year — so I learned to enjoy mixing and matching the clothes I did have. I had a much more un-self-conscious and free sense of style when I owned fewer pieces of clothing than now!”
As Vidya points out, things have changed drastically. Not only do we adhere to fast-fashion’s cookie-cutter lookbook of outfits, but our wardrobes are also bloated with impulse buys from massive seasonal sales. To opt out of the fast fashion hamster wheel is a real luxury. To be able to take the time to choose handmade local fabrics, to get a dress tailor-made to fit you, to cherish it and pass it down, is the height of sustainable chic.
Unfortunately, it also means you have to have significant time, skill, or resources on your hands. For the sake of convenience and capitalism, the entire production cycle of starting from design, pattern-making, and fabric sourcing, to sewing, finishing, and delivery has now been compressed into a fraction of its true cost and time – usually at the expense of South Asian women garment workers.
This is partially because of the global undervaluation of women’s skilled work, particularly that of women of colour. As we know, women’s work has traditionally been unpaid in the home, and is now underpaid in factories. As fast fashion took over from home-made clothing, the labour of love of our mothers and grandmothers was replaced by the labour of South Asian women in garment factories getting paid poverty wages to make crop tops. The exploitation is severe, and is only exacerbated by issues like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of course, there are ways to counter this toxic capitalist machine without breaking the bank or adding to the workload of women in our families. Being more intentional about purchases goes a long way. For example, just asking ourselves “Will I wear this at least 10 times?” or “Will I love this outfit in 1 year?” can help avoid a lot of impulse buys. If you want to go deeper, start asking questions about the sustainability of the brand itself. “Whose labour is creating this top– and are they being paid adequately?”, and “Is the production bad for the environment? What dyes, fabrics, and processes are being used?”.
One of the best approaches, however, is simply reducing consumption altogether, or re-using fabric via upcycling and thrifting. Unfortunately, thrifting gets a bad rap on the Indian subcontinent because wearing second-hand clothes, especially second-hand clothes some stranger has given away is something our mothers would probably balk at. But thrifting is huge across the Western world, and it’s starting to make an impression here in India and Sri Lanka too.
Re-using fabrics for different purposes and mending clothes with minor tears are also great (and easy) ways to extend the life-cyles of clothing we’ve already bought. In Mumbai, Esha remembers how the women in her family approached fabric, from upcycling to matchy-matchy outfits: “My nani used to have a tailor visit her at home and all the kids’ clothes were made from one single roll of fabric. These days it would seem amusing to have the kids of different ages dressed in the same fabric, but in those times it was almost a norm and it gave us grandkids a sense of being part of a clan. The tailor would also do whatever small repairs were needed so that clothes had their lives extended and were not just discarded. A lot of the clothes once they went through the hand-me-down cycle were either sewn into quilts or used as wipes for kitchen tops or even floors until they were in tatters.”
Most desi kids can relate to the childhood trauma of having a favourite old t-shirt mysteriously disappear only to reappear under the kitchen sink in the guise of cleaning rags, or parents refusing to buy a new outfit unless you had grown out of everything else. It turns out all that was just our mothers practicing sustainability before it was cool.
To learn more about the murky underbelly of fast fashion, follow movements like @rememberwhomadethem, @labourbehindthelabel, @fashionrevolution, @thetruecost. Also check out your local tailors, embroiderers and fabric makers, or ethically-produced brands that support women and communities like @paalaguttapalle_bags, @upasana, @ikkivi, @selynfairtrade, @nonasties, and @doodlage amongst many others.
Kinita Shenoy is a journalist based in Sri Lanka and former Editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka. Follow @kinita.s
Artwork by Jaya Modi. Jaya is a design consultant based in the United Kingdom. See more of her work: www.jayamodidesign.com/. Follow @jayamodidesign
This article is part of the Remember Who Made Them campaign. Learn more: rememberwhomadethem.com. Follow @rememberwhomadethem