I’ve been doing more thinking about the ethics of fa(t)shion, while also re-reading one of my favorite books: Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future by Bill McKibben.
In it, McKibben argues that our growth-focused global economic system 1.) creates extreme inequality, 2.) is environmentally unsustainable, and 3.) fails to make people happier, because so many people are isolated, stressed out, and lacking community support.
He proposes switching to smaller-scale, community-based systems, and gives examples from all around the world: from the organic farming system that developed in Cuba after the fall of the USSR, to a cooperatively-owned clothing store in Wyoming, to a city bus system in Brazil.
It’s a brilliant, fascinating, hopeful read.
And it got me thinking: are we fatshionistas on the forefront of a new deep economy of clothing?
There’s something so wonderful about shopping with fellow fatties. Buttercup describes her experience at the going-out-of-business sale of a plus size boutique in London, which resembles my own experience at the Big Thrifty last year:
My first was in the basement of a shop called Forgotten Woman about 20 years ago. I’d never seen anything like it, though I have a few times since. Fat women of every shape, size and age, gleefully running around in their undies hurling gladrags at each other like kiddies in the proverbial sweetshop. If it didn’t fit or suit, they simply offered it to the nearest stranger. “I look ghastly in this but it’ll look ace with your colouring/legs/boobs! Look! It’s only a tenner! You have to try it on!!” There wasn’t even a changing room, just racks and piles of 75%-off bargaintabulous fun to be had – and besides, who needed one?
Plus size shopping events build community. And most of them also exist outside of the traditional paradigm of buying new clothes vs. thrifting.
For example, the Big Thrifty collects clothing donations from Boston-area fatties, then sells them at low prices at an event with a similarly low cost of admission. Those who donate can get rid of old clothing without contributing to a system in which most donated clothing is either destroyed or exported to developing countries, thereby ruining those countries’ own garment industries. Those who shop can acquire cheap clothing without supporting either the fast fashion industry or the thrift stores that dump excess donations in the aforementioned ways.
Online clothing exchange communities such as fatshionxchange also provide a third option for both acquiring and getting rid of clothing–although unlike in-person shopping events, they neither build local community nor reduce the amount of fuel used to ship goods.
Obviously, I don’t think that these alternative methods of shopping should be our only option. Having access to new clothing is important–especially for specialized items like workwear and athleticwear, which can be hard to find used. There are still far too many people who have to rely on one or two brick-and-mortar stores–or are sized out of them altogether, and are forced to buy from the few internet retailers that carry sizes above 4X or 5X. And what plus size clothing exists is often made to fit a narrow range of body shapes, styles, and gender presentations, leaving out everyone else.
We still have a long way to go, and some of that progress will necessarily entail the making of new clothing (and shoes, and ohmygod bras).
But community shopping events are a major positive force. I hope that they continue to happen, and to spread beyond major cities like Boston, NYC, and San Francisco.
And I hope that straight-size people learn from us. That they, too, start coming together for clothing swaps and thrifting events. That they, too, shift some of their clothing dollars (and donations) to ethically and ecologically sustainable ways of shopping.
Ideally, I’d love to see a world in which manufacturers make a wider range of clothing in a wider range of sizes, but less frequently. A world in which the fashion industry doesn’t invent new “trends” every few months, and instead style develops organically from the ground up.
A world in which people donate old clothing because it no longer fits or their style has evolved, rather than because it’s so last season. A world in which used pants aren’t always worn out in the thighs, because pants are made of stronger material. (Hey, if we can make computers that fit in the palm of your hand, surely we can make pants that don’t wear out within a year?)
A world in which new clothing may be more expensive because it’s made from better quality materials and doesn’t exploit workers, but cheap clothing is regularly available at alternative events. And those alternative events are open to people of all sizes–because there’s no longer any fatphobia, so fatties don’t need our own separate spaces.
I know that most of this falls firmly within the realm of fantasy. But community fatshion events are a big, big step in the right direction.