Two artists take on the fashion industry with a wink and a jumpsuit.
Let’s say you’re fed up with the fashion industry. You’re not alone, of course. Lots of people take issue with fashion’s impact on the environment and on workers in developing countries, where most manufacturing happens now. Most fashion these days is cheap and cheaply made; “fast fashion” faces a growing number of detractors.
So if you want to combat disposable fashion, what do you do? Start a domestic slow-fashion line and hope to persuade consumers to spend more for quality? Lobby for regulations to protect the environment and workers in sweatshops?
If you’re Abigail Glaum-Lathbury and Maura Brewer, you launch the Rational Dress Society, an art project-cum-protest group that takes its name from a 19th-century feminist collective organized to fight the corset. You grab some pals and protest good-naturedly at New York Fashion Week and luxury boutiques. You start workshops to teach people to sew their own clothes. Finally, as the pièce de résistance, you launch JUMPSUIT, a line of expertly tailored “ungendered monogarments” in 248 sizes and two colors – white and black. And, to prove your conviction, you don JUMPSUIT. Day after day after day.
Glaum-Lathbury, who until recently marketed her own high-fashion line, is an assistant professor of fashion design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Brewer is a visual artist in Los Angeles. They met a dozen years ago as SAIC undergraduates. In a Skype interview – the two resplendent in matching black JUMPSUITs – American Craft asked them about the Rational Dress Society, JUMPSUIT, and their dissatisfaction with mainstream fashion.
You two started the Rational Dress Society in 2014. How did it come to be?
Abigail Glaum-Lathbury: I was an independent designer and also a fashion design professor. I was spending all day long with my students having these conversations about the meaning in their clothing. And then I was going and selling. So those conversations were: “Oh my God, this is just gonna look great with boots! And if you wear it with leggings, you can wear it transitionally!” And I just was exhausted. I was so exhausted and completely over those conversations. Leggings are super. Boots, also super. But I was interested in something a little bit more challenging, something a little bit more stimulative.
Maura Brewer: We did research and discovered that the Rational Dress Society was actually a group of Victorian activists in the 1880s. In some ways our project is a continuation of the Victorian feminist dress-reform movement. It’s important to us to acknowledge history.
Is it important because women and clothing still have a fraught relationship?
MB: Yeah, absolutely. What we’re trying to do is take the assumptions of fashion, like stylistic change and individual choice and expression, and question them and invert them.
So how did you make the leap from the Rational Dress Society to JUMPSUIT?
MB: We were having a lot of conversations about identity and garments and being female artists and the economics of being a creative person and the complications of that. And we decided that we wanted to have a kind of uniform that we could wear every day that would sort of represent us and represent our values. For me, it was about not wanting to make decisions in the morning about what clothing I was wearing, having a sort of universal garment, appropriate in as many different contexts as possible. And I was interested in not shopping anymore.
AGL: JUMPSUIT was a way to talk about the frustrations that I was encountering within the industry, finding that increasingly it was very polarized.
AGL: On the one hand, you have Louis Vuitton or Gucci Group or some sort of luxury conglomerate, and on the other side you have Forever 21 or H&M, which are sort of equal and opposite. We have this incredibly shrinking middle, which also mirrors what is happening in our country economically.
What does that shrinking middle reveal about fashion today?
AGL: In some ways, I’m a true believer in fashion. But as I see it now, it’s quite broken. I was interested in ways the model could be different or completely rethought, in creating garments that are not disposable. We’re being constantly asked to throw away our wardrobes and get the new thing, whatever that new thing is. So our tagline is “Reject choice.” We’re rejecting that there is a choice; the difference between one of many mass-manufactured garments is not actually a choice.
MB: And fast fashion is really a major part of the industry. Look at what these companies admit about how they produce their garments. In H&M’s own literature, they say that their garments aren’t meant to last more than 10 wash cycles. So not only do you not have a choice, but you’re buying a garment that’s built to fall apart. It’s planned obsolescence. You’re locked in to continuously purchasing and discarding and purchasing and discarding. The amount of garbage that’s being produced simply can’t continue.
What about high-end fashion? It’s better, right?
AGL: The difference between a Michael Kors trench coat and one from Target is – really, they’re just not that different. I particularly enjoy picking on Michael Kors, because [his company] has recently gone public. I commute on the train in the morning, and I see countless people with their jackets and bags and gloves and what-have-you that are all branded Michael Kors, Michael Kors, Michael Kors, Michael Kors. Of course, Michael Kors is just one example. But when you look at those clothes, they’re actually profoundly uninteresting. It has more to do with class and status than it does with fashion. When I think of fashion, I think of innovation, and I’m not seeing much of it – particularly with companies like Michael Kors, where it’s really about the bottom line.
MB: I think we take it for granted that when we buy clothes, we’re expressing ourselves. But then you’re on the subway or you’re on the street, and everybody’s wearing the same thing. And so it’s important to open up whatever the assumptions are behind that idea that clothes are inherently expressive and really question it. Buying Michael Kors gloves – if that’s expressing yourself, it’s a very paltry form of expression.
You might as well just wear a sign that says “I’m rich.”
MB: Right. Is fashion an innovative thing, or is it about maintaining class hierarchies? Those two competing aims have always been baked into the heart of fashion.
So for us, JUMPSUIT is about imagining a different kind of reality, in which if you were at a party and your friend was wearing the same garment as you, you would be thrilled and delighted because it would represent your solidarity and unity, not some kind of class-based system of exclusion. So that kind of fantasy – which happens now with JUMPSUIT on small levels – we’re really committed to bringing into the world.
We think it would be nice to think of fashion as something that binds us instead of dividing us.
So how does promoting JUMPSUITs help you protest fashion?
MB: I think it's not enough to just criticize something. I think you have to offer an alternative model, even if that model is utopian and ridiculous or absurd or naïve in some way. We cling to that. I think it's really important to say here's a different way.
It's very important that JUMPSUIT not be about shaming individual people or making anyone feel bad. JUMPSUIT is meant to be fun. We are really just interested in creating connections between people.
AGL: It's radically inclusive.
How have people reacted when you protested at a Michael Kors store or at Fashion Week? Do they understand your point?
AGL: Didn’t we just make a friend with a guard outside Fashion Week last weekend?
MB: We did.
AGL: We got kicked out. But what was charming about it was the security guard who was the gatekeeper of Fashion Week walked with us – he wanted to make sure that we were kicked out and we weren’t coming back. But we’re polite and nonthreatening – we don’t have jars of red paint or anything. And we have a peculiar sign. He was asking us, “What does your sign mean?” And we were, like, “Oh, it’s ‘Embrace Rational Dress,’ ” and it’s about JUMPSUITs and solidarity.” And immediately, this man was like: “I’m wearing a jumpsuit too!” And he jumps back and starts taking off his sweatshirt. And he was raising his fist with us. So it was actually this beautiful moment where the gatekeeper and the gatecrashers bonded.
MB: And that’s the beautiful thing about JUMPSUITs – they have this double valence. They’re working-class – people wear them to work on a daily basis – but they also invoke a kind of futurity, like the spacesuit or the Star Trek uniform. The JUMPSUIT as a cultural sign is really beautiful.
Is it a good or bad thing that jumpsuits were on the runway this year?
AGL: Oh, I think it's a fantastic thing. I love it. There’s something about the dream of the simplicity of the jumpsuit and the practicality of the jumpsuit, that taps into something, whether people are thinking about it in a super-conscious way or not. Because it has all this embedded history as a garment, I really think that the prevalence of the jumpsuit right now and for the last couple years is about people's dissatisfaction with shopping. Whether or not people are conscious of it, I think it's just kind of an unconscious response.
And you’ve got it coming up at the same time that you all these other DIY, anti-consumption movements: the return of sewing, Marie Kondo, Soylent – we love Soylent, Minimalist – there are all sorts of minimalist blogs.
MB: The Slow Food movement, to a certain extent.
AGL: We're in a moment of really questioning. We have so much available to us. You can go shopping every day and buy new things, and it doesn't matter how much your income is, because things are so cheap and so readily available. And I think people are really beginning to question whether or not that makes anyone happy.
MB: Right. And we find people all the time saying, “I'm getting ready to go to this job or this interview or party or whatever, go to work in the morning, and I have nothing to wear.” And they're opening this closet, which is bursting – it does not contain their clothing. Our houses have actually changed: The number of square footage of closet space has increased dramatically over the past 50 years. There's a closet industry. There's an organizing industry.
We have these things because we have so much damn stuff, but at the same time, we also hate everything. So we buy it all, and simultaneously hate it all.
How many JUMPSUITs have you sold?
AGL: We’re pushing 300.
And you pride yourselves on the fit and style of JUMPSUIT.
MB: You might not register super-quickly that it is, in fact, a JUMPSUIT. It's pretty wearable. It's got belt-loops. It's got a collar, and the pockets are sort of halfway between a jean pocket and a trouser pocket. So it's a chameleon, I think.
AGL: It's very intentional that it walks a line between casual and formal, which I would consider an American uniform. It very much borrows from denim in terms of its construction – denim is a work garment, which is why you see all the double stitching, tucks, bar tacking, reinforced for added strength. But it also has more or less of a shirtsleeve, though it is a raglan, which creates more range of movement.
MB: And we use anthropometric data that we got from NASA and the US military to produce a huge range of sizes, from 4 foot 11 to 6 foot 4. We’re committed to continually expanding our sizing grid to accommodate more and more body types.
And not only accommodating different body types but making a garment that looks good on those body types. JUMPSUIT doesn’t have stretch in its fabric, so it’s pretty tailored. If you take that seriously – how do I make a thing that fits the largest number of people possible? – it’s a really interesting technical problem.
AGL: Which is also sort of the antithesis of what the fashion industry is doing right now. For any garment, you might see one or two or three sizes, but you also see a huge amount of stretch, Lycra or spandex or whatever brand of elastic it is. That allows you to have a greater fit for most people, but the material actually becomes compromised. That’s why you’re not supposed to dry it, because it breaks down. It’s like an old rubber band. And so you end up with these garments that theoretically fit more people, but they’re actually just ill-fitting, with a veneer of fit.
MB: If we were a normal fashion business, we would make many, many garments, and we would make them in as few sizes as possible.
That’s the cheapest way?
MB: Yes. But we choose to make only one garment and in as many sizes as possible.
I saw some sizes that seemed to have names, rather than numbers. Are all of your 248 sizes named?
AGL: So you could be size Fork. You could be a size Capricorn. You could be a size Alpha. Bravo, Tango. We are both a size Delta, Maura and I. Interestingly, of all the 248 sizes, we end up with the same size.
How many washes can your JUMPSUIT withstand?
AGL: I’ve been wearing mine every day since September  and intermittently before then. I have no idea how many times I’ve washed this thing – twice a week? – but it still is shaped nicely. I don’t have any holes.
Have either of you gotten tired of wearing JUMPSUIT? Do you get up in the morning and think, “Oh, no – this again”?
AGL: No. And this is actually very surprising for me. The more I wear it, the more I’m interested in wearing it, which really, to be totally honest, I was surprised by, because I am very much a creature of fashion. It is really fantastic. It’s actually freed me in profound ways. I’m on time more. I used to do like six costume changes. And now I’m punctual.
When I go to meet with people, and they find out that they’re meeting with a fashion professor, like if I’m meeting with somebody else from the school, inevitably the first thing they say to me is: “Oh my God, I’m so sorry – I don’t know what I’m wearing today, and here you are, the fashion professor.” And I think: “Boy, people have so much anxiety about this. I’m less interested in what you’re wearing than in the content of what you’re saying.”
MB: I knew I’d love [wearing JUMPSUIT] – because when you’re a creative person, little choices that you have to make in the morning really do become onerous.
I’ve dreamed of having a garment like this forever, and I’m completely fulfilled and perfectly happy and satisfied. My quality of life is very high right now.
When do you change clothes? Do you change clothes to work out?
MB: We do not wear JUMPSUITs to work out. Although we have fantasies of rationalizing all garments: Right now we've been toying with the idea for several months of dress reform underwear, which I think might have a big audience.
AGL: And also JUMPSUIT swim. I am dying to do JUMPSUIT swim.
Since you’ve been wearing JUMPSUIT every day, have either of you had an occasion where it would not be appropriate, like a funeral?
MB: I would wear it to a funeral. In black.
AGL: I would wear it to the White House.
Would you wear white or black to the White House?
MB: Yeah, white.
Do other artists appreciate JUMPSUIT life?
MB: We have many wearers who are artists. When you are a visual artist, there are many situations in which you have to socialize with people who have quite a bit more money than you do. So you’ll be at a party with collectors, and it can be really stressful to figure out what you’re supposed to wear in a situation like that. And because [JUMPSUIT is] kind of an art project, that problem just evaporates. It is a nice solution for those social situations that can be weird and hierarchical.
You mentioned earlier that you think the JUMPSUIT is very practical. What about visiting the bathroom?
MB: We get this question a lot.
AGL: There's actually an incredibly easy zipper, and it's like two seconds and the thing is off.
You’ve never dipped a sleeve or anything.
AGL: That would be unfortunate, but no. Hasn't happened yet.
MB: We're thinking of producing a pamphlet with instructions on how to go to the bathroom in the JUMPSUIT, actually, because there's some anxiety around that. Although I think once you get in there, it's not so difficult.
Abigail, what do your students think about you wearing the same thing every day?
AGL: I'll start with my colleagues. When I first started the project, they were very confused, very worried. They would say things to me like, “Oh, my god, you can't say things about Vogue. You can't do that. You're never gonna get into Vogue if you do that.” They have since relaxed. Several of them have adopted JUMPSUITs.
AGL: They don't wear one every day, but what's pretty delightful is when I see them in the hallways, and then my students see us together, wearing the same garment. Their response is always, “Oh, my god! You're both wearing JUMPSUIT!” They get really excited about it.
Many times I get the question: Do you feel that there's hypocrisy in teaching in the fashion department but espousing something that's really sort of anti-fashion or counter-fashion?" love that question, actually, because I couldn't disagree more. And our students – they see it. They have a very clear and profound understanding that there are more of them than there are jobs for them, that the middle is really diminishing.
I think it really actually is liberating for them, because I'm saying to them: It's not your fault. The system is actually really backwards. In a lot of ways, it's not possible for them to succeed. But instead of saying: It's not possible for you to succeed, go home, it's: It's not possible for you to succeed within this model. Let's talk about a different model. There are a number of seniors in graduating class this year who are all very active and aggressive, and they understand that the system is not set up for them. And they're really actively thumbing their nose at the industry and actively participating in other things – which is not something I'm taking credit for. They have a very clear understanding that the system is pretty backwards.
What would be your ideal? What would fashion look like?
MB: What would fashion look like, ideally? Everyone would wear JUMPSUITs! We would all be bound together in solidarity. It would be so beautiful. You could get up and get on the bus, and the bus driver and everyone on the bus would be wearing JUMPSUITs. We'd all be friends. No, I don't know. I do actually believe that, to certain extent. I also think that there just needs to be a larger questioning of the ways that neoliberal capital is putting pressure on human rights; it's putting pressure on the environment. It’s a complicated situation, because there's this demand baked in capitalism, that these companies must expand each year, that revenues have to increase. And so I'm not under any illusions that the CEO of H&M is gonna be like: “You know what, guys? Let's just scale it back this year.” That's not gonna happen. So I think it has to happen on the side of the consumer, right, and a critical awareness around consumerism and rejection of those kinds of values which we really take for granted: that fashion is inherently good, that we are expressing ourselves when we go shopping, that that is positive. I think that there needs to be a real evaluation of what kind of satisfaction we're getting and what sort of other things we're trading away. So I could envision a fashion system in which there was a lot more local production.
Your goal is to buy a $150,000 ad in Vogue.
MB: It’s very important for us to structure our project as paracapitalist so that we would operate within that system up to a point, but we wouldn't be reproducing the systems that we're critiquing. So at some point there's a built-in escape valve, and the idea being that if we could sell enough JUMPSUITs to make enough profit to make $150,000, that JUMPSUIT would be a kind of lived social reality anyway, that it could exist as an open-source pattern at that point, that people could choose to make if they wanted to, but we would stop our own production.
AGL: We'd no longer be needed.
Do you think you'll still be doing this in two years?
MB: Sure. We love doing it. It's really fun.
But, at this point, the Rational Dress Society – is that still just you two?
AGL: Our membership is open to everyone. And we consider all JUMPSUIT-wearing individuals to be members of the Rational Dress Society.
The Rational Dress Society’s JUMPSUITs will be included in “Reform: Subversive Fashion” at Central Features Contemporary Art, Aug. 26 – Sept. 30, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.