Handmade Shirtwaist; by AJ Salter

AJ Salter is a fourth year BFA student at UBCO pursuing a major in Visual Arts and a minor in Art History. Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, her plans to spend the summer in Amsterdam were dashed. Yet, as the first wave of the pandemic subsided and university courses transitioned online, she was able not only to travel to Amsterdam, but also to spend the final year of her degree in the stunning city of 17th-century architecture and meandering canals.

Her recent work is an intriguing investigation into contemporary fashion and its history, partly inspired by the rich colours and textures of Dutch paintings. In a recent project, as well as in her upcoming final degree project, she explores topics including consumerism, mass-production, sustainable fashion, and historical hand-production methods, which will ultimately be presented as photographic works. I chatted with AJ over Zoom in order to get a better understanding of her processes, her perspective, and her outlook on the future of sustainable fashion.  

Patterns for a Shirtwaist; by AJ Salter

Arts Editor: Tell us about your recent project, “The Botanical Colour Exhibition.”

AJ: Thematically, this project is a continuation of my ongoing exploration of fast fashion and methods of clothing production. For the project, I hand-dyed pieces of fabric, made my own patterns, and ultimately sewed and tailored a shirtwaist for myself. I used locally sourced natural dyes, as well as local materials. There was also a historical and geographical aspect to the project, as I recreated the famous painting Girl with a Pearl Earring by the Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer, where the woman is draped in beautiful, richly coloured fabrics that coincidentally resembled the colours that I chose to dye my fabrics with.

The way that I presented this project was also essential to the whole idea. Since it was for a visual arts class, there were guidelines that asked us to create a sort of alter-ego online. Stemming from that idea, I decided to create a social media account because, my thought was, by having a social media account, we inevitably create an alter-ego anyways. The way we present ourselves online is never really an accurate representation of who we are as people. Since this was during COVID too, it was a nice way to increase accessibility to exhibitions by putting it online. Using Instagram was ideal because I was able to show the project in real-time, posting images throughout the process so that the idea of time and how long each process took was clear to those following the account. Clothes aren’t something that should be bought, worn a couple of times, and then discarded; they take time and effort to make—or at least they should take time and effort, if the processes are ethical and sustainable.

AE: Did you have any background knowledge on how to make clothes? Or how to dye clothes?

AJ: Make clothes? Yes. Dye them? No. There was a lot of research and experimenting that I had to do—the whole process was actually an experiment. In the end, it wasn’t overly complicated to make a single garment, but it did take a lot of time. This really highlighted the idea that the craftspeople who make clothes deserve a lot of respect. But also, the fact that I did it, means that anyone can do it, given the time and materials needed. I’m not saying that everyone should dye their own fabrics and make their own clothing—definitely not—but even just small things, like mending and tailoring and fixing.

AE: You know how everyone’s been making sourdough and banana bread during the pandemic, well you really took it to the next level teaching yourself to dye fabrics and sew your own clothes!

AJ: Ha ha yeah. And this is actually something I’m going to be continuing for my final grad project, too—pushing that theme a little further. With the final project, I want to talk about the limitations of fast fashion. Factory-made clothing is often ill-fitting and impractical because it’s cheap and it’s made to fit an average size, which obviously many people do not fit into. So, for this project, I’m going to make a wearable art piece—a coat that’s white, but I’ll hand-dye elements of it that would have been left out if it were mass-produced: things like pockets, gussets, godets, gores, princess seams, etc. So those elements will stand out because of the dye and bring attention to the process and time that these elements require.  

Girl with a Pearl Earring for #BetweenArtAndQuarantine; by AJ Salter

AE: Your interest in sustainable fashion seems to be related to your interest in historical fashion. Can you talk about how these two things intersect?

Totally. Historical clothing came out of necessity. The pieces had to last a long time because the resources were so limited, especially for lower-income households. Obviously mass-production was non-existent, so historically, clothing was sustainable by default. Of course, the industrialization that came in the late 1800s had its benefits: it democratized fashion so more people could afford it, which was great, but it also meant that quality, fit, and individuality were pretty much lost.

AE: It seems like, in an ideal future, we kind of need a mix of both, right? Clothing that is made ethically and sustainably, but also somehow economical?  

AJ: Yeah exactly. This is something I definitely wanted to address in my project. I don’t want anyone to think I’m suggesting that if you don’t make your own clothes or shop sustainably that you’re a terrible person. For many people, fast fashion is necessary because it’s so affordable, and there’s nothing wrong with that. My point is more directed at people who can afford to make smarter decisions regarding what, and how, they consume. However, I do think we should be working towards a society where everyone can have access to sustainable fashion, not just those who are privileged enough.

AE: What are your plans for after graduation?

AJ: I'm currently working on an application to do my master’s at a university in the Netherlands, in Arts and Culture, but it's a specialization of Museums and Collections, like curatorial work. I was really struggling to come up with what I wanted to do with my future—I felt limited by the options in BC. So I feel very lucky to be in the Netherlands because I feel like there are so many opportunities and avenues here for my practice.

Follow AJ on Instagram and check out her website.