I am often asked why I don’t ‘go into business’ selling my clothes. These questions arise more often just after I have finished a collection for a school project, or have completed a new historical outfit. They are often prefaced by the compliment that my work is so good, I could make good money at it. Then I ask what people would pay for the skirt I’m wearing, and inevitably they come up short.
So let’s break down the cost of the skirt I am wearing right this moment. It was designed as part of my MA thesis collection and is based on research on Vivienne Westwood’s Bondage wear, an integral part of the early Punk scene in the UK. The denim fabric cost 15$/metre, and there is about a metre in the skirt, if I cut very carefully. Then there is about another 20$ worth of notions; the buckles, vintage buttons, waistband tape, zipper, hem tape, thread. The skirt itself took two days to sew. If I was to charge just 10$/hour, that’s 160$. So the skirt cost, at minimum, almost 200$. Questions arise in my mind when I lay out the figures like this. First one is that I am worth far more than just 10$/hour. I have a Master’s degree and almost 30 years of experience. And so I ask how much money the person asking for this skirt makes in their job? How about their Dad? What should a person earn who has a Master’s degree and 30 years’ experience?
And then, what would Walmart charge for a denim skirt?
Cotton is one of the most expensive fibres to process, both financially, but also expensive for the environment. The amount of pesticides used on cotton fields would make any hipster vomit at the idea. It is often produced in Third World countries where environmental concerns are non-existent, so who cares about the environment, or the farmer? Farmers of cotton live with this every day, and they only earn pennies for the cotton crops they produce. Yes, pennies. The cotton crop is then sent to another Third World country for processing. Indigo in its natural form is too expensive, so synthetic indigo is used for dying cotton denim. The excess dye is often dumped into the local water source to be taken ‘away’. The processors are also often only paid pennies for the cloth they have produced. That processing includes scrubbers, dyers, weavers, and finishers, before the fabric is ready to be cut into pieces to be made into clothing. The finished fabric is then sent to Bangladesh to be made into jeans and other denim clothes. The film we are currently watching, The Last Train, is an older film. Manufacturers are now sending contracts to Bangladesh because the work can be done even cheaper, and yes, the labour and environmental laws are non-existent. The machine operators who construct our clothes are paid by the piece, usually fractions of cents per seam. They sit at sewing machines all day and sew one seam of the garment, often for years, one. Seam. This works out to roughly 10$/month in salary. Then when the cost of their meals and housing is deducted from that wage, you get the drift. Garment workers in Bangladesh cannot afford the clothes they create, they don’t earn enough money. All the clothes they make are sent to western markets, where we buy them at Walmart, Forever 21, H&M, for rock bottom prices. And I am not even going to dig into how little sales associates are paid to work in those stores and sell you those clothes.
The clothes we buy are what is known as ‘Fast Fashion’. High turnover of styles in stores feeds an appetite for more. Our clothes are only supposed to last 10 weeks before we are expected to throw them away because they have become too worn out, or too out of fashion. Often times, North Americans will only wear an item of clothing once before it goes into the trash, or sent to the second hand market. Fashion is the second dirtiest industry in the world, second only to oil. Think about that for a second.
There is an internet full of articles on the subject of fast fashion, I’ll give you a quick link to a good one here http://jcooper.co.uk/fast-fashion-toxic-facts/ to start you off. There are far too many reasons to dwell on why I don’t ‘go into business’ and sell my clothes, but the main reason is that we’ve been conditioned to think we can only afford fast fashion, and so, you cannot afford me.
And then I ask again, can we really afford Walmart?