Author: Joshua Bluteau was formerly a Lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Manchester. He is currently conducting independent research. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fieldsite: UK – a community of tailors
As a digital anthropologist, I am fortunate in not seeing a great deal of change in terms of access to my fieldsite. However, the content which is being posted in response to the pandemic and the newly normal social isolation is a constantly evolving narrative.
In the past few weeks, amid the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, there has been a huge response to the social isolation being experienced by the tailors, shirt makers and other members of London’s artisanal clothes-making community who feature prominently on my feed. My work with Instagram began a number of years ago as I embarked upon my PhD research and Instagram became my fieldsite. During the intervening years, I have continued to follow, interact with and live amongst a network of tailors and their clients who post frequent sartorially-related content to Instagram. Covid-19 has meant a disruption in working practices for many in the clothing industry. This has ranged from high street chains such as Oasis and Warehouse going into administration to the knock-on effect of lockdown and quarantine measures affecting not only retailers but their supply chains and workers in factories all over the world. The potential fallout from the cessation of purchasing fast fashion is therefore not only a substantial financial loss but also a huge human tragedy.
Savile Row in London however, is at the other end of this clothes-based spectrum. A stone’s throw from Oxford Street, but a million miles away in terms of their working practices. For many of the tailors who work for the houses on Savile Row, they have been able to take their work home with them, and pictures have been posted by both the tailors themselves, and the houses they work for, of their home setups, with kitchens, living rooms, attics and garages transformed into miniature cutting rooms and workshops to sew in.
Initially, these images appeared as responses to working from home, demonstrating to customers that their artisanally crafted garments were still being produced to the high standard which they demand, but these images soon began to show other responses to social Isolation such as more detailed posts about their current work, unrelated posts about their home life and the sewing of scrubs that they are volunteering their own time to create.
Beyond the personal images from specific tailor’s daily lives, pictures have also been posted of cloth donations arriving by the roll to Savile Row tailors including Cad & The Dandy, with the clothmakers responsible for the donations tagged and messages of support from clients being posted in response below. Numerous customers of these tailors have commented on how proud they are to be associated with the tailor.
Individual tailors’ thoughts about construction have also been a feature of posts. Conversations regarding how to stitch the labels into the scrubs are an example of this, with one tailor wanting to cross-stitch the label by hand as they would in a bespoke suit, but deciding to machine stitch it so it would better stand up to repeated washing. There is a real sense of an earnest desire to do what they can fuelling these conversations, with the intricacies of such decisions torn between practicality and a demonstration of their level of care and investment in the scrubs that are being made.
Other issues abound too, with messages such as “NHS HERO” and “You’ve got this” being embroidered into scrubs sewn by the tailors Montague Ede, and the simple message “Thank You NHS” printed on the labels of Huntsman’s scrubs.
While many tailors are contributing to the ongoing battle to get new scrubs produced and sent to the NHS, it is the Savile Row tailor Huntsman who are most digitally active in showing their followers the progress they are making. Having forged a collaboration with their neighbours Cad & The Dandy, and set up a crowdfunding platform on justgiving.com (which has so far raised in excess of £10,000), Huntman’s tailors can make 50 sets of scrubs in the time usually taken to make one bespoke suit. This is not all, as the tailors have developed a new way to cut and construct the scrubs making them more durable. This is not an isolated set of actions at the heart of the most exclusive street to shop at in the world but is part of a much wider set of digitally mediated interactions between, workers, customers, contributors and the NHS, which forges reciprocal ties through digital and literal gift giving.
The quality and production values of these scrubs are carefully detailed in the images posted charting their production, and such a level of care is part of this gifting, but is also tied to the more abstract notion of the made in England caché which features on the Huntsman labels, contributing to a patriotic endorsement of the NHS brand and perhaps raising a wry smile from workers that they are being attired in Savile Row Scrubs.
For a garment made by some of the most skilled tailors in the world, many of these sets of scrubs will not be laundered as hoped but will be seen as disposable and discarded accordingly. This then highlights the amorphous nature of the gift-giving in times of uncertainty and disempowerment, with control over a small aspect of one’s day to day life serving to invest in an imagined better future, or a future which has been shaped in some way by one’s actions. There are many examples of this occurring throughout the clothing industry as Covid-19 continues to advance, serving to highlight what a valuable creative and manufacturing industry the world of clothing production in the UK really is.