Reforming the fashion industry, one dress at a time

By Maria Skoyles & Lyn Waddington

Dorcas dress

Many of us in OCC already know about the Dorcas Dress Project, and we're delighted to host this guest post from Lyn Waddington (Chair of Trustees) and Maria Skoyles (CEO) that tells us more about this brilliant initiative!

Christians have often led the way in addressing issues of social justice, sometimes influencing legislation to support the poor. I am pleased to be the Chair of Trustees for a Christian charity that is trying to do the same. Last week an inquiry into the sustainability into the fashion industry was launched, the very issues at the heart of the Dorcas Dress Project. With the announcement of the new parliamentary inquiry led by Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, into the British fashion industry, perhaps now is a timely moment to consider our relationship with the clothes we wear.

I find it fascinating how God has used fashion to provide man with dignity and demonstrate honour to God (Ex28v2). Fashion gets an early mention in the Bible, Adam and Eve's first response after eating the fruit of knowledge is to sew fig leaves together because they realise they are naked (Gen 3v7): it is their first line of defence in hiding from God.  Interestingly at Jesus' crucifixion, the soldiers strip Him of His clothes, He is left unhidden, naked to die on the cross (John 19v23).   I wonder if we are aware that clothes have so much primal power over us.

In the New Testament, we read that God used women in the fashion trade to spread the Gospel.  Tyrian purple was a globally renowned dye, costly and used as a demonstration of status and wealth. Lydia was a dealer in this cloth and whilst she and her female workforce were staying in Philippi (Acts 16v13) her heart was opened to the message of Jesus.  This was a significant conversion as it was probably the start of the church in Thyatira, who John writes to later in Revelation.

And then there is Dorcas: a member of the early church (Acts 9 v36 - 43), a disciple, full of good works and acts of charity.  Her sewing craftsmanship appears to be of a demonstrable quality for the widows to be showing it to Peter and the disciples. Dorcas worked with first century widows, providing them with dignity, in a time and place where their ability to be financially independent was slim.  

Dorcas is one of my favourite Bible characters because I have been given a number of prophetic words about being like her. They started in my early teens and influenced my decision to work in the fashion industry.  Then, in 2010, a number of different people connected to OCC brought this same prophetic word to me during a season when my personal work circumstances were changing.

In that season, I enrolled onto the King's School of Theology.  We were encouraged to research social reformers, and I picked Titus Salt, a practicing Christian, textile manufacturer and politician from Bradford, who in the mid nineteenth century during a time of industrial unrest and human exploitation built Saltaire as a testimony to how God can be honoured and people given dignity through a town's design, community structure and ethical values.

As a nation, we are returning to a similar season of unrest.  The fashion industry is a cause of much of the world's global human exploitation and the impact of what we wear on the environment is frightening.  Fairtrade organisations have made significant in-roads into the problems, but clothing is more complex than coffee, bananas and sugar.  Audit trails are complex and the fashion industry, by its very nature, is notorious for running with an 'on-trend' issue whilst it's hot news, but then dropping it as interest fades.

This all inspired The Dorcas Dress Project: a twenty-first century prophetic statement to show how fashion can bring dignity and honour back to God.  Our design brief was simple: to make a one-size dress that fits everyone, that could be made from heritage fabrics, requiring only simple sewing machinery and no trimmings.  This was to make production simple and easily accessible to those from situations of hardship. We source fabrics carefully, honouring God through His created world. Pastoral care for our beneficiaries is really important to us.  We are a registered charity, our team of trustees are currently working hard to grow the project.  We are fundraising to set up a project in Nigeria, supporting modern day widows and single mums, like Dorcas and Lydia did in the early church.  Find out more on our website.  Our correspondent in Nigeria, Akin Akinmede, worshipped here at OCC, whilst studying at KBCTC and then whilst he worked with Edge to support the homeless in the city.  His church are partnering up with The Dorcas Dress Project to pastorally care for the beneficiaries and help manage the project. 

OCC has played an important part in shaping The Dorcas Dress Project.  We'd love you to be kept up to date with our prayer needs and what we are doing, please do sign up for our newsletter.  If you'd like to help us fundraise then you're very welcome to donate here.

As the parliamentary inquiry proceeds I wonder whether it's a timely opportunity for the Church to be honest about our relationship with clothes.  Do we use them to hide ourselves from God?  Do they dishonour Him? And can we do more to make sure they bring others the dignity they should?

Maria Skoyles & Lyn Waddington