On a trip to the art museum a little over a year ago, I stumbled onto an exhibit of famous Indiana fashion designers: “An American Legacy: Norell, Blass, Halston & Sprouse.” Having heard of at least two of the names, I decided to check it out.
The dramatically lit room full of swankily dressed mannequins left me feeling sorely underdressed. Even the predetermined postures of the headless women—backs slightly arched, arms outstretched—suggested an air of formality and propriety that I know little about.
I scanned the exhibit labels, discovering that these dresses were not just for mannequins or runway models; the evening gowns and dinner dresses had been worn by presidents’ wives, actresses, and rock stars from the 1940s into the early 21st Century. But these high fashion designers from Indiana didn’t just provide expensive attire for the rich and famous; they created styles that characterized decades and fashions that changed an industry. These designers had left real legacies.
Matt Appling talks about “legacy” in his book, Life after Art: What You Forgot about Life and Faith since You Left the Art Room. In fact, he says the human need for permanence is often what drives both our worship and our work.
“Humans have endlessly pursued the divine because we want our lives to mean something besides the few decades we spend on earth. We don’t want to just leave behind a corpse and a houseful of junk that our kids will throw away. We want permanence. We want a legacy,” he says.
Like the designers in the exhibit who spent long careers defining both their style and their reputation for quality, leaving a legacy requires a commitment to a craft, a process, an industry.
“Creating something timeless will be a slow, meticulous process,” Appling warns. “It will not happen in a week or ten days. It will be more like an artist slowly chipping and smoothing a block of marble into a man. It will take time and patience and will be extraordinarily satisfying.”
This kind of commitment doesn’t always come easy to those of us who are surrounded by an abundance of cheap, poorly made goods that are nothing close to a legacy. Consider the other end of the clothing industry.
Not only are my clothes not designed by a fashionista, they likely were made by someone earning around $38 per month, and working in conditions that not only threaten her creativity, but also her life. After the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 400 workers in April 2013, Terry Gross of the NPR syndicated radio show, “Fresh Air,” interviewed author, Elizabeth Cline, who reported on garment factories in Bangladesh and China in her book Overdressed.
While cheap clothing means few people in the Western world need to go without, typically it means people who could afford better are becoming gluttons. According to Cline,” the average American is actually buying 68 garments and seven pairs of shoes per year. Our consumption has actually doubled since 1991.”
In that interview, Cline also talked about the problems with the “the fast fashion industry.” In addition to the obvious humans rights issues of low wages and dangerous working conditions, other problems like environmental contamination, economic disparity, and cultural shifts make the proliferation of cheap clothing more of a blight than a blessing in Western nations like the United States. Another problem that remains largely hidden from Western consciousness is what happens when all of those cheap clothes are discarded.
Because many people replace clothing far sooner than when it is actually worn out, the clothes often are donated to thrift stores and second-hand shops. The problem, however, is that those organizations have more clothes than they know what to do with. As a result, a second-hand clothing market has been created.
“So what they do is give the clothes maybe a week—no, I think it’s three weeks to a month—to sell in the thrift store. And so then they pull it off the floor, and then they bundle it up. And then from there, they’ll sell it either to Africa as used clothes or, if it’s really low quality stuff, they’ll sell it to the wiping rag industry, and then some of it gets recycled into car insulation,” Cline described.
Appling talks about these and other problems with mass production and consumerism. “The sad reality is that timeless things do not create profit,” he says. “That is why the global junk factory is never shut down.”
Most of us live somewhere between Bill Blass and the Bangladeshi factory worker. We want beautiful things, but we don’t have the money to buy the best. Appling says the answer lies in what we are building ourselves.
“What are you creating with your life that is timeless? What will matter about your life when you are gone? Will your life have a positive impact that is worth remembering?” Appling asks.
Recently, I was visiting with my family and someone brought up the topic of homemade black raspberry jam. My brother, Andy, and I both sighed heavily, and almost together said, “That’s my favorite.” But my mom told us that by the time you risk the briars to pick the berries and invest heavily in sugar and Sure-Jell, both of which have experienced the burden of an inflationary food market, it’s hardly worth making it from scratch.
“It’s cheaper to buy it from the store,” she said. She’s right.
But then she added, “It’s kind of like clothes. It used to be cheaper to make them yourself. Clothes were so expensive at the store. Now’s it’s just cheaper to buy those, too.” She was right again.
But maybe, one of us will still learn to sew, anyway, just for the sake of making something beautiful. Even if we aren’t the next Bill Blass, maybe one of us will create a little timelessness out of textiles.