This old thing

Art as Climate Change Activism

This Old Thing is a project in which I’ll be wearing only charity shop-bought occasion dresses for two weeks. I’ll also be posting diary entries and a photo a day of me going about my normal life, doing mundane things. I want to use this to explore the various overlapping and contradictory ways we value our clothing, by being overdressed in garments which someone else threw away.

The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry after oil, producing 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon a year – more than international aviation and shipping combined. It’s estimated that globally, one truck’s worth of clothing is thrown away every second, and that less than 1% of that discarded fabric will be recycled. And the problem is getting worse. The average number of times a garment is worn before it’s thrown away has decreased by 36% worldwide in the last 15 years. Meanwhile, some estimates show one in six people alive in the world today working within the global fashion industry, many for poverty wages in unsafe conditions. Most are women, many are children.

Having become aware of some of these issues several years ago through a documentary called The True Cost, I have been working on buying less and less first hand. I used to buy a new outfit for every night out. Now I shop less often, and nearly always second hand. In fact, the idea for this project came to me while browsing the racks at one of my local charity shops. I found a long, strapless gown which I really loved, and deliberated over buying it. I had no events coming up which would be nearly fancy enough to justify wearing it, but then it was less than ten pounds. The mismatch between these two facts struck me. The dress was simultaneously too special for everyday wear, and cheaper than my last pair of pyjamas. I began to be very interested in this seeming contradiction.

The idea for This Old Thing had been germinating for a while by the time I began my studies with OCA. I’m currently most of the way through my first course, Creative Arts 1: Creative Arts Today, which covers the history and theory of a range of artistic disciplines. The latest section on photography really helped solidify my plans. I had known that I wanted to spend two weeks wearing the dresses, going out in public, tracking the reactions I got. I also knew that I wanted to keep a photo diary and put all of this on social media. I hoped to reach a bunch of people and contribute to a wider conversation, or at the very least give some food for thought to my friends and family. I was nervous, though, as I’m not a photographer and haven’t really ever incorporated the medium into my work before.

The exercises on the course to do with artists who have used photos as evidence of their ephemeral works – Richard Long, Aleksandra Mir, Keith Arnatt – helped me realise that the photos don’t necessarily have to be “art objects” in their own right. I had been concerned about artistic lighting and composition, and the stress of learning to do this all myself. After consideration I realised that the act of wearing the dresses is the piece, and the photographs I take can just be documentation. They should be clear, and a vehicle for the theme, but they don’t need to be ground-breaking or beautiful. This built my confidence in the project, without which I may never have ever begun it.

This Old Thing is running for the first two weeks of May. You can follow along on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/thisoldthingchallenge) or instagram (https://www.instagram.com/this_old_thing_challenge/), or read my diary at my personal website (https://alexhindley.com)

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11 Comments

  1. Doug Burton 8 May 2019 at 10:58 am

    Excellent blog post Alexandra, I hope to follow your progress for this challenge and pleased to see that your first unit is assisting your thought process. On a bit of a tangent to your recycling challenge but you might be interested in Christian Boltanski’s 2018 work ‘Personnes’ that he installed in Shanghai, 10T mountain of clothing with a hydraulic claw, themes to do with memory and the human condition, came to mind.

    Reply
  2. Catherine 8 May 2019 at 5:44 pm

    Such a great idea for a project as well as for the environment. Perhaps the challenge will spread.

    .Wishing you all success in your studies with OCA as well Alex.

    Reply
  3. Stevie Cussons 9 May 2019 at 4:50 pm

    An excellently conceived, and named, project, which strikes a chord with me because I make a lot of my own clothes and am trying to move towards zero-waste. Can you let us know how the project went at the end of the two weeks and what response you had from the public, please?

    Reply
  4. Emma Wilson 9 May 2019 at 4:59 pm

    What a great project!

    Reply
  5. reddirt27 9 May 2019 at 6:59 pm

    Great idea for such a contemporary issue Alex.

    Reply
  6. susan514652 9 May 2019 at 7:31 pm

    Hello. I think it’s great to be thinking about art as activism and drawing attention to our consumerist and throw away lifestyles as an environmental issue. I just wondered whether there is a contradiction in buying a new dress for each day – does this challenge the idea that we must have a new garment on a regular basis (whether new or second hand). Although fashion is one of the main polluters, in fact the most enironmentally damaging industry is animal agriculture – particularly the production of meat and dairy – causing habit loss, soil infertility, the biggest carbon footprint …fossil fuel burning is the second most polluting after animal agriculture – this is partly oil but other fossil fuels as well and related to transport and heating in the home. The fashion industry is third. I can send a link to the research on this if interested.

    Reply
    1. Alex Hindley 9 May 2019 at 8:29 pm

      Hi Sue! Thanks for commenting. Certainly the excessiveness of wearing a different dress each day is part of the message of the piece. Fortunately since they’re all second hand I don’t feel that those purchases are contributing to the fast-fashion crisis in themselves. There is, of course, an argument that the very idea that one can recycle clothing via charity shops might encourage people to engage with fast fashion without guilt, knowing that this fall back exists, but at this point I feel like we’re very far from that reality. I have had several encouraging comments and messages from people who’ve understood and engaged with the issues so I’m hopeful that the public perception of the work isn’t going too far awry from my original intention!

      I am actually vegan myself since seeing Cowspiracy in 2016, and did wonder about whether animal agriculture may be further up the list. The Stacey Dooley documentary I drew the “second most polluting industry after oil” stat from did explicitly call out animal agriculture as a point of comparison, but there are so many methods for calculating these things and so much to take into account that I could very well believe that you’d be right. Either way, I think we agree that they’re both deeply flawed industries in great need of reform.

      Thanks to all the other commenters as well, you’re a kind bunch!

      Reply
      1. susan 10 May 2019 at 6:02 pm

        Hello Alex, thank you for replying. I understand your project as satirical and to be commenting on the vacuity and vanity of the throw away consumerist culture in which people feel they must continue to buy clothes and look a certain way -underpinning breakdown of ecosystems.
        I like the idea of dressing up in ridiculous clothing to e.g. take out the rubbish or clean the toilet to make this satirical point.
        It’s just that my experience of trying to challenge indoctrinated beliefs seems to suggest that pointing out or exaggerating them to make a point can easily backfire and you can seem to be colluding in rather than critiquing damaging practices.
        I am interested to hear what you think about this at the end of the project. Specifically I am interested in your view on whether dressing up in a daily-changing stereotypical ‘special’ frock, while conducting everyday, perhaps menial or dirty tasks, challenges or supports the idea that women ‘should always look beautiful’ and whether dressing in beautiful clothes for daily tasks, challenges the notion that women should stop buying so many clothes or on the other hand, that they must be careful to dress in ever-changing and beautiful clothes to be acceptable, no matter what they are doing.
        Just a by the by – I have a student who wears the same shirt every single day – she was asked in my hearing by another student why she only wears one shirt. she replied that she has two exactly the same and alternates them – she does not see the need for more than two shirts. I loved her answer. I wonder if she came to college in a beautiful but different dress every day if the student would comment – other than to say how much she admires her dresses and where did she buy them?

        Reply
        1. Alex Hindley 13 May 2019 at 9:33 am

          Hey Sue! I have total sympathy with the ideas that you’re raising, and certainly I believe that part of the wider culture that drives our broken clothing system is a capitalist model where women especially are repeatedly told that they aren’t good enough as they are, then handed several (costly) options to “fix” themselves, including expensive clothing. However, it hasn’t been my intention to be prescriptive about how individuals navigate that. With this particular project I’m more interested in the fetishisation and perceived value of clothing than with issues of personal vanity or societal pressure, but I do appreciate that those will likely crop up when you’re a woman on the internet in a posh frock or 14.
          Certainly “making an effort” and making images of myself every day has been part of the challenge for me personally in terms of not succumbing to a seductive, ingrained narrative that says that I am somehow better in these clothes and this lipstick than I was before with neither. Also there could be something interesting in looking at the comparison between the responses I get to my posed “dress reveal” posts each morning and the more mundane, less aesthetic “diary” posts I make each night. Although I do have friends who do choose to make similar levels of effort every day and would consider that part of their self expression; something that they enjoy and do for themselves. I think they’re cool, and I also think your student with the two t-shirts is cool. I think if both can coexist while everyone is being conscious of their impact on the environment, and no one feels like they have to dress for other people, then that’s best of all.
          My thoughts run something more like this: If it’s jarring to see me gardening in a silk dress, and then less so when you find out that the dress cost me £5.99, then what changed? If it seems excessive for me to wear a prom dress while I hang up my washing, is it more or less so when you consider that this was one of many, many similar dresses that I was able to find in charity shops of one small town? Is it even more or less so again when you consider the impact of all this on the environment? Throughout, the dress is unchanged. The exact same scraps of fabric can shift their value and significance multiple times. That’s really been my focus, although I appreciate that once the public is reacting to something all control over the project’s meaning is essentially lost to me!

  7. Tanya Thomas 10 May 2019 at 12:46 pm

    What a good idea for a project and it has a fun element too. I am often stuck by all the ball gowns and wedding clothes in charity shops. I suppose if the garments are in good condition after your project you could recycle them back to the shops or possibly use them for some sort of textile piece?

    Reply
    1. Alex Hindley 10 May 2019 at 1:15 pm

      Yeah, I put a pin in those sorts of considerations during project planning, figuring I’d wait to see what kind of response I got and let that inform how I handled the dresses afterwards. My current thinking is that I may auction some of them through my facebook and instagram and give the money raised to an environmental cause like re-wilding or conservation, and then organise a community clothes swap to try and re-home the rest. I’d cover all of that through the social media and blog, of course!

      Reply

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