Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Practicing Sustainability: Illuminating 'Use' in Wearing Clothes

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Practicing Sustainability: Illuminating 'Use' in Wearing Clothes

Article excerpt


This article explores examples of creative practices of wearing and maintaining clothes, and is centred around one account of laundering that constructs the commonplace maintenance of clothing as an activity for learning. This account is placed in dialogue with sustainable design research about the transition toward sustainable ways of living such as the development of 'slow fashion'. For instance, 'slowness' leverages time to rethink the value of what we already do and have, to generate alternative temporal patterns, material flows and imaginings that are more attuned with the pace and rhythms of living day by day. With a fashion system that endorses regular updates and short-lived looks, the logic to its renewal is that as clothes are worn they depreciate in value, as the patina of use moves them further away from newness. However, when wearing and maintaining clothes are centrally positioned as everyday practices, the life and meaning that clothes come to have as worn can be appreciated as a mass participation in positive value creation. Specifically, it is possible to see this value in terms of practicing sustain-abilities and related positive signs of a more sustainable material culture.

As co-writers, our collective aim is to illuminate 'wearing clothing' as an outcome of sets of practices related to dressing, that wear a garment in and out over time, including laundering. The article assembles a practice-oriented perspective on sociocultural and technical practices of wearing and aspires to do the conceptual framing to support insightful analysis of everyday micro practices like clothes cleaning, dressing and sorting as a contribution to cultural studies into dressing the body. This work was started by two of the authors in a pair of co-authored articles titled 'On Wearing' and 'Reorienting Sustainable Design' and is assisted by the third author's doctoral research about laundering.1 It is argued elsewhere by Abby Mellick Lopes, Alison Gill and Dena Fam that design research which aims to support sustainable practices, draws from conceptual frameworks and methodologies (like theories of social practice and styles of ethnographic research of the everyday) to 'interrogate the geographies of the familiar' in novel ways and conceptualise the making of change.2

This interdisciplinary approach to explore the sociocultural contexts of design is continued in this article, specifically in the cultural life of clothes in use, research that is necessary to see change made real in the assemblages of material, interactions and conventions that hold everyday practices together. When an alternative view of change is considered, actual change is much harder to substantiate; for instance, the awareness, motivation and intention that it takes to live sustainably are mental qualities that are hard to see. Our intention is to underscore cultural-material performances and competencies of sustain-abilities already underway in the skills and improvisations of everyday clothing use. Holly Kaye-Smith's research on laundering explores a slowing practice on the user-side whose objective is to maintain the value of clothing already in existence. This article's snapshot of laundering performance hopes to leverage opportunities to consider the many tonnes of clothes already in circulation requiring care and at risk of obsolescence by newer industry output. The modest aim of this article is to survey at least a small part of what a practice perspective can help researchers of fashion and dress to do with the insights of practitioner-based learning. We aim to better understand the opportunities for transition to sustainability in the spectrum of clothing use.


Fashion's rapid time and its regulative force has been historically positioned in relation to modernity as short-lived material and imaginative change by writers such as Thorstein Veblen, Charles Baudelaire and Georg Simmel; as the latter put it, 'fashion increasingly sharpens our sense of the present'. …

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