Always on the lookout for women making provocative art, we were thrilled when a friend introduced us to Maura Brewer and Abigail Glaum-Lathbury--feminist artists and founders of The Rational Dress Society. RDS is a feminist art project and fashion movement that intends to start a conversation about how we clothe ourselves. Together, Abigail and Maura designed JUMPSUIT, a multipurpose ungendered garment that fits a multitude of body types and shapes. Order one here OR sign up to download the pattern for free.
Since our interview with Abigail and Maura, we have spent a quite a bit of time staring at our closets. We got to thinking about our own vanity and how our clothes actually represent us in the world. We considered, probably for the first time, what it really feels like to get dressed. Sure, our individual fashion says a lot about what styles we like and what colors we think flatter us. But our wardrobe is also a representation of the system we choose to support with our hard-earned dollars. Admittedly we own a lot of cheaply made, mass produced garments that aren't doing any good for anyone. We don't identify as mass produced so why are we buying into this model? It's time to break free. Read on to learn how the founders of The Rational Dress Society are changing the fashion landscape.
How did each of you arrive at your chosen mediums?
Maura: I was making sculpture mostly in college. And it wasn’t until my senior year that I switched to video. To me, it was about trying to find a medium in which my feminist politics could be articulated more clearly. Working in media seemed like a more straightforward way to make feminist art. Abigail and I worked with Vanalyne Green, a feminist film artist, in undergrad and she was a big influence for me.
Abigail: I’ve been making and sewing clothing since I was eleven. It’s my thing!
How did you two meet?
Maura: We had a feminist art collective together in undergrad.
Abigail: It was us and other feminist artist friends. We had discussions. There were brunches…
Maura: We made art together and talked about our art. It was a very seventies consciousness raising circle.
When did you decide to launch RDS together?
Maura: Summer 2014.
Abigail: Maura and I have been friends since we were 18. The project kind of gave birth to itself out of conversations we were having about a series of things. It came into creation fully formed.
Maura: We were having conversations about how to be an artist, issues of identity, feminism, and then we were talking about what we would want to wear every day. The more we realized what we wanted to wear every day, we realized it was a project that was indicative of so much more than our clothes.
How did the historical Rational Dress Society influence the whole formation of what you’re doing. What’s the legacy you’re carrying on there?
Maura: The historical element of the project has been one of our earliest interests. One of the things we’re interested in doing is setting up an alternative way of thinking about clothing and expression and garment production and fashion. To us, it’s important to emphasize the alternate system we’re trying to develop is something with a historical legacy. It’s a history that’s been forgotten as the fashion industry has grown and grown. These alternate ways of thinking about dress have been marginalized.
A place to start is the feminist dress movement of the 1850s. The Rational Dress Society was around in the 1880s in the UK. It’s interesting because the minute you have mechanized clothing production happening on a large scale during the Industrial Revolution is also the moment that people are theorizing counter-fashion systems. People are immediately envisioning clothing as a mechanism for political change.
Abigail: As fashion begins, so does counter-fashion.
Maura: The way we think about fashion now is a pretty recent historical phenomenon. For fashion to emerge, industrial clothing production had to emerge first. Otherwise, unless you were very wealthy, you would only own a few garments because it took a lot of time and money to make clothes.
During the first wave of the feminist movement in the 19th century, they were very worried about how the emergence of women’s fashion was being used as a means of control. Women couldn’t work because their clothing was literally binding and constrictive. Susan B. Anthony wrote about how the Victorian mode of dress rendered women so physically incapable that their only way of taking care of themselves was through marriage. She saw fashion and the systemic oppression of women as being really inherently connected. And she was right!
How do you guys feel about the anti-consumption movement we’re currently seeing in fashion? What does it mean?
Abigail: It means that society is starting to hate the mall. We talk about larger dissatisfaction with the system that we are in. That comes in many forms. Like Marie Kondo getting rid of all of her stuff. The bespoke clothing movement. Discussions around uniform for successful people like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. In some ways, we’re just putting a name to the general malaise of consumption in our culture.
Maura: It’s also no secret why when we talk about uniforms, we talk about Zuckerberg or President Obama or Steve Jobs. These are men and men, since the 19th century and the rise of the black suit, have always had more standardized clothes than women. The effects of that are still seen today—women are frequently overcharged for clothes. And judged for their clothes because there is no standard professional uniform for women.
What about the jumpsuit as a garment reflects this cultural dissatisfaction with fashion?
Maura: There are a lot of studies we invoke all the time that show that having massive choice actually doesn’t make people feel good. It’s paralyzing. There are so, so many clothes and so many of them look similar. There’s no end to the amount of clothes you can buy. We’ve reached a saturation point and people, whether conscious of it or not, are looking for alternatives. You see the resurgence of the jumpsuit as part of this. It’s one piece. You don’t have to decide what to wear.
How is JUMPSUIT an extension of your feminist views?
Abigail: Having worked in the fashion industry for over ten years, I knew that the clothes that most of us wear actually do not fit us at all. For example, most women’s clothing doesn’t account for height at all. I also found out through my research that only 8% of American women have an hourglass body type, when in fact most of our clothes are made to fit this ideal. You can feel the dissatisfaction coming out of dressing rooms because our clothing is telling us that we are wrong. That our bodies do not conform, when in reality it’s that our clothing does not conform to our bodies. And this is very much a feminist issue. So I started thinking about how to fit bodies in a non-humiliating way.
Pictured above: snapshot of the JUMPSUIT pattern which is free to download
Tell us more about the sizing!
Maura: We liked this idea of creating a totally different sizing language using ungendered terminology. It’s different from unisex sizing which basically just sizes a men’s garment up and down. Unisex sizing never fits women very well at all. What we came up with is a system that instead of relying on a male/female base pattern, relies on three basic body types without specifying gender.
Abigail: They are: I, an average proportion of chest to hip; V, which skews broader at the shoulders; and A, broader at the hips. Bust darts can be added to each pattern to accommodate breasts. So you end up with six base body types, and within that anywhere from 4-6 different height categories. So you can get something that fits someone who is 4’11’’ or 6’4’’.
Tell us more about how making JUMPSUIT ungendered is feminist.
Maura: It’s important to me not to just think about feminism as a women’s issue. We have to redefine the category of "Woman" and recognize that the male/female binary is not true or real. Once you get past the idea that there has to be a male size and a female size, then you’re in a space of actually looking at people’s bodies as individual and can make a garment that fits much better because you’re not being blinded by this narrow gender definition.
How are you disrupting the excess of the fashion industry?
Maura: The massive amount of waste generated in the fast fashion industry is extremely detrimental and damaging from a human rights perspective. In fast fashion, a garment is not supposed to maintain its value for more than ten wash cycles. Once you’re locked in this model, you are compelled to buy, discard, buy, discard. It doesn’t matter what the corporations say they’re doing to improve conditions or go green; nothing they do will offset the sheer amount of garments being produced on a daily basis. We see tragedies like Rana Plaza where people are working in horrible conditions to fulfill this pressure to turn out massive amounts of garments.
You can blame H&M or Forever21, but the issue is baked into the structure of capitalism itself. They are responsible to their investors, and if they don’t increase their profits every quarter, then they are failing. We’re under no illusions that they are going to wake up tomorrow and scale it back. The pressure has to come from the consumer opting out of that system.
So you have this goal to reach 150K to get an ad in Vogue. Why? What do you hope to achieve by infiltrating the fashion Bible in this way?
Maura: JUMPSUIT is a social project, not another fashion business. We set this benchmark as an end point so that we don’t fall into the same trap as the rest of the fashion world. The point of this is to start a conversation about what we wear, not to make money or produce a lot of stuff. We decided to build in that milestone to provide a hard end date.
Abigail: One of the things we talk about is that by the time we have enough money to buy a full page in Vogue, JUMPSUIT will be a lived reality. We’d have to sell so many to make that happen that we wouldn’t even be needed anymore. Plus, we would have to have the cultural capital that Vogue would actually say yes to our ad. Which for us would signify that we’d done it and it could be over.
Curious to learn more? Be sure to check out these fellow artists and art projects recommended by Abigail and Maura: