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The Papered Parlour: Fashion in the Age of Austerity

Fashion in the Age of Austerity brought together a whole host of top notch ethical fashionistas to ask the question: is fashion wearing out the planet? Held at the V&A Museum of Childhood on Thursday 3rd March 2011.

Written by Hannah Bullivant


Fashion in the Age of Austerity, organised by the Papered Parlour, combined so many exciting elements that I don’t quite know where to begin. It was in the most wonderful building, amongst some rare, antique toys in glass cabinets. Fashion designer and V&A Trustee Betty Jackson was there looking radiant in red lipstick, there was a brilliant panel debate, live music, shopping and craft workshops. 

Learning to upcycle jewellery with Tatty Devine 

I was most excited by the panel debate with the Guardian’s Ethical Living columnist Lucy Siegle, Think Act Vote founder Amisha Ghadiali, Labour Behind the Labels Hannah Higginson and the managing director of the Ethical Fashion Forum Tamsin Lejeune; four women that I happen to find pretty inispiring. The debate did not disappoint; we raced around lots of interestting, controversial and pressing issues like slow fashion, how to navigate the moral maze and where/if craft comes into things. 


One of the key messages I took from the event was that if you want to shop ethically you can’t be afraid of complexity. Lucy Siegle explained that it isn’t as simple as goodies and baddies in ethical fashion. If you scratch the surface of the ethical issues of clothing supply, you’d be forgiven for getting a little…muddled. There’s organic, local, hand made, made from natural fibres, made in the UK, Fairtrade, tree protecting, wildlife saving or fabrics that use only organic dyes. No garment can tick all of those boxes and no ‘ethical label’ is ever fully, 100% “ethical”. They simply don’t exist. What you choose all depends on your values and the way that you choose to navigate around it all. And as Tamsin Lejeune said, you can’t do everything. 

Ultimately, I believe you can avoid most ethical conundrums by simply buying fewer clothes. But this isn’t always realistic. I was reminded however that we can, be a bit more thoughtful about where things come from and what they’re made of. 

The Panel. Illustration by Sam Parr 

Someone asked about changes at a government level, but the panel agreed that there simply isn’t any political appetite for tax breaks or measures that might encourage more ethical practices, which I found pretty depressing. They went on to say that the only way the industry was ever going to change was via direct citizen action, via things like writing letters to company head offices (action pack here). The panel said it’s pointless asking shop assistants about ethical practices because they generally won’t know. Although I think there is a place for this I secretly breathed a sigh of relief; I once stuttered through a rehearsed speech to a cashier in New Look only to be boo’d by the queue behind me and met with blank, skeptical faces from the staff….hmm. 

A  workshop in action: students learning to make a wallet out of a Tetra Pak with the Otesha Project 

There was a wearisome discussion about semantics and the need for a new word for ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ which to be honest I found rather frustrating. I don’t think the name matters, I’d much rather peoples energies were spent on putting pressure on the suppliers and informing people. After some all round praise for sewing and making clothes as a way to recycle, appreciate garment making and challenge the way we think about fashion, the talk was done and I was back upstairs. 

Hannah Peel illustration by Elizabeth Goodspeed 

My friend and I wondered around the market stalls, wine glass in hand, whilst being entertained by some brilliant bands, including The Piney Gir Country Roadshow and Hannah Peel & Laura Groves. I particularly liked the folky, mellow sound of  Hannah Peel, who wore a bright green maxi dress, and who had some attendees standing in silence as they listened to her.

Tatty Devine illustration by Sanna Dyker 

There were 20 specially selected ethical fashion stalls to browse, which I regretted not bringing any cash for. Here’s a quick run through of my favourites. 

I loved the intricate illustrations on the goods at the Zosienka and Rosie stall. 


This is the Create Place’s stall. The craft workshops they offer enable them to prove heavily subsidised courses for their local community via an inspiring initiative from St Margaret’s House. 


Fine Cell were there too, a brilliant volunteer led organization that teaches prison inmates how to embroider and supplies them with the materials they need. The inmates are paid for their work, which is sold all over the UK.

I was glad to be introduced to the Offset Warehouse, a social enterprise and the first UK online retailer to sell a wide range of ethical fabrics, a haberdashery, garments and resources for crafts people. Their prices are also extremely reasonable. So if, like me, you like making clothes or interiors products, this is a good resource for ethical fabric.

This is the jewelry of A Alicia. She is part of the handmade wedding collective who are hosting an event this week between the 15th-20th March at the Craft Central Showcase Space in East London.


I also went along to Think Act Vote Founder Amisha Ghadiali’s talk, which was good but it felt a little disorganised: loud music began to play half way through. (Note to Papered Parlour: Great event but I think the Make Believe area was too close to the stage!) Fellow contributor Katie Antoniou was also there presenting Amelia’s Compendium of Fashion Illustration and answering questions.   

The combination of the panel discussion with the music, wine, stalls and workshops was a winner. And what really set it apart from the run-of-the-mill craft fairs was the focus on ethics and sustainability. There wasn’t one daggy, hippy-ish stand, just good design that happens to be ethical, with inspiring debate and discission. I was a happy bunny. There is another event coming up which, on the basis of the last one, I strongly recommend that you come along too. It’s called It’s Your Write! and it’s on Thursday 7th April 2011. Expect to find a celebration of the self published.


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6 Responses to “The Papered Parlour: Fashion in the Age of Austerity”

  1. samantha says:

    Interesting point about the possible (and unobtainable) tax breaks for independant designers. I had never thought about that before.

  2. Amelia says:

    Thankyou for your comment, Samantha x

  3. HannahB says:

    Hi Samantha- yes, thats why I was disapointed that the panel thought there was no political appetite to even look at it. There is currently one Baroness (the name escapes me, sorry)championing ethical fashion and trying to get things moving in parliament however, so you never know!

  4. A dear friend sent me this link, and I delight in knowing that there are others who are becoming more aware of the importance of ethical fashion. Fashion in the age of austerity rings a bell with us because we are all about handmade, authentic products “Made in Italy”, and protecting the artisans who make them. Well done forward thinking fashionistas.

  5. Rosie says:

    HannahB – the lady in question is Baroness Lola Young. She is great! Rosie xx

  6. HannahB says:

    Myriam- thanks for your comment, there is indeed a growing swathe of ethical fashion lovers out there, very exciting!

    Rosie- thanks so much!

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