The cost of clothing

Tomorrow, it will be exactly a year since the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1129 of the workers inside and leaving many more injured.

Groups around the world will be gathering to remember those who died and to protest against a global fashion industry that continues to trivialize and endanger the lives of factory workers.

Some clothing companies have signed an Accord on Factory and Building Safety in Bangladesh, but others have refused, citing liability concerns and instead agreeing to improve conditions but on less stringent terms. And, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, only a third of the money needed by survivors and victims’ families has been paid, with many companies yet to pay any compensation at all.

It seems clear to me that the only way to prevent more accidents of the same nature, we, as consumers, must take a stand. Ultimately, if we don’t buy from companies whose practices fall short of our ethical demands, then they can’t continue to profit from those practices.

By changing the way we buy and treat our clothes, we can change the system for the better. Here are a few things we can do:

Choose carefully. Buy good quality, ethically-sourced clothes. Although the immediate price is higher, buying clothes with better quality seams and fabric will mean you buy fewer items of clothing and save money in the long run. Also, buying something you really really like means you’re more likely to look after it properly and make it last longer.

Don’t worry about ‘trends‘. The fashion industry coaxes more sales out of a saturated market by telling us we must keep up with the latest, constantly changing trends. In reality, finding clothes that fit and suit you is the easiest way to that rather furtive notion known as  ‘style’.

Buy secondhand. So much cheap, good quality and perfectly wearable clothing can easily be found on the secondhand market, from charity shops to upmarket vintage stores.

Take care of clothes. Properly cleaning, storing and mending clothes can hugely prolong their lives. Darning is really easy and, as Tom of Holland points out with his Visible Mending Programme, a mended patch can be worn as a badge of honour.

Buy handmade. Alongside the global fashion industry, there’s a growing global handmade market. Websites like Etsy make it easy to buy handmade clothing direct from the maker, and this means you can often request a particular size, colour or design. You can also find designer makers closer to home at local craft fairs and markets.

Make it yourself. Making your own clothing does require some time and equipment, but is pretty addictive once you get started. You can make clothes exactly how you want them to be, they’ll be completely unique, and it feels wonderful to wear something you’ve made yourself. It’s also really easy to get started – there are lots of excellent online tutorials and books for beginners, and many groups like our collective Craft Guerrilla who host workshops and craft nights.


If you’re in London tomorrow, join us on Oxford Street to mark the anniversary of the Rana Plaza tragedy. You can find more information on the event’s facebook page.

This interactive documentary by the Guardian newspaper tells the story of the Rana Plaza factory disaster and what has happened since. The Shirt on Your Back

Some thoughts on the Bangladeshi factory disaster

mibOn 24th April 2013 an eight-storey building in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed, trapping thousands of factory workers inside, injuring about 2,500 people and killing 1,127.

Fifty-four days on, the disaster has mostly slipped out of the headlines and from the attention of the media.

What, if anything, has changed?

I found myself struggling to work out my own complicity in the disaster. In my wardrobe I found four t-shirts bought in British high street stores with the label ‘Made in Bangladesh’. Of course, the fact that these t-shirts were made in Bangladesh is not the issue; the main problem is a lack of ethical/ humanitarian constraints in the clothing market. The clothing companies who sell us cheap t-shirts can do so because they source their products from suppliers in countries where minimum wage standards, working conditions and building regulations are not as developed and/ or regulated as in economically better-off countries such as the UK. But the label ‘Made in Bangladesh’ is the only thing on this plain, unremarkable t-shirt that reminds us of the complex chain of events that has placed it in our hands, on our backs.

I feel as though I’ve got too used to buying things – whether clothes, food or toilet paper – without considering how they were produced. A brand new t-shirt appears so clean and complete that it seems even harder to think about the many hands it’s passed through to reach that wearable state we tend to take for granted.

The latest factory tragedy shows that this untroubled consumption can’t continue – it’s already coming apart at the seams.


There’s an interesting report on the factory disaster here, on the Democracy Now website:

Sunday afternoon in Donetsk

I’m already halfway through my two weeks in Donetsk. Until today, I’d only ventured outside the hotel to go to work or out with friends, always driven or escorted to a specific location with no danger of getting lost or need to attempt any Russian beyond ‘spasiba’.

However, this afternoon I found the time and courage to explore a little of the city by myself. Here’s something I wrote halfway through my adventure into the unknown, enjoying the feeling of not having to be anywhere in particular and not knowing exactly where I was anyway. The blazing sunshine helped.

I’m sitting in a garden of scented roses overlooking a lake, surrounded by kids eating candy floss and strolling lovers. Arms drape over railings and be-heeled feet flick for lakeside portraits. Beneath the rose bushes, invisible against the dark, manure-rich soil, hundreds of sparrows tweet a continuous high-pitched beat, giving themselves away to the passersby.

How did I get here?

Out of the hotel – sunglasses descend onto my nose, held in place by the bony ridge therewith – left onto Boulevard Pushkin, down shady steps all the way to the bottom, right, past stalls selling dubiously sparkly-looking amber necklaces and black-and-brightly-coloured Peruvian shoulder bags, under a bridge, doughtily/ doubtingly across a disused railway track, through a cloud of candy floss and roller blades and over another bridge guarded at either end by sagging-bellied, strong-willed babushkas selling nuts.

Afterwards, I walked around the lake, enjoying the challenge of trying to discover the source of the amplified squawks and rasps at the edge of the water (answer = big, green, noisy frogs). On the way back up Boulevard Pushkin I happily play up my naive tourist status with two more babushkas, who press The Watchtower into my hand but give up after a few minutes of courageous glossalalia against shoulder shrugs and an inanely good-natured smile.

Back to the hotel, safe and a little more sound, to type up my blissful wanderings so as not to forget.

William & Jane Morris

Jane drawingWilliam Morris, drawing of Jane Morris in medieval costume, 1861, pencil and ink on paper, 51 x 41cm.  © William Morris Gallery, London Borough of Waltham Forest

Last month I gave a short talk at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow about a piece on display. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to research and talk about a drawing I love and give my interpretation. Here’s a typed version of what I said, with a few extra dates and details.

This is a drawing by William Morris, of his wife Jane. It was made in 1861, two years after the Morris’ marriage. The drawing seems unfinished; in fact it is a preparatory sketch for a wall painting.

Jane may well look familiar; she is best known as the muse and model of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and is recogniseable as the subject of a number of his paintings. She remains something of a celebrity-figure: for much of 2012 she starred on posters across London for the Tate exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, as the central figure in Rossetti’s painting Astarte Syriaca of 1877.

Before her marriage to William, Jane’s surname was Burden. She was born in Oxford in 1839, to Robert Burden, a stableman, and his wife Ann Maizey. It was here in Oxford, in 1857,  that she first met Rossetti. Jane and her sister were attending a performance of the touring Drury Lane Theatre Company, when she was spotted by Rossetti, who declared her a ‘stunner’ and invited her to sit for him. She began modelling for him, and then, after Rossetti introduced her to his friend, for Morris. Painting, however, was not Morris’s forte, and he made only this drawing and one painting of his wife. Once while trying to paint Jane, his wrote on the canvas “I can’t paint you but I love you”.

As I have said, Jane is best known as a model for Rossetti’s paintings. She modeled for him from their meeting in 1857, long after Jane’s marriage to William in 1859, and up until Rossetti’s death in 1882. As Jan Marsh has pointed out, Jane’s “long love affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti has become the stuff of legend”. The deeply affectionate nature of their relationship is obvious from surviving letters, as well as the large amount of time they must have spent together for Rossetti’s paintings. Throughout this complex relationship, however, Rossetti and William Morris remained friends, and fellow workers as partners in the firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and co.

Jane and this drawing form part of the close connection between the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts & Crafts movement. After William and Jane married in 1859, their friends helped to decorate and furnish their new marital home, Red House. Morris made this drawing as a preparatory sketch for a wall painting which was planned for the house, but never executed. It shows Jane posed as if she is about to board a ship; the ladder she is about to step onto, and the planks of the vessel can be seen faintly sketched around her.

There are differing interpretations as to the subject matter depicted; she may be Iseult, the Irish princess who fatefully fell in love with Tristan aboard a ship heading for Cornwall, but it seems more likely that she represents Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships.

Morris has put particular care and attention into the hair and fabric in his depiction, especially the beautifully-patterned sleeve lining of Jane’s dress. This reflects his turning towards the decorative arts at the time, as he sets up the firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and co. the very same year, then in 1862 made Trellis – his first wallpaper design.

The subject matter of the drawing and medievalising costume show Morris’ interest in past eras. Through art and design, he harked back to what he believed to be periods of greater craftsmanship, freedom and creativity, in contrast to the industrialism, artifice and restriction of Victorian Britain. These sentiments were shared and expressed by his friends and associates in the circle of the firm and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Jane herself seems to have shared these sentiments. She and William worked closely on needlework projects, together unpicking old pieces of embroidery to discover and recreate old techniques. She was a skilled seamstress and is likely to have made the dress she wears for this drawing, as she did for Rossetti’s painting The Blue Silk Dress of 1868. The dress she wears for William’s drawing harks back to the medieval period and is loose flowing. It would have been easy to move in compared to conventional women’s clothing of the time, which controlled and shaped women’s bodies with corsets and crinolines. In photographs of Jane and her two daughters, they wear similarly loose, unconventional clothing.

It is easy to see Jane Morris as a still, silent and demure muse, because the paintings and photographs we ‘know’ her through are still, silent and demure. We often make the mistake of interpreting sitters, particularly women, through the medium by which we see them. However, once we realise that our perspective is distorted, we can see them in a different light.

What I find most interesting about this drawing is how it reveals Jane Morris’ contribution to the Arts & Crafts movement and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She may have sat or stood still for this drawing and many other works, but she also contributed to them by her actions and movements, notably her skill in dressmaking and embroidery. This drawing reveals a collaboration between William and Jane.

None of the many paintings, drawings or photographs of Jane show her smiling, but in real life she did! A friend of Jenny & May Morris regularly visited the house, and remembers Jane for her “delicious and chuckling laugh with which she would greet our youthful extravagances”.


Tim Barringer, Jason Rosenfeld, Alison Smith (eds.), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avante-Garde (Tate, 2012)

Jonathon Benington, Simply Stunning: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of Dressing (Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museums, 1996)

John Bryson and Janet Camp Troxell (eds.), Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Jane Morris: Their Correspondence
(Oxford University Press, 1976)

Jan Marsh, The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood (Quartet Books, 1998)

Jan Marsh and Frank C. Sharp (eds.), The Collected Letters of Jane Morris (Boydell Press, 2012)

Linda Nochlin, The Politics of Vision: essays on nineteenth-century art and society  (Thames & Hudson, 1991)