Thoughts on Green Fashion

This year’s Oscar awards ceremony has brought up some important questions concerning vintage clothing and green-ness.  Vintage clothing dealers have long maintained that wearing vintage is really the greenest clothing choice of all.  It’s easy to see why.  Except for transportation costs and cleaning, old clothing paid its carbon dues years ago.  There’s none of the waste associated with making a new garment.

In the past new years we have a new idea that has attached itself to the reusing of old materials.  I’m talking about “up-cycling.”  Up-cycling basicly means you take an old garment, or sheet, or curtain, do a few creative snips with the scissors,  sew up some new seams,  stitch an owl or a funny little bird on it, and call it “green.”   The problem is that by doing so, you are actually creating waste.  When an old object is cut up to make a new one, unless all the fabric and all the findings are used, then stuff is going into the garbage.

Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of cutting up old clothes.  It’s not that I think every scrap ought to be kept in its original form.  There are tons of old clothes out there that are poorly designed and poorly made, and there are plenty of clothes that have severe damage.  It’s not a terrible loss if someone chops up a dress from the 1980s made from flimsy fabric in an ugly color with a Wal-mart label stitched inside.

My big problem with cutting is the possibility that valuable pieces are being destroyed.  Seriously, take grandma’s old 1970s dress, cut off the sleeves and reshape the bodice, but please make sure the label reads Schrader Sport and not Halston.  Do your homework and make sure that cute dress you are going to turn into a handbag does not have an important label.

You may have read about the dress that sparked this essay, that of Livia Firth.  Her Oscar gown was an up-cycled creation, made from eleven other dresses.  Because the story keeps changing, I can’t say if these were in good or poor condition, or  if they were, as first reported, all 1930s gowns, or as later reported, inspired by 1930s clothing.  What I can say is that it greatly upset many people who love vintage clothing.  And it left many others, including the creators of the dress, wondering what all the fuss was about.

I learned a long time ago that most people have never been inside a vintage clothing store, and they really do not understand the big deal about vintage.  I learned this from my friend, Jill.  I went with Jill on a business trip.  She was to attend meetings while I was to spend the day shopping.  At the end of the day she wanted to see my purchases, which I reluctantly showed to her.  I had bought a silk tweed early 1960s Davidow suit, an early 60s Oleg Cassini wool dress (very Jackie Kennedy) and an incredible pair of Issey Miyake wrap pants.  The look of surprise on her face told the story.  She thought I was accumulating old worn out rags, and was blown away by the wonderful things I had found.  She learned that day why I value vintage clothing and why I think it is worth collecting.

As you can see from my photos, there are plenty of old garments out there, waiting to be up-cycled.  The great majority of fabric items in the Goodwill clearance center would make excellent up-cycling fodder.  In fact, I shopped here to get fleece items that I turned into doggie jackets for my little foster dog.  But was that an exercise in green-ness?  Not really, because I did cut up perfectly good baby blankets and fleece pajamas to make doggie jackets, and in the process, wasted as much fabric as I used.

And unless the designer of Mrs.  Firth’s dress used all the usable fabric in the eleven dresses he cut up, then I don’t think it is reasonable to call her dress green either.  But as far as I know, maybe he did make eleven dresses, and there was zero waste produced.  In that case, I say good for him.

*  I just wanted to add that up-cycling is not really new, though the term certainly is.   People have been transforming old clothes and textiles for centuries.


Filed under Shopping, Viewpoint

12 responses to “Thoughts on Green Fashion

  1. whoa, that’s the bins all right.
    I have to say it feels like being stabbed to hear about 11 1930s dresses being cut up. especially since I don’t find the final creation especially creative or remarkable. (pretty, but not special to me).
    I’m proud to say I’ve change some people’s minds about what vintage means and that you can use items of the past to create totally fresh, creative outfits.


  2. Pretty much astounded at this story. They clearly thought they were doing something amazing, so the good intention was there, otherwise they wouldn’t have made such a fuss over it. But the execution was narrow minded and thoughtless. I am struggling with thw concept that the owner of the store, a vintage dealer, thought it was a good idea too. Well, she has her publicity either way.


  3. Mei

    I’m going to be frank: I detest upcycling. I rarely see anything upcycled worth buying, and I think it’s a terrible waste of a vintage piece someone would like in its original state. Very few upcyclers are talented, and I think of them as poachers of the vintage world. Harsh words, I know.


  4. A very thought provoking article. I wouldn’t dream of upcycling either – unless there was a very good reason, like damage.


  5. Nathalie

    I found Livia Firth’s dress rather pretty but now that I know the story, I’m not so sure I like it! I positively detest upcycling. There’s enough vintage fabric out there begging to be used, why the need to destroy something that’s already made?


  6. ” They clearly thought they were doing something amazing, so the good intention was there, otherwise they wouldn’t have made such a fuss over it.”

    Absolutely! And I think that is the major problem with so many “green” projects. They are well intentioned but poorly thought-out.

    From talking with manufacturers of clothing, I’ve learned that a company tries really hard to use their fabric in the most conservative way. Pattern placement is done on computers, and much time is spent arranging and rearranging the pieces to get the most from their cloth. They are happy when they can utilize 90% of the fabric, and are thrilled with 91% usage. Anyone who is “up-cycling” needs to realize that anything they do not use ends up in the trash, the same as industrial waste.

    I see a lot of up-cycling projects, and I agree that so many of them just look like home ec. rejects. But then, I’ve seen a few really great crafters who cleverly adapt the original garment for a new use. These are very few, I’m afraid.


  7. I continue to read posts such as this that become a voice for the past. Well done, Lizzie. The disturbing part is that 360 Degrees can’t seem to stick to their story about the condition of the 11 dresses. I’m sure being contacted by a famous designer to shop in your store and create a dress for a swanky client who’s handsome husband is up for an Oscar was a shop owner’s dream come true. But personally, if he waltzed into my shop, chose 11 of my best 1930s frocks and then informed me he was going to take the scissors to them, I couldn’t do it. I would refuse the sale. I’d rather remain the quiet shop on the corner than hear my name swirl around the fashion world for a week or two, where you’re here today and forgotten tomorrow. Let’s hope they didn’t know the scissors were coming.


    • Great article, Lizzie.

      “Let’s hope they didn’t know the scissors were coming.”
      That’s what I was hoping, too. At the same time, as an online vintage dealer, I send stuff all over the place and can’t control what happens to things once clothes are sent to their new homes. I am not sure I’d want to know sometimes. I did learn about such a project and felt ill–a 50s skirt with a novelty print I sold is now a hunk of fabric placed in a large embroidery hoop and hung on the wall as “art.” (That’s wrong on so many levels!)

      Agreed–I haven’t seen much up-cycled stuff that floats my boat and actually cringe at the word up-cycle.


  8. Can you share where this place is? I heard there’s one in LA where you buy these clothes by the pound but I don’t know the name. Thank you.


    • Yes, This is the Goodwill Clearance Center in Asheville, NC. There is also one in Charlotte, and in Greenville, SC, so I’m guessing this is a standard Goodwill practice.


  9. Wow, I have never thought about upcycling in these terms! When I think of upcycling, I think of the Ghanian girls whom I documented in a previous post who actually take WASTE and upcycle it into cute accessories ( Or the fair trade cooperative from Nepal who makes silk mittens out of the scraps that are left over from the scarves they make. But omg cutting up dresses? That kills me! Leave it to the West to create waste even when we’re trying to reduce waste! ugh.

    Liked by 1 person

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