Utne Blogs > Mind and Body

Two Minutes and a Suitcase: What Would You Save?

  Suitcases, photo by Hillary Boles, Creative Commons
Photo by Hillary Boles, licensed under Creative Commons 


Hey gang. It’s Katie, the thrift store lady who wrote a few weeks ago about unsustainable clothing production, among other things. In that post I talked about the rise of “fast fashion” and how being able to buy cheap, trendy clothing by the truckload may seem like fun but is ultimately depressing. Well actually, I don’t think I said that exact thing, but I should have. It’s depressing to have too much. Anxiety-producing, too. It’s creepy to have no idea how the things we wear were made, or what they’re made of, even if you grew up—as I did—in a world where that was the norm. 

Writing about what’s wrong with the way clothing is produced for us and consumed by us is difficult because there’s so much wrong with it. You can can see that in the lonely atmosphere of a chain store, with its eerie lights shining on an empty parking lot all through the night. You’re reminded of it every time you drive past the factory that used to employ most of your town or neighborhood and now sits empty and scary-looking (or just sad). You feel it every time you’re disgusted with a new piece of clothing that looked nice when you brought it home but fell apart in the wash a few weeks or months later. Or maybe you can feel it, if you dig a little deeper, in your lack of disgust, your inability to care that the shirt fell apart because it was so cheap to begin with. Knowing you can afford to just throw it away and buy another one doesn’t make the creeping sense of wrongness go away.

Certainly, one of the biggest problems with the way most new clothing is produced (using petroleum products, and in disturbingly huge volumes) is that it’s poisoning our air, soil, and water supplies, and could well be helping to cause climate change. When The Nation’s Mark Hertsgaard wrote an open letter to President Obama urging him to address climate change, he referred to “corporate and consumer practices that need to change if our children are to inherit a livable planet”; so-called fast fashion was one of the things he meant.

But the cultural-spiritual component of clothing—dare I say fashion—is important too. We can dismiss clothes as mere nakedness-covering, and dismiss an interest in them as vain or silly, but I wouldn’t bother doing that. There’s no shame in caring about what you wear. It’s like, primal. Furthermore, it can be fun. Why should huge, greedy retail chains get to decide how we should look? They need us, but we don’t have to need them.

So here you have it: This is the next installment in what will be an ongoing blog about clothes. Recycled and repurposed and sustainably-made clothes, yes, but also: our relationship with what we wear. What it might mean to put on this and not that. How it feels to repair something you love and give it a longer life, or to make something for yourself or someone else to wear. How taking back some control over this aspect of our lives is good for us and for the Earth, not to mention hugely entertaining and satisfying.

 Photo by Jane Haegele 
Photo by Jane Haegele 

I’ll kick the conversation off with something light-hearted. This photo is an homage to The Burning House, which collects pictures of people’s most prized possessions (i.e., the things they’d save in a fire). I hadn’t seen the blog before a few weeks ago but its creator, Foster Huntington, produced an anthology of entries as a book, which I got as a Christmas gift. I’ve had fun looking at the pictures of people’s pretty belongings and trying to decide what I would save. Which things do I care about the most? The photograph of myself, at three, holding my baby sister? My laptop full of partly-finished writing, which I would sincerely hate to have to start all over again? Yes, but those answers seemed literal and boring. And since I never, ever get tired of thinking about clothes, I thought instead I’d show you a handful of my favorite secondhand pieces.

  • These boots. Man. A few years ago they looked hipper than they do now, but I still wear ‘em. I found them in a tiny, impeccable shop in the West Village run by a porcelain-skinned punk woman who told me she used to live in a barn. For a while this pair of boots was one of those terrible purchases that you can barely look at because you know you paid too much for it. I kept them stuffed in the back of my closet for at least a year. (Honestly, they weren’t that expensive, but the price was ridiculous for something that was used but not antique. I only opened up my wallet because I felt like such a bumpkin in that store that I was too embarrassed to admit the price, quoted to me at the register by a beautiful young man, shocked me. I’ll confess it to you: I paid around 90 bucks.) Happily, I rediscovered the boots and have since gotten my money’s worth out of them: I estimate I’ve worn them around three hundred times. For a while there I was like Katie Holmes’ character in the Wonder Boys movie. Remember how she always wore the same pair of red cowboy boots? These boots are just as cute as hers, and I happen to think they’re more versatile.
  • I love this polyester-wool-blend skirt because it’s teal, which adds color to my dark winter outfits, and because it’s too big for me, which I like in a skirt. I kind of let it hang on my hips and as long as the top I’m wearing holds it in place nothing too scandalous happens. It’s Liz Claiborne, from the 80s most likely, and made in Hong Kong. I got it at a large thrift store in a strip mall that I found by accident on a pilgrimage to Joann’s Fabrics; it turned out to be a gold mine of women’s clothing. I don’t remember the price now, only that it was under $5 because that’s what I took out of my pocket to pay for it, a five-dollar bill.
  • Are these sunglasses sweet or what? I love their shape and wear them despite the fact that I need a prescription that these don’t have (don’t worry, I don’t drive). Their frames are made of metal, which makes them sit better on my face than their plastic pretenders tend to. I found them in a cluttered little consignment shop in New Jersey called the Purple Kangaroo. The woman charged me $12 and I remember feeling it as I forked over that much money at a thrift store. But I enjoy pretending that I look like a Molly Ringwald character every time I wear them, and that, my friends, is not something you can put a price on.
  • Even if my building were on fire I don’t see why I wouldn’t have time to scoop up my beloved retro earrings, most of which I got at a church rummage sale by picking through what looked to have been one woman’s gigantic collection. I paid 50 cents for each pair and I love the dangling, light blue ones the best. When I wore them recently my neighbor Dave yelled out, “I know Katie’s lookin’ for trouble ‘cause she’s got her earrings on!”
  • I have a hard time picking favorites. My favorite book tends to be whichever one I’m currently reading, and likewise, I usually pin all my hopes for future beauty and fashion success to my most recent thrift store purchase. I’m talking here about the silk purple Eileen Fisher sweater I got last week for six bucks. It’s comfortable, it drapes beautifully, and its color looks rich and luscious when I wear it with my darkest blue jeans.
  • This dress is from a lovely consignment shop in my neighborhood in suburban Philadelphia, which I like because it’s curated like a boutique, but the prices are low. Plus, the owner will tell you everything she knows about the clothes. This piece is by Joni Blair, and like so many things we buy now it was made of polyester in China. Still, getting it secondhand has got to be an improvement over buying it new. The fabric is stretchy and very soft and it has pockets. Pockets!

Which of your clothes would you save in a fire? I would sincerely like to know.