A wartime-style economy is often cited as a potential path towards meeting our international carbon emissions agreements. In debates about the fashion industry, the idea of a shift as radical as the one that took place in the second world war is frequently mooted in conversations about sustainability.
Clearly this is a problematic comparison. It is important not to romanticise the violence of war or glamorise the reality of political states of emergency. But there is a reason the idea keeps being raised. The war is the most recent time in which the economy was overhauled in the face of an existential threat. It is the closest demonstration we have that quick, radical change is possible if we all come together.
Clothing was rationed then – a system that changed consumption habits and helped to keep precious materials for use in the war effort. This did not actually mean the end of variety, or creativity. There were varying qualities of clothing still available at different price points and design was cleverly rethought to minimise waste. Uniforms were made without covered button plackets; pleats were removed from pockets to save on cloth; double cuffs, trouser turn-ups and elastic waistbands were abolished. Utility became desirable, with garments produced by top designers and endorsed by celebrities, and clothes generally became more practical.
“Make do and mend” was a cultural effort by government to encourage people to fix clothing or modify it to make it feel new. Dressmaking and pattern-cutting lessons built up skills and many made their own clothes to save on coupons. Knitting took off as a practical pastime and jewellery was made out of reclaimed and unusual materials. Clothing exchanges took place via the Women’s Voluntary Service and an independent points system enabled swappers to claim the value back at another time. This was especially helpful for those with growing children to dress.
Rental, swapping, sewing clubs and upcycling are being widely explored at the moment, too. All could be seen as a revival of wartime principles and ideas. But the key difference is that in the second world war there was such a need to meticulously plan. The dominant mode of shopping was to seek out clothing based on needs, not wants, and on a sense of duty to the future.
A return to rationing now would feel very alien in a neoliberal age, when our sense of freedom is so closely tied up with our freedom to shop. But it makes an interesting thought experiment. It opens up the idea of government intervention beyond the go-to suggestion of a levy on clothes, which has so far failed to pass through parliament. What if, for example, we could buy only a certain amount of new clothing – and then buy as much secondhand as we wanted? What if we got a tax break for ethical shopping – just as in Scandinavia the government gives a tax break to repair shops? What else can we think of?
As one of Extinction Rebellion’s founding members – and as someone who has worked for years in fashion – I was involved in the protests this London fashion week and last, arguing that it should be replaced with a platform talking about how to rapidly overhaul the industry’s practices. I still believe this should happen. Change is coming for the fashion industry whether we like it or not and, for me, it needs to come from within.
Radical ideas are needed, with a focus on justice for workers as our industry transitions. We have agreed to climate targets – but we have no roadmap to meet them. Despite lots of creative talent in the fashion industry, the biggest companies are failing to show urgency, bravery or leadership.
Now, as we accept that we are in a new, long-term, state of grief and emergency, we need to find cultural alignment around meaningful purpose. We need to find a new business model and we need to change together. The fashion industry is a powerful cultural force and with that comes great responsibility. It’s time to overcome elitism and division, and reimagine culture with empathy at its centre.
As told to Hannah Marriott