Dear Ingrid and Erika
I sit here now watching you playing so nicely together, happy and confident little girls content to wear the same outfit over and over again until I have to forcibly remove it from you and put it in the wash before it walks there itself. You are so proud of your hand me down clothes from your older cousins and tell everyone about the dress that mummy made for you but I know there will come a time, all too soon, when you will start to think differently. As the pressure to be just like all the other girls your age starts to weigh upon you, you will stop marching to your own beat and start buying as many clothes as you can cram in your wardrobe (and on your floor) because as a teenage girl you will believe that clothes are what define you and influence how other people interact with you.
I could tell you how in the age of Kickers shoes and Kappa tracksuits I was the girl flouncing about in tie dye and smelling of patchouli and that this refusal to conform and disregard for the judgemental attitudes of other girls my age are part of the reason that I am the strong, confident woman that stands before you today. I could tell you all this, but as I am your mother you will no doubt groan and roll your eyes at me so instead I am just going to ask you to think about a few things before you head off on your latest shopping trip with your friends.
Next time you want to tell me how unfair it is that I won’t give you £20 to buy the dress you want I’d like you think about the young woman in the factory in Jiangsu who has left behind her family (including her children) to go and work in a factory 6 days a week where she gets paid on a piecework basis, has to sleep in a poorly lit and ventilated dormitory and isn’t allowed to speak during working hours. If you still feel hard done by I have a list of jobs that you can do to earn that £20, I will pay you when the list of jobs is completed, you will work 12 hour days plus any over time that I ask you to at no extra rate of pay, you will also be sleeping in the shed until you earn the full amount. Oh and I will be docking your wages for food and board as well.
Next time someone looks down their nose at you and says “oh you are wearing that again!” think of the 40,000 Chinese garment workers that went on strike to demand better pay and conditions despite a fear of reprisals, injury or violence. I want you to channel their bravery, stand up to that bitchy teenage girl and tell her to wind her neck in.
Just because something is beautiful doesn’t mean that it is free from dirty little secrets. The silk dress of mine that you love so much (I know you do, when you were 3 you asked if you could have it when I died!) might be beautiful but behind it lies the taint of child labour. The company that made it were involved in controversy over the use of child labour in their factories in China and India, and they performed incredibly badly on other measures of ethical production (traceability of garment, paying living wages, identifying and fixing problems with the supply chain, paying a living wage and consumption of resources). The silk that it is made from has a reputation for a whole range of health problems for the workers who produce it. Heat exposure, lung disease, skin disease and musculoskeletal problems might seem far removed from your world but let me put it another way, imagine you were having your period and instead of laying on the sofa with a hot water bottle complaining about life you were stood in a room as hot as a sauna for 12 hours scooping up dead and diseased silk worms (and their poo) with your bare hands all the time breathing in tiny little scales off the worms themselves. Not such a beautiful picture now is it, and I hadn’t even got to the bit about toxic chemicals.
Try making your own outfit from scratch even if it is just the once. Pay attention to the pain in your back as you stand at a table cutting out the pattern pieces, or as you hunch over the sewing machine in the same position for hours on end. Acknowledge the frustration you feel as you thread the over locker and then 5 minutes later have to re-thread it because something went wrong or as you sit and unpick the stitches you have spent the last 30 minutes sewing because you sewed the wrong sides together. Keep track of how many hours it took to make that dress. Now imagine I bought that dress off you for £8 wore it once then threw it in the corner of my room and never bothered wearing it again. How does that make you feel?
In a way you were right, the clothes you wear and how you wear them does say a lot about you, just not in the way you thought. We will talk about side issues of feminism and self identity (much to your irritation I am sure) another time but for now I hope you have taken the time to think about these things, if you are the still the kind and considerate girls as teenagers that you are as toddlers then I know you will now be thinking twice about whether you do really need to go shopping. You will probably be asking me to help you repair the jeans you already have or alter something else in your wardrobe to give it a new lease of life.
As for whether or not you can have my silk dress when I die, you’ll have to argue that one out with your sister!
This letter was written as part of the Who Made my Clothes course run by the University of Exeter and Fashion Revolution through Future Learn, see here for more information https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/who-made-my-clothes
I took my inspiration for the format from Caitlin Moran and her posthumous advice “letter to my daughter” published in The Times and her book Moranthology.