Stella McCartney doesn’t dry-clean her clothes. Nor does she wash her clothes. I’ve really drilled into this to find out what she does when her clothes are dirty. “The rule on a bespoke suit is you do not clean it. You do not touch it. You let the dirt dry and you brush it off. Basically, in life, rule of thumb: if you don’t absolutely have to clean anything, don’t clean it.”
There is, in the intersection of beauty, fashion, feminism and sustainability, a subtle variant to the concept of the humblebrag: ideas that sound woke but which only work if you’re an incredibly beautiful person with incredibly expensive clothes. Don’t wear makeup; don’t throw anything away; throw away all face creams and merely splash yourself in vinegar; don’t go to the dry-cleaner. It reached its apex with a suggestion from Vivienne Westwood that you never had to buy a new T-shirt, you should merely print out a slogan or photograph and affix it with a safety pin to your existing T-shirt. And all these ideas work magnificently well on a model, but miss the point of adornment, which is to distract people from what you actually look like, not bloody draw attention to it.
On the specific matter of dirt, I think McCartney is barking up the wrong tree. Most people are extremely comfortable with things staying dirty if no one else is going to see them. I remember a survey in the 1990s that found women under 35 changed their boyfriends more often than they washed their duvet, which made perfect sense because, realistically, boyfriends go out more often than duvets. Really, the driving imperative behind washing things is they are stained or they smell. The kinds of dirt you can brush off could be counted on the fingers of one hand (mud; and, at a pinch, Rice Krispies). There is a whole world of everyday soiling (mainly, in my experience, from food, escalators, pens, pets, children and the excretions of your own unruly self) that would laugh in the face of a brush.
Stella McCartney: ‘It’s not like I’m here for an easy life’
However, let’s accept a kernel of truth in what McCartney says, that dry-cleaning is more environmentally harmful than washing, and even if you just washed things less often, that would be a start. Here are my all-time top tips: be extremely clean yourself. Almost always, you are the problem. Never cycle in regular clothes. Have a set of clothes to cycle in, and call these “the clothes that smell already”. Pay children 10p for every item of school uniform unsullied enough to wear again. I often then steal the 10ps back as I need them, and they never notice because it’s all about the transaction. Own at least one pair of PVC trousers, because once you’ve tasted the peace of a wipe-clean garment, you’ll never look back. Almost everything that says “dry-clean only” can cope with a very cool wash. But things that say “cool wash” do tend to mean it. Try to spill things down the back of yourself, then you won’t notice, and in all probability, nor will anyone else. Don’t buy white things in the first place. Marshal the social capital of a haughty manner to offset larger or more distinctive blemishes such as egg. Cheap fibres actively attract smells, so stick to natural and expensive fabrics, such as cotton, which is unfortunately also catastrophic for the environment, but eyes on the prize here, everyone.
McCartney’s is actually a Victorian idea: they only considered underclothes really clothes at all, and all outerwear brushable, in the manner of a coat or shoes. So feel free to experiment with vests and knickerbockers. Or just try to be less fastidious. In line with Marx’s theory of diminishing returns, if we were all covered in muck, none of us would mind.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist
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