Article by Martha Lochhead // Oct. 23, 2019
The new exhibition at the Museum Europäischer Kulturen (MEK), ‘Fast Fashion, The Dark Sides of Fashion’ is a hard-hitting and thought-provoking blend of art, photo, video, installation and fact. What transpires is that “the biggest ‘fashion sins’ are committed even before the garments reach the store.” However, instead of just telling you the problems and making you feel defeated and guilty every time you put on your favourite high-street jumper, the exhibition has a section on ‘Slow Fashion’ to inspire the viewer to make positive steps toward becoming a more conscious consumer.
Consumers often have little to no idea about the realities of how garments are produced. We catch glimpses on the news, but the reality is they don’t cross our television screens or social media feeds as often as the next sale or this season’s ‘must-haves’ do. The exhibition takes a timely, critical look at the fast fashion industry.
A video of a YouTube-style “clothes haul,” in which two young people unpack their purchases from a shopping spree, is presented at the entrance to the exhibition. They talk us through each piece and why they bought it, saying things like “it was only 2 Euros” or “I just had to buy it.” It is light-hearted and demonstrates how common it is not to consider where our clothes come from when buying them. A projected video on a nearby wall begins with a catwalk of high-end fashion, showing beautiful clothes and beautiful people – the glamour that one might easily associate with the fashion world. The next scenes show the exploitative labour of garment factories: workers collapsed and exhausted, sleeping among piles of clothes. The exhibition offers a stark comparison between the glamourous fashion world and the consumer viewpoint, and the harsh realities of the labourer’s experience.
On April 24th, 2013 at 9am, a nine-story commercial garment factory—the Rana Plaza—collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1,134 workers and leaving hundreds more missing and wounded. The collapse of the building raised questions about the responsibility of allowing such devastating working conditions to transpire. Taslima Akhter’s photo series portrays the narrative of the ‘Death of A Thousand Dreams.’ Many people move from villages to live in shared workers’ barracks with the dream of a better life. With the collapse of the Rana Plaza, 1,134 dreams died with their dreamers.
Manu Washaus describes the press photos from the collapsed Rana Plaza as an “aesthetic, recurring pattern, which the media provides us.” Describing the photos as a “pattern” exemplifies how these images of devastation can seem so distant from the Western consumer and yet the clothing touching our skin comes directly from these sites. Washaus’s sweaters have the press photos printed on them. In doing this, the artist links the production of the garment to the garment itself, forcing the consumer to consider the brutal reality of fast fashion production. The sweaters bridge the distance between victim and consumer.
The exhibition includes a video of women who process second-hand clothes from Europe and America to be recycled. They discuss the clothes they see; marvelling at the newness of them, they wonder why they have been given away. “Maybe they don’t like washing their clothes,” one of them speculates. They talk about what happens “abroad” wishing that they could go there with the clothes. One woman says “Western women are so respected, God has given them such a good life,” as they wonder about who wears these “lovely” clothes. There is a moment in the sequence that stood out: as the women are laughing about the clothes, an older woman talks about the knickers they unpack, she exclaims: “they come with pearls and gems stitched on, some poor helpless thing abroad must be forced to wear them.”
In Haiti, second-hand garments from America are called ‘Pepe.’ Usually, the clothes have been donated to charities and collection centres. This means that t-shirts produced in Haiti for Americans may be returned to the sender. Often the donated t-shirts have tacky slogans emblazoned on them and Haitians end up wearing them without translating the “poetry” into Creole. Paolo Woods’ series of photos depict unassuming Haitians who stare into the camera wearing ‘Pepe’ and sporting slogans, such as the familiar distasteful “the man, the legend,” with arrows pointing up and down. More examples include “I’m not a gynaecologist, but I’ll take a look” and “I pee in pools,” to name only a few. Though at first glance the photos may seem amusing and ironic they, in fact, exemplify 50 years of the unbalanced North-South relationship. In addition, the ‘Pepe’ trade puts thousands of Haitian tailors out of business. This is not to say that one shouldn’t donate clothes; the exhibition instead suggests that before buying a garment we should consider where it has been already and where it will end up.
The exhibition also reflects on the environmental impact of the fashion industry in an evocative photo series entitled ‘Rivers in pink jeans-blue.’ The Tullahan River in the Philippines “appears in this season’s fashionable colour: pink”: the river changes colour depending on what colour of dye has been used that day in the nearby textile factory. A similar thing happens in Xingtang, China, where the rivers run “jeans-blue.” The chemicals are devastating to aquatic organisms and nearby inhabitants, who have no access to clean water. In the exhibition, the figures of the average “virtual water content” for a 250g cotton t-shirt are displayed. The disparity between the lack of water available for people to drink, and the water used for a t-shirt, is sickening. The average is 2,500 litres but could be up to 12,000 litres, depending on the cultivation area.
The final room of the exhibition offers a solution to the heart-breaking narrative that unfolds. Slow fashion is a reaction to fast fashion. It prizes conscious consumption—fewer clothing collections, with the aim that consumers buy less with more awareness—and fair production, using organically grown or recycled materials. There are interactive installations that ask visitors “what is your favourite item of clothing?” to encourage reflection and gratitude. They also have information on how to “Detox your wardrobe!” and on “Clothes swapping made easy!” Ultimately, the exhibition leaves us with a different consumer mindset and with the tools to make different choices about fashion.