I believe in fashion.

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.

This is 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.

Outfits from junior year of high school (left and center) and sophomore year of college (right). I still love rainbow knee socks, mary janes, and the combination of black and pink – some things never change!

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.

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13 thoughts on “I believe in fashion.

  1. This is a really interesting piece, Laura. I’ve had similar reactions to fashion “rules” and books like Lucky’s Fashion Bible. I feel like such fashion “bibles” are promoting classic, timeless looks, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, the fact that they’re referred to as bibles/guides/handbooks/etc. suggests that they should be the accepted doctrine on fashion. When I was first entering the teaching program in college, I referenced my Lucky bible for tips on how to build my closet. I wanted a classic, timeless look so I’d appear professional and polished. I wanted to be taken seriously, as an adult. And I feel like such guidebooks are very helpful to women who want a basic understanding of fashion, fit tips, and style guides (in other words, for woman who want a classic, timeless look.) But not all women want that, nor should women have to want that.

    I understand that a tulle skirt isn’t practical, isn’t professional, isn’t polished. But that’s not necessarily what I want to say about myself when I wear one. I too believe that fashion should be fun and a form of self-expression, and that’s where fashion bibles that preach timeless, classic dressing can be problematic. They’re promoting a very narrow set of fashion rules, and they don’t take into account other ways of dressing and the reasoning behind it. I’d like to see more fashion guides about fun dressing, playful dressing, party dressing, etc. Because, like you, I agree that fashion can be about visibility, and fashion guides that present a wider range of styles and tastes can promote understanding and acceptance.

    You definitely got me thinking and reflecting this morning! Thanks. 🙂

    Liz

    • You’re welcome, and thanks for adding your thoughts! You’ve pointed to a distinction that I think is really important: that classic, timeless dressing has its place, and guides to it can be useful, but it’s not the only way to do style.

      I would love to write a fashion guide about fun dressing, playful dressing, and party dressing! 😀

  2. Food for thought.

    Personally, I’m a believer in the timeless fashion guidebook, because I am a proud member of La Culte de Chanel. It’s worth noting that Chanel herself revolutionized fashion. She invented the little black dress, the practical purse on a chain, pants for women, reasonable hats for women as opposed to those giant ruffly poofs Victorians used to wear, the use of jersey in regular clothes and not just men’s underwear, the modern women’s suit, and the notion that luxury should be comfortable. She is the reason that women no longer wear corsets and bustles. And a lot of the guidebooks are basically just repackaging her vision. She invented modern fashion and every day we all wear SOMETHING that can be traced back to her. That classless timeless look was, at one time, revolutionary – and super feminist.

    And her influence is seen in everything from the $3000 pieces that the house of Chanel is currently putting out under Lagerfeld to that LBD you got at Target, so this isn’t a classist thing. In fact, her attitude was that following certain principles made everyone look expensive and high class. That was a big motivation behind her clean lines, simplicity, boyishness and use of lots of black and white. These things made people look like they were dressed expensively even when they weren’t. It evened the playing field. She made fashion more accessible. So when you follow these guide books you’re taking part in a proud tradition. I think of them as spreading the gospel. I don’t think the expectation is that everyone will follow every rule all the time. I think it’s more like spreading a fashion foundation and then letting people pick and choose what rules they want to follow. Kind of like knowing that you’re not supposed to start a sentence with a conjunction. We still do it all the time, but when we do we do it with purpose rather than out of ignorance.

    ___
    Also, another note, you mentioned that that thigh-rubbing thing is a plus size issue. It’s not, I’m a size 14 and it happens to me all the time, and happened to me when I was a 12, and my friends who wear smaller sizes say it also happens to them, even really small sizes. This is a women’s fashion issue. Because our clothing is all bespangled in ways that men’s clothing isn’t they use cheaper fabrics to make up the difference in price point (aka, a $50 men’s shirt will be made with nicer materials than a $50 woman’s shirt). Plus our clothing fits tighter and creates friction. Women also just tend to have more fat on their inner thighs than men (maybe this is the real reason women didn’t wear pants for so long!) and the fashion industry has yet to compensate because there’s no incentive. If we wear out our pants we have to buy more. Men, on the other hand, have an expectation that their clothing will last a certain amount of time and (generally) prioritize quality over aesthetics because of how society (and the fashion industry itself) has taught the genders to view fashion differently. It’s pure gender discrimination.

    So far I’ve had the best luck with Lucky Jeans. It still happens, but it happens less quickly than with other brands I’ve bought because they use nicer denim. They start at $99 a pair but when you consider that they last 5 times longer than a GAP pair that costs $70 it’s clearly the cheaper option, though this gets back to the issue of not being able to afford to spend that much at once even when you recognize that long term it will save more money.

    • It’s worth noting that Chanel herself revolutionized fashion. . . . She invented modern fashion and every day we all wear SOMETHING that can be traced back to her. That classless timeless look was, at one time, revolutionary – and super feminist.

      Wow, really? I had no idea. Do you have any recommendations for where I can read more about this?

      • For starters I would just google around for Chanel quotes. She’s known for saying things like, “Fashion fades. Only style stays the same.” That’s basically the entire philosophy of the timeless, classic look in a nutshell. She also said, “A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future” – basically referring to the fact that people associate a scent with a woman, and her scent lingers after her, making her memorable. “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” “Elegance does not consist in putting on a new dress.” “A fashion that does not reach the streets is not a fashion.”

        After that I’d go to Amazon and look for bios.

        • I so agree with everything she’s saiyng, especially the part about learning to dress for yourself as you get older. I’m trying to speed up that part of my ‘aging process’ and wear the things I want to wear staring now, even though I’m still at a pretty impressionable age. I figure that if I do that, then by the time I’m older I’ll already have a kick ass style identity like the ladies on this blog.

    • Thanks for pointing out the feminist and revolutionary aspects of Coco Chanel’s contribution to fashion–that’s really interesting! I’m grateful to her for inventing the use of jersey in women’s clothing (jersey is the BEST) and ending the reign of the corset.

      In fact, her attitude was that following certain principles made everyone look expensive and high class. That was a big motivation behind her clean lines, simplicity, boyishness and use of lots of black and white. These things made people look like they were dressed expensively even when they weren’t.

      To me, the very concept that everyone should try to look expensive/high class is classist. It erases the styles that poor and working class people have developed, and it posits wealthiness as something that everyone should imitate.

      I get what you’re saying about following Chanel’s fashion guidebook as a proud tradition, and that’s cool! I am all for people using classic guidebooks, or anything else, as style inspiration–I just had a problem with the author of the original piece saying that only 5% of people are allowed to experiment with fashion and the other 95% should follow classic, timeless style.

      Also, that’s true that chub rub happens to women of all sizes! I should have made that more clear in my post. I think it’s especially a problem for plus size women, but it’s definitely not exclusive to us. (I have also worn a size 12 and 14 in the past, and still had thighs that rubbed together!) And I totally agree about the gender discrimination in the quality of clothing.

      Thanks for the tip about Lucky jeans! I actually don’t wear jeans anymore, or any pants other than yoga pants/leggings, but that’s good to know so I can recommend them to other people.

  3. 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-well said Laura

  4. Thanks for this! I have never been interested in fashion – I just didn’t “get” it. A few years ago, I started to get it from the blog Beauty Tips for Ministers (what can I say, I’m a church nerd. Plus, that tagline.), because of how she presented fashion as integrally related to, basically, performing your vocation in the world: particularly for ministers but the concept is extensible. Now you’ve given me more ways to get it: fashion as art, as self-exploration, as resistance, as claiming and occupying space in the world. Cool!

  5. I love this! My wardrobe is pretty wild- a mashup of fairy tale, retro, and classic pieces with tons of black, plaid, and velvet- and I get a lot of joy and take a lot of pride in putting together outfits every day. I can get away with this because I’m in academia, but despite being fairly out of the box, I think I look very put together and professional (it’s amazing what you can get away with as long as a blazer goes on top!) I also keep everything forever or give things that don’t quite fit to friends. Like you said, it’s very much about accessible art and self-expression 🙂

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