The New Politics of Fashion

Clothes as if people mattered


| November-December 2003


I am in a committed, long-term relationship with my wardrobe.

As in every romance, the beginning was passionate and swept me away in rosy delusions: I look spectacular in hot pants! I deserve these fuchsia pumps! This papier-mâché miniskirt is perfect for the office!

Soon, however, the honeymoon faded and doubt crept in. Is three figures too much to pay for a lace tube top? How do I reconcile the fashion industry's excesses with my concerns about the environment, social justice, simple living, and feminism? Unlike plastics and meat, clothes are not generally considered a “dirty” product. Yes, Kathie Lee Gifford had her 12 minutes of sweatshop shame, and activist groups have been on Nike for years to curb its exploitation of workers abroad. But the moral dimensions of clothes, which are not tangible in the minds of most Americans as they go shopping, go even deeper than that.

“Clothes got artificially cheaper” in 1991, when the Asian financial crisis reduced already-low wages, writes Juliet Schor in Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the 21st Century (Beacon). And when high fashion becomes available at discount stores, the dramatic, if manipulated, value of a $5,000 coat that is now selling for $500 seems affordable. But this fosters a cycle of disposable clothes and gratuitous spending.

Also, toxic chemicals used in dying, shipping, and making garments have a negative environmental impact. Cotton, for example, writes Schor, “comprises only 3 percent of global acreage, but accounts for 25 percent of global insecticide use.”

Some socially concerned citizens argue that we should stick to clothes that are purely functional and comfortable. “Buy as few clothes as possible, or better yet, avoid new altogether,” writes Schor, describing the attitude of these clothing minimalists. “Make sure your garments don't call too much attention to themselves. Shun labels and designers. Purchase only products whose labor conditions and environmental effects can be verified.”

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