Jimil Ataman is an ethnographer of the social, political, and cultural dimensions of clothing and its entanglements. In this month’s member feature, she shares her globe-spanning fieldwork and considers the possibilities of slow fashion today and for the future.
Textile Society of America (TSA): What projects are you currently working on or looking forward to?
Jimil Ataman (JA): Right now, I am in the midst of conducting fieldwork for my dissertation research. My dissertation is an ethnography on the politics and practices of the Slow Fashion Movement. I’m following a group of makers, consumers, brands, and industry professionals in the Pacific Northwest and on Instagram who identify as members of the slow fashion community. My research examines how everyday practices, alternative models of fashion production, and online coalition are becoming a site for negotiating broader issues of ethical consumption, sustainability, and anti-capitalism.
Using digital and traditional ethnographic methods, my work explores the possibilities and contradictions present in attempts to transform relationships with capitalism and consumption through clothing, community, and care. I look to the slow fashion community as an example of the creative and complex world-making practices that emerge when people seek more ethical and sustainable ways of living through alternative modes of buying, selling, and making clothing.
TSA: Would you share a bit about your work process and inspiration?
JA: At the center of my work is an exploration of the intimate and meaningful relationships we all have with our clothes. Over the course of 18 months, I have immersed myself in the world(s) of slow fashion – from wardrobes to production studios – to do what anthropologists call ‘participant-observation’ – that is, the “the embodied emplacement of the researching self in a fieldsite as a consequential social actor” (Boellstorff et al., 2012).
Using Instagram, I recruited 75 slow fashion practitioners: 35 of whom live in the Pacific Northwest and 40 virtual participants from slow fashion Instagram. The virtual participants include people from Turkey, Australia, the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, and most of the major geographic regions of the US. Across the two groups, the interlocutors for this project are slow fashion brands and makers, Influencers and microcelebrities, home and professional sewists and slow fashion consumers and enthusiasts. My site visits have brought me to brick-and-mortar slow fashion spaces – like fabric stores, clothing stores, and studios – to observe the everyday processes and practices that make the industry of the slow fashion.
I have also been following Woodward’s (2005) ethnographic method that she calls ‘hanging out in the home and bedroom’; this ethnographic method includes wardrobe interviews, which include: “detailed documentation of every item in the wardrobe (including narratives and memories attached to each).” These interviews offer space to discuss the costs of slow fashion, money, and consumption habits. I have been joining my interlocutors in however they “do slow fashion,” whatever that means to them; this includes, going shopping (on and offline), scrolling Instagram, posting to Instagram, going through the process to sell their clothes on the secondhand market, walking around fabric stores, and sometimes making garments together.
My process also includes developing a home sewing practice and an Instagram profile. I have been making a full handmade wardrobe and sharing the process on my Instagram. Each garment holds a significance to the project and an entry point into the research questions I am asking. These garments tell stories about what slow fashion is, why people do it, and what it might mean for how this community of practitioners is changing the ways they relate to their clothes, consumption and capitalism. At the end of the project, this wardrobe will serve as a material archive of my fieldwork experiences and the stories that have been shared with me along the way. Like fieldnotes, these garments will be something I can come back to (and wear) over and over as I continue to weave together my dissertation.
TSA: How do you imagine that humanity might engage with textiles in the future?
JA: One of the things I most appreciate about the slow fashion community is that it is full of folks working to reimagine their relationships with textiles and clothing in our current moment. Consumers are producing robust strategies and practices to strive towards more sustainable and ethical modes of entanglement with their clothes, such as wardrobe tracking, developing a capsule wardrobe, cost-per-wear calculations, and research into brands. Others develop a set of ethical and sustainable standards for where, what, how much and how often one buys.
Within the industry, brands are trying alternative business models of production, such as the made-to-order model, circular model, production caps or season-less styles to slow the tempo and lessen the quantity of unsold/unused garments they are making and producing. Others prioritize sustainable modes for where and how they source their garment materials, including textiles, threads, and labels. Others still offer free recycling programs for well-worn garments or mending services to extend the lifespan of the garments. Thus, a spectrum of approaches, production models, and standards are being constituted and created in the slow fashion movement. This community is already iterating on these new relations with textiles and clothing, which, to me, is a good reminder that imaginations for new human-textile relations are already underway.
TSA: Do you encounter any misconceptions about your work/textiles and how do you address these?
JA: One misconception that often emerges is rooted in an assumption that fast and slow fashion are in a static binary made up of two categories that are definable, measurable, and durable. I’m often approached with questions about how I define slow fashion (or fast fashion) – and, inevitably, a hope for specificity about which qualities or characteristics would lead a person, a brand, a practice, to be included or excluded from that category. While I don’t necessarily reject the idea that we could (and maybe should) offer boundaries and definitions for production processes, labor standards, or guidelines for ethical and sustainable production and consumption—the aim of my work is not to produce value judgements about where things or especially people fit in a slow/fast binary.
Instead, my work follows the genealogy of anthropologists using ethnography to offer textured knowledge about capitalism, which positions the capitalist system (here, the ways clothing is produced and consumed) not as a pre-formed structure, but rather as one being continually made through a diverse, intimate network of human and non-human relations (Lyons 2020; Bear et al. 2015; Escobar 2008). My work follows the networks of slow fashion as a site where the moral ambiguity between social movement goals and market logics reveals to us what Shear and Lyon-Callo (2013) call the “non-capitalist possibilities around us.” In addressing the slow fashion phenomenon as textured and layered, my ethnography explores how this community must iterate, create, and imagine processes that are rife with ethical ambiguities, moral contradictions and non-capitalist possibilities.
TSA: Any textile-related resources that you find helpful?
JA: While not all of these are textile-focused, here are some readings that have been generative to think with:
Chin, Elizabeth. 2016. My Life With Things: The Consumer Diaries. Durham, NC: Duke Press.
Gibson-Graham, J.K. 2006. A postcapitalist politics. Minneapolis, MS: University of Minnesota Press,
Krause, Elizabeth. 2018. Tight Knit: Global Families and The Social Life of Fast Fashion. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Pham, Minh-Ha. 2015. Asians Wear Clothing on the Internet: Race, Gender, and the Work of Personal Style Blogging. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Rofel, Lisa and Sylvia J. Yanagisako. 2019. Fabricating transnational capitalism: a collaborative ethnography of Italian-Chinese global fashion. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Wilson, Elizabeth. 1985. Adorned in Dreams: fashion and modernity. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
TSA: If given the power to master any skill (textile-related or not) instantaneously, what would it be?
JA: There are so many sewing skills I wish I was excellent in, but right now I’d love nothing more than to be able to perfectly sew a placket.
Jimil Ataman (she/her) is a fifth year, PhD Candidate in Education, Culture and Society and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is an ethnographer of the social, political, and cultural dimensions of clothing and its entanglements. Her dissertation examines the slow fashion movement on Instagram and in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an M.S. Ed. in Education, Culture & Society from the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. from Lehigh University. She grew up in Boise, Idaho.