By Anushka Tay
I’ve been involved in many ideological discussions surrounding garments with my class during this first term. These often follow on from our lectures, as we have considered vast (and often politicised!) topics in the Cultural and Social Theory unit from the dissemination of style, class barriers, economics and the fashion system. On a different note, we’ve learnt about garments and silhouettes of the past in the Fashion Histories unit, with an understanding of clothing as embedded in the culture of its time.
Today, it seems that the manufacturing of clothing has become incredibly polarised between mass and niche production. Surely everyone today has consumed ‘fast fashion’: high-street clothes at various levels of affordability which is made in overseas factories. This hasn’t always been the case, and through reading Elizabeth Wilson’s Adorned in dreams: fashion and modernity (1985) and Christopher Breward’s Fashion (2003) I discovered the now-forgotten world of manufacturing within Western cities. Thanks to television period dramas, it’s not hard to envisage Victorian factories in Britain; but sweat shops also existed in New York and Los Angeles, as well as Paris.
Today, workrooms have survived in European cities by marketing themselves to the heritage and luxury sectors. They may also be incredibly specialist. As my background is in the theatre, my thoughts always immediately turn to the array of makers that I’ve met in the costume world in London. They may be predominantly working for performance, but their skills are on par with haute couture makers. Practitioners – and suppliers – are also highly specialised, often having long waiting lists. In my opinion, emblematic of the most niche category in garment-making are DM Buttons in Soho, who literally specialise in applying buttonholes, and will do so on a 17th Century historically accurate reproduction doublet for the Globe theatre, or for fashion students caring to make an appointment.
All this is a very long introduction to the above short film. Freed’s of London make and sell pointe shoes. As you can imagine, there are very few manufacturers of ballet shoes, and dancers are fiercely loyal to their preferred brand. The shoe wholly encases the foot, becoming moulded through sweat and perseverance. I had never really considered how pointe shoes were made before. Unlike other costume items, they always arrive at work looking so fresh and perfectly uniform, pink satin glowing in their special plastic packets. This is certainly emblematic of Hegelian alienation in practice: even as part of what I knew to be a completely bespoke costume, I just assumed that the shoes were assembled in anonymous factory-like conditions. In fact, there are wonderful stories to hear from the people who have made it their life’s work to make ballet shoes.