In an economic system that revolves around producing and consuming, growing awareness about the issues that accompany such a system of accumulation, and finding sustainable and alternatives forms for counteracting becomes something like an imperative. But what happens when alternative practices, like repurposing or second-hand, are less a choice than the norm in everyday life? How are we to reconsider fashion practices in relations to different social backgrounds? Edith Lázár approaches the Romanian fashion context through autobiographical notes, lived or invented, and reflects on »fictions«seen not as an »untrue«but as possible rearrangements fashion can operate to question and create narratives that stretch the past into the present, but also open a discussion about possible futures.
Dressed in my favorite house attire, a loose Kappa Kappa tracksuit, the one I wear when visiting my parents, I had to remind myself that this time I was actually moving back in what I believed to be the quietness of my post-industrial town. An unavoidable question kept gliding across my shiny 100 percent polyester garb: what would it mean to inhabit the post-industrial condition? What would it mean to perform and dress it up?
Like my soft tracksuit, dress today might present itself more comfortable and relaxed. Inhabited by casual, standardized clothing – in measure, shapes, and functionality – or interwoven synthetic fibers, pushed forward by »cheap and fast« production, fashion seems to assent accessibility and the rule of style. Yet, regardless of this uniform/ity hint, as theorist Elizabeth Wilson notes: »At the start of the new millennium full democracy has never been achieved. Yet dress has, at least in Western societies, adapted to an imperfect representation of democracy in which forms of egalitarianism, for example the ubiquitous use of first names, conceal the persistence and indeed the growth of social inequalities.«  Fashion looks more like a façade where dreams are flaunted and then brushed up as they shutter, something of an im/possible.
»Fashion looks more like a façade where dreams are flaunted and then brushed up as they shutter, something of an im/possible.«
On this surface however, what other dreams can we flaunt that, less determined by accelerationism and fast fashions, would not end in leveling workers and wearers indistinguishably? What other visions can rise? Sustainability, anti-fashion, no-fashion, slow fashion and the like chant the environmental concerns and people’s »real« engagement with fashion. Still, in these »moral« or »right« ways of consumption there’s a religious undertone creeping, traceable in the »protestant ethics of capitalism«  and the rationale of ascetic –the new praised minimalism in our wardrobe. Good intentions only do not make these practices bulletproof to frenzied neoliberal strategies that keep the capitalist wheel spinning by building upon forms of critique. Conscious choosing, awareness, remain wishful thinking when we don’t reconsider fashion practices under economic distress. What happens when »alternative practices« like repurposing clothing or second-hand clothing are not a choice, but the norm?
I. softly, on the surface of my clothes
My early memories are imbued with colors and patterns and things to wear and things to care for, that my mother sew and put together. The youngest of three sisters, my mother learned early that if the shoes don’t fit quite right, clothes at least can be adjusted, combined and re-invented – much like life itself. Bright orange curtains, light wood furniture, a magnolia in front of the window, and green land unfolding ahead, though we lived in one of those serial apartment buildings so often colonizing the gray and dull 1980s image of »life behind the Iron Curtain.« And, of course, there’s the V-striped jacket, a gift I obstinately refused to take off and wore it over my pajamas, like I will later do with clothes I am fond of – keep them forever so as not to lose them.
»And, of course, there’s the V-striped jacket, a gift I obstinately refused to take off and wore it over my pajamas, like I will later do with clothes I am fond of – keep them forever so as not to lose them.«
A couple of years after the Romanian revolution (1989) my hometown, a former industrial flag in the Carpathian area, was facing the well-known fate of many massive factories: an entire town floating adrift, torn apart by bankruptcy and unemployment. We rush to count economics in growth and crashes but less in everyday life. What the down curb of The Great Transition expressed was maybe liberty, but one mixed with high shortages of food, no proper heating, and families separated by working distances. The cliché story rings today as the »eastern« Eastern Europe, the »land« still struggling.
Depression and hunger, hopelessness – I remember none of it. Just the sound of our old sewing machine, my mother fastening clothes, how not to swallow industrial water when in the bathtub, sharing dinners with our neighbors, receiving Christmas packages with notes in languages I could not understand. For you see, I was lucky. My beautiful clothes, as my beloved jacket, were »hand-me-downs« found in humanitarian aid packages we received from Sweden, Germany, or Austria. Through neoprotestant networks, piles of clothes, home appliances, or furniture were shared and distributed by the local church and the town’s council. »Good quality clothes« my mother recounts, while reminding me of our mantra: »we are too poor to afford cheap clothes.« They might have been second-hand but you sort clothes in »cut, texture and material persistence.« Fast-forward today > second-hand and thrift-shops, knock-offs markets, a fast-fashion outlet posing as a »fashion boutique« that’s how clothes travel in my town. I have no memory of it being otherwise. My mother however can draw different architectures while we are browsing the »new merchandise« on our Saturday morning stroll. Labels on some items still read »made in west Germany.«
There’s a photograph of us from back then. My mother has a short haircut, similar to the one stylist Lotta Volkova sported for Vetements a couple of years ago. Shielded in a white coat that makes her look exquisite, she stares right at the camera, while I’m nonchalant in my favorite jacket. Poor but stylish.
If there is magic in creating our own values, like the aura of reshaped objects, we are always on the fine line of disappearing into another discourse.
II. whiffs from the former eastern bloc?
»Poor but cool« – has clenched to fashion (design) surfacing out of former Eastern countries in the last couple of years after Gosha Rubchinskiy’s »Russian bad boy« in tracksuits or the 1990s functional apparel of Demna Gvasalia and Lotta Volkova borrowing and styling from everyday working uniforms. The styles that were once frowned upon as kitsch or cheap adaptations of western fashion, lacking in creativity or peppered with misappropriation, ended up hyped by a media still capitalizing on the exotic peripheries, more precisely the »semi-willed periphery,« a land fuzzy, mysterious, something of an embarrassing cousin at a dinner party.  If late 1980s and 1990s eastern-European clothing styles used to be »comical« reinterpretations, their reframing oscillates today between edginess and authenticity. Tracksuits and sweatshirts, DHL shirts, puffers, no fear of logo, no fear of tacky, bootleg, counterfeit or plain kitsch, everyday working-class clothes pose as high-fashion under the guise of »post-Soviet aesthetics.« The elusiveness of the term resurrects tropes like high-rise apartment buildings and trashy industrial sites as backdrops for functional apparel and second-hand culture.
»Everydayness« is a tongue-in-cheek look for high fashion, perhaps recalling a desire for simplicity and, why not, a Constructivist feeling – passed down through Socialism – for functional fashions against excess. But praising the past »values« of recycling and creativity not yet engulfed by westernized ideas of capitalism, while sweeping the conditions that called for such practices in the first place under the rug, makes »post-Soviet« another catchphrase mismatching a historical period to an aesthetic style in a dangerous game. Did we really need, as fashion blogger Ieva Zu asked, »a rebirth of the 1990s basics that most kids remember wearing because there was nothing much else to wear,« softening the recollection of a coercive regime  and the violent changes of capitalism? Locality is always in the eye of the beholder for it recasts in this newfound visibility another bloc-like image of a region where »which East« is as debatable as ever.  Like the tracksuits’ iconic status that has seen endless re-brands, the working-class taste and the postindustrial sites leaving their flavor on clothing styles are a way of »flirting with the aesthetics« without »experiencing the drawbacks of lifestyle.« 
»›Made in Europe‹ doesn’t mean sweatshop free. Forms of colonial practice are still at work.«
Zooming in and out of the creative hype, the former East is also where the EU Textile Industry’s working hours are dispatched. Romania, Moldavia, and Bulgaria are leading in »Lohn-production,« meaning working in small units subcontracted for reexportation. It is a system that, since the economic crisis surrounding 1989, provided cheap labor for brands like Lacoste, Hugo Boss or some Inditex retailers. If investigative journalism keeps revealing poor working conditions,  the strategy is considered less lucrative in the Romanian field at least, because the rates of unemployment have dropped, making this kind of exploitation a tad pricier than it used to be.  »Made in Europe« doesn’t mean sweatshop free. Forms of colonial practice are still at work. That Romanian fashion is also seeing a revival not only in terms of visibility for young designers but also re-investments in former brands like Braiconf shirts, the waters remain murky for a fashion industry that never quite emerged.
III. a leap toward the future and back
There’s a nostalgic feeling that manifests out of these revivals, but can they answer to something else than the »poor but cool« claim? As Svetlana Boym pointed out, nostalgia is not always a yearning for a bygone time, but rather a different time – »the slower rhythm of our dreams.« We can reconsider nostalgia more than retrospective: »the fantasies of the past determined by the needs of the present have a direct impact on the realities of the future.« In turn it creates responsibility for which nostalgias we bring out of the closet and how. The past is enthralled with aspirations, unrealized dreams and overlooked possibilities. If we want to co-create the future we might need to go beyond »pre-packaged usable past.«  The late 1980s and the 1990s were equally infused with a techno-imaginary, and the former Eastern Bloc didn’t shy away. The computer revolution already raised awareness about the relationship between workers and digital screens, the new tools of tomorrow, considering that technology should be accessible to the »proletarians.« Eastern countries provided hardware production, computational pieces, programs and interest in AI, for which sci-fi literature paved the way.  As it was the case of Romania, the information society was viewed as a second industrial revolution. Mainly based on advances of microelectronics and AI, by early 1980s computer technology targeted all layers of society. This indicated not only a solid base for IT culture, but also interest in technological developments,  backed up by popular magazines like Science and Technology or Anticipația Almanacfor sci-fi literature.
What would it mean to ponder narratives from the past towards the future? The tracksuit is a »suit for track/ing,« for a body in a state of becoming. »Sportswear,« as Wilson points out, »fits well into an age obsessed with health and improvement of the body; with an age in love with speed and technology.«  Romanian brand Prosper Center, for example, created a Social Fiction through clothing, intertwining sportswear, media, and technology. Rereading iconographies of socialist eco-engineering and scientific progress, the unrealized dreams of the past now bring up posthuman concerns for which clothes are a projection surface. An AR app pictured collages of mythical fictions in stories neither quite utopian nor dystopian. From Automata, to Legend of Cora, domestic robots, or wearable technology, the garments made room for an immaterial flow in a future realm through cyberspace and the material, plush and shiny fibers dressing us up in a restless world. We don’t really know how sustainable our bodies are in the first place; flesh, identity, technology, get porous, intermeshed. Leaping into cyberspace, as Ingrid Loschek wrote, helps us transgress the border between the »probable and the miraculous, between the real and the mythical«  because it allows fictions and forms of delocalization.
Yet the road is rocky. Our smart phones – extensions of our bodies, always already connected, reading our minds and predicting our future (searches) – become archives for a messy self. If our personalities transform in free images, their floating around gets scanned, measured, and tagged, generating detailed data. From geolocation to appearances and behaviors – we are facing a knowledge economy where our outputs exceed personal value, but are commercial and managerial as well. 
in the realm of miracles. the cyberspace. the land of indeterminacies. we flow like data.
We »domesticate« technologies by bringing them into the everyday, transforming them into a territory of the self. In this sense, our relationship with objects – or nonhuman – also re-configure us.  Algorithmic processing might be just another »objective fiction« maintaining inequalities, but they can misread, and in their misunderstanding, something else could emerge.
IV. Feelings growing over
Like a truthful self-companion, our clothes build an entire environment, something of a comfort zone that, like Kobo Abe’s »Man in a Box« we can carry around. A matter of clothes is also a matter of perception. Memories and feelings can grow on their surface, can anticipate the touch, the material gliding across the body – how clothes make us feel, what narratives they hold to, how they relate to others’ imagination.
»It’s not only our memories that we wear, but also how we engage with clothes for which the past remains obscure.«
The relationship between technological improvement and second-hand clothes (or re-purposed ones) is not as clear cut as in a sort of retro/vintage vs. reactive software distinction. Textiles are themselves innovation and technology, one that escapes our awareness – the threads weaving our clothes make them more »enduring« while extending the capacities of the bodies, whether protection, movement or interaction.  Clothes act as our »invisible« protoprosthetics. In our everyday life, fashion is not always about change. Items find different paces, that can alter our perspective of the time-span. Second-hand and already-worn clothes in particular shift our attention toward the way we pass through temporal fictions when we dress. It’s not only our memories that we wear, but also how we engage with clothes for which the past remains obscure. The production of sustainable and ecological fast-fashion is worth nothing if the life of clothes is not extended and enjoyed more. What we wear is not only a question of expression, but »gives shape to our everyday life,« thus a design for future means bringing feelings back as a raison d’être of clothes.  At the intersection of technology and repurposed materials, everything can always become something else, a soft growth of textures, a weaving of politics and new visions where clothes might insert complaints and demands that exceed our own interests.
V. »I would rather not« as an invisible shirt
The way fashion spreads, the »bubble up« from the everyday, that though wishing no hierarchies still dictates trends  might sometimes mean more than changing styles. Throwing the fashion façade into the social game can be a gesture of exuberance, like clothes refusing to assign their wearers »their proper place.« From the car-wash men showing shiny necklaces and gold watches underneath branded tracksuits, to the supermarket cashier wearing oversized earrings, enveloped in perfume and with a fancy hairdo, or the post-office lady wearing high stilettos, »they have exactly what the fashion industry capitalized on: they have it, i.e. the attitude. But they didn’t buy it and they don’t sell it; they just have it.«  Similarly, the clothes that are draping me away from a precarious social background, the second-hand clothes, refuse to see themselves as second.
How we are to think about imaginary borders? How we are to inhabit geographical dissent?
What does it mean to inhabit the post-industrial condition? What does it mean to perform and dress it up?
You can call me by my first name, but I’m wearing it all on my sleeves. The exploiting Factory of Dreams, as some of my friends would tell me, seems to live in us.
This text extends on an introductory note that appeared as »Softly Decolonizing my Eastern European Self? Everything Happens on the Surface of my Clothes«and it is part of the writer’s ongoing struggle with her own wardrobe as a surface of encounter for sociopolitical fictions and fashion arrangements. Fragments, »scenes«and incongruities constitute a way of constructing a relational map for these threads that we wear, and wear us.
- Elizabeth Wilson: »Introduction: Fashion Impossible«in: Utopian Bodies. Fashion Looking Forward.exh. cat., Stockholm 2015, p. 16.
- Elke Gaugele, Monica Titton: »Alternative Aesthetic Politics: An Introduction«in: Aesthetic Politics in Fashion.Elke Gaugele ed., Berlin 2014, pp.170–171.
- Alexander Kiossev in »The Self-Colonizing Metaphor«explains that processes of colonization can also take the form of auto-colonizing as in gaining recognition in accordance with the Eurocentrism, which orders who gets to speak and its place cultural and economic communities. The former East, which Marx once called the »Balkan Wilderness,«wasn’t consider exotic enough for adventure and pleasure, rather in the European colonial imagination it represented a »lateral,«a »periphery«that lacked both in size and wealth enough to stir fascination, and as such relegated to »the ambivalent, shameful, and comic internal other.« http://monumenttotransformation.org/atlas-of-transformation/html/s/self-colonization/the-self-colonizing-metaphor-alexander-kiossev.html.
- Ieva Zu: »A Dangerous Game of Gosha Rubchinskiy,«onFashion Bloc,2016 http://www.fashionbloc.co.uk/2016/06/16/a-dangerous-world-of-gosha-rubchinskiy/.
- Anstasiia Fedorova: »Poor but Cool,«in: Calvert Journal, 2016. See also »Post-Soviet fashion: identity, history and the trend that changed the industry« in: Calvert Journal, 2018.
- Michelle Miller Fisher: »Acting as If. On Trench Coats, Tracksuits and the Counterfeit Self.« Vestoj, .
- Mariana Petcu: »New Initiative for Social Standards in Romania«in: Bettina Musiolek ed.: Made in ¼Eastern Europe. The new »fashion colonies.« Berlin 2004, p. 30; Laura Ștefănuț, Fabricat în Europa, online Casa Jurnalistului platform, February 2016 .
- Nicoleta Bugnar, Liana Meșter: »Lohn Production – An Economic Social Measure?«in:Annals of Faculty of Economics, Örebro 2008, vol. 1, issue 1, pp. 59–62.
- Svetlana Boym: Nostalgia, 2011. http://monumenttotransformation.org/atlas-of-transformation/html/n/nostalgia/nostalgia-svetlana-boym.html.
- Victor Petrov: »Communist Robot Dreams,« Aeon Mag, 2018. https://aeon.co/essays/how-communist-bulgaria-became-a-leader-in-tech-and-sci-fi.
- Florin Filip: »Information Technology Culture Dissemination in Romania,«in: Knowledge, Technology Transfer and Foresight. A. Inzelt & R. Conen eds., London 1996, pp.150–153.
- Wilson: op.cit, p.16.
- Ingrid Loschek: When Clothes Become Fashion: Design and Innovation Systems, Oxford and New York 2009, p. 126.
- Deborah Lupton: Digital Bodies, 2015 pre-print chapter .
- Virginia Postrel: »Losing the Thread,« Aeon Mag, 2016. https://aeon.co/essays/how-textiles-repeatedly-revolutionised-human-technology.
- Pauline von Dongen: spread discussion in »Form follows Feelings,« in: Eternal Erasure – On Fashion Matters, Berlin 2017, pp.154–159.
- Anja Aronowsky Cronberg: »Can fashion Ever be Democratic?« Vestoj, 2015 http://vestoj.com/can-fashion-ever-be-democratic/.
- Jan Verwoert refers actually to Hilary Lloyd’s work Car Wash, a series of four slide projections, each comprised of 80 slides showing a group of Arab men working at a car wash in Sheffield. I took the liberty of extending this appreciation for small exuberant gestures to other places of work. Verwoert, »Exhaustion and Exuberance: Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform.« in: Facing Value. Radical Perspectives From the Art. Maaike Lauwaert & Francien van Westrenen eds., Amsterdam 2017, p. 154.