The Origins of a Wardrobe

For me, fall is the ideal time to dial back after a busy summer and indulge in creature comforts: liquid carbohydrates, leisurely walks on crunchy leaves, and books – lots of books. One of the books I recently devoured is To Die For by fashion journalist Lucy Siegle. It’s a little outdated (published in 2011), but nevertheless an impactful read on the unbelievable environmental and human cost of fast fashion.

The statistics are mind-boggling and the tales of ecosystem damage heartbreaking, but what sticks with me most are the stories about people – the garment workers in Cambodia whose unliveable wages make it impossible for them to ever afford one of the jackets they’re expected to produce at breakneck speed. Or the mother in India who enlists the help of her 7-year-old to painstakingly stitch thousands of sequins to a subcontracted order of party dresses, most of which will never be worn twice. Not every story is sad, of course; let’s not ignore the skillful artisans and the small-scale designers whose practices go against the grain of conventional clothing production. But these folks represent the minority of people employed in the big business of fashion, feeding a global market enamoured by the cheap, cheap, cheap. 

Though stories of how our clothes are made occasionally break through to the public as punchy pieces of journalism, they seldom ever reach consumers by way of the actual purchases we make. Once the pieces are carted off the sewing floor, they become detached from their origin stories, including the materials that made them and the many hands they passed through. All this rich history becomes erased, reduced to a trivial “made in” stamp and a few lines of care instructions. Unlike my autumn book list, clothing tags do not make for very captivating reading; they contain little information and offer as much traceability as a high school essayist’s made-up bibliography. Some pieces don’t even cite the country of manufacture and almost none point to the origin of the textiles or raw materials, never mind the notions.

Despite this, I still felt compelled to systematically go through my wardrobe, peer inside the garments, and seek out whatever clues there were to my clothes’ pasts. Uncovering the true origins of my wardrobe is an impossible task, but as a starting point, I ought to know where my clothes are made.

Where do the clothes I own come from?

While the label inside a typical garment doesn’t exactly read like a biography on the piece’s history, it does provide some information from which inferences can be made about its origins. The place of manufacture is a key piece of data; however, it can only take you so far in drawing conclusions about how “ethically” a garment was created. A “Made in the USA” designation doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t manufactured by vulnerable people earning unfair wages – in fact, the majority of garment factory workers in the United States are low-income immigrants and violations of US labour laws are unfortunately commonplace. The Internet can be a powerful tool, too – the name of the brand, the design of the label, and other odd bits of information become “threads” for further research that can unravel new chapters to the stories about the clothes we own.

My predominantly secondhand wardrobe consists mostly of clothes made, I would guess, between the 1980s and 2000s. There are some older pieces – like my circa 1930’s wedding dress, as well as newer pieces, made within the last few years. Almost all of my clothes were purchased in Canada, where I live, with the exception of few pieces bought in China, during trips to see my extended family, and in Sweden, where I studied abroad during university. After going through my closet, piece by piece, I’ve recorded where each item was made, minus about twenty items that were missing tags, presumably handmade, or did not list country of manufacture. 

Of the pieces I can trace, the vast majority were made in Asia – nearly two-thirds manufactured in China or Hong Kong, including almost all of the silk and wool garments I own. It doesn’t surprise me as China has been one of the prime locations for Western companies to outsource their clothing production to within the past few decades. I remember a time, probably in the early-to-mid-2000s, when just about everything we consumed (in Canada) carried that ubiquitous “Made in China” stamp. Silk and wool are also two animal-based fibers that China produces and processes domestically. While I love wearing these materials, the scale at which they’re churned out and the pressure to keep prices cheap have undoubtedly come at a cost to the local people. For instance, the overproduction of cashmere in Inner Mongolia is tied to increasing desertification and exploitation of nomadic herders. 

There are a couple pieces, the last remnants of my fast fashion shopping habits, made in Pakistan and Cambodia – places associated with some of the most worst factory conditions and treatment of workers. The low prices I paid for them suggest that someone, somewhere along the supply chain was taken advantage of – so I can save a few bucks, while the corporation makes a few more. While it bothers me that I hold these artifacts of exploitation in my closet, the only thing worse than consuming unethical fashion is probably needlessly tossing it. 

Owing to my secondhand shopping practices, I’ve also acquired some interesting vintage pieces made in places that are not known for producing garments these days. I recently thrifted a Jaeger “all wool” thermal made in Great Britain. It looks to be from the 70s, according to this online resource, and while I was in line to pay for it, I struck up a conversation with an older woman who was telling me about Jaeger’s history as a quintessentially British brand. Since 2020, I’ve also started to invest in pieces from a few “slow fashion” brands that sew their pieces locally in Canada. Currently, I’m obsessed with my Naked and Famous trousers, which were made in their Montreal factory. Finally, another new-to-me item and one of the strangest pieces I have is a merino-possum sweater made in New Zealand by the brand MacDonald. The company blends New Zealand’s famous merino wool with fur from culled wild possums – a non-native species that has proliferated on the island, destroying indigenous flora and fauna. Ethical standards are in place to ensure these animals are hunted in a humane way. While I probably wouldn’t buy new from them, it’s an interesting example of a company that produces its wares locally, from domestically-sourced materials.

I’m still in the early days of trying to unpack and learn about where the garments that fill my closet were created and by whom. Of course, I can’t change how these clothes were made (I do take solace in that fact that I buy mostly secondhand and try not to personally contribute to the demand for evermore stuff), but it’s important to me that I educate myself as a consumer as much as possible, and make myself aware of the ties that link my wardrobe to the rest of the world in our globalized fashion economy.

Labels that tell the Story

Although websites and forums provide new avenues for product sleuthing, I wish garment labels and tags would do a better job of carrying information about the pieces they’re attached to: tying the hard stats (e.g. the date it was made, the factory it was produced in, the wages paid for it, the time it took to construct it, the carbon footprint) to the human stories (the living circumstances of the garment workers, their skills and training, the communities that host these workshops), so nothing is lost or forgotten. There’s APA/MLA for academic reports and nutritional labels for food products – we need a better standard than what currently exists for clothes. We need information that is legible and accessible to the public, not internal codes and reference numbers that can’t be matched to anything by consumers at home. 

There are some exemplary practices that exist, like People Tree’s profiles on the artisans and factories they work with, Krochet Kids’ hand signed knits, Noah’s transparency pricing, and experimentation with QR codes to package the journey of garments. There is certainly a growing movement of connecting wearers to producers through creative storytelling, while conveying the brand’s ethos. Admittedly, some of these initiatives feel like soulless marketing ploys, but there are worse trends to get behind – like Tide pods and teeth-filing.

As a proponent of secondhand buying, I often wonder, too, about the people who once possessed the items I now hold. What if I could learn, for example, that the vintage silk scarf I just bought belonged to a jet-setting journalist, who always carried it with her on trips for good luck (we can skip the macabre parts – I don’t need to know this is the sweater Granny passed in). And what if I could somehow tie my own stories to the piece so that when I pass it on, it carries a bit of me, too – like Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, only less butterflies and glitter glue. 

We all love a good story. I wonder if highlighting the significance of each individual article of clothing and imbuing it with an “identity” would make our stuff seem more valuable, less disposable; more traceable, less replaceable.

Overall Insights

Until now, my wardrobe has largely been about myself – a collection of pieces that express who I am, are holders of my memories and reminders of my aspirations and dreams. However, clothing can also transcend the wearer; each item has a story and life that traces back long before it came into someone’s possession. Every closet is a unique map of origins and pathways with connections to people and places, whether you’re aware of it or not.

I want to start paying more attention to where my clothes are from: researching before I buy, digging deeper to seek answers, searching for clues woven into the fabric and hidden in the stitches and seams. Asking myself, “is this a story I want in my wardrobe?”

When I’ve gone thrifting lately, I’ve been examining labels a little more closely. I see lots of cheap cast-offs of last year’s trends, but also older pieces made in Canada (70s polyester galore), Italy (tailored blazers), Ireland (wool sweaters), and beyond (including places that no longer exist – like Yugoslavia). It’s fascinating to think about how these clothes were made, who they were made for, and how they got here. Through this lens, you start to see them as historical artifacts and yourself as a thrift store anthropologist.

There’s so much buried knowledge to dig into. 

If you’re still here, reader (and you deserve a medal!), here are some questions I have for you:

Where are your clothes from? What does your map look like and how local is it to you? And, if you make your clothes, where are your materials from?

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