Interview with The Rational Dress Society by Dan Bustillo

Photo credit: Jenny Yurshansky
Photo credit: Harold Batista


The following is an interview by Dan Bustillo with Abigail Glaum-Lathbury and Maura Brewer, who founded the Rational Dress Society. Together, they developed JUMPSUIT, which is an ungendered monogarment, available pre-made or as an open-source pattern, with a sizing system that accommodates up to 200 body types. The Rational Dress Society regularly conducts JUMPSUIT-making workshops, protests, and lectures on JUMPSUIT, the tyranny of choice, and the history of counter-fashion.

Dan Bustillo:: I have seen you lecture about the history of counter fashion and revolutionary dress, and how JUMPSUIT aligns itself with these histories. From what I understand JUMPSUIT offers an alternative to the ethical conundrum of being immediately complicit with the evils of the garment industry every time we purchase clothes. I am interested in the way you talk about fashion as a discursive construct. Samuel Delaney’s book Triton comes to mind because in Triton, fashion is a big part of how bodies are represented and since clothing is often optional and so much time goes into describing what and if the characters are dressed. You’ll have a whole paragraph describing the Spike’s outfit, which might be no more than a plastic letter on her back, or Bron might decide to go to work with nothing at all and so that nothing at all is his outfit. And so rather than use clothing as a way to identify certain bodies according to difference, (different to a dominant majority, so criminal, sick, queer, gendered, radicalized, dissident, etc…) it seems that you are doing something very similar but in the totally opposite way…

Maura Brewer:: Samuel Delaney is very interested in clothes. I haven’t read Triton, but in Dahlgren clothes are quasi optional in this post apocalyptic city but there is a lot of time spent describing clothes and there is a gang that wears these holographic devices to make them look like bugs and mythological creatures but then they are also partially naked underneath these hologram devices and they have all these technologic clothes. There is one description of a female character that goes to a fancy party and she makes herself this dress with a fabric that someone else controls remotely. Delaney talks about that garment forever in the text and I have always thought of JUMPSUIT in sci-fi terms…Even in Star Trek, the way the uniform is used to signify this kind of benevolent utopia in which there are designations for what kind of job you do but everyone is a team member in this quasi-bureaucratic situation. I think particularly a form of the JUMPSUIT has a really interesting double veillance of being like simultaneously linked to the space suit and to astronauts and to futurity and also to work-wear and the coverall. So it is both of the future and the working class and there is something utopian in JUMPSUIT itself, in the histories that are associated with the garment.

MB:: I think JUMPSUIT is Utopian and in some ways unrealizable but like Utopia, it demands the promise of realization. Part of it is the act of imagining a different thing. It is about discourse, it is about taking an existing structure and imagining it as its inverse to see what happens, and in doing that, what you see is that the kind of rhetoric that mainstream fashion books itself in is just as much a kind of fantasy construct. The idea of expressing yourself as being inherently good becomes a Utopia. So Zara is the Utopia: you can go there and pick from 300 garments and find one thing that perfectly represents you and this is just as much a utopian construction which is produced to get us to buy things. It is an ideological construct wrapping itself in a language of dress.

DB:: That makes me think about the kind of political ideologies that can be packed into clothing and into wearable ideologies as ways of resisting identity machines, in resistance to the ways in which we have historically demarcated certain bodies and designated them as criminal, or as topologies for some kind of dissidence, whether that be in terms of religion, health, gender, nationality, leading to a corresponding spatialization of that dissidence whereby these bodies are then placed in quarantines, jails, hospitals, ghettoes, red light districts, concentration camps, asylums, holding cells, etc. We have always found ways to visualize distinctions and render them criminal. And so in some ways, I understand how projects like JUMPSUIT would seek to undo that tendency to use garments to identify deviance, by making it so that nothing can be demarcated or seen, so like anomalies are no longer considered anomalies if everything is seen as the same, as some kind of homogenous dress, that can cloak all forms, all bodies, whether deviant or not. So then how might that missive differ from—and you probably get this question a lot—normcore, which…

MB:: I love normcore!

DB:: Haha. The “exhaustingly plain look of Steve Jobs and Jerry Seinfeld” (according to K-Hole) but the real promise of normcore is the use of a homogenous dress as camouflage to resist these identity machines and is that not akin to JUMPSUIT? Would you say that normcore is aligned with your mission to defy the tyranny of choice?

Abigail Glaum-Lathbury:: Something we get picked on for at some point is that this has to be adaptable or flexible. In some ways by opting out, you inadvertently opt in.

MB:: You mark yourself in a different way.

AGL:: Normcore is also funny, which is a strength and I think that is also a strength of JUMPSUIT. I was just reading a study for a talk I am giving about denim and ethical choices in denim and there was a case study where they had two groups that had to pick three items according to specific criterions. One was color, the other one was wash, and the other was whether or not it was ethically produced, and I forget what the fourth one was, but they were all more or less in the same price range and those that selected the ethical production were then alienated from those who chose to ignore it. So it was not that they didn’t want to talk about it, but they chose to ignore it, meaning there was a deliberate choice to not address the ethics of production. Instead they would focus on the quality of the wash. What ended up happening was the people who chose the ethical production as a means for evaluating the denim were actually ridiculed by the people who did not select it because they felt they were preachy and dogmatic and so they had somehow managed to do a complete reversal of the situation. Instead of feeling bad that they didn’t choose the ethics of production as criteria, they attacked, which apparently is something that we do a lot. And so the humor in some ways takes the edge off since it is harder to attack or write off something that is funny.

DB:: That is a great point. In that way, JUMPSUIT and normore do operate in similar ways. I think of how grunge or any kind of pubescent refusal to wear a suit and therefore be a suit, is a politics of resistance is the opposite strategy. With normcore and JUMPSUIT there is an urgency to disintegrate into a greater social fabric, so we can actually do more harm, so it is more parasitic. But in order for that to happen, we have to be ok with it, and how can we be ok with it? We can be ok with it if it is funny, so it is almost a way of convincing folks to do it through humor. I don’t know how to seriously wear Jerry Seinfeld’s white sneakers and jeans. I have been reading Metahaven’s Black Transparency: The Right to Know in the Digital Age, which is interesting because it addresses issues around surveillance within a history of Wikileaks, initially mapped out through design, for instance looking at the logo itself, or how the infrastructural design of their system was inseparable from the legislative mandates of the countries they operated out of. There is one instance that focuses on a sweater that Julian Assange wore to a conference where he was presenting WikiLeaks as a legitimate press and there was apparently so much focus on some inappropriately casual sweater he wore. The significance of his choice to wear the sweater was that Assange could claim a place for WL at this conference while successfully looking out of place.

MB:: I believe really strongly in irony as a political tactic and as one that produces or allows for things to be read and received in a social place in multiple ways and that produces a kind of solidarity between people in a way that you might read about JUMPSUIT and you might take it in a way that is very straight, or you might understand it to be functioning in a literal, or humorous and critical way. I think that irony actually allows for both of those realities to operate simultaneously so when we say we reject choice, otherwise known as the yolk of the capitalist paradigm, we know there is something funny about that and that there is something very sincere about that, and that those two feelings don’t cancel each other out. I think that that can also be said of Normcore. I have walked around with my mom and her wife and we are all wearing the same black JUMPSUIT and no one notices that we are wearing the same thing, but if you know what to look for you would be able to read that and look for a specific political veillance or something. Irony exposes the ways that meanings are socially constructed.

DB:: On the subject of visibility and knowing what to look for, both of you touched on how the cycles of production are increasing so rapidly which reminds of a New York Times article about how smart phones are killing off the tradition of the fashion show and one of the main points of this article was that in the digital age the way we relate to images and the fast rate at which we receive visual information has also affected the cycles of production in fashion. Tumblr and social media are said to provide a critically steep competition for the calculated pacing of collection releases. In this article, there was an amazing quote from the founder and chairman of a digital consultancy firm called L2 that quantifies digital performances of businesses, Scott Galloway, who said that “Social Media is the laxative of the fashion system.” The idea is that accelerated visual engagement heralds the existential crisis of fashion, where designers are asked to face questions around affect, purpose, production conditions, etc. Following this digital trail, and the prominent role of social media with protest organization, I wonder if a secondary effect of this existential crisis might be a more sustained conversation between fashion and protest. Some designers have themed shows around BLM, as a way of demonstrating solidarity and while this can certainly be viewed as merely the capitalizing on actual political struggle and movements, might there also be a way to use fashion to address political concerns, which in many ways is what JUMPSUIT, as a project, does?

AGL:: That upholds the assumption that clothing can’t have meaning, which is the other line that we often get in fashion, or design in general. A cup cannot be more than a cup. It’s a cup, that’s it. I think that is actually changing rapidly in the garment industry as a whole and I think it is fantastic. It is a sinking ship and it is wild to watch. I was in a Fashion Education Summit recently, and Julie Guilhart, who is the woman who made Barneys cool, was there and she was talking about how the night before she had gone to see the Kanye West show at Madison Square Garden and everybody in this room of insiders, educators and fashion people who are not necessarily immediately affected by the commerce of it embarks on a collective eye roll, like ‘oh, Kanye…’ and then she went onto say that there were 22,000 people there and people were buying tickets and everyone was shuttered a bit, like buying tickets was so bizarre. She said her friend had to use the bathroom but because there were so many people there, there was a huge line, and at some point they realized that it was not the line for the bathroom but for the merchandise table! Again, there was a collective shudder in the room. Everyone was so upset about the merchandise, which is funny because what is a fashion show? It is not exactly a giant merch table! On the heels of that, there are a lot of designers who are showing a collection that is immediately available for sale, which from a production standpoint seems like a giant money loss. You will always go to the safest thing because it is the best bet. So if I have a pair of pants, which is not spectacular, but not as risky, I will go with that. I am envisioning a much more boring future for fashion if this is how it continues. So smaller companies are doing really weird stuff, which is outside the norm of what is typical in fashion but they kind of have to. A fashion show will cost you $200,000 just in terms of production, with models, seats, hair, makeup, invitations, production crews, flights, and shows, which is ridiculous. No other industry does that, but we really love our smoke and mirrors, and so in a lot of ways I feel like the social media stuff is two directional. On the one hand, you have people who are like we can’t compete, so I am just going to do something totally wacky, and then on the other hand, you have really intense control where you have the guy from the Dolman Army and a weirdly scripted but unscripted Instagram feed that then becomes part of marketing. But the bigger companies are dealing with a furious race to tamp down this “laxative of the fashion industry” which is the most beautiful thing I have heard!

MB:: I think that this is a moment of rupture. It is the 1850s all over again. There is a sort of neo-liberal capitalism, which is the kind of thing that enables social media, or which social media is a parcel of, and has produced a situation that is untenable. The old ways of thinking about clothes are not really possible anymore so you have the death rows of an industry. But also it seems very unclear to me what direction we are actually moving in because the thing that isn’t addressed by putting BLM slogans in a fashion show are the structural conditions that the clothes are produced under. In what ways do those structural conditions reproduce massive inequality? The environmental damage is outrageous and it will have to change because our planet is on fire. There are all kinds of questions about the sustainability of the model both in terms of the industry being able to perpetuate itself but also in terms of issues of human rights and the environment, which are severe, apocalyptic. You have this situation where you have companies like H&M who know that their models of production are not sustainable and so they do things like H&M Green or have a sustainable fabrics line. And it is bullshit when you are producing clothes on that large a scale and there is a demand to increase revenue each quarter, you have a situation in which exponential growth is the only model. It doesn’t matter if your fabrics are sustainable or green or whatever because at the end of the day, when you produce massive numbers of clothes, there is nothing you can do at the level of ‘sustainable fabric’ or ‘sustainable wage system’ which have no real oversight or teeth. There is more and more lip service within the fashion industry to come up with different models but there is very little actual action on the ground and I think everybody knows it is a sinking ship. It is an intense situation and there is pressure from all different directions, which makes it the right time for Counter Fashion.

DB:: Can you talk about how the project then functions within a Utopian model? I am specifically interested in the kill switch you have built into it, which is when you can finally afford your ad for American Vogue. This adheres to a convention of Utopia, which is that it cannot be realized, because it is primarily discursive and must thus engage first and foremost the political imaginary before even being solidified into something that will then in turn be countered, etc.

AGL:: You can also say the opposite, which is that by the time we have enough money to buy an ad in American Vogue, the movement will have been realized.

MB:: and Utopia will be upon us!

AGL:: As soon as we are digitizing all the patterns, we will publish them as an open source document with a change log. I made this garment to the best of my ability but to say that I have the solution is funny. My experience of making or wearing a garment is very different from a community experience of wearing or making a garment and I am excited about the idea that the more of these we make, the more changes we can make to the pattern, so this is a completely flexible garment.

MB:: I don’t think of this as fixed at all.

MB:: The kill switch means that we will stop producing them but the open source pattern will be on the Internet and we won’t take it down.

AGL:: The kill switch is a win-win because we have Vogue as a gate keeper and should Vogue not let us in, it highlights that there is in fact a gate keeper and it is not possible for a mainstream magazine like Vogue to adopt something as radical as JUMPSUIT, but we also win if they do let us do it, because by the time they do, it will be enough of a thing that they will have to…

MB:: They will have to recognize us as a legitimate social movement.

DB:: So it allows for a passing on of the baton? When you close down, you relegate the project to the community, which might be its after life?

DB:: That brings me back to patents and to your not wanting to patent the work since it is all open-source. I am reminded of textile mills in the story of Samuel Slater, “the father of the American Industrial Revolution,” who established the US’ first textile mill in 1793. Apparently, he was also known as “Slater the Traitor” because he rebuilt a British cotton mill from sheer memory upon arriving from England.

Of course historians dispute whether he did in fact build the machine from memory, and he got himself into a legal mess and patent controversies, but what is interesting is that the American Industrial Revolution would have been built on Slater’s swiped design of the folks he apprenticed for. And here, you are doing the inverse, by re-releasing the patent.

AGL:: This is interesting given the U.S. actually has very little regulation in terms of patents in the fashion industry even to this day, whereas Europe has much more. We are doing the exact opposite of what fashion companies are told to do.

MB:: When we first started the project, Abigail was telling some designers about the project and about how it would be open source and one of the folks was like “I don’t think you know what that means” because it was so crazy to them that we would give away the patterns. Also, early on, we were contacted by a moving company who wanted to license the design to use for their movers and they wanted to purchase the license from us and we were like “You can just have it; it’s free.”

MB:: We have been told that the project is fascist and that the only people who wear uniforms are prisoners and individuals in concentration camps. They often forget to mention clergy, restaurant workers, and many other people who wear uniforms. The thing we try to emphasize with JUMPSUIT is that someone generally says “I went to Catholic school and was forced to wear a uniform,” and one thing that is so important to remember about JUMPSUIT, is that it is a choice and you paradoxically have to choose to reject choice.