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Re-imagining Your Clothes

Me wearing the pink coat I bought in the 1980’s that I still wear today

There’s such a lot about “sustainable clothing” in the press and on social media at the moment, and I’m amazed it’s finally become fashionable. If I’m honest though, I also worry at how much of the clothing that manufacturers say is sustainable actually is, because that’s quite an ask (as a long-standing environmentalist, I’ve learned to be sceptical about green claims, and it’s good for all of us to be this way, because at the end of the day, manufacturers want you to buy their stuff, full stop).

Of course, the most sustainable clothing is currently sitting in your wardrobe and oh my – so many posts about this have popped up on my phone over the past several months, as though it’s a thought nobody’s ever had before! The truth of course is that most of us have regularly looked through our wardrobes and found things we’d forgotten about, which we’ve then started wearing again. We’ve all probably also been guilty of buying things that we never should have!

There are of course items that we just go off of over time, or which go out of fashion. To counteract this, I’ve been “re-inventing” clothes in these categories since the 1970s – although some of these projects weren’t very successful due, no doubt, to my lack of concentration during Domestic Science when I was at school! This is something I’ve regretted many times, but I’ve got round this over the years by:

A) managing to get better at sewing; B) or using local dressmakers to do alterations that are beyond my own abilities. I had a brilliant one near where my mother lived years ago, but since moving to Cranleigh, I’ve used a local dressmaker just down the road from me. I went through a rather “productive” phase a few years ago of taking stuff in there that I’d “re-imagined” and they’d say: “What have you done now?” This was referring to my having cut stuff that then needed finishing properly. The bottom line being that I’ve never been short on the ideas but as I’ve said above, not always quite as good about the execution! It has been worth it though, as I’ve been able to reinvent countless items that otherwise I wouldn’t have worn or taken to the charity shop.

Anyway, I’ve been going through my wardrobe again since the Autumn and have already found a few items that I’ve now started wearing again – which is always exciting. If you aren’t someone who tends to do this, think again and have a rummage – you may be surprised at what you find and I think that’s because we do change in terms of what we like, how we want to look, what we feel comfortable in, what’s fashionable and so on.

I must also admit to being a bit of a coat-aholic – BUT as I have coats/jackets that go back to the 1970s, they’re intermittently trendily retro! I have one gorgeous cream boucle swing jacket with a high collar (a la Katherine Hepburn) that I remember buying in Top Shop in the ‘70s when I was a student in Bath. I also have a beautiful dusky pink alpaca and cashmere coat from Next that I bought in the 1980s – it still looks like new and is a really timeless style (once I’d removed the shoulder pads!).

My brown swing coat

I do look after my clothes and pack out of season clothing away at the end of summer and about mid-spring. I also wash things that need washing before they’re put away and ensure that any natural fabrics are in bags – well, actually everything is in sealed bags. That way they’re safe from clothes moths who love nothing more than natural fabrics – which I love too.

Of course, we’ve gradually become more aware that fabrics like cotton are problematic in terms of sustainability, and I will write about this in a future article. Wool, on the other hand is entirely sustainable. There are, however, issues about the way in which many sheep are sheared, causing them unnecessary injury. Also, whilst wool is a very valuable commodity, it is not treated as such and farmers get very little financial recompense currently. Hopefully, with pressure, these issues can be resolved now that there is greater awareness of our impact on the environment and also of the importance of animal welfare.

Back to my clothes (and yours!): something we’ve done in my family for years is to let family members have a look through any clothing we really do want to get rid of, before taking it along to the charity shop or selling (obviously we can’t take stuff to charity shops at the moment). We have some items that have gone round between myself, my sister, my daughter and her friend and then they’ve come round again to me, sometimes years later, and I’ve wondered why I ever gave them away in the first place!

Thinking about charity shops, I must give a mention here to my friend Karen who, in the time that I’ve known her has managed to get some fabulous items from her favourite charity shop in the village. The trick here is that she does it, under normal circumstances, very regularly, which clearly increases her chances of getting the really good stuff. Now, although she may be buying regularly, the carbon footprint of second hand clothing is much, much lower than new clothing, especially if it hasn’t travelled far to get to the shop (and that’s very likely in a place like Cranleigh).

My own favourite find was a coat that I bought for £20 in the wonderful second hand stall that used to be in Cranleigh market many years ago. I’ve worn it so many times that I’ve lost count and I always feel glamorous in it. I’ve also been asked many times where I got it from. It’s a brown swing coat with fake fur collar and cuffs.

My vintage bed jacket

I’ve loved vintage clothing since I was a teenager and still have some items from that time. I also remember when I was pregnant and living in London, buying this pristine and beautiful bed jacket in oyster coloured quilted satin from Camden Passage vintage market, for when I had to go into hospital. To be honest, I never wore it in the hospital and actually ended up wearing it out as a jacket – and still do sometimes; it looks as though it’s 1930/40s. I keep it very carefully, all wrapped up. My favourite vintage item ever though was only about five years ago at The Floral Fringe Fair in West Sussex. I remember seeing this beautiful emerald green evening dress for £20, in perfect condition. It was clearly 1950s with a halter neck, fitted bodice and full, dropped waist floor length skirt. Needless to say, I bought it and I absolutely treasure it (and being a professional musician there are opportunities to wear it), so if vintage is your bag, then there are loads of items online and when things actually open up again, there are some great true vintage clothing stores and fairs around. Be aware though that second hand isn’t necessarily vintage. It depends on what era you’re into, I suppose.

As for re-invention, I must share with you an item I upcycled last year. It was originally a knitted skirt which I’d bought in about 2011. I love knitted clothing anyway, but was also attracted to the embroidery. As is sometimes the case, we make mistakes, and so every time I put it on, I immediately took it off again; it just didn’t feel right. It sat in my wardrobe for years, narrowly avoiding being taken to the charity shop and then when looking at it again and thinking about whether to keep it or not, I had a flash of inspiration and wondered if I could make it into a top.

Bravery when cutting up clothes has never been a problem for me (perhaps it should have been sometimes!) so I cut two holes at the sides (obviously I had tried it on over my head first and worked out where the holes needed to be) and then sewed up around the raw edges. Now I wear it all the time and the elasticated waist has become a great cowl neck. The only challenge is your imagination in working out what you can change an item of clothing into, although there are indeed some things that really are better off with somebody else!

Realise that clothes will go in and out of fashion, but if you have a bit of imagination, you can reinvent them and bring them up to date again and I use the term “up to date” loosely. If you do buy a new item, we’re advised (again, as though this is news) that it’s better to buy better quality clothing that will last.

Having said that, we’ve probably all got some fast fashion in our wardrobes, but with more understanding of the terrible price to the planet that fast fashion causes, I hope that more people will look to second hand. I am proud to say that I’ve only ever darkened the doors of P…..k once and couldn’t stand it. If we wear more timeless items, they’ll never go wildly out of fashion. We need to value the work of people who make our clothes and we need to get a lot better at reading labels and looking after the clothes that we have.

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