A Sweatshop of One's Own

An Exploration of Post-Slave-Labor American Fashion

By Kara Crabb


Monday's shower-curtain dress. Photos by Jill Thompson and Courtney Turnball.

I’m Canadian, but if there’s one thing I know about Americans, it’s that they love buying products manufactured by impoverished foreign people. Hardly any of the clothing sold in the United States is made there; everybody knows it and no one really has a problem with it except for a few uptight weirdos who dress either really well or, more likely, like an incontinent grandmother’s shitstains. But what if, one day, the crap-manufacturing industry collapses, and all of the indentured servants the US employs there are no longer able to produce an endless supply of cheaply manufactured flashy garments? What sorts of atrocities would Americans be forced to wear?

To illustrate this hypothetical predicament, I committed to hand-making my own wardrobe from scratch and wearing a different outfit each day of the week. Like most Americans, I know very little about fashion design or sewing, so this process was overwhelmingly tedious and took approximately 5,000 times longer to complete than it would have taken anyone who works in an actual sweatshop (that’s why the system exists, duh). I did attempt to make decent-looking garments so that I had a chance of passing as a sane person. If one of the Olsen twins can walk around in a furry trash bag, what did I have to lose? So I pressed on and am happy to present to you a rough approximation of how shittily Americans and other spoiled Westerners will be dressing in a future where sweatshops don’t exist and we are forced to improvise our own clothing.

MONDAY: SHOWER-CURTAIN DRESS

I thought it was important to use as many recycled fabrics as possible in this experiment, so the shower curtain I selected to make my first outfit with had been hanging in the bathroom of my parents’ house for several years. This explains why the inside of the dress was coated with furry black mold, but I just pretended it was lined with rabbit fur so it wasn’t a big deal.

It took a lot of cutting and sewing (which, again, I had no idea how to do), but I’d say the end product was quite a success, especially if you happen to be into the whole Sears-maternitysadness type of look.

Speaking of maternity sadness, my mother invited me out to dinner the night I finished the dress, and when I walked in the door she insisted that I change. I told her that it wasn’t a possibility because it was “my job, Mom.” A family friend dined with us and told me that my shower-curtain couture reminded her of when she was pregnant. My mother, of course, chirped in and said that I looked like I was on welfare and that she was embarrassed to be sitting across from me.

TUESDAY: TURTLENECK/OWL VAGINA

I know people are divided about wearing realistic pictures of animals and animal prints on their bodies, but fuck those toilet bugs. To me, wearing animal-themed clothing is the same thing as wearing a band shirt, because I’m a big fan of animals—I want to be around them, I want them on me, and I want them inside me, all the time, forever. This owl-print pillowcase was also unearthed at my parents’ house, where it had been banished to the back of a closet. My grandmother bragged about how she had bought it before there was a Walmart in the city, which seemed appropriate considering Walmart goes with sweatshops like owls go with my vagina.

The combination of the turtleneck and the owl skirt worked really well and made me feel more confident than anyone probably ever should, although I did catch myself in a mirror and for a second thought I had a pillow resting on my lap. I wore the outfit to a nursing home, where I felt extremely sexually attractive (if you’ve never felt like you’re hot stuff around a bunch of old people, you’re really missing out).

WEDNESDAY: ACCIDENTAL PAJAMAS

When people wear pajamas outside it feels like they’re saying, “I’d rather be sleeping than doing whatever it is I’m doing.” This impulse to turn your brain off is, to me, reminiscent of suicide. That’s the long way of explaining to you that I didn’t mean to make pajamas. When I was “designing” this outfit, I was just trying to make something easy to wear, comfortable, and plaid—what’s wrong with that? I used bedsheets and a piece of elastic to make the pants, and turned an old housecoat into a shirt. In retrospect, accidental pajamas were inevitable. How did I not foresee this? Do I secretly want to wear pajamas in public? What am I doing with my life? Am I a pseudo-adult degenerate? These questions were running through my head until I realized I wore this outfit to the mall, where I went to buy ice cream. I’m doing just fine, thanks.

PS: Every good stylist knows how important it is to accessorize, so I also sported this modest, lightweight purse, aka a brown paper bag. Looks like I’ve just created “mental-illness chic.” What happens now? Do I get famous? I hope so.

THURSDAY: FLORAL ONESIE

One-piece suits are great because sometimes it can feel silly to put conscious effort into mixing and matching clothes, especially once you consider that you could be thinking about other things like astrophysics or all of the genocides that are happening at the very second you are squinting at a pair of belts. So this onesie was the piece I was the most excited about creating. I used my favorite fabric—a bedsheet from the 80s that I had cherished for years—and made precise measurements, which turned out to not be that precise because, again, I had no fucking idea what I was doing. The end result was an awkward, camel-toe-inducing, slightly see-through, human-shaped blob of fabric that a slutty street urchin might wear in Charles Dickens fan fiction.

I couldn’t move my body without tearing the seams, and at one point it felt like my thighs were losing circulation. I went grocery shopping wearing this thing, and it felt like I was naked the whole time. This was especially confusing as grocery shopping, for me, also doubles as hotdad- hunting time. Ultimately, I felt too vulnerable to pursue any hot dads. But somehow I ended up spreading my legs too far and ripping the crotch out. I did it all for you, America!

FRIDAY: LACE-TABLECLOTH CIRCLE SKIRT

I made this totally cool skirt out of one of my mom’s tablecloths and paired it with a shirt from the thrift store because, fuck it, sewing is boring, difficult, and I didn’t want to do it anymore! There’s a barbecue-sauce stain on it that kind of looks like period blood, but I think that just adds a little edge to an otherwise delicate and girlish-looking garment that I am very proud of. The thing about wearing retarded stuff on Friday is that you can pretty much get away with anything and still get praised for it. I knew I looked like a poor Harajuku Girl, but next to normal women at bars I came off as too confidently crazy to participate in their primitive attractiveness competitions, which is exactly what I was going for. My reward? Great conversations, lots of laughter, barfing on a grown man’s penis in the bathroom of a drug den, and the sensation of a rash developing on my thighs—perhaps due to the barbecue stain seeping into my skin slowly over the course of a long Friday night.

SATURDAY: “I LOVE YOU” MIDLENGTH TEE

I found this fabric lying around my house emblazoned with i love you, and at this point I was getting ultra-lazy with the cutting and sewing. I just made a square for my body and only stitched together what was necessary to keep it from falling apart. I left the house with seams coming undone and strings dangling all over the place, which was actually beneficial because ragamuffin is such an “in” look right now.

I went out for a midday beer with a friend, and the bartender walked over with a pair of scissors, offering to adjust my outfit. I watched her cut the strings off as she shared her own fashion-design goals. A glimmer of sunshine entered my soul. Maybe this is how sweatshop workers feel on their days off? Oh wait, they don’t get days off. More likely, it was just what being drunk in the afternoon feels like.

Later on I went to a sex-toy shop to buy vibrators for my friends because I was feeling so generous and happy. Maybe the message on my shirt was flowing up into my brain. Or perhaps we should always wear things that we think are psychotic so we end up changing up our usual, boring behavioral patterns. Or it could be that I’m just full of spite and wretchedness, I don’t know.

SUNDAY: HOUSE TOGA

By this point I was so over this sewing-and-stitching shit that I literally just draped fabric over my body and tied it up like a toga. Oddly enough, this was also the most fashionable I felt all week. I have to admit, there’s something really decadent and elevating about swaddling your body in layers of cloth.

All I did on Sunday was loaf around. In jogging pants this “activity” would have felt disgusting and lonely, but in a fine, rich-colored jersey it felt queenly. A friend came over and told me I looked like Beyonce, which, I cannot emphasize enough, has never happened before. Maybe everyone should just walk around in loose, flowing fabrics all day. We’d probably be more relaxed, have massive orgies, feed one another grapes, and drink out of chalices, i.e., live in paradise. Plus, going to the bathroom is a cinch in a toga.

I would be perfectly content draping sheets over myself all day, every day, but this is impossible unless everybody is doing it—people would assume I needed medical attention. Just one more way fitting into society can compromise your value system. I guess when they say, “You have to suffer for fashion,” the “you” refers to a bunch of starving Southeast Asian kids in a factory. Oh, America, what a conundrum you are.

Read more from our Fashion Issue:

Fashion in the 90s

Because the Night

American Gigolo

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