Fashion Diary: Eco-fashion has gone in and out of style

Los Angeles Times Fashion Critic

Did you know that Halston’s famous 1970s era Ultrasuede dresses are not biodegradable? Talk about timeless fashion.

Or that Madame Grès was using faux fur way back in 1942, to get around real fur shortages during the German occupation of Paris during World War II?

Or that the democratization of fashion didn’t begin at Target and H&M, but at New York City’s 19th century shirtwaist factories, which produced affordable styles that allowed more women to participate in fashion, but at the cost of fair labor practices?

These are just a few of the fascinating tidbits from the exhibition “Eco Fashion: Going Green,” on view at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City through Nov. 13.

The term eco-fashion is at odds with the nature of an industry that thrives on churning through styles. But over the last decade, there has been a growing movement of designers and brands using, producing or promoting sustainable and ethical products, in a new kind of couture. They include Bono and Ali Hewson, whose Edun label focuses on creating sustainable economies in Africa, and Alabama Chanin, who champions fair labor practices by employing 80 women to hand-stitch and paint garments.


There’s a rising consciousness among more mainstream fashion designers too. At Paris Fashion Week in October, the Chanel runway show was set against the backdrop of a gigantic melting iceberg, and fast-fashion giant H&M recently launched an organic cotton collection.

But eco-fashion, as defined by the curators Colleen Hill and Jennifer Farley, includes industry examples of both good and bad environmental practices. Their exhibit provides 150 years of historical context on animal rights, labor and manufacturing issues to add to the discussion.‪

The exhibit is organized chronologically, beginning in the mid-18th century, when fine silk brocades were so rare and cherished that their repurposing was its own kind of conservation.

A pale green silk dress from 1840 is an early example of multifunctionality. To get more out of a dress made of high-cost fabric, it has a removable capelet and sleeves to take a woman from day to night.

At the same time, the Industrial Revolution was changing patterns of consumption. Women and children as young as 8 went to work in cotton mills to produce fabric for dresses such as the 1818 white cotton gown on display. Roller-printed fabrics replaced handprinted ones, and jacquard silk production was mechanized, decreasing the need for skilled labor.

“In more recent years, sweatshop labor has been on our minds,” Farley says. “These aren’t really new problems, they’re just manifesting themselves in different ways.”

Mass production of ready-to-wear pieces such as the 1894 Stanley shirtwaist helped break down social barriers by allowing more women to dress stylishly, but at a cost, as evidenced by the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which claimed the lives of 146 workers in 1911.

New synthetic dyes brought exciting colors to apparel, but there were health ramifications, as an 1865 two-piece “poison green” silk tulle dress dyed with arsenic attests. “We tried not to breathe in while we were handling it,” Hill says.

One of the most surprising things the curators discovered was that the idea of celebrity animal rights activism was much older than they had thought. In the 1920s, when raccoon fur coats‬‪ ‬‪were all the rage among collegiates, Broadway actress Minnie Maddern Fiske was a vocal opponent.

Rayon was the first man-made fiber, seen on a 1926 orange knit rayon shift dress. Recent evidence shows that rayon, which is chemically produced from cellulose, may biodegrade faster than cotton, according to the curators.

Eco-fashion is complicated because it is often a trade-off of positives and negatives, as illustrated by a wrinkle-resistant cotton nylon seersucker wash and wear men’s suit from 1959. “It was intended to minimize ironing, which shows evidence of saving energy over the garment’s lifetime,” Farley says. “But it’s made from nylon, and nylon production is concerning because it produces nitrous oxide gas, which stays in the environment 120 years.”

While mass consumerism was spreading across postwar America in the 1950s, in Europe it was the golden age of haute couture, epitomized by a stunning, handmade-to-measure 1957 black silk chiffon crepe cocktail dress by Cristobal Balenciaga. The piece stands in contrast to a mass-produced dress from 1950 in a black floral made from extremely hazardous discharge printing.

In the 1960s, plastic clothing was part of the futuristic Space Age look, even though the materials the clothes were made of were carcinogenic and harmful to the environment. A 1968 Courrèges dress juxtaposes the old and the new, with vinyl details on elegant silk chiffon.

At the same time, hippies were anti-fashion, embracing handicrafts instead of mass-produced goods as part of the blossoming environmental movement. A 1968 cotton patchwork skirt, created by Appalachian women’s cooperative Mountain Artisans, illustrates the trend.

The 1970s ushered in a more nostalgic mood, a reaction against so much futurism in the ‘60s. A 1971 Harriet Winter dress in vintage Art Deco rayon fabric was an example of recycling that hinted at the vintage fashion craze to come.

In the 1990s, conceptual designers revolted against ‘80s excess by doing some repurposing of their own, as seen in Martin Margiela’s 1991 sweater made from old Army socks.

Today, eco-fashion varies from glamorous (the bamboo fleece and printed silk chiffon “cloud dress” by L.A.-based Linda Loudermilk, who pioneered an eco-labeling system called the Luxury Eco Stamp of Approval), to sophisticated (John Patrick’s organic cotton mesh top and skirt in a handpainted pattern inspired by butterflies), to sporty (Stella McCartney’s 2008 organic wool alpaca sweater dress).

In a culture addicted to disposable fashion, the obstacle all these designers face is public perception.

“Designers want to rid themselves of the stigma that hemp is ugly‬‪,” says Farley, who is confident the eco-fashion movement will continue to pick up steam. “Even if people aren’t participating yet, they are becoming more conscious.‬‪"