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.

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