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To Die For by Lucy Siegle – a more considered review

Make do and Mend September 1943

A little while ago, I wrote about an extract of Lucy Siegle’s book To Die For. I was pretty critical, but I now realise that that was partly to do with the fact that the extract was cobbled together from various parts of the introduction.

I’ve now read the book and I liked reading it. It’s an important book for someone to have written. I particularly liked the middle chapters where she talks about what is wrong with garment production. I actually had no idea about all the different chemical processes involved in processing natural fibres, even organic cotton. And while I did know that tanning leather isn’t the most pleasant of processes, the complete environmental havoc this is causing in the parts of India where this industry is concentrated was not something I’d ever really considered and raises a lot of questions for me in the big synthetics vs. natural debate. And I like that she gets a bit angry in those chapters. I like a bit of righteous anger.

I feel it’s less strong on the chapters at the end that try to point to a way forward. The approach taken is very much one of supplying the information and letting the reader sort it out for themselves. There’s a few bits where she goes ‘for me personally, that is (not) good enough to buy this’ and I would really have liked a bit more about how and why she arrived at that decision. Instead, there’s lots of quite detailed descriptive stuff about particular companies and initiatives, and while I like to hear that my beloved People Tree are the bees knees, that kind of thing makes the whole thing very UK centric and also means the book will go out of date very quickly. Which kind of goes against the ethos of producing things for long term use!

The style is also very journalistic, with all the human interest angles and selective use of evidence that entails. And there are quite a few clunkers missed by the editors like “we all spend at least £600 on clothes a year, and remember that’s just the average” (my italics). I would really love it for someone with a firmer grasp of the evidence base and a stronger theoretical focus to write a similar book, maybe an academic sociology/economics collaboration.

But then I’m a social researcher and I spend my days making sure that people don’t misuse evidence, and phrases like ‘It is no coincidence that…’ or ‘everyone knows that…’ when not backed up with verifiable facts immediately put my back up. I appreciate though that not everyone has my level of geekyness/hunger for logic, and that a more rigorous and theory based book almost certainly wouldn’t have got as many readers. Maybe an academic equivalent exists already, if anyone knows, please let me know!

And finally, I’m really trying to not be overcritical, but a couple of little things I just can’t let go:

  • She claims to have thought that her 100% polyester pyjamas are made from silk. I already complained in the original post about what I suspect is pretend uselessness, but this is just taking the piss a bit isn’t it. Knowing the difference between silk and polyester has got nothing to do with sustainability awareness, anyone who cares about clothes even in the slightest would know that. So either it’s a fib based on the patronising assumption that people are much more stupid than they are, or if it’s true she actually doesn’t care about fashion all that much.
  • The praise heaped on Livia Firth (her mate, incidentally) for the dress made from eleven 1930s dresses she wore to the Oscars in time for Colin Firth’s King’s Speech wins really annoyed me. I cannot understand how anyone thinks it is acceptable for 11 perfectly good antique dresses with real history that eleven people could have happily worn as they were to be killed and gutted for fabric for a dress that will be worn once and that to top it all off looks pretty much like any other strapless Oscar gown (photo and discussion over on Retro Chick by the way). It’s bad enough for anyone to do that, but praise it as a shining example of sustainable fashion? There was no reason for the fabric for the dress to actually be from the 1930s, recycled fabric could have been found from a myriad of other sources instead of willfully destroying rare and valuable historical artifacts for some crappy PR stunt.

That last paragraph notwithstanding, it’s an important book, it reads very easily and it gets some big messages across.

By the way, this is all just a very verbose introduction to post coming on Monday on different types of ethicalness. I just wanted to get the reflection on the book out of the way first.

photo source

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  • northwest is best 13 January 2012, 8:28 am

    I’m on my way to the local library to pick up a copy of this. I reserved it about a month ago and have been waiting impatiently to read it ever since!
    northwest is best recently posted..Outfit: EthicsMy Profile

    • Franca 13 January 2012, 1:10 pm

      It was immediately available in my library, oddly, and I could renew it without a problem. Have fun reading!

  • Kristen 13 January 2012, 9:02 am

    I haven’t read this yet but it is on my ‘to read’ list for sure. I really enjoyed Kate Fletcher’s Sustainable Fashion & Textiles. It is so comprehensive in that it discusses all stages of fashion production, including post-purchase life-cycle. She gives many examples about companies who are setting a good example or studies/experiments that (although in some cases are a bit conceptual) help to bring awareness, provoke thought and dialogue, and search out solutions and answers; she herself suggests some solutions, which is more than I can say for some eco-fashion books that I’ve read, where the author finds it is quite easy to merely point out all the problems with the industry. Thanks for the review of this book!
    Kristen recently posted..My Cadence Featured!My Profile

  • Terri 13 January 2012, 11:21 pm

    Hm, I’d been unaware of this book and wondered if it was available in the US. Sure enough, it shows up on the Amazon web-site, but without any reviews. You might consider re-posting this there.
    Terri recently posted..An Evening in ParisMy Profile

  • Susan, the one in Berkeley 14 January 2012, 12:46 am

    You know, I can’t tell the content of a fabric by feeling it. I’ve been thrifting for 30 years and I still can’t tell. Somehow, the nerves in my fingertips don’t register the differences between fabrics. I have to rely on labels or nice people nearby to tell me.

  • Style Eyes 14 January 2012, 7:37 am

    Great review, I am just reading the book now. As I have been working as a writer covering eco fashion and eco issues for a few years now, I guess I know quite a bit about the human and social impacts of fashion including leather, cotton and so on, so I am hoping there is not going to be too many shocks for me. So far I have been really interested in the first chapter or two about how we arrived at the fast fashion thing we are at now. As I tend to skim read I probably don’t pick up half of the detail that you have, just the main facts! Looking forward to Mondays post.
    Style Eyes recently posted..Ethical Outfit Challenge – Winter WarmersMy Profile

  • Courtney 23 January 2012, 7:34 am

    I just finished reading this book too!

    While it really opened my eyes and I believe everyone who has a keen interest in fashion should read this, it left me wanting more. At the end I was like, “that was great, but what now!?”

    I am currently doing a search for the perfect wardrobe on my blog which is along the same mindset of saying no to fast fashion.

    It would be great to have some like-minded people have a look and let me know what they think!

    Thanks for the post!