Vintage Sovereign Hill costumes inspire solutions to fast fashion waste crisis

Researchers looking for ways to reduce textile waste have recruited the knowledge of costume experts at one of Victoria’s most well-known museums.

Some of the costumes at gold rush-themed museum Sovereign Hill have been maintained since the 1970s.

These vintage skills of making and mending, rather than throwing away, have captured the attention of RMIT researchers.

Clothes production has doubled worldwide since 2000, and excess consumption is rife within the fashion industry.

The average Australian consumes 15 kilograms of new clothing items per year, and discards a similar amount, according to research by the Australian Fashion Council. 

When slow fashion was all the rage

But it wasn’t always this way.

A period costume from Sovereign Hill’s collection.(Supplied: Ricarda Bigolin)

Clothes were once produced and cared for with maximum longevity in mind, says the head researcher of the Wearing Out Sovereign project, Ricarda Bigolin, but these practices were lost with the advent of “fast fashion”.

Fast fashion is a term describing the rapid production of clothing using inexpensive, low-quality materials to replicate and meet the demand of trend cycles.

“Fashion was never about buying really cheap clothes and wearing them once and throwing them out,” Ms Bigolin said.

“The production costs, material choices, all of it has been designed so that you will buy a new thing rather than keeping it.”

The museum’s Head of Rare Trades and Programming, Erin Santamaria, said techniques used by 1850s settlers — and Sovereign Hill in costume reproduction — to minimise waste were actually quite simple.

A woman holds up an 1850s blue dress
Head of Rare Trades and Programming Erin Santamaria with an 1850s costume.(ABC Ballarat: Lilian Bernhardt)

“The techniques were intended to create maximum ability to alter a garment, to size or to fit, or to change the style when it was becoming a little tired or fashions changed somewhat,” Ms Santamaria said.

“Simple things like really deep seam allowances that allow maximum flexibility, or different ways you might finish a seam or hem line to be able to get back into the garment so it is able to be mended or altered.”

The hem of a green dress being held up by a pair of hands
The altered hem of a costume from Sovereign Hill’s collection, allowing for shifts in height and length.(ABC Ballarat: Lilian Bernhardt)

Making the old new again

Despite their simplicity, Ms Santamaria said these techniques were rarely found in clothes made today.

The Wearing Out Sovereign project hopes to bring these “forgotten, circular economy practices” into modern wardrobes.

Researchers are developing a series of material prototypes and workshops to be held at the Rare Trades Centre, where the public can learn how to employ these old techniques to make and tailor garments for a maximised life cycle.

Dresses of many colours hung together tightly on racks
Inside the wardrobe at Sovereign Hill’s costume department.(ABC Ballarat: Lilian Bernhardt)

Ms Santamaria said employing these techniques on a large scale would mean diverting from fast fashion practices and investing in garment-making skills within the home and local communities.

“People have no idea how much time is involved in garment making because it’s all done invisibly by people we don’t know overseas,” she said.

She has witnessed first-hand the value of knowing how clothes are made and cared for.

“We find our staff know the costume department who make their clothes. They see the effort and time that goes into them and get really attached to their costume,” Ms Santamaria said.

“It’s really important to keep practising and teaching these skills because the globalisation of the fashion industry may not always be the way things are run.

“To keep a domestic skill set here in Australia is really important, whether it’s making yourself something, or in the production and manufacturing facilities we have here nationally.”

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