Or those of us who see clothes as adornment, rather than an external display of internal thinking, fashion is often dismissed as trivial. However we dress, we make statements about ourselves, whether we want to or not.
At the London College of Fashion, while we encourage our students to think the unthinkable as they search for tomorrow’s ideas, we do not want them to inhabit ivory towers, cut off from the rest of society. That is why we set up the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, so that we can tackle the environmental problems posed by mass consumption.
We also want to make a social impact. Due to its eclectic nature, fashion appeals to people from all backgrounds, crossing social and educational barriers. We have a whole range of students brought together in fashion-related courses to learn new skills, express creativity, build self-confidence and expand their horizons. Believing that all ideas and experiences are relevant and make a contribution to the development of fashion itself, we run a number of outreach projects, most notably with Send Women’s Prison in Woking.
In the last decade, the women’s prison population has more than doubled, with most inmates held for non-violent offences. The great majority of these women have been dealt a bad hand in life.
Chris Tchaikovsky was a prisoner herself, and established Women in Prison after her release. ‘Taking the most hurt people out of society and punishing them in order to teach them how to live within society is, at best, futile. Whatever else a prisoner knows, she knows everything there is to know about punishment because that is exactly what she has grown up with. Whether it is childhood sexual abuse, indifference, neglect; punishment is most familiar to her.’
Women prisoners are more likely to be single mothers than male prisoners. So prison impacts with disproportionate harshness on many of them: they often lose their home, and the lives of their children are seriously disrupted. The small number of women’s prisons means they are more likely to be held further from home than men.
All too many of these women have suffered domestic violence and mental health problems, and prison has more serious psychological implications for women. Self-injury is very common throughout women’s prisons.
Nearly 80% of people released from prison reoffend within a year; if they come out to a home, a family and a job these figures are turned around. The Corsten Report of 2007 highlighted how women offenders need a radically different, clearly led, strategic, holistic and woman-centred approach to allow them to develop self-confidence and the capacity to form relationships based on trust and respect.
The Evaluative Report of Arts in Prisons of 2008, which was commissioned by the Anne Peaker Centre for Arts in Criminal Justice, highlighted how arts subjects are a vital starting point or gateway to learning, reflection, achievement, accreditation and rehabilitation. The report sets out how arts and culture reinforce offenders’ engagement with issues of cultural diversity, while contributing positively to the overall prison culture.
Our first-year students and tutors go to the prison with the aim of providing offenders with useful skills that they can use in prison, and that can open up employment and educational opportunities upon release. The project has helped to teach fashion-related skills by showing, in this initial stage of the project, how to make a jacket.
he initial feedback from the project, still in its beginnings, shows what the women have gained in terms of skills, using their creativity and developing their confidence. They stressed how much they enjoyed the sessions, and the way the sessions gave meaning to their weeks. The women all created very different jackets, demonstrating how their experiences have been drawn out by the course, allowing them to express their individuality.
As one of them said: ‘In creating a jacket, I am proud of expressing my ideas to the tutors and being praised for my ideas.’ The jackets revealed how the women were skilled in creating something – a garment – out of virtually nothing, with items many of us might easily discard. They showed great resourcefulness and the ability to be eclectic and imaginative with materials as well as ideas. London College of Fashion staff and students were struck by how the women used everything at their disposal, thereby showing both students and staff how they themselves don’t really recycle materials all that effectively.
The course is benefiting a range of prisoners, from lifers to those close to release. For some who are working to make a life out of being in prison – to get as much as possible from the experience – the course has enabled that to happen. For those leaving, it will give them a chance of paid employment and the ability to work from home, so that they can look after their children.