The inspiration for this post comes from Liz Haywood, a clothing designer in Australia who has been focusing on creating zero-waste patterns. She shares her fashion adventures on The Craft of Clothes [https://lizhaywood.com.au] blog.
In her November 1, 2021, post, she wrote about “Fashion in a dystopian world,” inspired by her children’s recent interest in post-apocalyptic fiction. She shared photos she found online showing the current concept of dystopian clothing, which includes a lot of “chunky zips, hoods, dark neutral colours, multiple textures, buckles & tabs and cool exterior pockets.”
After reading Liz’s post, I felt compelled to comment, noting that musician Gary Numan (of “Cars” and industrial rock fame) currently favors this type of clothing in his shows. His video for “My Name Is Ruin” displays a good example of his industrial techno rock and dystopian world clothing.
I also noted in my comments to Liz those pristine neutrals within post-apocalyptic clothing, beautiful blacks and grays and khakis. I wondered why people think there will be no color in a dystopian world and why the clothing is in such good shape.
Liz replied, “The absence of colour IS kind of interesting. I’m the most annoying person in the world to sit next to while watching post apocalyptic movies: “How come their clothes have zips? Are there still zip factories going? Okay, maybe they’re using up old stock, but just the black, brown and grey zips, not the pink ones. But there must still be ammo factories because they’re using guns. Where are they getting these (clearly) factory made things?”
You can see our entire conversation on Liz’s blog, but it got me to thinking about how unrealistic our vision of a post-apocalyptic world is from the perspective of a fiber artist.
So, now it’s time for a thought experiment.
Thought Experiment for a Fiber Artist in a Post-Apocalyptic World
When writing fiction for a world that doesn’t exist, whether sci fi or dystopian fiction, you have to create parameters for the world you are building. Then you make the details of your story consistent with those parameters.
When I think of a post-apocalyptic world, I think of a major societal breakdown, where there is no government to protect people, businesses, schools, or nonprofit organizations. People are primarily trying to survive by their wits and strength, finding whatever they can use from nature or that was created in the past. They band together in smaller groups to protect each other from criminal elements that are wreaking havoc where they can. (Think Octavia Butler’s “The Parable of the Sower.”)
Without large-scale organized manufacturing facilities, very few new goods are being produced, which means no fabrics, thread, zippers, buttons, scissors, needles, etc. As Liz said, it would also mean no new guns or ammunition. She also pointed out that shell casings can be reused, but no one in current dystopian fiction ever seems to pick up the spent casings.
Think about this for a moment. If nothing were being manufactured on a mass scale any longer, every existing manufactured good, including those shell casings, would gain in value depending on its usefulness. People would become thrifty about how they use items. They would also be concerned with storing as much as they could in case they might have a need for a particular item in the future. We need look no further than the Great Depression for examples of people who learned to tuck away all manner of items that might come in handy in the future. These manufactured goods could be traded, becoming a currency for the post-apocalyptic world.
This post-apocalyptic world of ours is unlikely to have reliable electricity or other forms of power. A society that can’t get itself organized will not be able to do large-scale resource extraction or energy production. Large-scale agriculture would also be difficult.
Given these admittedly sketchy parameters, what would dystopian fashion really look like? How would it be produced?
Without large-scale agriculture, there probably wouldn’t be significant production of plant-based fibers, like cotton or linen. Without large-scale resource extraction, fossil fuels would not be available to turn into plastics, including polyester and other fossil-fuel derived fibers, like nylon or Spandex.
Animal-based fibers would be easier to produce if you could keep domesticated animals safe from marauders. And furs and leather production are possibilities so long as wildlife wasn’t severely decimated by whatever caused the apocalypse. Most of us would have to relearn the skills needed to process animals for fiber production or clothing (not to mention food), and we’d have to find or craft the traditional hand tools needed for these activities.
With those limitations, it’d be much easier, particularly immediately following the apocalypse, to scavenge existing fabrics. You might be tempted to jump right to digging into a landfill for old fabrics, which is certainly an option but a challenging one. In the United States, we tend to put our landfills in rural areas away from towns and bury the contents, so you’d have to find one and be willing to dig and sort.
A better option is to find stashes kept by fiber artists before the apocalypse. Any fiber artist who calls themselves a fiber artist or related term, like crocheter, knitter, weaver, spinner, sewer, or quilter, has a stash, whether fabric, yarn, or both. Most of us take very good care of our stashes, keeping them organized and clean, storing them in bins, dressers, shelves, or closets. (Whatever causes the apocalypse may destroy or make a mess of many of these stashes but probably not all of them.)
Fiber artists also have the tools needed to practice their craft. While most sewing machines and sergers won’t be much use (no electricity, remember?), most fiber arts continue to be practiced with hand tools, electricity not needed.
Old treadle sewing machines could be put back into service, but needles, thread, and pins from a sewer’s stash would likely see more use than a treadle machine. Looms of various types could be enlisted to turn yarn into fabric. Knitting needles and crochet hooks could be used to turn out sweaters, jackets, hats, scarves, gloves, and socks for the post-apocalyptic world.
Fiber artists also keep associated how-to books and supplies, like buttons, elastic, buckles, snaps, and zippers, with our stashes.
If I managed to survive the Apocalyptic Event and didn’t already have my own stash, I’d find the abandoned home of a fiber artist and raid the fabric and yarn stash, tools, and books.
Another thing to consider is that old clothing and fiber arts goods, like blankets, sheets, and curtains, can be disassembled or cut apart in order to make new fashion items for a dystopian world. Thrift stores, which are abundant right now, would be another place to raid for fabrics. (Sure, you can try fabric and yarn stores, too, but they are likely to be emptied out in the post-apocalyptic rush. We fiber artists certainly cleaned them out at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when we were busy making masks.)
Judging by my stash, as seen in the photo above, I’d be willing to bet that most fiber artists’ stashes are filled with fibers in a variety of colors and patterns, not just neutrals. We also have a tendency to keep bins of scrap materials because they can be used for mending or making scrappy quilts or other small projects. Partial balls of yarn or thrum from looms can be used for scrappy afghans or clothing items.
Mending existing clothing is a more efficient use of one’s time and resources than making clothing from scratch in a dystopian world. And, if every bit of fiber or fabric is valuable, people will want to find ways not to waste it. They’ll make low-waste or zero-waste clothing, like Liz does.
What Dystopian Fashion Would Actually Look Like
With these realities taken into account, I suspect that dystopian fashion would be far more colorful than we currently see in popular culture. With scrap use and mending, it will also look more like a crazy quilt than an unmarred expanse of a single fabric.
There’d probably be more buttons than zippers because zippers are notoriously untrustworthy in terms of continuing to work over time. Buckles, if all parts of them could be scavenged, might be used, but if trying to mute sound or shiny objects to stay camouflaged, metal buckles wouldn’t be useful. (Those multi-colored fabrics might also have to be dirtied up to create camouflage.)
Post-apocalyptic clothing would be hand-sewn, so the seams may not be as even as machine-sewn ones. To save time and resources, edges likely would not be finished. Due to these factors, clothing would look sloppier, particularly as novice fiber artists get started and work to increase their skill.
Multi-colored knitted and crocheted items would be abundant if yarns can be repurposed or produced because these are approachable and portable forms of clothing construction.
Clothing would not be as fitted because the techniques needed to fit clothing produce waste. (Here’s where the zero-waste patterns Liz and other designers are creating would come in handy.) Also, in a post-apocalyptic world, we’ll want comfort and ease of movement. Corsets, though a great visual indication of the discomfort of dystopia, aren’t practical in survival situations.
Have I left out anything about the practicalities of producing dystopian fashion in a post-apocalyptic world? Please let me know in the comments.
Challenge to Fiber Artists
Fiber artists, here’s a challenge for you.
Have a go at making dystopian clothing taking into account the realities of a post-apocalyptic world as I’ve laid them out. Feel free to apply my ideas about the qualities dystopian fashion. If you decide to take this challenge, please share your results online and let me know where to find them.