Written by Clea Morris
Vivienne Westwood – typically acerbic, predictably incisive – graced the world in 2018 with another nugget of wisdom: ‘[i]f we had culture instead of consumption’, she writes, ‘we would not have climate change. … Culture makes people think. It’s good for people. And now we have consumption, not culture. We don’t have art anymore’. This aphorism forms a part of a growing bank of Westwood axioms on How We Can Possibly Save The World If Only We Listened To Vivienne – however, these are not merely the gnomic utterances of one of a batty fashion elite, elevated high above the world in an ivory tower (admittedly, stylishly draped with swathes of expensive, Extinction Rebellion-stamped voiles); instead, Westwood here provides genuine insight into what appears to be a little spoken-of truth. This statement implies an inherent relationship between art, culture, and social conscience, arguing that art might prompt greater social engagement and change. Clothes, fashion, art: these forms don’t actively change the world – and yet the habits and connotations associated with their use, creation, and promotion might prompt a change in thought processes, and therefore in behaviour.
'if we had culture instead of consumption, we would not have climate change.' - Vivienne Westwood
Arguably, there is no more appropriate art form to consider in the context of Westwood’s statement than upcycling. The relationship between the fashion icon’s ideas and upcycling might be considered through an almost kaleidoscopic critical lens. Not only does upcycling provide an antithesis to consumption in providing a form of art, and so culture – but it also provides an antidote to that consumption in offering a practical alternative to wasteful practices. It also actively engages in efforts against the corrosive effects of climate change due to the materials it uses and the habits it promotes. Indeed, upcycling is self-generating, self-reinforcing; the more individuals engage with the form, then the more there is a cultural shift – that is, an increased inclination to change behaviour – as well as a practical shift, as greater efforts are made to reduce the volume of harmful waste. Upcycling, when considered in the context of this quotation, is therefore a metaphor for itself: the practical processes it advocates enact the cultural processes that it generates; the microcosm which is represented by the progress of an item of clothing from fabric to hand-made item to upcycled garment – a piece of clothing which has always been careful assessed, carefully traced, carefully reconsidered - is in turn reflective of the broader cultural shift which promotes an individual’s aetiological consideration of their own actions, and their own consumption.
'I was aware of the origin and evolution of my garment, of its transference from a handmade pattern, an artwork, from one culture to another – from that shop by the border, to its integration into my metropolitan London life.'
Clea in her handmade top by Re_considered
I have my own experience of this process. Three years ago, I was travelling through a remote location close to the Zambia/Malawi border. My sister and I were driving along a wide road, mostly empty of other cars, dusty from the soil drifting in gusts from the scraggly, vast landscape around us. My sister pulled over; the shop we entered was a rudimentary building, a mere criss-crossing of wooden poles – and yet its façade was joyful. A vibrant array of loud fabrics, layered and hanging like flags from every beam, shouted out at us, caught our attention. I bought a square of vivid blue and orange fabric to take back home with me to the UK; months later, my flatmate was busy downstairs in our London apartment sewing this fabric into a tailor-made top – a top I now wear regularly. In this instance, more than at any other time previously, I was aware of the origin and evolution of my garment, of its transference from a handmade pattern, an artwork, from one culture to another – from that shop by the border, to its integration into my metropolitan London life.
Lake Malawi on the trip when Clea got her fabric