The New Politics of Fashion

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.”

Yet Schor, author of the best-seller The Overworked American, argues that the minimalists’ view “does not recognize the centrality of clothing to human culture, relationships, aesthetic desires, and identity.” Love it or hate it, what we wear is a huge part of how we communicate with the world. And the messages clothes send are bigger than just the “hipness” of the latest fashion. Garments and accessories have always been a key part of how humans show respect for one another, how sexuality and gender are established, and how values and traditions are honored. Not least of all, clothes are central to personal aesthetics and individuality. “There is genuine pleasure to be gained from a well-made, well-fitting garment,” Schor writes. “Or from a piece of clothing that embodies beautiful design, craftspersonship, or artistry.”

So how can one be environmentally and socially aware while also respecting the important roles clothes play in expressing our identity? Schor suggests that we ’emphasize quality over quantity, longevity over novelty, and versatility over specialization.’ In this scenario, my lace tube top is okay if I make it a long-term staple of my wardrobe. This means, too, that spending more for an item sometimes is worth the longevity offered by higher-quality fabric and design.

Schor also suggests that we steer clear of fashion trends that ‘continue to objectify women — and increasingly men — through demeaning, violent, and gratuitously sexualized images and practices.’ One rewarding way to do this is by shopping in locally owned stores and hunting out independent designers. This not only discourages another mainstream fashion style like ‘heroin chic,’ but also can make us part of the creative rise of innovative, local start-up designers. Since many young people aspire to design clothing as a career, we support their entrepreneurial dreams. We become champions of unique styles, and not just consumers of an endless array of identical products.

So my lace tube top and I are going to renew our vows-we are in this for the long haul. To keep our partnership exciting, I will alter my shirt to suit new twists and turns of my taste. After all, flexibility and commitment are the keys to long-term relationships. We can turn our heads at pretty new things, but we can’t just dump what we have committed to keep.
Laine Bergeson

Juliet Schor’s essay “Cleaning the Closet: Toward A New Fashion Ethic”  is from the book Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the 21st Century (Beacon), a collection of practical essays about how we can lead more meaningful lives and at the same time restore a sense of balance to society and the planet. It was edited by Schor and Betsy Taylor in conjunction with the Center for a New American Dream, a think tank that pursues a wide range of projects with the idea that living a good life does not depend upon environmental destruction, wanton materialism, and over-commercialization of our culture.

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