At first it might seem that there is nothing significant about this pair of trousers. They are mass-manufactured, cheap and common place. They are made of machine stitched cotton twill with plastic buttons and steel zip. They were manufactured by New Wave Bottoms in Dhaka, Bangladesh and were sold in Primark stores across the UK in 2013/14.
They are part of ‘fast fashion’, a system developed by large retailers and supermarkets for rapidly producing low-priced, trend-based clothing.
If you were around in 2013 you might have even bought a pair but by now they are likely to have ended up in the bin or in a charity shop having worn out or become unfashionable.
You might wonder why such a pair of seemingly insignificant trousers is currently on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum of decorative art and design in London. The reason lies in what these trousers represent. They were produced in the Rana Plaza garment factory, a building which housed production for many well known high street brands including Primark, Mango, Matalan and Benetton.
On the 24th of April 2013, garment workers in Rana Plaza were ordered to return to work despite rising concern about the safety of the building which had visible cracks in the walls. Tragically, hours later the building collapsed, killing 1,130 people. Most of whom were young women.
The incident, which remains the most deadly industrial disaster in recent history, symbolises the inherent flaw in the fast fashion system.
Short runs and aggressive pricing strategies have led to increased demands on productivity throughout the supply chain with the people at the bottom feeling the most pressure to produce more for less. Ultimately it is those who are the most vulnerable who pay the true cost for our clothes.
The trousers reveal a broader story about the dark side of global supply chains.
They are not an example of exquisite craftsmanship or timeless design but what they represent forces us to question inner workings of the current fashion industry. They symbolise our detachment from production and the shift of focus away from respect for quality, craftsmanship and longevity. As consumer’s it is important to know the wider political context of the clothes we buy which is why I think these trousers deserve a place in one of the largest and most prestigious collections of decorative arts and design in the world.
I hope that soon fast fashion will become a part of our history. An artefact to be regarded with sorrow and a story not to be forgotten.
The trousers are part of the V&A’s Rapid Response Collection. Objects are collected in timely response to major moments in history that touch the world of design and manufacturing. Each acquisition raises different questions about globalisation, popular culture, political and social change, demographics, technology, regulation or the law.
This ongoing display, which changes each time a new object is collected, shows how design reflects and defines how we live together today.