For much of my adult life, I’ve avoided clothes shopping at all costs. In the past several years most of the clothing I’ve bought has been second-hand and occasionally I’ll duck into stores that I’d rather not enter because I want some basic things that you can’t normally find in thrift shops, and without things like that I would have a hard time pulling together outfits from a wardrobe that is otherwise filled with things like fire-engine red pleated skirts and 60s floral prints. And one day last winter I found that my one pair of pants was getting tight (I’m more of a skirt and dress person, that’s why I only had one pair) so rather than hook the waistband together with a rubber band I decided to go get a larger size. Thrift shops in Geneva are not great, so rather than spend the better part of an afternoon hunting through jeans that are either too big or too small or have rhinestone butterflies embroidered on the butt, I quickly went into a fast fashion shop, grabbed a stack of pants in various colors and sizes, chose the pair I liked best, paid for it and left. I was in and out in about fifteen minutes.
That’s how my relationship with clothes shopping has been for the past few years. It’s fine, I’m able to leave the house fully clothed on a regular basis, but it has kind of sucked the joy out of something that I once liked. Picking out pretty things to wear was once fun for me. With one of my best friends, Jane, I’d spend entire afternoons playing dress up as a teenager. Jane had a fantastic wardrobe that I loved going through. I have no idea where she got most of her stuff, but at fourteen years old she had things like a hot pink foam rubber dress with a tank bodice and bubble-shaped skirt that felt like a wetsuit when I tried it on. In middle school Jane began a project called Crazy Outfit Tuesday, which consisted in coming to school every Tuesday in a Crazy Outfit, such as a billowy mustard yellow pleated skirt, tights printed with a jelly bean graphic, an Air Force t-shirt of her dad’s, and a spiral telephone cord hooked around her neck like a necklace. She looked fabulous and, oddly enough for middle school, didn’t get made fun of for it (or if she did she took it in stride) because Jane’s brand of weirdness was one that was pretty much universally appreciated by her fellow students.
Jane was the person who inspired me to start thinking about how I actually wanted to dress, because in a mundane sea of Champion sweatshirted pre-adolescents, she stood out and had fun doing it. I was never as bold as she was, probably because I cared more than I liked to admit about what other people thought of me, but her example made me want to take my clothes more seriously and develop some semblance of a personal style. That’s what I tried doing for a number of years, but then when I started learning about where and how most of my clothing was produced, I became more and more uncomfortable with the process of shopping for clothes. Finally I all but stopped, and a few years ago I adopted the balance mentioned above, of scouting thrift shops and occasionally and furtively slipping into stores that shall not be named.
I also adopted a mild snootiness in thinking that shopping — and by extension, clothes — was superficial and thus I wanted little to no part of it. Daniel Miller in his book Stuff points out the issue with this. “On the surface is found the clothing which may represent us and may reveal a truth about ourselves, but it may also be a lie,” he writes. “It is as though if we peeled off the outer layers we would finally get to the real self within.” The problem with this, he argues, is that “we are then inclined to consider people who take clothes seriously as themselves superficial.” He continues:
Prior to feminism, newspaper cartoons had few qualms in showing women as superficial merely by portraying their desire to shop for shoes or dresses. Young black males were superficial because they wanted expensive trainers that they were not supposed to be able to afford. By contrast, we student academics at places such as Cambridge were deep and profound because frankly we looked like rubbish, and clearly didn’t much care that we did.
An additional problem for Miller, as an anthropologist, is that this equation of caring about clothing = superficiality is problematic when studying cultures in which clothing is important: “Dismissing them as superficial would represent a rather disastrous start to such an exercise.” He goes on to give the example of Trinidadians’ relationship to clothing as a case in point, and because I find it so interesting I’m going to go ahead and quote at length here:
I worked much of my time in Trinidad with squatters who had neither a water supply nor electricity in the house. Yet women living in these squatters’ camps might have a dozen or twenty pairs of shoes. A common leisure activity was to hold a fashion display, on a temporary catwalk, along one of the open spaces within the squatters’ encampment. They would beg, borrow, make or steal clothes. It wasn’t just the clothes, it was also the hair, the accessories and the way they strutted their stuff; knowing how to walk sexy and look glamorous or beguiling. Movements were based on an exaggerated self-confidence and a strong eroticism, with striding, bouncy, or dance-like displays. In local parlance there should be something hot about the clothing and something hot about the performance. On evenings I could spend three hours with them, waiting as they got themselves ready to go out and party, trying on and discarding outfits until they got it right.
This association is hardly new for the region. Early accounts of slave society in the Caribbean include references to the particular devotion of slaves to clothing. A.C. Carmichael stated in 1833: ‘Generally speaking, the coloured women have an insatiable passion for showy dresses and jewels… The highest class of females dress more showily and far more expensively than European ladies.’ Freilich, carrying out enthnographic research in an impoverished village in 1957-8, reports, ‘the wife of one of the peasants said “every new function needs new clothes. I would not wear the same dress to two functions in the same district.”‘ This desire was still more forcefully expressed during the 1970s oil boom in Trinidad when both seamstresses and their clients suggested that purchasing two new outfits a week was quite common for women in work. We do not necessarily condemn a population just because they show some devotion to stuff. Anthropologists celebrate, rather than demean, the devotion of Trobriand Islanders to canoe prows or of the Nuer to cattle. But curiously a devotion to clothing, as one can see from these descriptions by outsiders, was always viewed rather more harshly, especially for those without wealth.
As evident in the description of the local catwalk, what mostly concerned Trinidadians was not fashion — that is, the collective following of a trend, but style — that is, the individual construction of an aesthetic based not just on what you wear, but on how you wear it. There used to be a term saga boys for men who combined sartorial originality with ways of walking and talking that never let up from conspicuous display. Another local term gallerying gets it just right. Trinidad style, in turn, has two components, individualism and transience. The individual has to re-combine elements in their own way. The source of these elements is unimportant. They may be copied from the soap operas or the fashion shows which appear on television, sent from relatives abroad or purchased while abroad. They may simply re-combine local products. But the various elements should work together, be appropriate to the person who carries them off well, for ideally just one particular occassion. It didn’t matter what the clothes cost or even whether the clothes worn on the catwalk belonged to them or were borrowed for the occasion. This wasn’t about accumulation, but about transience. The stylist may learn from fashion but only as the vanguard. Then they must move on. Trinidad’s best known cultural export, Carnival, enshrines this transience. Individuals may spend weeks, if not months, creating elaborate and time-consuming costumes. But these must be discarded and re-made annually. What is celebrated is the event, the moment.
(…) [I]nstead of trying to ask where such a relationship to style comes from, instead of seeing it as a problem that requires explanation, we can turn the lens back onto ourselves. Why do we think that a devotion to clothing is a problem anyway? Why do we see it as a sign of superficiality and what does the very term superficiality imply? The problem with (…) treating clothing as superficial is that we presume a certain relationship between the interior and the exterior. We possess what could be called a depth ontology. The assumption is that being –what we truly are — is located deep inside ourselves and is in direct opposition to the surface. A clothes shopper is shallow because a philosopher or a saint is deep. The true core to the self is relatively constant and unchanging and also unresponsive to mere circumstance. We have to look deep inside ourselves to find ourselves. But these are all metaphors. Deep inside ourselves is blood and bile, not philosophical certainty. We won’t find a soul by cutting deep into someone, though I suppose we might accidentally release it. My point is that there is simply no reason on earth why another population should see things this same way. No reason at all why they should consider our real being to be deep inside and falsity on the outside. The argument here is that Trinidadians by and large don’t.
Most Trinidadians would certainly assert humour and wit as central to their self-definition and would see it as contributing to their sense of cool and style. (…) This keeping of things on the surface also means the freedom to construct oneself and not be categorized by circumstance. In London when two middle-class people meet they tend to ask each other ‘and what do you do?’ — meaning their employment. But most Trinidadians consider this highly inappropriate. One works simply because one needs to earn money, so this is entirely the wrong source of self-definition. Asking what work someone does tells you nothing significant about them. It is the things one chooses freely to do that should define you, not the things you have to do. Freedom in self-construction seems central.
It is again at Carnival that one comes to appreciate the further implications of not seeing the essential nature or truth of a person as a property located deep within. One of the main themes of Carnival is the revelation of truth. Carnival starts at night with a festival called Jouvert derived from the French jour d’ouvert or the opening of the day. People dress as creatures of the night, such as devils, or come out covered in mud. (…) Sometimes they carry placards with scandals and accusations. Gradually they move toward the centre of town where they are revealed by the dawn. In 1988, one of the most striking costumes represented a current calypso and was called Bacchanal Woman. A huge figure wore a dress festooned with eyes. Bacchanal is the disorder that follows scandalous revelation. (…) People try constantly not to reveal the truth about themselves but Carnival brings the things of the night into the light of revelation.
The point all this makes about lies is that people are constantly trying to hide them. And where is the obvious place to hide things? Well, deep inside where other people can’t see them. (…) For Trinidadians it is entirely obvious that truth resides on the surface where other people can easily see it and attest to it, while lies are to be found in the hidden recesses deep within. A person’s real being, then, is also on the surface, and evident. The deep person, who keeps things stored close to himself or herself and out of view, is viewed as just dishonest. The point, of course, is that truth is neither intrinsically deep nor on the surface. Neither set of metaphors can be judged as right or wrong. It is simply that there is no reason why any other population should have a concept of superficiality which sees the deep inside as true and significant and the surface as false and insignificant.
(…)[W]e have this very peculiar ideal about looking natural, which tends to imply that putting on make-up and clothes is false and superficial. But why should we assume this? Why should the fact that one person has freckles tell us who they are? Or that one person is born uglier than another person, and so can portray evil or a debased character on the stage? We see the natural just like the deep as being about the truth of a person. The Trinidadian conception, by contrast, is that who we are is not at all given by the happenstance of physiognomy — our face when we wake up in the morning. Why on earth should the natural look of a person be a guide to who that person is? By contrast, a person who spends time, money, taste and attention in creating a look, where the final look is the direct result of all that activity and effort, can properly be discovered in their appearance. Because now one is judging what they have done, not what they happen to look like originally. We are judging them by their labour, not their birth. One aspires to the act of self-cultivation.
When I first read this, I think what I found so interesting about it was the affront that it was to my own idea that the surface is superficial and the true self lies inside. That is something that I have absorbed over the course of my life thus far to define for me what is reality, and it’s been backed up by personal experience. I’m someone who has one of those faces that, if I’m not smiling, looks deadly serious or angry about something. Once as a teenager I was on a bus with some friends going downtown (to do what I don’t know, loitering or looking for additions to our classic rock cassette collections) and an older man sitting across from us stared at my friend Linda and me for a while before announcing to Linda that she looked “nice” whereas I looked “mean.” I still remember that twenty years later because it hurt — I’m not a mean person (maybe sometimes, but not on purpose) and here this guy was judging me from my stony-faced exterior and deciding who I was and what I was like based on that. Women get this all the time: I know I’m not the only one who has had to endure countless observations from strangers on the street that I’m not smiling, and why don’t I smile, and encouragements to “hey, smile!” In addition to wanting to scream at them that my purpose in life is not to walk around sunnily smiling at men for whatever purpose that would serve — I’ve never quite figured that one out — I’ve also always been confused because more often than not I’m not smiling because I’m lost in thought, thinking about happy things or sad things or whatever sort of thing that just happens to not show up on my face. They can’t see what’s going on in my head because the surface manifestation doesn’t match it. The real me is inside, whereas the surface me is (apparently) going around scowling at everyone.
So based on a lifetime of empirical data I eventually arrived at the conclusion that the real me was somewhere deep inside, and my physical self was just a source of transportation to get my real self around to work and school and social events and Walter Benjamin reading groups. And clothes — in addition to being produced by sweatshop labor and fossil fuels — were just a means to avoid getting arrested for public nudity during the course of those commutes.
The problem with believing this is that it ran into head-on conflict with a reality that I was trying to deny, and which I’ve only recently stopped denying: I like clothes. I love beautiful fabric and bright colors, the feel of something that drapes perfectly and moves with me, and, yes, the sense that what I wear is somehow a projection of what exists in my head, the feeling that it’s somehow a reflection of my individual self. The latter is probably part of why I love shopping in second-hand shops. It feels like I’m on a treasure hunt looking for myself, and when I find something that seems like me I’m also excited by the idea that I’m going to be the only one in the entire world wearing it. (Because all other copies of a particular dress were burned, and this is the only one remaining? That’s what it feels like anyway.)
This is, in the end, why I’ve taken up sewing this year. I recognize that I could very well go out in the world wearing the exact same thing every day. I would continue to live and breathe, no problem. A full wardrobe is not necessary to the continuation of basic biological functions. But I don’t want to go out in the world every day wearing the exact same thing. Having a full wardrobe is not a question of survival, it’s a question of desire, and of fun. Why else do so many people have more than two outfits on rotation? And why should we limit ourselves to that if we don’t want to?
This gets me back to the issue of where fast fashion comes from, what it’s made of, and who makes it. Since I still can’t stomach forking over my money to support that industry, I decided to start filling in my wardrobe with things I make myself. This of course brings up a whole load of other issues, such as the fact that fabric is still made somewhere by someone else (though you can check the tag, which will usually state the country of origin) and also the fact that it takes an immense amount of time to make something that seems so simple. I submit to you the following example, the shirt I made this weekend. It was the first time I ever sewed something using a pattern and I’m really very happy with how it turned out:
(Note: the color coordination of the shirt with the circa 1982 linoleum in our hallway was unintentional.)
Simple, right? A basic v-neck tank, no sleeves to mess with. The trickiest part about it was that it’s cut on the bias. But even so, it took me nine and a half hours to make it. (I timed the process.) The fabric was 30-something Swiss francs, and add the cost of labor to that and you can best bet that I will not be tossing this tank top into the wash with my sweaty running clothes. This is haute couture that I sweated and cursed over for a few hours Saturday afternoon and the better part of Sunday. The very fact that I had the available time to do so is privilege in itself, not to mention the privilege of spending money on a sewing machine and untold hours learning how to use it. But in the end, money-wise, this is cheap because nowhere on Earth will you find a shirt made of Italian fabric with hand-stitched interior seams for less than your monthly rent. Odd to think about how making your own clothes is both cheaper (when compared to store items of similar quality I mean) and also a thing people can do only if they’re relatively privileged (meaning they have the time to do it).
Anyway, this is how I’ve decided to reconcile my love of clothes with my hatred of shopping for them. It’s funny, because when my mom was growing up she made a lot of her own clothes because that was the only means she had to accumulate a wardrobe. Shop-bought clothes were expensive and there wasn’t the money for it, so she went to school in her handmade kilts, mortally embarassed at her homespun-ness, and vowing from a young age that she would ensure that her future children would have the privilege of buying their clothes in shops. Now in her late 60s, she’s done a complete 180 and despises the very industry that she once wanted to buy into. But she still likes pretty things, so she’s taken to making them. About once a week, Mom emails me photos of her latest masterful knitting projects, and I email her back photos of whatever I’m knitting or sewing at the moment, and we respond to each other with mutual praise of how fantastic we look.