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The Rational Dress Society outside New York Fashion Week
The Rational Dress Society outside New York Fashion Week
The Rational Dress Society

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The Sales Pitch to Buy Less

The makers of Jumpsuit want to consumers to think outside the fast fashion box.

From Chicago and Los Angeles, respectively, Abigail Glaum-Lathbury and Maura Brewer dial in to Skype and pop up on my call screen wearing matching jumpsuits. Glaum-Lathbury's is blue and Brewer's is white, but otherwise they're identical: short sleeved, zippered up the front, tailored but not tight.

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"You look good, Abigail!" Brewer calls out.

It's not a coincidence that they'd show up in the same outfit. It's the only thing Brewer has worn for the last two years. Glaum-Lathbury has dressed like this for a year and a half.

Brewer and Glaum-Lathbury are the minds behind Jumpsuit, an "ungendered, multi-use monogarment for everyday wear," according to their imposingly text-heavy website. For the purposes of promoting Jumpsuit, they call themselves the Rational Dress Society, named for the Victorian dress reform movement that pushed to get women out of corsets and into more comfortable clothing.

A white Jumpsuit (L) and a black Jumpsuit (R). Photo: The Rational Dress Society

The modern-day Rational Dress Society's stated objectives include overthrowing "the tyranny of choice," eliminating "signs of class, race, and gender that are inscribed into our daily interactions," and providing an alternative to "the relentless forward motion of fashion, rejecting the structure of continuous stylistic change that characterizes the consumer relationship to apparel."

Glaum-Lathbury and Brewer hope to do that by convincing as many people as possible to wear Jumpsuit, and nothing but Jumpsuit. You can purchase one through their website for $149.99, plus shipping.

Though that's a substantial price, Glaum-Lathbury and Brewer are more interested in engaging people with Jumpsuit's principles than they are in profitability. They plan to publish the Jumpsuit pattern to their website in July so that anyone can use it for free.

Glaum-Lathbury and Brewer are more interested in engaging people with Jumpsuit's principles than they are in profitability.

The project is salty sweet; the two women complement their rigorously anti-establishment language with an inclusive, tongue-in-cheek attitude. They designed Jumpsuit to fit everyone the same way regardless of body shape, thereby making it a truly ungendered item. In order to dress as many people as possible, they gathered body measurement data from NASA, the US military, and the American Society for Testing and Materials and developed 248 size options, a number that continues to rise.

After a shopper orders Jumpsuit online, the Rational Dress Society sends him or her a sizing survey via email asking for hip, chest, and height measurements, along with information about whether they want bust darts, plan to wear layers underneath the suit, like a low crotch, or have muscular thighs. Using this information, the Jumpsuit team figures out the correct size and has it cut to order.

Individual sizes are named after astrological signs, constellations, pets. You might be an x-ray, or a size sombrero.

"I'm perpetually eyeballing people on the train," says Glaum-Lathbury, who is a fashion designer by trade and takes the lead on pattern making. "I know a lynx when I see one."

Members of the Rational Dress Society with Jumpsuit patterns. Photo: The Rational Dress Society

Glaum-Lathbury and Brewer talk about Jumpsuit in an intellectual and upbeat way, which makes sense when you learn that they work in education. Glaum-Lathbury is an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Brewer, a video artist, is an instructor at USC's Roski School of Art and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Much like teaching, Jumpsuit isn't exactly a get-rich-quick scheme.

"Because we're artists and we don't really run Jumpsuit like a traditional business, a.k.a. we don't really make money, it opens us up to be able to think about things besides the bottom line. I think that makes Jumpsuit a really interesting space for economic experimentation," says Glaum-Lathbury.

She and Brewer host workshops to teach interested parties how to make their own Jumpsuit. After taking the pattern open-source, they hope to create an application that allows people to find local seamstresses who can help them construct Jumpsuit.

Two models in Jumpsuits. Photo: The Rational Dress Society

And then there's the sheer sturdiness of Jumpsuit, which is manufactured in Chicago and features reinforced stitching on common stress points. Today, reducing the frequency with which someone needs to replace an item of clothing counts as an act of economic deviation.

The point isn't really to get everyone in the world wearing Jumpsuit all the time. More than anything, it's about asking consumers and brands to think outside the box — the box being a landscape dominated by fast fashion companies that urge shoppers to constantly spice up their wardrobes with flimsy, inexpensive clothing items. To buy more, and then more.

On numerous counts, it's clear that our apparel culture is harming the environment and the creatures within it, humans included. In 2012, The Guardian reported that 17 to 20 percent of global industrial water pollution came from textile dyeing and treatment. In 2013, the Danish Fashion Institute released a study listing fashion as the world's second most polluting industry after oil.

That same year, the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh left over 1,100 dead, underscoring the very immediate repercussions of a manufacturing system under pressure to produce clothing at minimum cost, as fast as possible.

While the disaster sparked more discussion of worker safety in Bangladesh clothing factories, practical change has been slower to take root, Reuters reported in April.

In the scheme of things, fast fashion and the condensed trend cycle on which it rests are very modern institutions. Sass Brown, the acting associate dean at FIT's School of Art and Design, points out that just a couple hundred years ago, trends lasted for the length of a monarch's reign or longer. Women in the 1950s saved for a winter coat that they would wear for over a decade.

"It's not a huge amount of time from clothing being something that had to last for 10 to 15 years to something bought on a whim for a single event and discarded," Brown says.

Two models in Jumpsuits. Photo: The Rational Dress Society

Fast fashion may not be old, but it will take considerable effort to improve it or slow it down at this point. Especially in the U.S., there's an ingrained assumption that life gets better and shinier when we buy something, says Hazel Clark, a professor of fashion studies and the research chair of fashion at Parsons. And in the short term, it does: The dopamine rush that accompanies shopping feels insanely good on the brain.

Which is where Jumpsuit and its seemingly oddball encouragements — to deprive it of a profit by sewing your own, for instance — comes in.

"I think the act of offering something that is outside of a norm hopefully, ideally, produces the ability to look at whatever you're doing critically," Glaum-Lathbury says.

The operative phrase here being "offering something." Recent years have seen the launch of multiple startups with minimalist websites and mission statements touting the bliss of owning fewer things of better quality. "Build an essentials-only, highly Instagrammable life," they seem to say. "Build it by buying our stuff!"

To which a totally reasonable response might be: "Bullshit!"

But considering how few fashion lovers would voluntarily go cold turkey on shopping, there may be something to that hypocrisy. Is the best way to recommend that people buy less, ironically, to offer them a product?

Is the best way to recommend that people buy less, ironically, to offer them a product?

"I think it's important for us not to be critical without also offering a positive alternative. To not just say, 'The system is bad, and you're bad within it!'" says Brewer. "To be positive and willing to do the work of imagining a different system feels really important to me. I don't think I'd want to participate in a project that was only critical without also trying to come to some sort of solution, however imperfect or silly it may be."

Maxine Bédat spent a lot of time thinking about the same question while developing Zady, the e-commerce site she co-founded in 2013. Bédat decided that instead of forming an organization that merely disseminated statistics about the dark side of fashion, she could go one step further and create a destination for those who have that information and want to act on it.

Initially Zady sold clothing, accessories, and home goods from brands that prioritized sustainable production and shared the stories behind those businesses. In November 2014, Zady began rolling out a private label collection made from lower-impact materials like organic cotton and alpaca wool. With that, it went all in on mapping out every step of each item's supply chain for shoppers' benefit.

A sailor style top, from Zady. Photo: Zady

Baked into Zady is a message of conscious consumption, or paying attention to the way in which a product is made and how that effects workers and the environment. Buying less is certainly part of it. By September 2015, Zady's in-house brand still sold just nine unique items; today, the range has grown to 16 pieces.

While Bédat has no intention of Zady reaching the scale of H&M or Zara — that would be antithetical to the project — she does hope to capture a greater share of people's wardrobes if and when they decide to shift their buying habits.

"Business can play such a powerful role in helping create bigger, broader change," she says.

"Business can play such a powerful role in helping create bigger, broader change."

Brown believes that alternative business models don't need to hinge on creating new product. Clothing rental services like Rent the Runway can help reduce the amount of clothing in circulation without depriving customers of the high of a new acquisition. And then there's the perennial standby: vintage shops and secondhand stores.

Of course, it's possible to build a wardrobe without actually shopping. Marisa Williamson, a New York-based performance artist, inherits most of her clothing from friends and through casual clothing swaps, though she did recently purchase some bras at retail.

I met up with Williamson outside the Brooklyn Museum, where she works in the education department. The sky looked ready to rain, but we walked into Prospect Park to sit on a bench and talk about her outfit. She was wearing leather sandals and a black, short-sleeved Jumpsuit.

Depending on whether you're in a community garden or at a gallery opening, you might notice Jumpsuit's practicality first, or it's chicness. But it's both. The garment hovers loosely around the body in a way that suggests supreme comfort, and its near-custom sizing ensures that the wearer looks put together — purposeful in her or his dressing game.

Depending on whether you're in a community garden or at a gallery opening, you might notice Jumpsuit's practicality first, or it's chicness. But it's both.

Williamson met Brewer when they both participated in the Whitney Museum's Independent Study Program and subsequently became friends with Glaum-Lathbury, too. Her Jumpsuit was a gift from them, and though she doesn't wear it every day, she's found it to be a good look for giving lectures, sitting on panels, and presenting her own work. For Williamson, there's a certain authority in it.

"It in some ways neutralizes gender in a way that I'm interested in, and it reads as simple and considered," she says. "Deliberate simplicity I think is part of how that authority is accessed for me."

Which is the whole point of putting things on our bodies. Consumerism aside, environment aside, an endeavor like Jumpsuit or Zady won't sing unless its product makes people feel cooler, better, more in charge. If it also helps us feel more command over our role in the apparel industry, well, double win.

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