The Slow Old Days

by guest blogger Renee James, humorist and blogger

When Maria told me the theme for this week was "slow fashion," my first thought was, "What in the world is slow fashion?" Other than describing my usual default position of being very, very far behind on fashion trends, I had no clue. And then I thought, "Who could write a whole week's worth of blogs about my missing fashion sense?" (Don't answer that.)

Turns out "slow fashion" highlights and celebrates responsible use of environmental resources, as well as responsible sourcing of fabrics and other materials, along with the craftsmanship that goes into creating our clothing. So what in the world can I write about that? I'm no expert on running a competitive business or managing a skilled workforce. I don't know anything about the garment industry or sewing. That's all true: I don't. But as it turns out, I grew up with people who did.

My uncle--and his father before him--owned and ran what used to be called a "blouse mill," where dozens of women and some men sewed and shipped out thousands and thousands of blouses to wholesalers and retail customers in New York City. The seamstresses were members of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, and as such, they enjoyed the benefits of a fair wage, reliable and consistent workdays, and the support of a union that would monitor their safety and work environment. They were proud of their skills and proud of the garments they produced. Over many decades in "the mill," working with countless bolts of "goods," generations of women from their small community considered my uncle--and each other--family.

My Grandmother Antoinette was also a seamstress, but in addition to creating garments, she helped create a modern workplace. She was a forewoman and an early union delegate at a factory called Strongwear Pants. In the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, she was a "working woman," and shared a home with her husband, her brother-in-law and sister-in-law, and all their children. My grandmother and the men went to their jobs each day; my Great-Aunt Mary stayed home with the kids. As the other adults earned wages, Mary raised the children and managed the household, no doubt spending part of each day creating a "slow food" meal, but that's another column. (Or is it?)

The large parcel of land they owned not only offered them the grand old home they built and shared, along with a huge barn/garage, but it also included some chickens, at least one donkey (I remember the pen from when I was a little girl), and a few goats. My grandfather always grew grapes, and back then, everyone made their own wine. This continued into my lifetime. The Sunday dinner table always had green glass soda bottles repurposed into carafes filled with homemade red wine. Their garden thrived, and "local" cuisine found its way into their kitchen by way of their own backyard.

I think it's fair to say that about 100 years ago, any number of things could be called "slow" in a way we try to emulate today. Everything from the clothing our ancestors wore to the meals they served was "slow," and they wouldn't understand why that was so special or desirable. It was normal life. Outsourcing manufacturing of all kinds to factories and workforces overseas, away from U.S. union employees, was decades away. Replacing "scratch" cooking with slightly more convenient bottled, canned, and packaged ingredients was something Antoinette and Mary would not find useful or, more important, tastier.

Almost all the sewing mills I remember from childhood have shut down. Sadly, the land my ancestors owned has been parceled out for new homes, and only a small piece of their original property remains intact. The donkey pen is long gone, and the gardens have been replaced with driveways. Not all of that is a terrible thing, but at least some of it is, right?

I love modern conveniences, but I'm positive that when we embraced a number of them, we lost something tangible and something intangible along the way. We lost the spirit of community. We lost the connections that bound us to each other. We've somehow lost the proud concept of "a good day's wages for a job well done." We've instead contorted that into a rallying cry for "a good day's wages...for pretty much anything." Over the years, as demand went up and quality suffered, we learned to accept that and became comfortable with lower price tags and the idea of "replaceable" commodities. And in this land of plenty for not much money, we've largely ignored the fallout, both domestically, with jobs and entire industries now long gone, and overseas, where workforces are exploited for the sake of profits.

So the questions are these: If we can make one change, do one thing that can bring back even a shred of that feeling of fairness and equity and respect and treating each other (and the planet) well--not to mention supporting a skilled and valuable workforce--isn't it worth doing? Part two: Isn't it worth doing even if it costs us a little more?

Yes. Because in the end, I'm not sure any of us has the final tally on what "fast" everything really costs us.

Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, Pennsylvania, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates--and broods about--life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, "Really? You're kidding me, right?" (or wants to, anyway), and she welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.

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