The Ecology of Clothing

One of the things that originally attracted me to silver fabric was its extremely luscious quality. It was dense, rich and alive in a way that you normally don’t associate with textiles. It felt liquid, mercurial, shape-shifting — mesmerizing me like the dancing reflection of a silver moon on an ocean's surface. And it was even more compelling to touch — incredibly soft and pleasurable in an almost electrifying way. 

I soon learnt more about the physical properties of the material that gave it these alluring qualities: silver is the softest of metals, contributing to the velvety texture I immediate experienced. Furthermore, the silver ions that were coated onto the material were positively-charged, creating a conductive field across the surface, giving the material that 'electrical' touch. Furthermore, what gives silver ions their conductive abilities are their unique crystalline structure which is able to transmit or 'conduct' energy. This structure reacts to and changes in relationship to the environment, creating subtle variations of tone in the material, as well as a “tarnishing” effect over time. 

Having come from a highly progressive anthropology program that praised “Difference” with a capital D, I was immediately attracted to the material... The fact that these differences were also what made the material unattractive to many other clothing designers previously was an even greater call to action that I naively seized.

Fast forward 2 years and I am faced with the implications of this gumption. I have just received notice from an important buyer that the shipment of goods I just sent them is “dirty” and would be unacceptable for their customers. My stomach drops. I know what “dirty” means … dirty refers to the streak of tarnishing where too much silver was applied in the metallizing process, causing a inconsistent golden patch; "dirty" refers to the even more subtle variations in color, both across garments and within each garment. They look almost like shadows on the surface of the moon, another echo of silver's lunar associations...but that I sensed that poetic symbolism was irrelevant here. "Dirty" also refers to the parts where my sewer struggled to keep the material straight (it is also very slippery) and may have gripped it to hard, creating a slight imprint with her fingers on the soft, impressionable surface. In other words, "dirty" refers to the both inconsistent actions of humans and nature, that no not always behave in predictable ways or have predictable results…

In anthropology, “dirt” is a loaded concept. It is defined by the anthologist Mary Douglas as “matter out of place,” and epitomizes the core anthropological notion that things are culturally-defined and relative. In this particular case, the cultural norms of online, mass-produced, high fashion conceives of irregular color marks as "out of place." In another cultural context, they may be perceived as special marks of beauty or rarity, proof of authenticity and richness. In fact, the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi embraces such a world view. 

It so happened that at the time of this incident I had just finished The Third Plate by Dan Barber, chef, agriculture policy expert, and writer. This was probably the only reason I had the slightest courage and conviction to defend the material to my buyer and explain the origins of the so-called "dirt." You see, The Third Plate is a book that examines this very issue of uniformity vs. consistency within the context of food agriculture and cuisine. It interrogates how a culture of industrialized farming and mass-produced food that demands uniform, shelf-stable, long-lasting, cheap crops has given rise to soil and food that is depleted of true value, i.e. nutrition and taste, due to the processes and chemicals required to create such unnaturally consistent products. I had been particularly moved by the story of a seafood chef that salvages the by-catch of fisherman, exclaiming “why should we throw out a bruised fish? Human beings are bruised!”

In reading this anecdote, I had thought of all the 'blemished' and 'bruised' silver material that I threw away in the sewing room, and about the other kinds of non-conventional textiles that have some kind of textural or visual inconsistencies that make them economically inefficient to work with (more manufacturing time, more explanation to customers, more time washing...all things that would be fine if we lived in a time where people expected to pay more for garments even if they buy less.)

The argument in The Third Plate is that better ecology actually leads to better tasting food, at least according to a more educated palette, as well as more nutritionally valuable food, making it easier to justify the added cost beyond the environmental argument.  The challenge with sustainable or unconventional fashion is that it doesn't necessarily lead to better looking clothes. That may or may not be the case. Yet, I would argue that sustainable fashion does lead to better feeling clothes, if feeling takes into account not just texture but also the subtle psycho-emotional affect induced by somethings history and story. Many of us have become so feeling-less when it comes to clothing, or better yet, dominated by feelings of desire and insecurity, that we have forgotten that other feelings can be achieved: wholeness, compassion, curiosity, contentment. 

After reading Dan’s book, I felt justified to argue for the inconsistencies in my material. That, like food, these inconsistencies were also part of the beauty and value of the material. Much like Barber argues that it is up to chefs to create food that make sustainable farming desirable and attractive, it is up to designers to make clothing that makes sustainable textiles attractive. This may also include re-educating customers and retraining them to embrace inconsistencies; it may include adapting and designing with materials in such a way to create beauty and pleasure, beyond just function. Whatever it is, it requires reexamining our standards of beauty and value. 

WritingMikaela Bradbury