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Friday, June 9 • 11:35am - 11:55am
Careful Making: Slow Fashion Production in the Midst of Capitalism

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“Slow fashion” encompasses a burgeoning social movement, grassroots clothing industry, and thriving Instagram community. “Slow fashion” is also used to mark clothing as being sustainably and ethically made. Most importantly, “slow fashion” holds a critical and unwieldy contradiction: it is both rooted in and opposed to consumerism and commodification. In this paper, I examine the question: what does it take to make slow fashion?

Slow fashion follows other consumer movements, in that it joins a social movement with a market-based industry (Lyon 2011). As a social movement slow fashion aims to undo the fast fashion industry which proliferates a capitalist consumer ethic (Campbell 1987) where desire and novelty fuel the repetitive cycle of buying and discarding mass-produced garments (Dei Ottai and Cologna 2015; Gabrielli et al. 2013; Reinach 2005). This system is actively producing massive quantities of clothing in short, repetitive “seasons,” quickly and cheaply, at the expense of garment workers’ rights in the Global South and the environment (Krause 2018). As an industry, slow fashion businesses strive to create what Fletcher (2010) calls “a changed infrastructure and a reduced through-put of goods” (p. 262). To do this, slow fashion brands experiment with alternative models of production, such as: circular models, made-to-order models, or even production caps, all of which are intended to decrease excess waste and produce garments under ethical working conditions (Trejo 2018). Still, the global web of fashion infrastructure is embedded in a system of transnational capitalism (Rofel and Yanagisako 2019) in which overproduction and outsourcing are necessary for profit (Collins 2003). This places the slow fashion industry on a tightrope, where they must balance between the social movement’s goals and the infrastructural landscapes of the broader fashion industry.

To evaluate what it takes to make slow fashion, I draw on 18 months of ethnographic research conducted on the slow fashion community in the Pacific Northwest. Specifically, this paper focuses on participant-observation conducted at four slow fashion businesses in the Pacific Northwest - a fabric shop, a pattern-making studio, a consignment store, and a small-batch clothing brand. My analysis follows four critical objects (Hertz 2016) that I encountered during fieldwork: a paper sewing pattern, a collection of Italian wool, a brick-and-mortar store, and a large cutting table. I use these objects as a tangible entry point for my examination of the processes and problems these businesses must contend with as they make slow fashion in the midst of the globalized capitalist fashion industry. As I trace my encounters with these objects, I explore how slow fashion producers must ‘make slow fashion’ by traversing the contradictions of being both rooted in and opposed to commodification. At the same time, by taking up these critical objects as objects of ethnographic analysis, I consider how might also reveal the “non-capitalist possibilities around us.” (Shear and Lyon-Callo 2013, p. 87).


Jimil Ataman

PhD Candidate, University of Pennsylvania

Friday June 9, 2023 11:35am - 11:55am EDT
PS 311 (Design Center)