For years, I got almost all of my clothes through thrift shops and swaps, which encouraged me to dress like a bit of a lunatic. If you want to dress like a perfectly unremarkable clone, it's not a simple task in the randomness and magic that is the secondary market for clothes. Charity shops in wealthy areas can conjure up Alexander McQueen silk trousers for less than a pair of jeans and solid silver jewelry hiding under nothing more than a thin layer of tarnish. The serendipity of discovery meets the challenge of repurposing and re-inhabiting the excess and extraordinary.
(Let's not forget, this is really fun. I assume you've heard this song by now?)
I'm thinking about all of this because of an excellent segment on Fresh Air, in which Terry Gross interviewed Elizabeth Cline, the author of Overdressed. This conversation reminded me of how little I used to buy new, and how much delight I've had searching through the goodies of the world in surprising places like Buffalo Exchange, consignment stores, vintage fairs, Etsy and Ebay holes. Even with a guided search through the seemingly infinite offerings online, it's easier to find what you're looking for if you're a bit flexible. And it's always easier to pull it off if you've cultivated your own voice.
One has to learn how to dress. It's a mode of expression, done with things. Things are made. Garments have a life of their own, but they are a product of human effort, and worthy of respect. They say something, not only about the wearer but about the world we live in and the pathways of goods and trade that whirl around us and shape our world through agriculture, labor, manufacture, the creation of value...
The new great things to find in a vintage store tomorrow are being bought today. These are the garments that will bring history forward into new contexts, reconnect people to the daily lives of their parents or grandparents, and remind us that the past is always with us. However, they are in a vast sea of things being made in mind boggling amounts, a mighty gyre that is spinning to fathomless depths even as we casually wave to friends over sales racks. We can talk about feeling guilty, or sad, or we can think more deeply about how we connect to the world around us and people nowhere near us.
Planet Money's t-shirt project is finally getting some legs under it. People are talking about Bangladesh, how people end up crushed to death under collapsed buildings in the midst of working to change their economic prospects. This phase of development and change has happened in so many countries, including the USA, Britain, and countless other places. Eventually, most of us opt to outsource work that is still done with hands, and thus expensive, or tedious, or dangerous--or all of the above.
The answers are not just, "Buy American!" "Boycott China!" "Buy organic!" or anything as narrow and simplistic as those commands. Big picture trends are knit together out of everyday patterns, impelled by our lack of awareness about impulses and consequences. Trade is not inherently poisonous, but deliberate ignorance usually is.
Vegan leather is often PVC, which is horrendous for the environment. Silk biodegrades and is quasi-magical in its properties, but its creation nearly always involves the torture (to death) of worms. Quality cotton is grown around the world, but debating its price requires a confrontation with farm subsidies and livelihoods. Leather comes from animals, but mostly from creatures we slaughter to feed our meat habit. The contradictions and tensions are endless, and solutions are generally not simple.
Navigating this terrain is a careful balancing act, always in motion. We have to commit to questioning what we encounter and why, and what we can support--or not--and changes that we are shaped by as well as shaping. We can't see the whole picture at once, which is no surprise when the subject at hand involves vast companies, global networks of trade and a retail pace that intensifies in its momentum daily.
Responsible consumer behavior is a matter of starting where we are, and deciding to engage with our choices rather than make them blindly. Ask why something is so cheap. Analyze where it's come from. Think about where that thing is going to live, after you've thought about its life with you.
Darning a sock shouldn't be a lost art. That simple dance with needle and thread can be the first step toward appreciating the fine work someone's two hands put into the beautiful things that envelop us in the human world.