A Dress for Our Time: the power of political fashion
By BEL JACOBS
Professor Helen Storey MBE RDI, Professor of Fashion and Science at London College of Fashion, is one of the earliest pioneers of political fashion. For the past 15 years, she has been working to use fashion to express some of the most urgent issues of our time.
Four years ago, Professor Storey brought together collaborators and supporters including Holition, Unilever, Met Office and the UNHCR, people from very different backgrounds in science, business, education, technology and humanitarian work.
The result was Dress for Our Time, a dress crafted from a UNHCR tent that once provided shelter to a family of Syrian refugees in the notorious Zaatari refugee camp. In 2015, it launched at St Pancras to highlight issues of climate change. Its latest iteration focuses on the refugee crisis.
Here Professor Storey talks about the moment when her work in fashion changed to become more socially and politically conscious. “At the beginning of 2014, I had a meeting at the Groucho Club. I’d asked climate scientists at the MET Office to come up and say in 10 minutes how they saw the future. And I asked some people that helped write the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan to do the same. And a researcher who had been commissioned by a global research agency to look at how we as a species are – or aren’t – responding to the notion of climate change, and why.
There were about 15 of us around the table. They’d never met each other before and they each did their 10 minutes. At the end, we all went very quiet, and we didn’t say anything and we had a glass of wine and we went home. And I couldn’t sleep.
Then, slowly over the next two or three days, I started getting texts and emails and phone calls saying, ‘did you hear a date?’ And I said, I did: 2020. 2020 is human society’s tipping point. And it’s changed everything since then. What those people had to say collectively, we’ve all heard differently before, in different ways, but there was something about that moment, that combination of people – and the lack of reaction, the not knowing how the hell to process it.
Out of that meeting came three questions. The first is to do with reciprocity: how can we act with those we consider to be our enemies? The second question is around freedom, being able to treat what we know and don’t know with the same sort of value and attention. The last is how you engage with all this with authenticity and optimism, even if you feel paralysed by the nature of what you know. Rather than be the evangelist who just says ‘it’s awful,’ you need to help people see themselves in the problem. That’s the role I think arts and culture and fashion can play.
We’ve partnered with the MET Office and their scientists were saying ‘we know everything about climate change, but we have no idea how to talk to people about it. They see us as the science of doom. We need to find a way to have conversations about living now, what it means to be human, with all that we know.’
Fashion is like a second skin; it’s the language that helps us communicate who we are and who we’d like to attract. It’s really primal and, when it comes to big things like climate change, we need to be working with things that are instinctive to us. We’re hard-wired to have self-interest. And what’s been interesting in this work is, we need that [self-interest] more than ever. The things that are most difficult to articulate, understand and believe, need currencies that are easy to us as doorways.
The world is asking us to behave differently and to evolve different aptitudes for living. We in the West are very privileged, certainly by comparison to the developing world. But I don’t think that’s a good reason for those with the greatest power to do something to wait until it’s on their doorstep, because then it’s too late. This is what part of our evolving is. Most people say ‘give me the list of things to do’. Those lists exist – recycle, wash at 30 degrees, all those things – but I think the requirement is to enter the ring in a new way. Be part of it. Stay alert to what’s going on. And when you see something in your own life that contribute, do it.”