Fashion hasn’t always looked like it does today. That’s not exactly anything groundbreaking. But the question is: how did we get here?
Well in this episode we’ll be getting a lesson in history from fashion historian Sara Idacavage.
We’ll be exploring the origins of mass produced clothing and the forces that gave way to the fast fashion industry as it stands today.
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Read the Transcript From This Interview:
Hey everyone and welcome or welcome back to the show! Today is finally the day we’re releasing this episode on the history of fast fashion that I’ve referenced a few times already in this season.
You are going to be hearing and learning from Sara Idacavage, a fashion historian, archivist, and educator who is passionate about sustainability. Sara holds a Master’s degree in Fashion Studies from Parsons School of Design and a Bachelor’s degree in Fashion Merchandising from the University of Georgia, where she is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Textiles, Merchandising, and Interiors.
In this episode, Sara will be talking about when the concept of fast fashion really began, what Sears mail-order catalogs have to do with the story of overconsumption, and how understanding history can help us contextualize current conversations on sustainability in the fashion industry.
As always, the transcript can be found in the show notes over on consciouslifeandstyle.com as well as all of the relevant links. I’m also actually sharing a video from this conversation over on our YouTube channel, which is just Conscious Life And Style.
Okay now let’s get on to this chat! Sara is going to start us off here with a bit about her background in fashion history and fashion education.
Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me on the podcast. I’m a big fan. And I’m really excited to talk about the work that I do. But I’ve always been really fascinated by history. I think I fell in love with fashion history, specifically when I was an undergrad at the University of Georgia, for my mentor, Dr. Jose Blanco.
But you know, it was kind of like a dumb, 21 year old and I figured that I had to move to New York and get a career in fashion journalism, just because that seemed like the dream. But long story short, after doing that, for a few years, I kind of became disenchanted with the idea of just talking about the latest trends in sales and retail openings. So I decided to pursue fashion history as a career.
And really just took a while to realize that studying clothing and dress practices is kind of the best way to explore anything, write everything, because fashion does connect to every topic. So I’m really interested in kind of figuring out why things are the way they are.And I think fashion history is kind of the best lens to do that.
So I got my master’s degree in fashion studies from Parsons School of Design. And then I worked at a few different historic clothing collections and archives and museums. But I eventually fell in love with teaching because I felt like I could actually have a positive impact on the future of the fashion industry, even though I’m just like a nerdy historian with zero design skills. So I taught a variety of courses on fashion history theory, textiles at Parsons.
And after being an adjunct instructor for about five years, I kind of started to question the ways that I was teaching students about fashion history, because you tend to focus on these notable designers, and all of the different aspects of like the Western canon, while kind of ignoring many of those, like really important things that have led to the unsustainable and unjust systems that we have today. So that’s when I started to question things a little bit.
And another long story short, I wanted to figure out how fashion educators like myself could use sustainability as a framework or lens to look at fashion history more critically. And then also vice versa. And so that is what led me to get my doctoral degree, which is what I’m currently working towards, at the University of Georgia. And I’m just trying to explore new approaches to fashion education and sustainability at large.
Mhm, yeah. And I love learning about what led you to where you are today, because you’re both passionate about fashion history and also sustainability in fashion, which is a really interesting intersection of topics.
So can you share with us a little bit about the connections between the two? Like, how do you think that understanding fashion history helps us understand sustainability or lack thereof in the industry? And perhaps vice versa as well?
Yeah, well, it’s pretty surprising actually, I think a lot of people are kind of confused when I tell them that I’m a historian that study sustainability, because the concept of sustainability definitely seems like a contemporary debate. I mean, the term itself is a kind of a modern concept and ideology.
But the underlying issues that are present, it’s more talking about sustainable fashion is incredibly relevant across all historical moments. It’s really surprising when you think about how little actually changes.
And so I think that studying history is really never just about looking at the past. I think every single historian is trying to find a way to better understand the present and also the future. And I think that’s particularly important when I’m looking at fashion history, because all different types of fashion or clothing practices are rooted in these larger social and cultural context.
Because sure, we all have come to accept the fact that cotton and polyester are superduper cheap, but it’s also important to question why are they so cheap? And this is where history comes in.
Because you realize that this is all rooted in forces like colonialism, slavery, the petroleum industry, historical patterns of taking over indigenous land to extract natural resources.So I think that teaching history kind of helps us see that all of these sustainability types of issues and factors are super interconnected.
And I personally just think if you want to study or understand the escalation of these issues in the fashion industry, we really have to understand that all of these things have kind of led to where we are today, looking at both the fashion production side of things like technology, as well as how society has really adapted to these things, and normalize these changes, which has made room for things to become more and more extreme. So those are kind of the two sides of it. I think, in general, it’s just having a more critical and a more nuanced perspective.
Yeah, totally. And there’s so much we could talk about when it comes to fashion history. I mean, you mentioned a few areas, from colonialism to the petroleum industry.
But I thought that we could start by talking about the history of fast fashion. So many of us think of fast fashion as something that maybe started in the 1990s, with the rise of Zara, H&M, but your timeline of fast fashion starts far earlier. So when do you define the real start of fast fashion?
Well, first off, I want to just stress that the concept of fast fashion is always super relative. And so it’s very hard to pinpoint, right? And I have published articles in various, like encyclopedia entries in the past where I did pinpoint the sort of fast fashion to the sort of brands that have changed the game in the mid 20th century, like H&M and Zara, like you mentioned, but I, the more I dig through history, and I’m looking at these archival sources from the 1800s, you realize that it’s not very modern concept at all.
I mean, if you read something that was written by Karl Marx, for example, and like the 1840s, it sounds like he’s literally describing the fashion industry today. Because he’s, you know, writing about the exploitation of the speeding up of the textile production industry. So it’s funny because these people are concerned, and all of the different issues they’re talking about, are pretty much word for word what we’re seeing today. So that’s why I kind of wanted to just try to dig a little deeper, figure out what were all these factors that kind of allowed it to flourish, what even led to the start of Zara.
And so I realized that changes in fashion production and ready to wear fashion specifically have been very, very incremental. I’m speaking mostly from the perspective of the United States, because that’s where my scholarship is focused on.
But anyways, mass production of clothing in the United States started in the early 1800s pre civil war, but it was mostly for sailors and enslaved people. And it was super basic and you know, poor quality, but it was just to kind of clothed these poor people that needed to have quickly made clothing.
And then it became sort of part of just everyday fashion for men by the 1870s. But the shift from going from homemade clothing to ready made or fast fashion, whatever you want to call it, for women’s fashion didn’t really occur until the early 1900s. But it does become the norm for both middle income and working or wage earning women in the 1920s.
So by that point, it’s actually really crazy, because you look at all these articles from the New York Times from the 1910s, for example. And they’re talking about how you can get six shirts for the price of one, and that there’s hundreds and hundreds of styles being offered at these department stores. And they’re all dirt cheap, and why not have more. And they’re already talking about things like the quality being very poor. They’re talking about the workers being, you know, treated horribly, but it just doesn’t really end there.
So I guess if I had to give an exact time period, I would say that the 1870s to the 1920s is sort of when I think fast fashion or this concept really began. Because that’s just a period when I think the relationship between people in time and space becomes really disjointed are really weird. Because you’ve got inventions like the railway, travel, telephone, radio, all of these things that made the world seem a lot smaller and made life seem a lot more convenient and a lot faster.
Yeah, that’s really, really interesting, back in the early 20th century already talking about like, get six shirts for the price of one! And really cheap garments and promoting that as a good thing!
And also, I really appreciated what you said about the idea of fast fashion being relative. So that was fast for 1910. Maybe it would be considered slow now. And it kind of reminds me of what we’re seeing now with ultra fast fashion. Like Shein launches new styles every day. And it makes Zara who releases every week or every other week, it makes Zara look like slow fashion, you know, and it’s all relative.
So relative. Yeah, and then when you’re telling people to buy less and by better I mean that’s so relative because some people are buying 1,000 things from Shein a year. So buying less than buying betters buying 100 things from Zara, whereas that still seems like a lot to other people. So I think having to keep that in perspective is always really helpful.
Yeah, and you’ll hear things like, Well, I don’t shop from the worst fast fashion brands like Boohoo or Shein — I shop Zara and it’s like this relativity is just you see it everywhere. And so that’s definitely interesting to consider.
And, yeah, I think it’s always important to add context and definitions when throwing around terms like slow fashion, sustainable fashion, even fast fashion and just sort of clarifying maybe what you mean, when you’re saying that because it can be interpreted so many different ways is what I’ve found.
Yeah, definitely, I get asked all the time, when I meet people who aren’t familiar with fashion, what is fast fashion? And it’s weird, because I assume that most people are like you and I were we have this interest and it’s like, well, of course you know.
But I still meet people And I even have students here who don’t see things like Walmart or Target or places where clothing is sold really cheap as fast fashion. It’s much more associated with, you know, the Shein kind of trends. But I think that fast fashion can be applied to either these trends cycles, or affordable clothing. But it’s kind of two different things.
So where I am with my thinking right now, is that the term fast fashion really just exists to kind of give a name to this complex set of issues that have existed in the fashion industry for hundreds of years. So it’s really just the scale that changes. But I think it’s just sort of this umbrella term to talk about this discomfort.
And I think my own personal definition of fast fashion is really clothing and dress practices that don’t follow these logical timescales at all, where speed and distance essentially become kind of meaningless in a lot of ways.
But there’s actually one important thing I wanted to mention, something that I’ve been looking at a lot recently is, we tend to think about fast fashion today as this really negative wasteful thing that you know, consumers are just kind of blindly buying more and more. But I’m finding with my research that if you look at the rise of quickly made cheap mass produced fashion in America — looking at the late 1800s, early 1900s — a lot of the motivations behind having these sort of affordable clothes were about looking clean and put together.
Because homemade clothes actually didn’t always look so good. You could look kind of you know, raggedy. So I think most history books do talk about the history of fast fashion or ready-made clothing, in the context of people wanting to be like more stylish and to keep up with trends. But there are also these motivations just to look respectable, even if you’re living in a a poor tenement building.
So fashion trends still played into this. But I think many people throughout history have decided to buy cheaply made fashion because they needed to look decent just to get jobs and to kind of assimilate into American culture, because there’s just been this pressure for so long to look clean and efficient and all of these things. So I think, like really cheaply made clothing that was mass produced, you know, starting in the early, late 1800s, early 1900s, was promising people happier and healthier lives.
So it isn’t just this thing that just happened because women are clueless, and we just can’t help ourselves or want to buy a new dress every day. It also is something that’s been forced upon us in a way through society to sort of get jobs and to contribute to the economy in these different ways.
Yeah, totally fashion, so intertwined with identity and culture and society and societal norms. And yeah, for sure that’s important to acknowledge.
And do you know, with your research, like, around how many garments a person might have owned, pre mass produced fashion?
Yeah it’s funny. I’ve actually looked at a lot of different sources, trying to find exact numbers and of course it completely depended on your socioeconomic class, but I think the sort of general consensus that historians have come to is that people typically owned maybe just like two outfits, really.
They had like maybe a few, like one coat, one or two pairs of shoes. And this is kind of, I guess, like middle, I guess you’d say, middle classes of, let’s say, Americans in the early 1800s. But yeah, it totally depends.
But what I found really interesting is, in the early 1900s, there were a lot of different organizations like the Agricultural Bureau of America, and these home economists who would literally go door to door and ask people, how much clothes they have, how much did they pay for it? How much did that factor into a household overall purchases?
And so there’s actually some very specific numbers that we can turn to, I mean granted it’s after mass produced fashion, but like the 20s and the 30s, because people were really trying to figure out like, what is the standard of living in the United States. So you look at these, and they do seem pretty low. It’s kind of like three shirts, three dresses, two hats, or whatever.
And then by the time you get to the 60s, all of these different surveys, which were super commonplace, they stopped doing them. And I feel like that’s pretty telling of like you can no longer count, nor is it really relevant to count it.
So yeah, I think that I don’t want to speak to generalize it as you know, these numbers, but in a lot of ways, it was quite a positive thing to be able to own more, because you did get to save time of washing and laundering, and you got to go to more spaces. So it did open up a lot for people, obviously, at the detriment of the laborers, and of course, the environment. So it’s a complicated, yeah, complicated story, for sure.
Mhm. Yeah, definitely. And when we spoke before you were talking about your research into mail order catalogs, so I thought we could talk about that as well. So for people who haven’t heard the term like I hadn’t heard it before, what are mail order catalogs? And what role did they play in fashion consumption in the 20th century?
Well, I think mail order catalogs are sort of best described as like the Amazon of the late 1800s, early 1900s. It was this very thick, actually, I have one for those who are watching the video of this, this is the 1930s Montgomery Ward catalog, but they’re super thick, sales catalogs that had hundreds and hundreds of pages and each page has like 100 different products on it.
And people were really exposed to these like endless choices and these endless options for pretty much the first time in history, especially for people who were not living in urban centers. So in these catalogs you could buy — it’s kind of funny, I mean — literally any kind of product. You could buy a house! Like, pieces to build a house! You could buy medicine for your horse, you could buy a new wedding dress, or you could buy like a doorknob. Like it just sold everything.
And so this was super duper important in American history, specifically. Because a lot of these — most of the country was actually still living in rural areas. And they did not have access to anything beyond sort of like what the general stores were selling, because a lot of them couldn’t even go to a place like New York or Chicago and shop at department stores.
So when these catalogs were sent out, especially to rural populations, it changed the game of consumption, because they all of a sudden had access to pretty much everything that was imaginable.
So the two big mail order catalog companies were Montgomery Ward, which started in the 1870s and Sears Roebuck, which started in 1894. And so I’m looking at some of these early catalogs, because I think it did help to pave the way for fast fashion, in some ways, because it just gave this illusion of like, endless choices.
And people were looking at 50 different versions of the same shirt. They only had like these tiny little differences. And so they were really disconnected from the people that made the clothing and the places where the clothing was made.
And if you were using these mail order catalogs, you were kind of just basing your decisions on the lowness of the prices and how it appears, which I think is sort of similar. And I think for the first time, a lot of people were less concerned about clothing products and how long they would last and more excited about just having variety and being able to spend less money.
So to sum it up, I don’t necessarily think that these catalogs are like the birth of fast fashion. But to me, they really represent this moment in history where time and space kind of just collapses and becomes irrelevant, because you could suddenly purchase something that was made super far away, and it would just show up at your doorstep in a relatively short amount of time.
And this is also really interesting, because if you look at some of these catalogs like the 1894 issue of Sears, for example, it has like, maybe a dozen pages dedicated to clothing. And then by the 1920s, the Sears catalogs had like 90 plus pages. So for me, as a historian, I love being able to track these things so clearly.
Of course, we don’t really know how much people actually use them what was bought, we don’t those kind of sales records don’t exist, but it’s still kind of an easy way, or rather an interesting way to study fast fashion because the sort of cheaply made clothing was not meant to last and therefore archives and museums aren’t collecting it.
So it’s like, how do you study a subject that was meant to be disposed of, or wasn’t meant to last? And I think that mail order catalogs and home economics textbooks and all the things that I’m looking at, kind of shine a light on like everyday life and everyday clothing practices in a way that goes against what we’re learning in our fashion history textbooks.
Mhm Yeah, wow, I could definitely see that with, like mail order catalogs contributing to this disconnection between our clothes. Because now you don’t even have to feel it or try it on before buying it — you can just see a photo and purchase it.
Which many of us might associate with, like the rise of ecommerce but people were doing that before the internet, too. So that’s very interesting.
So marketing, and its many forms clearly plays a large role in consumption patterns. So looking at all these mail order catalogs and other various advertising materials, have you seen the marketing messages change over the decades or the centuries?
Well, yes, and no, I think that the marketing messages are always sort of focused on making your life better, and to be happier, it’s always kind of promising that in one way or another.
But if you’re looking at, let’s say, early mail order catalogs, the messages are really focused on value and convenience. Which makes sense, because this was a time where people would have to dedicate an entire day just to like washing and ironing, and it would take super long to sew your own clothes. So I understand that this was a very important sort of message to stress.
But then when you’re going on a few decades later, that’s still present. But it’s a bit more about sort of becoming appealing to smart consumers who understand value and quality but they also want to have a very unique sense of style. And they want to own lots of clothes, because they are these unique people that need to express themselves. And so it’s a little bit more than just the convenience of saving time.
And so I think there are more messages about being able to purchase more. But it’s still sort of framed by this idea of being like a better mother, a better woman, a better US citizen, all of these things that are telling people they need to be good consumers, which is very weird.
And I actually had kind of a tangent that I wanted to talk about, if you don’t mind.
Yeah of course.
Going over to Home Economics land. Because I have found with these textbooks, the messages are so eerily similar. So if you’re looking at home economics textbooks, which were a way that millions of women across the United States learned how to not just sew, but to consume clothing throughout time. If you pick up one of those books from the 1920s, it reads almost exactly the same as a book from the 2020s. Like Elizabeth Cline’s Conscious Closet, for example.
It is telling women that they should not buy cheap clothing, they need to buy less and buy better, that they should be aware of the supply chain and all the people involved, they should be aware of the chemicals that are used, they should be worried about the labor standards, they need to be a lot more thoughtful.
It’s interesting because none of this is being framed as sustainability, obviously. That term was not in its modern context yet, nor is it framed at all as related to the environment. It’s all about being a good US citizen and a good mother.
And so what we might call sustainability today, they were calling thrift. And thrift was like a very specific political movement that was around, really rose to the apex in the early 1900s, and kind of fizzling out by the 1940s. But anyways, the thrift movement was about just I’ve been mindless with your purchases and to like, think about what you need and to focus on quality and all these different types of value.
And I think it’s interesting because, again, it just kind of stops, it just disappears once like all of these different mass production speeds up to a level where you didn’t necessarily need to prove that you were a thoughtful citizen by buying less. It was more about contributing to the economy by buying more.
But yeah, the books are fascinating, because you do see that these messages are consistent. And yet, all of the factors that are kind of feeding into these messages are different. Because when they’re talking about labor standards, and all of these things, they’re not worried about people on the other side of the globe, they’re talking about people who live in their cities, it’s so close to them. And so I think, once the proximity changes, it became a lot easier for people to turn a blind eye, right?
But it is interesting, because they try to tell women exactly what to do. And kind of going back to the question you asked earlier, the textbook will say, ‘Hey, ladies, you should buy three different shirts a year, you should buy one for your son, and it should cost this amount of money. And if you have these kinds of friends, and you need this many dresses. Like it’s so formulaic, it’s kind of seen as a science and a skill, which is what home economics was trying to be.
Which is just to say that we’ve lost that. Shopping is no longer seen as this thing you have to train for and to learn how to do when you’re a young child. But at the time when having so many options for cheap clothing was first introduced, people needed help to figure out what to do.
So yeah, mail order catalogs, I think, kind of echo that same sort of idea of like, we need to teach you how to shop because you’re obviously too stupid to figure it out on their own. Which is funny today.
Mmm. Yeah, that is very, very interesting to think about, and definitely noticeable that it’s always like, directed at women too and the burden is always put.
And I feel like that is an unfortunate reality of even sustainable fashion too that, you know, okay, back then they said, Okay, women buy this and that, be careful of this. And now it’s like, okay, you know, you’re maybe working full time, but still, like, make everything yourself, be zero waste, sew your own clothes, and it can be…
We all have different privileges and different levels of privilege, and ,you know, time, money, and so on. But yeah, it’s just very, very interesting that it just feels like it’s always this, like, what you should be doing messaging.
This impossible standard. That is, again, really ingrained in like American efficiency and having the most for the littlest amount. So it makes sense.
But I’m really glad you mentioned the gender thing, because yeah, it drives me crazy because all of these Tomek textbooks are specifically for women. And it is training them to kind of be better wives and mothers. And then I look today at the sustainable fashion book, part of the bookshop, and it’s all very much targeted to me as a woman.
I don’t see any of these books and think, Oh, my husband’s gonna pick that up. It does seem to be appealing to me. So yeah, I guess not much has changed.
There’s so much. I think that’s, I guess, maybe I sound like a broken record now. But it’s like, things don’t really change as much as we think they do. And so I think studying history kind of shows us that these things that become normalized, aren’t really normal, and they shouldn’t necessarily have to be.
But they’ve kind of just gotten stuck in these sort of like loops where we still can’t get out of them.
Mhm. Yeah, for sure. And so marketing clearly plays an outsized role in consumption and overconsumption patterns. What have you found to be some of the other forces that have enabled and perhaps continued to enable fast fashion and overproduction and overconsumption today?
That’s a good question. That’s a big question.
Well, I think fast fashion has become so widespread, because of really when it comes down to it, it’s these historical forces of oppression that are really rooted deep in Western culture, whether we like to admit it or not, right?
So of course, we really can’t talk about fast fashion or the history of ready to wear clothing without mentioning colonialism. Which not only took resources and labor from other countries and exploited these different countries, but it’s — speaking from the perspective of the US — but it’s also served to erase Indigenous clothing systems around the world.
I think that sort of the idea of Westernization of fashion across the globe, that really allowed fast fashion to thrive because you think about it, you could be someone living in Asia, or Africa or South America or the United States, and you might all be wearing the same H&M dress. So if colonial relations hadn’t laid that foundation, I don’t think that would be possible.
So I think it’s the idea that colonial powers have forced themselves on various parts of the globe, and have sort of forced them to conform to the English language, Western styles of dress. I think, obviously, fast fashion kind of gets to ride on those coattails and to supply the sort of like erasing ethnic and cultural background.
So in addition to that, and also kind of related, I think the standardization of time is really rooted in western exceptionalism. And I think that it also is how fast fashion is possible, because it gave these very specific ways of how much needed to be produced in a shorter and shorter amount of time.
And maybe this is a topic for a different day, but the way that we track time, and the hours and the months in everything really only started in the late 1800s. And it was sort of this European invention trying to standardize business across multiple continents, because prior to that period, there was just, you know, people going on very different time zones.
So the idea of like, everyone needs to follow this many hours. And they need to adhere to this type of, you know, timezone that is sort of this way of Western oppression across the world. And so, I think, yes, it’s a good thing.
Obviously, I like having time. And that’s helpful. But it’s also rooted in these ideas have like efficiency and uniformity and growth, which have helped to encourage people that they needed or kind of helped to instill the idea that people need to purchase and to make more and more things and shorter amounts of time, because it’s always about this linear progression.
And I guess the last thing I would say is the concept of disposability. I definitely have to mention that. Because it’s pretty relatively new from a historical perspective. Most Americans produced very little trash before the beginning of the 20th century, which is — that’s a topic I could go on all day about, I think, super interesting. Just like a wastebasket, not even being very relevant in life.
And so I think once you start seeing, like, you know, paper, plates and napkins, and paper towels, and sanitary napkins, even all these things, helped to instill the idea that things could be disposable. And so that was really necessary to happen.
And then I think that’s also related to colonialism, once again, just to kind of bring things full circle, because the idea that we don’t have a lot of American consumers try not to come to terms with where our waste is going.
We just see it disappear when the garbage truck picks it up. We don’t really like to think about the landfills where it ends up, or if that is being sent to other areas of the world, which I think we all kind of know when we’re talking about sending our used clothing to different continents. I think you actually have a podcast episode about that, or I’ve heard yeah, or I’ve heard it talked about it recently.
Yeah with Nikissi of VINTAGE OR VIOLENCE. Yeah, they have a whole like podcast series, exploring the global secondhand trade from a Ugandan perspective. And yeah, I interviewed her for the show. It’s a very, very powerful conversation. And it ties into a lot with history as well. So yeah, it’s all connected.
Absolutely. So in summary, I feel like colonialism has helped to pave the way for fast fashion. And yeah, history helps us kind of see that connection and to try to find alternative ways of knowing and being, which is… hard. It takes a long time to kind of reverse these systems.
Mhm. Right. And bouncing off the idea of disposability and connecting that with colonialism. It’s this colonial mindset that still very much exists today that leads people to thinking about certain communities are disposable.
When we think about fashion sacrifice zones, and they should be grateful for a job to work at this factory making H&M clothes.
But like, would you work in the factory where your clothing is being made? Would you be okay with that? If not, then that can’t be an ethical system. And mostly for the billionaires, who own these fast fashion companies? Like, would you work in a factory that your brand is your clothes are being produced in?
And if not, why are you okay with other people being subjected to those conditions and that pay. And it’s because somehow, there’s this idea that they’re not as worthy. It’s just so steeped in colonialism and racism, and sexism.
When you think about even within some of these countries, it’s often women doing the work. And that’s because of sexism within those societies as well. And so just there’s many layers to the issue.
Actually I’m really glad you mentioned that, because another thing that I’ve been kind of facing lately related to that is that people don’t like to think that they are contributing to these terrible systems. So I’ve kind of found in a weird way, unintentional, that teaching about history kind of puts enough distance between them and the problems.
And then once they realize that it’s still happening today, they kind of approach it in almost, a more clear eyed way. I guess what I mean, is that, I could tell students, or even just my family, whoever I’m talking to, that all of these insane things are happening in factories on the other side of the world, and child labor, and pollution, and poisoning of carcinogens, all of these things, and they’ve just kind of become numb, and you don’t want to see yourself, as responsible for contributing to that.
To make sense, I mean, human beings, we like to be good creatures, we don’t want to think about I think that’s just kind of human nature to kind of not see yourself as being part of this, but then when I’m telling them about, let’s say, child labor, in textile mills in the United States in the early 1900s.
And you look at these photos of these really young kids who are doing insane jobs for 20 hours a day for five cents, or whatever it was, and people get so mad. And they’re just like, how could that possibly happen? And then once you kind of flip it and say, well, actually, that’s still happening, right, as we speak. It’s just happening on the other side of the world.
I think it kind of shocks people into realizing that like, this could be happening where we are, it just happens to have moved away. So whether that’s good or bad, I think it is sometimes necessary to put that distance just so people can fully grasp it.
And then once they see that these things never really went away, they’ve just gotten out of like, you know, out of sight out of mind, it can be a really powerful way for them to kind of come to that understanding for sure.
And I’m not sure if earlier when you said sacrifice zones, if you were referencing I guess, I think her name is Sandra Niessen?
Once I read that, I mean, that’s such a good thing. I wish that I could make every single person read that article or watch one of her talks about it. Because yeah, you realize, and I don’t think that we’re necessarily all villains because we participate in the system — we certainly are not.
But it is helpful to kind of see how much we’re able to kind of push out of sight out of mind and what allowed that to happen. And part of it is just again related to history.
Mm hmm. Yeah, that’s a great lesson with the bringing in history can help people sort of see things in a new light. I think that’s a great takeaway for those of us who are trying to perhaps share this information with people and coming against a wall a little bit.
And people can get defensive and I get it. If someone is telling you everything you’ve been doing your life is wrong and even what you think is good is actually bad. You know, when we think about clothing donations and where that all ends up.
But yeah, I think bringing distance to it, I think, is a good takeaway.
So seeing how fast fashion sort of came to be and accelerated over time, we can see that fashion hasn’t always been like it is now like if we think you know, like maybe pre-mass-produced fashion, and doesn’t necessarily need to continue to go how it’s going now in the future.
So looping back to the beginning of our conversation about the connections with sustainability and fashion history. How do you think that the history of fast fashion could help us start to get out of the mess that we’re in, like learning about this history? How can we maybe use that to build a better future?
Well, I guess first off, I have to admit that, you know, history does not provide us with this blueprint or roadmap on how to fix things, right does not really contribute any sort of like straightforward answers. However, I think for all the reasons we’ve already discussed, it can be helpful and just sort of shifting our perspective.
So there’s one historian that I love named Susan Strasser, who writes about waste and women’s work and all these sort of like, relevant social topics. And so she says that studying the past, — particularly in the context of sustainability — is like visiting a foreign land that kind of offers us this different viewpoint of what it means to exist in this world.
I guess, I sort of think about it when you go to on vacation, let’s say you go to like Spain, and you see people taking a nap and eating tacos, or doing all these different things with their family, and then you come back to your home, and you’re like, I want to do some of those things. Like, I never thought about that before, but I liked how it was going on.
So I think that when you are looking at the past, you can kind of realize that there is a different way to be and those people were fine. And maybe you want to incorporate it and maybe it kind of just makes you look at your own life in a different way. So I think that’s really helpful.
I think historians like Susan Strasser are using history to kind of question like, why do we value having such an abundance of choices in the first place? And why do we glorify convenience and celebrate newness? Like, you know, what are all these things that we take as like these core American values? And how are they different from other parts of the world, but also other times in history?
So I think to respond to fast fashion, studying history can help students or people, you and I, realize that everything the past and the present and humans and the environment and workers and consumers, whatever it is, are super interconnected. So every single decision that we make has really got to consider a lot of different factors and timescales.
And then I guess the last thing I would add is that, I think it’s important to show that fashion history doesn’t just exist in images and stories. It’s not frozen in time, right? And that everything is made from physical materials, and those materials still surround us today in one form or another.
Whether it’s a polyester garment that was made from petroleum oil that first came into being billions of years ago and now that we’ve tossed it, it’s still going to continue to live on in landfills. It’s like we talk about fast fashion, like it’s this abstract concept that comes and goes. But in reality, it’s still around, we’re still existing within the same space as it.
So I think that’s something else that I really like, from being a historian and working with material culture is that you look at these things. And it’s like, we can’t ignore it, because they’re still around you. And it isn’t just something that we can talk about.
I think we think about fast fashion against this very quick process of consuming, getting rid of it, but then it’s like, but what happens after its getting rid of? Like, it’s still around.
So I think in a lot of ways studying history doesn’t give us a very specific plan on what we need to change. I don’t think it’s necessarily possible to go back to the way things were and I don’t think that’s also very preferable in some ways, but it does kind of let you find these new entry points and kind of figuring out how do we want to approach this and what types of solutions could potentially lead to better futures, for sure.
Yeah, that’s a great point. I think that there’s some things to take maybe from history and some things that we want to leave behind and learn about so that we heal that past and we repair that harm, but, yeah it’s complicated.
Something that I was thinking about was like planned obsolescence. And in a book, I recently read The Day The World Stops Shopping by JB McKinnon, who’s talking about like, sort of that history with light bulbs. So there was this like a lightbulb conference or something and light bulbs used to last like, I don’t know, forever, like a really long time. And they’re like, wait, how do we get more sales? Oh, we’ll just make the light bulbs burn out.
And so when this idea came to mind, you know, we say buy less, buy better often in the slow fashion movement. But honestly, it’s getting a lot harder, because garments are literally designed to fall apart. Or, at the very least, not designed to last. And so that can be really difficult to navigate.
But I’m thinking about, like, that might be something to go back in history and take back and bring to our future is like pre-planned obsolescence. You know, products that are actually designed to, like, be worn for 20 years or whatever.
And I also was thinking about the marketing messages, like what you were saying before, because JB MacKinnon was writing how, during that time, and I don’t remember, what time in history that was, but little marketing messages were literally like, consumers buy more disposable products, you’re helping our economy. People who buy forever products, like you’re hurting our economy, because you’re not buying enough.
And it’s all these messages, and it seems wild. But then we think about the pandemic and like Boris Johnson telling everybody to go out shopping as soon as the stores were opened to boost the economy. Yeah, it’s all very fascinating.
Yeah, no, I think about this all the time. And I actually just did a really deep dive into paper and like disposable commodities, like packaging, and napkins and things like that. And it’s just wild to think that, yeah, these messages where they’re saying, like, everything can be disposable, and we look at it and we laugh, and we’re like, that’s so stupid. That’s so evil. Why are you making all this waste?
But I can’t help from being a historian to have some sort of, I don’t know if the word is like empathy, but like an understanding that people are dealing with really bad hygiene and all of these things. And these new products actually allowed things to be safer and happier and healthier.. like they saved time.
So it’s like, in some ways, it seems to us, I think, from our present perspective, like, Oh, look at them, they’re being so evil, these corporations, they just want more. Well, that’s certainly part of it. I think we can’t villainize people who wanted to take care of their families and to clothe their families and to have more because it allowed them to live that American dream.
So yeah, taking off the sort of contemporary perspective is very hard. Because everything looks like a joke sometimes when you’re looking at it. But then you realize, it’s a lot more complicated than just that.
I mean, I think that yeah, even in the 40s, and 50s, just like landfills weren’t even that big. So it’s just really weird…, how could they have predicted just how much this would happen? I mean, some people did. Rightly so.
But I think this all actually does sort of connect to what I’m doing as an educator, because I’m trying to look at longer timescales. And so I think in fashion education, we’re typically teaching students or even with you and I thinking about our own lives, chances are, we think about maybe the next couple years. We don’t plan ahead 10 years from now.
So we’re thinking about our clothes, we’re thinking about the next couple years. But traditionally, in history, people were passing down their clothes, not just to their children, but like their grandchildren. So when they’re buying a textile, it was written into wills. It was known that it was going to last 50 to 100 years long.
So I think that if when we’re teaching students, if we kind of put it in the context of decades, instead of just fashion seasons, or even years, it kind of helps to open that up a bit more. Although planned obsolescence, you know, that’s just hard to reverse at this point.
And I think, also to say, people should stop buying fast fashion, it’s also like, well, that’s sometimes that’s like asking people to stop using text messages and stop using airplanes to get from point A to point B. Like that convenience is really, really ingrained in our heads. And I think fashion is a great place to kind of try to work on these things, because it’s obtainable.
But fashion is not the ultimate villain in the story. It is like a small part, but it just makes it very easy to talk about, ‘oh, fashion is so frivolous and superficial’, and therefore, like, women just need to like get a hold of themselves and buy less.
It’s like, well, if you’re putting them in these situations where they’re getting used to like traveling by plane and having disposable paper towels, it’s like you have a lot of other issues that kind of need to be seen in the same context as clothing. So yeah, super interesting.
Yeah, yeah. And I think fashion can be such a lens into seeing these broader systems. Like, I got a comment on an Instagram post saying like, well, if you think the problem is just fashion, like you’re…. And I was like, no, I don’t think the problem is just fashion, I’m not living under a rock, you know!
Like, of course, these issues are way bigger than the fashion industry. Fashion is just sort of like one example, or one microcosm within the broader picture, but it helps us see it and feel it in a tangible way, it’s something that most of us can relate to. Even if you’re not into fashion, we all wear clothes, we likely buy clothes, we all have to figure out what to do with our clothes.
So we’re part of this lifecycle, and that helps us see our part in this global supply chain and I think it expands into other areas of our life. And also, we can see the systems and how they play out in other ways, too. So it doesn’t have to end with fashion, even if we’re starting with fashion.
Nope. exactly. And that is, I feel like the story of my life is trying to convince people what I do is relevant. And it’s just amazing. You’ll meet people at parties, and you’re like, I study sustainable fashion. And hey’re like, well, when are you gonna get a real job? Which I still hear.
But yeah, so that’s why I think actually, I call myself a fashion historian, because it’s easy for people to understand. But I’m just really interested in the history of being a human in this world.
And when I was a kid, I was really interested in things like, ‘how do people used to use the bathroom?’ And ‘how did they get around?’ All these like weird questions.
And then I realized that fashion or clothing or dress, whatever you want to call them, kind of lumping them together. It’s just sort of a shortcut, because you can look at all those things.
So yeah, so I’m glad, again, that you have this podcast and that you asked me to be on it. Because it’s really exciting to finally you know, share these types of things with more people, because it’s typically just my husband listening to me. So I appreciate you for putting this on a platform.
Oh, my gosh, well, I appreciate you so much for coming onto the show. And speaking of like, sort of getting the message out, I wanted to ask you one question about being a fashion educator. So in addition to researching, you also are an educator.
And so I wanted to ask you, how can fashion educators help their students gain a better understanding of sustainability in fashion?
Yeah, well, this is another excellent question, but a hard question to answer. Because I want to go on and on and I know, we don’t have much time, but I was speaking to Stella, a journalist for your website recently.
And I kind of put together this little list. So I’m just gonna go down this list of things to kind of break it down.
I think the first step and this thing I’m reminding myself about every day, is to really challenge the concept of sustainability. Because I think that it can limit students’ understanding because it kind of forces them into these binaries, like sustainable versus unsustainable, ethical versus unethical, Global North versus Global South.
So I think that just the term alone can kind of shut people down and limit the way they see things. So I’m trying to find ways to like, incorporate different language into teaching sustainable fashion, particularly.
The second one, which is something I think you’ve also mentioned in your podcast, or even done an episode on it’s questioning growth. Obviously degrowth is kind of I think opening people’s eyes up to a totally different way of existing and being. So really, since the inception of fashion education, we’ve been teaching the exact same sort of linear model and the same sort of growing sort of value. So I think that incorporating that into at least just questioning it is going to be helpful for educators.
I think fostering collaboration is really important because so many design schools, like where I’ve taught, are really focusing on sort of like breeding the new “Star designer”. Giving you this really individualistic dream of like, ‘Hey, student, you need to have your own brand and your own label. And that’s how you’re successful.’
But I think if we sort of trained fashion students to work together more and to not see each other as competition, that can be really helpful.
A few other quick things: encouraging different types of work because so few fashion schools or design schools — or really any schools — are training students to excel in like repairing or managing the disposal of clothing. It’s all about sort of designing and creating new forms of fashion. So I think that just saying that these jobs exist and someone needs to do it.
I think also just using different frameworks, which I kind of mentioned already with the different timescales. I think, in fashion, we’re typically thinking about designer and customer and that’s pretty much the two main actors.
So I think if you really open it up and have students consider the needs of farmers and garment workers and consumers, but then also the people who ship things from point A to point B, and then the retail workers, and then also the disposal of who’s actually dealing with the waste. I think, if you teach that, from the very beginning, it could really change how clothing is made, specifically from the university level.
I think as an educator, I have really come to realize that it’s important to step out of the fashion bubble, and to see how sustainability is being taught in a lot of different disciplines. So as a PhD student, I’ve been lucky to take some classes on teaching sustainability to high school science students, and middle school social studies students. And that’s where I’ve kind of gotten the best ideas from my work is just seeing that, because they are trying so many different things.
At the end of the day, it seems like we have an endless amount of fashion and sustainability literature to read, but it is limited. So I think that educators going to you know, watching TED talks, or whatever it is, like, it does take extra work. And that’s kind of a problem, I think, though, because it’s expecting a lot from an instructor to go out of their way to like, study different things.
But just having that, like, tiny bit of insight into how different fields are approaching it, I think can really help to change fashion education in a big way.
Yeah, absolutely. So what is next for you? And is there a way for listeners to connect with you and or read your work?
Yeah, well, what’s next for me is finishing my PhD. And hopefully continuing to unpack all of these layers. One thing I do really want to share with your listeners and your readers is a resource that I’ve actually been developing. That is an open access syllabus that anyone can read.
And it provides kind of everything I’ve been talking about, like a list of resources of how to look at history differently, and lesson plans and rubrics. I’ve been working on it for a while, and I was really excited to have it done by the time we talked and it is not done. Because that’s academic life for you.
So I can’t share it yet. But I have been really passionate about building this. So if people want to, I guess I mean, I’m sure when I’m done with it — hopefully soon — I’ll be putting it all over my Instagram. So follow me on Instagram, you’ll see it.
If anyone out there who’s listening is like an educator who’s pretty anxious to see this. You can also email me. It’s just firstname.lastname@example.org and I can like send you what I have so far.
So yeah, I’m hoping that can take all the things that I’m saying today and actually put them into practice and to help teachers apply it to really any class that they’re teaching would be my dream. But I’m just not there yet.
We can add it to the show notes whenever it’s ready. You can email me and we’ll add the link there. So if people are listening to this maybe after the live date, and then hopefully, will be there.
Sara, thank you so much for this past hour, all your insights that you’ve shared, this has been so perspective shifting and fascinating. I’m sure listeners will and viewers who will think the same.
I do have one last question for you that I asked all the guests that come onto the show, which is, what would a better future for fashion look like to you?
Another tough question! Elizabeth, hitting with the hard ones right at the end!
I think a better future would involve all of these things we’ve been talking about being taught to young children. For all of the ideas about sustainability that I didn’t know about until my mid to late 20s. I can’t imagine what would have happened if someone had taught me that when I was five years old.
And yes, maybe I tried. I took a class in high school or middle school where I had to learn how to sew a little bit or take care of things. But I truly did not understand the extent of the issues and what I could do.
So I think a better fashion system, aside from being better for the environment, and for laborers and all these things and having government regulation, which I think is absolutely crucial, I think it’s also just starting very young.
Because the younger generations can be super different. And then that kind of links into history, again. Where you think about my great grandparents and how of course, even my great grandpa knew how to sew something and fix something and mend it and he knew the value of one type of wool versus another type of wool.
But then that changed — for good reason, different priorities and in a certain generation — but I think if the next generation can go back to knowing about the difference in wool and how to mend things that would be fantastic.
So I’m hoping that it can become something that’s integrated into like elementary school or even preschool. I don’t know. We’ll see. So that’s my hope.
About Sara Idacavage
Sara Idacavage is a fashion historian, archivist, and educator who is passionate about sustainability. She holds a master’s degree in Fashion Studies from Parsons School of Design and a bachelor’s degree in Fashion Merchandising from the University of Georgia, where she is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Textiles, Merchandising, and Interiors.
Sara’s current research examines how fashion education can be enhanced by using sustainability to frame historical inquiry, placing unsustainable ideas and practices in today’s fashion system within a broader historical context while encouraging a more transdisciplinary and problem-oriented approach to fashion history. In addition to working in a number of archives and museum collections, she has taught courses at the Pratt Institute, the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Parsons School of Design.