Can History Offer Us the Key to Sustainable Fashion?

Can History Offer Us the Key to Sustainable Fashion?

Motley’s Grace Claro examines the nexus of historical fashion practices and the need for their implementation today to tackle the climate emergency.

A by-word for overconsumption, pollution and waste, fashion in the 21st century has a lot to answer for. Consumers are overburdened with a tsunami of new season items, each boasting an even more competitive price point than the next. 

This, as we all know, is an entirely modern problem. Historically, there was no such thing as a clothes store filled with premade items, and instead customers would avail of a tailor or dressmaker who would make a garment bespoke to their own measurements. These items would be made of durable materials such as linens, wools, and cotton. Cotton was imported from India as early as the 17th century, however, this material only became widely available in the 19th century when it was imported from exploitative cotton plantations in the U.S. 

When we think about historical fashion, we might think of the extravagance and excess of 16th century royalty like Henry VII or the pompous luxury of Louis XIV and Marie Antionette. However, people of all social classes had items for everyday wear which were tailored for optimum efficiency, durability and practicality.

Clothing was made to last up to a decade of wear, especially since items were often passed on to family members. Having a wardrobe of options was considered to be a great luxury, therefore items were frequently altered and patched up as new. Most 21st century consumers consider the lifespan of their clothing to be a couple of years maximum. This attitude is simply not sustainable.

Even the elite understood the value of their clothing. Dresses and coats were taken apart and tailored into new garments to keep up to date with the changing fashions. Fabrics were expensive and scarce and so nothing was left to waste. Dumping of millions of tonnes of fast fashion items would have been entirely unimaginable even a short century ago, let alone 400 years ago. 

Sometimes we can view history as unsophisticated and very much distanced from our modern world, but I believe historical garments can teach us about the way people lived and the relationship they had with their clothing. It also can teach us to really value our wardrobes and acknowledge our modern privileges. In our newly awakened eco-conscience, we must learn to appreciate our items. Buy well, and if possible, buy local. 

Sustainability was a thing of the past, it’s about time we revert to our old ways.

A by-word for overconsumption, pollution and waste, fashion in the 21st century has a lot to answer for. Consumers are overburdened with a tsunami of new season items, each boasting an even more competitive price point than the next. 

This, as we all know, is an entirely modern problem. Historically, there was no such thing as a clothes store filled with premade items, and instead customers would avail of a tailor or dressmaker who would make a garment bespoke to their own measurements. These items would be made of durable materials such as linens, wools, and cotton. Cotton was imported from India as early as the 17th century, however, this material only became widely available in the 19th century when it was imported from exploitative cotton plantations in the U.S. 

When we think about historical fashion, we might think of the extravagance and excess of 16th century royalty like Henry VII or the pompous luxury of Louis XIV and Marie Antionette. However, people of all social classes had items for everyday wear which were tailored for optimum efficiency, durability and practicality.

Clothing was made to last up to a decade of wear, especially since items were often passed on to family members. Having a wardrobe of options was considered to be a great luxury, therefore items were frequently altered and patched up as new. Most 21st century consumers consider the lifespan of their clothing to be a couple of years maximum. This attitude is simply not sustainable.

Even the elite understood the value of their clothing. Dresses and coats were taken apart and tailored into new garments to keep up to date with the changing fashions. Fabrics were expensive and scarce and so nothing was left to waste. Dumping of millions of tonnes of fast fashion items would have been entirely unimaginable even a short century ago, let alone 400 years ago. 

Sometimes we can view history as unsophisticated and very much distanced from our modern world, but I believe historical garments can teach us about the way people lived and the relationship they had with their clothing. It also can teach us to really value our wardrobes and acknowledge our modern privileges. In our newly awakened eco-conscience, we must learn to appreciate our items. Buy well, and if possible, buy local. 

Sustainability was a thing of the past, it’s about time we revert to our old ways.