17 Sep Crafter-Thought: Individual fashion, collective action?
By Nadia Idle, Activism & outreach Officer at War on Want
Wow. So it’s officially the last day of London Fashion Week and I’ve just Googled “Individual + Fashion”. 284 million results. I think that’s a lot even for a Google search. The term individual in the context of fashion is often followed by the word style. That phrase “individual style”. This fashionista, that designer or this fashion guru has “individual style”. But what does that actually mean? The online Oxford Dictionary defines the noun fashion as “a popular or the latest style of clothing, hair, decoration, or behaviour”. Popular means that lots of people like or do this thing. Therefore, is individual fashion an oxymoron?
See, I’m not interested in the individual as a concept or defining term. I know I’m an individual, there is no other me and I don’t feel the urge to set myself apart from other people. I’m in fact interested and motivated by the opposite: the behaviours, trends and issues that bring us together. So even if you have this amazing unique way of tying a bow on your head, upcycling that skirt, or really like jam in your tea, does that define you in your entirety? I think not. There are still things that bind you together with others. Britain is the kingdom of weird and wonderful hobbies, we should be celebrating all the brilliant things we do when we get together in groups! We do so many fun things that bring joy to ourselves and others. And let’s celebrate as well the things we do collectively to bring about justice in some form.
Yet today’s cult of apparent individuality tells us that the only way that we can achieve things is by ourselves. It’s all about you, or me or her but not us. In fact, and ironically, individualism is itself a buzz word, a commercial concept, a commodity sold to millions and reproduced in the form of identikits. We live in an age of mass production of individualism. We are sold the dream of being individuals by buying mass produced cheap fashion. This serves a social function of making us feel atomised and affects the way we not only look at ourselves, but how we see change and social action.
Yet history has so many amazing examples of people acting together to achieve something and change society for the better. Let’s name just a few, close to home. The London match girls strike of 1888. Women’s right to vote. The national minimum wage came about after years and years of strikes and battles by workers often from “sweated” industries. When we think of sweatshops, images of young Asian workers come to mind. But let us not forget that sweated labour was the thing of the day in industrial revolution Britain, and that empires were built on exploitation of ordinary people. And when workers in Manchester, London and elsewhere organised themselves and got together collectively to fight for many of the working conditions and rights we take for granted now, the manufacturing industries took their exploitation of workers overseas.
But this was all a long time ago, I hear you cry, so let’s talk about yesterday. On the 16 September 2013, The Arcadia Group, owners of Top Shop finally bowed to public pressure and signed the Bangladesh Safety Accord, a binding agreement with trade unions to improve conditions in factories in Bangladesh following the terrible Rana Plaza building collapse which killed 1127 people (mostly female garment workers). Corporations bow to pressure due to collective action, protests, petitions, blogs and conversations, and I can assure you not because CEOs wake up one day and decide that human rights are more important than profits.
School kids in workshops often ask me what a campaign actually is. This is an intelligent question and the term/concept should be scrutinised. To me, most campaigns start by the recognition that you are not alone. That if you are angry at the injustice of something, someone else out there is probably too. The next step is knowing that together we can make a difference. We did it with Top Shop and 80 other brands and we can do it again. And don’t think for a minute that all is fine and dandy in the UK because of those struggles of 50 or a hundred years ago! The introduction of zero-hours contracts in the UK have to be fought by all of us. Exploitation is not ok here, and its not ok anywhere.
So by all means, alter that dress and wear it on a bias cut. Put that bow at a random angle on your head or make used fruit tea bags into ceiling decoration (ok that’s only me then). Each person’s creativity is great and should be celebrated. But let us also shout about the value in the collective, of coming together to act. Let us together reject greed and profit as a motivation, and rejoice in activities that bring us together to make things better for ourselves and others.
By Nadia Idle is Activism & outreach Officer at War on Want