It’s the worst when your perfectly good rationalizations get popped like the over-inflated balloons they are.When I shelled out five bucks for an orange cotton skirt at a Brooklyn Industries sample sale, I told myself that I needed more skirts for the summer. Just a layer underneath that reason was the faith that I will manage my clothing supply properly. Inside the idea of “properly” is the belief that I shouldn’t own too much clothing and that I should be donating the excess to the less fortunate.
I grew up believing that having too much clothing is a problem because a) it means I might be shallow, b) it makes my room crowded and messy and c) it’s morally better to give away my clothing that I, in my selfish privilege, don’t even wear but keep around for kicks. The truth is, I loved shopping since I was a little kid. My room has been messy since I was a little kid. And my little sister was always a reliable repository for items I was only half willing to let go of.
But Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, just stuck a giant needle in my whole balloon. An excerpt of her book on Slate explains that we Americans donate so much clothing that one Salvation Army she visits in Brooklyn processes five tons of clothing. Every day. A tiny portion of that ends up in a thrift store. The rest gets shipped in gigundo squashed fabric bales to Africa, where guess what, it’s putting local textile makers out of business. And the more affluent African citizens become, and the more crap we send them, the less they want the dregs-of-the-barrel stuff we’re sending over there. Meaning they’re starting to want new H&M tops for $9.95 and our “donated” clothes might someday just end up in a landfill.
One of Juliet Schor’s most memorable ideas in Plenitude (more on her book and ideas in this post) is what she calls “the aestheticization of everyday life.” Everyday life means that in the fall, you need a sweater. In the aestheticized version, you need a cute new sweater in the new hot color, and a pashmina scarf, and Uggs. And as clothing gets cheaper and cheaper, we can choose to go out with the old, in with the new with little hesitation. This is hard on our budgets, the environment (forget landfills, where’s all this stuff coming from?), and our fellow global citizens.
An article on Apartment Therapy referring to Cline’s book gives some great tips and links for recycling, reducing, and reusing your old clothes. My goal, as I grow up (maybe) and evolve (at a glacially slow pace) is to wean myself off of cheap clothing. No more letting a great price tag excuse me from really thinking about whether I need the thing in the first place and how long it’ll last. (Caveat: There’s a nasty ideological run-in here. Reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, I’m not sure I like the subtle restrictiveness that nice clothing imposes on women. Don’t get it dirty! Can’t run in those shoes. Don’t sweat in it – it’s silk!)
When I lived in Spain, I was told that Spanish women have very small, coordinated wardrobes. And damn if those women didn’t always look amazing. Of course, H&M came to that city the same year. But I still picture myself in the distant, ideal future as a classy woman happily living with a ten-hanger closet, a small dresser, and the ability to peel an orange with a knife.