Forget fast fashion: slow style pioneers on the clothes they've worn for decades

As consumers grow tired of cheap, disposable items and ‘haul culture’, six people tell the story behind the piece of clothing they’ve cherished longest

A peek in the average British wardrobe will confirm that we are living in increasingly throwaway times. The popularity of “haul culture”, the ubiquity of Primark on high streets and the rise of ultra-low-cost online retailers has got the British public hooked on fast fashion. But it is entirely unsustainable. We send £140m of clothing to landfill every year in the UK, much of it made by workers scratching a subsistence wage in poor conditions in countries such as Cambodia and Sri Lanka. And the environmental cost is ruinous: textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally.

There is, however, evidence that this era may be drawing to a close. It is estimated that the secondhand or resale market could be bigger than fast fashion within a decade as we become more aware of the social and environmental impact of cheap clothes. And the slow-fashion movement – encouraging people to buy ethically made items of clothing sparingly, repair them when necessary and keep them for life – is growing in popularity. Here, we asked Guardian readers if they were slow fashion pioneers and to share the much-loved items that have been in their wardrobes for years.

Sunita Yeomans, 50, a graphic designer from Olney, has worn the same pair of denim dungarees since the 1980s

Sunita Yeomans in her dungarees.
Sunita Yeomans in her dungarees. Photograph: Sunita Yeomans

I was ridiculously shy when I was younger. When I went to art college in 1988, I realised I needed to come out of my shell so made a real effort to make friends.

One day, a student called Mike invited me to a fashion party. It was brilliant fun. Lots of people were staying over, so I did, too, but the next morning I reverted to being shy Sunita. When I left, everyone burst out laughing at this weird girl Mike had invited.

The next time I saw Mike I didn’t know what to say, so I said: “I love your dungarees.” He told me I could have them and I’ve worn them ever since. I adore them.

I met my husband, Simon, at college. We’ve been together for 30 years and married for 26. After we’d been dating for two weeks, he took me to meet his family. I wore the dungarees because I was nervous – I come from a culture where most of my cousins had arranged marriages – and I felt as if I could hide in them.

Dungarees are workwear, so they never go out of fashion, and these ones are good quality. I normally wear them when I’m doing DIY or painting. Every time I pop them on, all the memories of my life with Simon come back. I guess you could say they’re my happy dungarees.

Lally MacBeth, 28, an artist from Cornwall, stumbled across a dress in a Brighton vintage shop – donated by her mother years earlier

Lally MacBeth in her mother’s old dress.
Lally MacBeth in her mother’s old dress. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

In 2016, I was in Brighton, visiting my cousin for the day. We went vintage shopping in the Lanes. I saw this dress and felt drawn to the print – it was a strange feeling. I didn’t have much money, so I tried it on and then left the shop to think about it. I called Mum for advice. She said: “That sounds really similar to a dress that I had once and gave away.” I decided to buy it, just to show her. I sent her a photo and she replied: “Oh, my God. It’s the dress.”

Lally MacBeth’s mother wearing the dress circa 1994.
Lally MacBeth’s mother wearing the dress circa 1994. Photograph: Provided by Lally MacBeth

She had been given it by a friend who had bought it in the 1970s in Dublin. It’s by a designer called Susan Small. We found a photo of my mum wearing it in the 1990s. When I saw it, it triggered something in my memory. I was pretty sure I’d seen a dress like it on eBay, so I went into my watched items and there it was: same print, same designer, but a slightly different version. It turns out my mum had actually owned two of the dresses and given them both away. It’s a crazy coincidence.

I was drawn to the dress because of deep-rooted nostalgia. My mum always wore those types of dresses when we were kids. When I realised the connection, it felt meaningful. A lot of my love for vintage fashion comes from her. In the photo, she’s wearing the dress with a pair of Hobbs shoes from 1989, which I also have. So now I have the exact same outfit.

Kim Wong, 55, from Manchester, runs a business teaching English as a foreign language. He has worn a jumper his mother knitted for him for 37 years

Kim Wong and his wife, Moi, wearing jumpers his mother knitted in the 1980s.
Kim Wong and his wife, Moi, wearing jumpers his mother knitted in the 1980s. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

When I was at university, my bedroom was so cold in the winter that I would often find ice inside the windows. My mum said: “I’ll knit you a jumper.” That was 37 years ago, and that jumper has stayed with me throughout all the highs and lows of my life.

In its heyday, it was really warm and fluffy. I’d wear it when I was studying and I couldn’t afford to put the heating on. It’s not so fluffy now, but it’s only in the past year that I’ve had to start patching it up. I asked my mum if she could repair it. She had a go, but said it was beyond her – she didn’t have the time and patience, or the wool.

It’s funny to think it will have only cost her a few pounds to make and that it has lasted this long. If I were to buy a jumper like it, it would cost a lot more, and likely wouldn’t last. Fashion these days changes so quickly. I see people updating their look all the time, and I think how big is your closet?

Paul Peppiate, 58, is a design manager from Embsay, North Yorkshire. He has worn his ‘indestructible’ green socks for 28 years

Paul Peppiate and his green socks.
Paul Peppiate and his green socks. Photograph: Lorne Campbell/Guzelian/The Guardian

When I was younger, I used to go walking a lot and my socks would always go into holes. My mum said to me: “You know, there’s a company that makes indestructible socks?” When I bought them, from HJ Hall, they looked like normal socks to me. But, 28 years on, I’m still wearing them.

I wore them on my wedding day. I don’t think I consciously decided to keep them as a keepsake, but the longer I had them, the more they felt like a memory of the day. They’re like a talisman – I’ve had them all the time that we’ve been happily married. Indestructible socks equal an indestructible marriage.

I treasure things that I’ve had for some time, and these socks fall into that category. Other generations of socks have been and gone, but when I open my drawer, they’re always there: a reliable presence in an unreliable world.

Hel Loader, 55, a nut farmer from Whanganui, New Zealand, has worn her favourite blue dress on adventures around the world

Hel Loader in her beloved dress in Barcelona in 2000.
Hel Loader in her beloved dress in Barcelona in 2000. Photograph: Hel Loader

I bought this dress on Cuba Street in central Wellington when I was 25. There was a stall selling tie-dyed batik outfits. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw this incredible ultramarine blue. I thought: “That will be easy to wear in summer.”

After I bought the dress, I met Scott. He lived in Auckland and, as I lived in Wellington, we had a long-distance relationship for a while. Scott and I both had stressful jobs so we loved to take weekends off and travel around New Zealand. The dress quickly became associated with holidays.

Later on, Scott would come home from a stressful day and say: “I’ve had enough.” So we’d chuck a few things in a bag and off we’d go. I’d always bring the dress because if it got crushed or crumpled, the creases would fall right out. Whenever I’d prepare for a trip, Scott always checked to make sure I’d packed it. He liked the colour.

Scott wanted to explore the world and we started taking longer trips. In 2000, we spent six months travelling around Central America and the dress came with us. I could wear it hiking or at the end of the day when we went for a beer and a meal. It was just a simple thing: I didn’t have to worry what I looked like because the dress was bright and cheerful, and that’s how I felt. When I look at photos from that trip, I see a young woman, madly in love, looking at the man she loves without a care in the world and her life stretching before her.

Before Scott died of pancreatic cancer in 2017, he asked me to scatter his ashes at Cape Finisterre in Spain. It was a special place for Scott – we had travelled there in 2008. In Roman times, they thought Cape Finisterre was the end of the world. Scott liked that. So I packed the dress, flew to Spain and tipped the bugger off a cliff, just like he wanted.

Scott and I always saw ourselves as a great love story. He used to tell me that he loved me without measure or restraint. The dress represents all the times we had together. But it’s just a scrap of fabric, really. When I bought it, I didn’t think any of that.

Now, when I come home from the farm and I’m tired, I have a shower and put it on. It still fits, although it’s a bit more snug now and a little worn, but it’s as bright and blue and happy as it ever was.

Petra Tilly, 57, is a play therapist, from Dartmoor. She has treasured an Edwardian jacket for most of her adult life

Petra Tilly wearing her Edwardian jacket.
Petra Tilly wearing her Edwardian jacket. Photograph: Provided by PP

I grew up on a hill farm in Dartmoor, the youngest of three children. I used to wear my siblings’ hand-me-downs, but I loved dressing up. My grandmother gave me these 1930s evening gowns and I’d wander around the farmyard with them dragging in the mud.

When I was 17, I went to art school in Plymouth. I used to spend a lot of time vintage shopping – I loved the hunt. This Edwardian jacket was the first vintage piece I ever bought. I’d wear it with patched-up old Levi’s, or over a dress. It was an exciting time: I was just heading out into the world and everything seemed possible.

After I finished my degree, I met an older man who was very interesting, but also abusive and controlling. He would often tell me what I could and couldn’t wear. The only way to escape was to throw some clothes in a bag and run away with my son, which is how I found myself a single parent in the mid-1980s. Money was tight and I had to sell my vintage clothing collection to make ends meet. But I couldn’t bear to sell the jacket. It was a bit of the old me, from before I met him. It held the memory of my younger, flamboyant, art-student self.

I wore the jacket when my husband and I got married, on Dartmoor, in 1995. I had to wear it, because it had seen me through good times and bad – and my wedding was a particularly special and joyous time for me. Even though the jacket’s looking a bit tatty now, I still wouldn’t part with it.

Pete Maclean, 68, is a software developer, who lives in Virginia. He bought his three-piece red suit in New York in the 1970s

Pete Maclean and his three-piece suit.
Pete Maclean and his three-piece suit. Photograph: Pete Maclean

I moved to New York in the 1970s as a student before getting a job at New York University. I saw this suit in the window of a shop on 8th Street and it just yelled to me that I had to buy it. Because I’m so tall and thin, it can be hard for me to find clothes, but when I tried it on, it fitted perfectly.

I was living it up at the time. I had a very fulfilling job, a good social life and I’d go out to the disco. It was one of the happier periods of my life. I grew up in Scotland, but I’d been courageous and taken myself to the US. Things had worked out for me and I was very grateful. The suit was a symbol of how I’d built the life for myself that I wanted. If I could go back in time to that period, I’d whisper to myself: “You’re doing great. Just keep it up. It’s going to be wonderful.”

I’ve had the suit since I was 28 and I’m reluctant to get rid of it because I’d never be able to find one like it again. It’s as good as new – I still wear it occasionally, although not as much as I did in the 1970s.

As I get older I grow less attached to material things. I throw things out because I want to make my life leaner. It’s just a few things and a few people that are really valuable that I hold on to – the others fall off the edges and I let them go.

• This article was amended on 11 June 2019 to correct a misspelling of the family name of Paul Peppiate as Peppiatt. It was further amended on 28 December 2020 because an earlier version referred to the fashion industry as the world’s second biggest polluter, after the oil industry, when it meant to reference textile dyeing being the second largest polluter of water globally.


Sirin Kale

The GuardianTramp

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