Interview: Counter-Fashion and Alternative Dress with the Rational Dress Society

All images by Lara Kastner

The Rational Dress Society is a collaborative art project founded by Maura Brewer and Abigail Glaum-Lathbury that produces a multi-use monogarment called JUMPSUIT as an alternative clothing option and way to directly combat the harmful practices of mass-market fashion companies. The piece’s design is ungendered, fits over 248 different sizes, and is often created in workshops the pair run as temporary pop-ups across the country.

In addition to JUMPSUIT, the pair started the project MAKE AMERICA RATIONAL AGAIN (or M.A.R.A.) following the 2016 election. The project encourages consumers to recycle their old Ivanka Trump brand garments, which the they plan on recycling into further iterations of JUMPSUIT.

The Rational Dress Society is included in our recent piece Not So Tight: Adjusting the Seams of Art and Fashion which takes a look at the intersection of art and fashion from a cultural, historical, and institutional perspective. Like many of the projects mentioned in the piece, Brewer and Glaum-Lathbury aim to present a project that pushes fashion to be more conceptual, and create art that bleeds further into design.

Exhibitions on the Cusp: How did the idea for JUMPSUIT grow out of each of your individual art practices?

Maura Brewer: Abigail has a background as a designer. My training is in visual art, and I do performance work and I make video. In the beginning, we were talking a lot about persona and artistic identity. When you are an artist you are frequently in social situations where you may be in the same room with people with a lot of money. There is this economic gap that happens socially in art. For artists, the question of what you wear in those situations becomes a problem. Thinking about this, Abigail and I started talking about the usefulness of having a uniform in these situations. She asked if I could have an everyday uniform, what would it look like? I automatically responded with a jumpsuit. The more we talked about it, we realized it wasn’t necessarily a project that was solving a problem for an artist, but it could rather be a project that was solving a problem for a widespread variety people.

In terms of how it relates to my practice, one thing I am very interested in is popular culture, and there is nothing more at the heart of mass cultural than fashion. In some ways it is less obvious how it relates to my practice than Abigail’s, but it has become very important for me to think of the world of digital images and the world of fashion as two kinds of analogous discourse.

Abigail Glaum-Lathbury: One of the other big components of the project was talking about where the fashion industry is, and how much we didn’t want to participate in its current state. It is cruel in a very unproductive way. Maura and I were talking about what a utopian or universal garment would look like, and were curious about the structural challenges within the industry that bar this garment from happening. We talk about JUMPSUIT as the opposite of a normal fashion company. Instead of producing a lot of things in a few sizes, we produce one thing in a million sizes. We turn everything inside out. The project is largely about mass culture, but it is also about economy and fashion’s larger structures of production.

Where does this desire for a daily uniform stem from?

MB: A lot of people that are in creative fields want a uniform. There have been studies that show that you can only handle so many choices before you stop being able to make meaningful choices later in the day, which is called cognitive overload. This is why Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg have become famous for their daily uniform. The act of putting your creativity into your clothing selection in the morning can prevent you from marking meaningful choices in your work or art practice later in the day. We’ve found that eliminating these choices by having a uniform is a common artists’ dream.

How did you come up with the design and pattern of JUMPSUIT? Did you tweak a form you had already found, or did you compile its design from multiple inspirations?

AGL: I invented the whole thing from a variety of areas of research. I am a fashion design professor, so the first place that I went to for sizing data was the textbooks that I teach from, but they proved to be wholly inadequate. The way that sizing works in fashion is that you make your sample size, which should be in the middle of the size range, but no one does that. Companies tend to start out with a small size, and then blow that up for larger sizes. That is just not how bodies work. I started to look at anthropometry, which is the study of human measurements as it relates to design. It is not a topic that gets discussed as often as I would like. I started looking at designs by NASA, uniform companies, and the military. There is this whole interesting history of standardized sizing which has been attempted to be adopted into ready-to-wear a number of times. It has always been without success because we do not come standard.

In what ways did you design JUMPSUIT, both in terms of aesthetics and functioning needed for daily movements?

AGL: One of the big things we needed to figure out was how the garment could function as a chameleon. How did it look when put in a wide range of settings? When we first started talking about it, people wondered if it was going to ugly. Instead of putting everybody in tin foil hats, we looked at what people were already wearing and wondered how we could work with that. Essentially it is a denim pant/trouser with a button-up shirt, but instead of button it has a zipper. It has something called a raglan sleeve which is basically the Goldilocks and Three Bears of sleeves. With a blazer sleeve, your arms are basically sewn down, and with a t-shirt sleeve there is a mass of bunched fabric when you put your arms down. A raglan sleeve splits the difference. It maximizes range of movement, while also looking formal.

Each of your JUMPSUIT sizes has an arbitrary name as a classification, like “lima,” “pause,” “quark,” and “rice.”  What was the reasoning behind these seemingly random names?

MB: We didn’t want to have any names that had a relationship to small, medium, or large, classifications that might make our users feel bad. If you look at our sizing chart, we have 248 sizes, but the chart is infinitely scalable. We also teach people to make the garments at hosted workshops. If you show up to make a garment and you are off our sizing chart, you get to name your own size.

Encouraging people to learn the skill and labor that comes with a garment seems extremely important. In what ways do people that attend your workshops learn to connect with the production of everyday clothing items?

AGL: One of the first things that happens in our workshops is that we teach visitors to sew the sleeve. They have a top seam and an under seam which are both not complicated. Once you put those two things together, you can slide them up your arm. After this happens in our workshop there are immediately squeals of delight. We don’t have relationship to the way our clothes are made. All of a sudden there is this understanding of production which then transitions to how impossible it is for Forever 21 to sell a top for $1.90.

MB: Capitalism deliberately distances us from the sites of production. Clothing companies are massive international corporations, and one major effect of that is that it becomes very difficult for us to conceptualize how and where our clothes are made, and our clothing becomes very abstract to us. Our wardrobe seems like something that has just appeared magically. I think for us, a lot of the joy of the project comes from the workshops because we want to demystify garment production. Once you learn that you can make your clothes, it really changes your relationship to them.

Would you situate the project in this movement of eco fashion that has been gaining momentum in the last few years?

AGL: I would say no. We need an alternative to the current system because it is not possible to continue at this pace, whether that is from an environmental, social, or economic standpoint. The problem that I have with eco fashion is that it frequently doesn’t address any of the underlying problems with clothing production. We are sold the idea of garment recycling, in which you make a t-shirt, and then someone wears the t-shirt, and then the material goes back into making another t-shirt. There actually isn’t really textile recycling like this. Recycled fibers break down and need to be combined with virgin cotton and polyester. But more than this,capitalism demands constant growth. More and more clothes are being produced each year. Am I critiquing the independent designer? No. Can everyone wear JUMPSUIT? No. I just have a hard time with the eco fashion movement because I feel like it doesn’t address many of the underlying structural concerns.

MB: I think when people ask if eco fashion projects are scaleable, what they don’t understand is that the problem is the problem of scale itself. Zara produces 1.23 million individual garments per day. Now extrapolate that out to H&M, or any other fast fashion company. We have never in human history seen that scale of mass production. It is incredibly inhuman to the workers and it is also an environmental catastrophe. We can switch out the fabrics, but it still doesn’t address the underlying problem that if you are a CEO of one of these companies you have to show increasing returns or the company is failing. The only real solution is a strategy of degrowth. Things need to slow down on a systemic level, and the only way is for people to stop buying clothes in the way that they buy clothes now.

What was the inspiration behind your project Make American Rational Again?

AGL: The Make America Rational Again campaign was born out of our horror and frustration after the election, and thinking about all of the false promises many clothing brands share. At Forever 21 you are given the idea that you should have endless self-expression. With Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, you are told you can have professionalism and are given the promise of upward mobility.

MB: …but only for a certain class of women. It is always hiding this aspect. One of the reasons we were interested in this project is the ways that clothes become this token of a promise of professional success or a watered down pseudo feminism. Meanwhile the garments are being produced by women working for slave wages in factories. There is no professional ladder for them to climb. What are the ways that we are being sold this vision of prosperity at the expense of the people around us? We were also thinking about how Donald Trump’s hats are made in Mexico and the other lies the family is spouting. The Trump family presents this glossy branded exterior while embodying the exact opposite of whatever is promised  

How will you transform Ivanka’s old clothing into new pieces for JUMPSUIT?

AGL: We still need to figure out the textile recycling. We have had quotes from $10,000 to $50,000. One of the things that was most interesting and surprising while researching this new stage was just how next to impossible textile recycling actually is, especially on a smaller scale. You can’t properly recycle mixed fibers. If you look at most of the clothes that are available today, they are a blend of different materials such as a cotton-poly blend, acrylic-cotton-poly blend, acrylic-wool blend, etc. Who actually knows what is in our clothes.

MB: Now we know textile recycling have these very limited circumstances, and is not truly circular because you are always adding back in virgin fiber.

How has the collaboration in turn influenced your individual practices?

AGL: What has been so exciting for me is that the project has shown how possible it can be to do things in a different way, and that critical clothing exists, which has been a carry through to several other personal projects.

MB: For me, learning about how artists and designers have historically worked together to create alternative and utopian dress has become a really interesting topic for me, and one that I feel has often been overlooked. I like seeing the space between fashion and art as a space of radical possibility. If we were a normal clothing company we would have to make decisions based on maximizing profits for the structural reasons we talked about. But because we are a sort of a fashion company and sort of an art project, we can get grants, we can price our garments where we want, and we can develop experimental models of production. This project has opened up new ways of thinking for me.Sitting around critiquing things is not enough. We need to start making new and better things.

How was the project informed by the 1881 Rational Dress Society

MB: We are very interested in the history of counter-fashion and alternative dress. One of the things that has been important to us is to draw attention to the ways that our project is not actually new, but is part of a long history of social reform through garment design. The original RDS were a group of feminist dress reformers who wanted to get women out of their corsets. They recognized that the impractical, elaborate and often uncomfortable fashions of the Victorian Era were holding women back, limiting their mobility and preventing them from holding down jobs and supporting themselves. It’s very important to us to honor and continue their legacy.

In what ways have you treated JUMPSUIT as an arts-based project, and in what ways have you treated it as a fashion collaboration?

MB: I think JUMPSUIT is a true hybrid. We often exhibit the project at art galleries and museums. Right now, for example, the staff of Art in General have committed to wearing nothing but JUMPSUIT for an entire summer, to see if adopting a uniform might bring them together and work to create less hierarchical group relations. These kinds of experiments are possible within an art context. On the other hand, we produce and sell the garments, and are committed to making them available for anyone to wear, just like any fashion company. JUMPSUIT isn’t a costume, it’s a useful garment that is meant to be worn on a daily basis. So it’s a little of both.