Tracing the origin of clothes is tricky. At most one might be given a vague idea of the country where the garment was produced. But if you try to narrow down the knowledge to a city, a factory, an individual worker, then the most likely outcome is a yawning blank. Of the five W’s, the who, the when and the where often remain unanswered.
Luckily all three are covered by Who Made Your Pants, a worker co-operative providing jobs for refugee women in Southampton. Set up by Becky, lover of both lingerie and human rights (read more here), the business produces a selection of knickers that are equal parts delectable and practical. At present coming in two gorgeous styles named Aimee and, my personal favourite, Rosalind, with a kaleidoscope of colours on offer, the initiative took flight in 2009.
I met Becky for the first time a few months ago. Communication through twitter and email culminated in face-to-face contact at the wonderful Women of the World festival. She is warm and animated in person, deeply driven by her work. WMYP is not a charity or a company, but an Industrial & Provident Society. This means that her workers have direct input into influencing their own working lives. It exists for their benefit, giving back power to the producers.
Why underwear? It was a decision sparked by Becky undergoing counseling at her local rape crisis centre. She realised that her desire to help the “women most marginalised” in her area might be constructively combined with her desire for “nice ethical pants.” Several years later, over 65 women have been involved with and received training from Who Made Your Pants. At the moment there is a “core team of four”. Each tissue-wrapped pair of beautiful knickers comes with a tag naming one of the team who made them. The ‘Something Blue’ style worn here by me is labeled ‘Samia and friends’. Teamwork and shared responsibility are key to the business.
But where labels detailing the creators are integral, some of the labels attached to WMYP by other areas of the industry do no favours. For example, “we don’t position ourselves as an ethical brand”, Becky notes. “When the mainstream public hear ‘ethical fashion’ they put it in a ‘weird’ box.” It’s a salient point. In the UK, such terms are still frequently othered and set apart from what we might see as everyday fashion. They are often perceived as niche, out of the price range; perhaps out of touch with reality. And even though WMYP are highly sustainable, using leftover fabrics from underwear factories to create their goodies, Becky says that some of the “ethical market won’t buy our knickers because they’re made of synthetic fibres.” Not so much between a rock and a hard place, but between opposing attitudes of uncertainty and judgement.
So WMYP has dropped the categorisation and instead focused on promoting what makes their work so valuable. The website is clear, informative and seamed with humour. A highlighted customer review states: “Your pants did not ride, slip, chafe or go up my bum.” They aim to cater to a broad market. Of all the styles on offer, it’s the black working week set – the simplest of the lot - that just “sells and sells and sells.”
For a single set of underthings, some might think them expensive. But the cost reflects the quality and consequences of the work. Becky has had people say “I could feed my family for the price of those pants.” Her response? “You’re helping someone else feed their family.” Monetary gain is not the aim here. Instead it is about creating viable opportunities for those least likely to seek or find them. As Becky concludes, “we don’t make jobs to make pants, we make pants to make jobs.”
I went for a superwoman-meets-1920s-style-dancer-warming-up-for-a-show look here, adorning the t-shirt with a sequinned collar and a brooch or two. A second hand trilby, several pairs of thick black tights and some patent shoes with ankle straps (that make me want to tap dance!) completed the creation. The pants (or panties/underwear if you're reading this in the US) are the Something Blue style.