When I first started reading Web Smith’s piece “The Lost Art of Buying Clothing,” I thought I’d agree with most of it. I’m all for making more durable clothing (especially leggings/pants/shorts that don’t wear out in the thighs–are you listening, plus size clothing manufacturers?). I’m all for moving from the unsustainable fast fashion model to a slower one, one that pays its workers a living wage and doesn’t wreck the planet.
But then I got to this part:
But what about the changing of styles? Rules of thumb: (1) if you don’t think you’d wear it in seven years, you may want to put it back (2) if the tailoring that you desire is too “in”, it may be out in a few years (3) and some patterns and colors will remain near the top for a lifetime. See, I do not believe in fashion. I do believe in amazing pieces that remain timeless through the ages.
This is where I disagree.
I believe in fashion.
I believe in playing dress-up, playing with color, texture, pattern, proportion.
I believe in fashion as an accessible art form.
I believe in fashion as a form of self-expression that changes with me. I’m not the same person I was seven years ago–why would I want to dress like her? And who knows what my style will be like in seven years?
There are some trends from my teenage years that I still love–hell, I’d dress like a Delia*s catalog half the time if I could find that stuff in my size. And I’m all for having a few timeless pieces, like my favorite little black dress (which, for what it’s worth, was a cheap Target buy at least six or seven years ago and is still in great condition). But the thought of buying clothing for the next seven years sounds stifling.
Smith goes on to list five things to consider when buying, which starts with this:
High fashion has its place, 95% of us do not live in that place. Set aside Hypebeast trends for classic colors, fits, patterns, and heritage pieces: the blue blazer, the tweed sport coat, the brown slim fit dress pant, the selvedge denim, the oxford, durable point collars, the spread collar for when you need it. You may never be the most “fashionable” on the block but you will applaud at your old photos, three years from now.
Wow, elitist much? I may not be able to afford designer clothes (which don’t come in my size anyway), and I’m not part of the high-end fashion industry, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun with my personal style. Clothing as art, clothing as expression, clothing as sheer playful joy should not be reserved for the ultra-thin and ultra-rich.
The wardrobe he describes sounds, well, terrifically boring. I’m not saying that he, or anyone else who dresses that way, looks boring–but if I had to dress that way, substituting traditional women’s classics for the men’s classics he lists, I’d be bored out of my mind. I’d miss the thrill and challenge of putting together outfits. I’d miss wearing bright colors and a different flower in my hair every day. I’d feel like an imposter, trying to fit into some idea of the Classic Lady that really, really isn’t me.
And for what it’s worth, I do applaud at my photos from three years ago, and six years ago, and ten years ago. I applaud the fashion risks I took, whether or not I’d take them again. I applaud the hot pink hair I had junior year of high school, the Care Bears ringer tees I wore in college, the rainbow set of Lipsmackers I wore on a chain around my neck when I was twelve. I applaud the raver bracelets, the green lipstick, the dog collars, the plaid skirts with fishnets and combat boots, the plain black skirt that I spiced up with a row of safety pins down the side. I applaud the flowing hippie skirts and the ball-chain necklaces and the tank top on which I wrote “punk” in fabric marker.
I applaud my younger self for being fat and fabulous and completely unafraid to be myself, even long before I had heard of fat acceptance, even when I wanted so badly to be thin.
That’s one major thing Smith is missing: fashion as resistance. Fashion as visibility. Fashion as a refusal to blend into the background. Fashion as assertion of self-worth.
Not to mention fashion as a form of gender exploration–which hasn’t been a major aspect for me, but is important for many people.
Smith’s second piece of advice is: Television and print media should not influence your purchases, history books should. If it is still being sold — 100 years later, it is being sold for a reason.
I’d rather get my fashion influences from other blogs than from history books.
I love to see people combine different pieces in new and creative ways.
I love to see what various clothes look like on all shapes and sizes of fat bodies.
I can’t get that from history books.
His next rule is just….incredibly full of unexamined privilege:
Yes, $600 is better spent on one or two things American made items that will be with you in a decade. Why? It is made better and it will still be “in.” Most importantly — if you spend $600 on anything, you will feel obligated to keep it in good condition.
Very, very few people can afford to spend $600 upfront on a piece of clothing–even if all the items currently in their closet might be worth $600.
Personally, if I spent $600 on anything, I’d be terrified to wear it. I need clothing that I can dance and eat in, clothing I can wear to lie on the grass and sit on the subway and walk on the slushy winter streets. I need clothing I can wear without the fear that if I sweat or spill something, I’ll be ruining a garment that cost almost an entire month’s rent.
There are also two major factors that Smith overlooks: that bodies change, and that clothing needs change.
Even if I could afford it, I would never spend $600 on a piece of clothing that might not fit me in a year or two. My body has changed before, and it could change again. Yes, it’s true that bodies generally try to stay within a set weight range, which is why long-term weight loss is nearly impossible. But there are so many things that can shift a body’s set range: dieting, aging, medication, illness, stress, pregnancy/childbirth…bodies are weird, and they have minds of their own.
For someone whose weight has remained stable for a decade or more, a $600 suit might be a great investment. But for the rest of us, it sounds like a terrible idea.
Not only do bodies change, but careers and life circumstances change, and those also affect what kind of clothing we need. In this age of job insecurity, very few people can stay in the same job or even the same industry long-term–and the clothing needs of a freelancer, teacher, stay-at-home parent, corporate worker, grad student, barista, and yoga teacher (etc.) are all very different. The same goes for moving to a different climate, or shifting to different social activities, especially if you socialize primarily through forms of movement like dancing or hiking.
So what’s the solution? Where is the middle ground between our current system of unethical, destructive fast fashion and Smith’s ideal in which everyone buys $600 shirts and imitates history book illustrations?
Thrift stores. Clothing swaps. Thrift shopping events. Anything that lets people get clothing cheaply when they want it–whether for a new job or just for the fun of experimenting–and get rid of items that no longer fit their body or lifestyle, without depending on the constant production of items.
Fewer working hours and more time off, so that people who are interested in making or altering their own clothes have the time and energy to do so.
And the elephant in the room: wages. I saw the following Michael Pollan quote floating around Facebook recently, and it applies just as well to clothes as to food:
If we are ever to produce food sustainably and justly, we will first have to pay people a living wage so that they can afford to buy it.
We can’t separate class, wages, and privilege from any discussion of sustainable fashion.
Nor can we ignore the many ways that fashion can work as a form of creative self-expression, visibility, and resistance.
I believe in working toward a fashion system that is just and sustainable, and makes room for fashion as a form of everyday art.