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SZA, Paris Hilton, Lizzo, Beyonce, Cher and Rihanna: all champions of the sexy party dress (Photos: Getty Images)
SZA, Paris Hilton, Lizzo, Beyonce, Cher and Rihanna: all champions of the sexy party dress (Photos: Getty Images)

ĀteaDecember 23, 2020

The never-ending quest to find a sexy ethical dress

SZA, Paris Hilton, Lizzo, Beyonce, Cher and Rihanna: all champions of the sexy party dress (Photos: Getty Images)
SZA, Paris Hilton, Lizzo, Beyonce, Cher and Rihanna: all champions of the sexy party dress (Photos: Getty Images)

Charlotte Muru-Lanning is an ethical consumer, and she wants a hot AF party dress for the festive season. Why is it so damn hard to find something sexy and sustainable? 

For many, lockdown meant reflecting on our normal ways of doing things, as the pandemic cast a magnifying glass over how cruel, unsustainable and frankly insane our social and economic structures are. There’s been a massive shift toward ethical consumption, as we’ve all reflected on the human labour and environmental impacts of what we buy. I, for one, came out of lockdown far more conscious of where my clothes were coming from. Cheap, fast fashion used to feel light-hearted and fun – now it just makes me feel guilty.

Covid-19 also contributed to the rising popularity of comfortable, casual clothing – so many of us have been stuck at home, sometimes not even leaving bed, and perhaps items like sweatpants or baggy cardigans are a way to feel comfort and familiarity in a world that feels like it’s shattering into a million pieces around us.

As much as this makes sense, I didn’t really catch onto this informal clothing obsession. Instead, throughout various levels of lockdown, I was itching for literally any excuse to be dressed up. I can’t have been the only one who got a bit dressed up for my daily walk or swiped on a bit of eye shadow for a trip to the supermarket.

With the restrictions we were living under, clothing sometimes felt like the only way to experience some semblance of joy. In our first week of lockdown, I remember a grinning checkout operator at my local supermarket exclaiming how amazingly everyone was dressed. At a time when supermarket workers had been flung into the daunting position of being essential workers, the one thing distracting her from how terrifying it was to be at work was that customers seemed to be “putting on a fashion show” just for her and her coworkers.

When we came out of lockdown and could finally do more than go to the supermarket or walk around the block, all I wanted to wear were short, figure-hugging, sparkly dresses. You only live life once, baby, and I wanted to live it in a skimpy party dress. 

Since I’m now an “ethical consumer”, I had a peruse through the array of options from our local sustainable designers. But blow me down, not one sexy party dress in sight.

There’s no denying that our local ethical fashion brands make beautiful clothes, but why does it feel like there’s a muted-coloured, floaty, linen uniform when it comes to conscious clothing and why, oh why is it so hard to find a single ethical party dress?

Why does it have to be either sustainable and demure, or sexy and an ethical nightmare?

One of the answers is surprisingly simple; core fabrics and embellishments that so often make up a classic party dress are antithetical to producing sustainable clothing, explains Courtney Sanders, co-founder of Well Made Clothes, an online ethical clothing store. 

“The type of fabrics we think of when we think of a flamboyant party dress – the metallics, the sequins, the super-stretchy fabrics – are all really environmentally unsustainable. From the initial fibre to the processing, to the dying right through to the fact that they don’t biodegrade.”

Sequins are made of toxic, non-biodegradable plastics and lose their sparkle once they’ve been worn and washed a few times. They’re also produced through an incredibly wasteful process that sees an average of 33% of production materials wasted during the process of punching holes into each sequin. 

Stretch fabrics for figure-hugging, Kardashian-esque dresses contain plastics that are released into our waterways when they’re washed, and soils when they’re inevitably thrown away – negatively impacting our environments well beyond our own lifetimes. The same goes for glamorous metallic fabrics like lame and lurex or the ubiquitous polyesters, viscose and nylons.

Bernadette Casey, the creative director of Usedfully, a textile reuse programme based in Wellington, says it’s vital we make changes to how we use clothing, as “around 80% of the world’s drinking water is contaminated with plastic and about 30% of that is from clothing fibres”. In Auckland alone, research organisation Scion found that textiles made up 87% of micro particles found in the region. Clothing is one of our major sources of micro-plastic pollution.

“When we wash our synthetic clothing it sheds thousands of fine filaments,” says Casey.

“Unlike plastic bags or drink bottles that have to wash around and break down in order to enter the food chain, [with] synthetic clothing the filaments are already super fine and get washed straight from our washing machines out into wastewater and into the sea.”

In her 2006 song ‘Freakum Dress’, Beyonce described the aforementioned dress as “short and backless”. As to whether there’s any reason that a sustainable dress couldn’t also be short, backless, low-cut or strapless, Casey says “absolutely not!”.

So while there are certainly constraints when it comes to the materials that go into making an ethical garment, “the silhouette and structure of a garment isn’t an issue when it comes to sustainability”, says Casey. There’s no reason these clothes need to look quite so monotonous.

Hana Pera Aoke (Ngaati Hinerangi, Ngaati Mahuta, Tainui/Waikato), an artist who runs Kei te pai Press, believes there is an intrinsic power to this kind of dressing. “It’s incredibly important; being able to wear a piece of clothing that is colourful, is sexy, makes you feel good, uses different kinds of fabrics, is interesting to look at.”

“Sometimes you just want to look like a hoe and that’s OK.”

Fashion is an outlet that allows people to express themselves. It articulates collective political moods and cultural expression and celebrates bodies and personal identities. This is especially true given the significance of flamboyant dress in queer communities, or the influence that the style of Rihanna or SZA has on the dress choices of young Māori, or Pasifika and other immigrant communities. Celebrations of vibrant gender, sexuality and ethnicity identities have been at the forefront of the conversation in 2020, and these linen basics don’t seem to reflect that.

Pera Aoke thinks local ethical fashion tends to exclude brown or non-cisgender bodies  – not just through design, but through the limited size range: “A lot of New Zealand designers don’t do bigger sizing, they only go maybe to a size 14.”

A still from the video for Disciple Pati’s ‘The Boy Who Cried Woman

Sapati Apa-Fepulea’i, aka Disciple Pati, a Samoan performance artist based in South Auckland, is a fan of clothes that “show [her] assets”, she says. “I would describe my style as very pink, very barbie, very girly.

“When I wear the clothes that I wear, I feel empowered. I feel like I’m in charge, I’m in control of my body and I feel like nobody else can tell me what to do with my body.”

All of this isn’t to say that people from these communities always want to dress in body-revealing mini-dresses, or that we don’t also enjoy wearing neutral-coloured, minimalist prairie dresses. Definitely not. But when our ethical fashion industry disregards the political implications of dressing flamboyantly and showing skin, it runs the risk of alienating people whose identities are intrinsically linked to dressing this way.

“These fashion cultures exist, I think it’s just a matter of having designers who come from those spaces or even designers just listening to those groups of people and understanding what that looks like and how that can be empowering for us,” says Apa-Fepulea’i.

We’re not going to solve global warming and widening inequality through conscious consumption when we have a global system that relies on perpetual growth, at the expense of the planet and human lives. A real ethical version of fashion would mean an entire transformation of this taken-for-granted system. In the meantime, though, while we fight to overhaul it, it’s definitely not a bad idea to shop ethically.

“Like any relatively niche movement that’s growing but is still relatively small compared to the whole fashion market, there are massive gaps in offering that need to be filled – and definitely sexy sustainable clothing is one of them,” says Sanders.

There are of course alternatives to buying from ethical brands; buying vintage, clothes swapping, reworking clothing or, best of all, re-wearing what you already own. But, if we want to see a wider uptake of conscious fashion, designers need to include everyone. Rather than allowing huge numbers of people to feel excluded by what’s available, sustainable fashion needs to be a place where people of all backgrounds and sartorial persuasions feel at home. If there are no real sustainable choices for those of us who want to go out in a flamboyant party dress, then you’re leaving us with little choice than to turn to fast-fashion options to fulfil our sexy-party-dress desires. 

“We all want to do our part to have a smaller eco footprint, so I definitely think we should be kept in that conversation around what ethical wear looks like,” says Apa-Fepulea’i. “Sluts wanna be ethical too.”

Keep going!