Who, What, Why: Jimil Ataman on the politics and contradictions of slow fashion

The anthropology Ph.D. candidate discusses what she has learned following slow fashion creators and consumers on Instagram and in the Pacific Northwest.

Jimil Ataman wears a blue jacket she made.
Image: Courtesy of Jimil Ataman
    • Who

      It was through Instagram that Jimil Ataman first become interested in slow fashion, which she defines as a social movement, market-based industry, and personal-political praxis connected by “a shared effort to resist and transform the waste-driven, profit-seeking, and inequitable systems that produce and sustain contemporary fashion.”

      Her personal endeavor grew into an academic one: The joint-Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology and education, culture, and society is doing her dissertation on the slow fashion movement, following creators and consumers on Instagram and in the Pacific Northwest.

      Ataman earned her bachelor’s in anthropology and history from Lehigh University and a master’s in education, culture, and society from Penn’s Graduate School of Education in 2018, before starting her Ph.D.

      Growing up in Boise, Idaho, she recalls carrying armfuls of clothes to try on at Forever 21—perhaps the epitome of fast fashion for millennials. Now, much of the conversation on fast fashion focuses on retailers such as H&M and Shein, though Ataman says most clothes are manufactured through the fast fashion model. Fast fashion mass-produces trendy clothes at low cost in a global supply chain, whereas, notes Ataman creators of slow fashion may source materials locally, create small batches, and operate on a made-to-order model, to avoid waste.

      As part of her ethnography, Ataman learned to sew and is using her fieldwork time to create a fully handmade wardrobe. Now, her wardrobe is primarily handmade, with natural fibers like linen and cotton. She’s made a sweater with a daisy print and three large buttons up the front, and a dark green, viscose dress to wear at an academic conference, and a dress to wear as maid of honor at her sister’s wedding.

    • What

      The other part of her ethnography is following 75 slow fashion practitioners: 40 on Instagram who are from around the world and 35 in the Pacific Northwest. Ataman has explored fabric stores, slow fashion storefronts, and pattern-making studios.

      Her dissertation follows the contradictions of slow fashion, with three main guiding points. “First is: What does it mean to be a part of an anti-consumerist consumer movement?” she says. Buying from slow fashion designers is expensive and raises the questions, “Who is slow fashion for? Who can afford it?"

      The second has to do with the manufacturing process. “I spend a lot of time in studios with people who are making slow fashion, and they’re entangled in the logistics of capitalism,” Ataman says. They exist, she says within a system “built to exploit in the name of profit” while also making decisions about paying ethical wages and sourcing sustainably.

      The third contradiction has to do with the internet, and what it means for people to be teaching and learning about “the politics of consumption and capitalism on a platform that’s designed to commodify and addict its users.”

    • Why

      “We all have a relationship with our clothes,” says Ataman. “Whether or not you choose to engage in your clothes as a personal-political praxis, we’re all buying clothes.”

      She says we are all alienated from the labor of clothing production and tricked by fast fashion conglomerates falsely claiming to be environmentally friendly. And the slow fashion community is trying to educate and transform how clothing is made, bought, and sold. She also thinks the pandemic opened people’s eyes to how global manufacturing works; when products suddenly became unavailable, previously hidden systems came into view.

      Ataman says her interviews with slow fashion community members “gives us a very immersed view into a community of practitioners who are attempting to negotiate what it means to live ethically and sustainably in a capitalist world. And I think that on its own is worth reading about.”

Jimil Ataman wears a yellow top she made.
Image: Courtesy of Jimil Ataman