Assigning Value to Clothing
A couple of summers ago, my grandmother and I visited her childhood home in her village. Essentially our family's makeshift storage unit, the inside of the house was littered with objects from summers past. Items like baby cribs and old mattresses that probably should have been thrown away had their places in this house that was rarely visited and rarely looked after. We had gone to the house in search of a wooden chest in which my grandma remembered storing a dress my size. When we found the chest in the house we sifted through the clothes it contained and near the bottom, we found it. Well preserved, the material was stiff and strong, the creases in the skirt intact. It was green with yellow flowers and I liked the way the shoulders puffed out. As I tried on the dress, my grandma told me how this had been her dress when she was young. She told me that at that time she wore her shoes till she had worn out the soles until her toes would pop out of holes. How her mother would sew and mend her everyday clothes and how she had been taught to do the same. How the dress I was wearing had been her best dress from Macy’s on 59th street when she was my age and how she wore it every Sunday when she went to church.
I was happy she had saved it. The family always makes fun of her and her “house of junk”, calling her a hoarder but I am always thankful for the clothes, trinkets, and jewelry that she saved from when my mother and aunts were young.
But this dress was different from the other hand-me-downs. This dress had a rich history, a remnant of the past that had been preserved all these years. It was almost like an artifact from a different time, imploring me to look to the past. This dress was the article of clothing that made me realize how important it is to value our belongings and clothes and to hold on to things that make us happy, have a purpose, and have a history.
Consumer culture nowadays is drastically different than that of when my grandmother was young and was wearing this dress. We have switched from a “Sunday best” clothing mentality to a constant flux of new, cheap clothing in our closets. Our clothes are industrially produced in factories or sweatshops instead of being custom-made and mended by local seamstresses and businesses or even at home. While the average woman owned just nine outfits for a month in the 1930s, nowadays the average is 30, one for every day of the month. Instead of the usual 2 seasonal lines for luxury fashion brands, fast fashion counterparts are releasing up to 52 lines in a single year. That's a lot of clothes. And these clothes are not meant to last, they are meant to be worn a few times and thrown away, sitting in landfills to make space in our closets for new trends and styles that we are seeing all over social media. In the Netherlands, roughly 71 percent of clothes in our closet go unused. In the last 15 years alone, the average number of times a garment is worn before it stops being worn has decreased by 36%.
We are being lured into this cycle, with huge sale signs, popup emails, influencers on our social media pages, what we see worn around us by our friends and family, easy online browsing, and free shipping. Instead of wearing what we are comfortable in and expressing ourselves, a lot of us are hopping from trend to trend. This results in a throwaway fashion model, where our clothes become less personal, less important, and easily replaceable.
However, not only are our clothes losing meaning and history, but this drastic growth in consumerism in the fashion industry is killing our planet. Many of us may look to blame big oil companies for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, and while that may be true, the truth is that each and every one of us can make a difference in our carbon footprints, starting with the way that we dress. When we are choosing what to wear in the mornings, we are thinking of which items would look the best together, which items will make a good impression to those who see us that day. But we aren't thinking of what went into making the clothes and where they are going to end up when we grow bored of them or outgrow them. For example, the process of just making a new pair of jeans emits roughly the same amount of greenhouse gasses as driving the average car for more than 80 miles.
I believe that the way to be more sustainable with our fashion choices revolves around lowering our consumption. There are two parts to this idea of buying less clothing. The first is the development of one’s personal style. Instead of stockpiling our closets with clothes with the latest trends on our Instagram pages, we should have clothes that we genuinely like, feel comfortable with, and want to express who we are with. Marie Kondo, the author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” and developer of the Kon Mari method of tidying, has a specific outlook on the clothes and objects people surround themselves with. While helping to declutter lives, Marie encourages her clients to look at their possessions and decide whether or not to keep them, asking themselves “Does this spark joy?”. I think this quote applies perfectly to not only choosing which items or clothes to keep but also buying. If we make purchases that we are very happy with we are more likely to actually make use of them. Even if these clothes are more expensive than affordable and easily accessible clothes from fast fashion brands, they will last much longer than their cheaply made counterparts that you would just have to replace in a couple of weeks or months. If we own better quality clothes that make us happy when we wear them, we would not only be spending less money in the long run but it would be more sustainable for our planet. The fewer clothes we own, the less we are contributing to the cycle that deforests, depletes resources, releases greenhouse gasses into our air, and leaves garments unable to decompose in landfills around the world. 90 percent of the clothes you donate to charitable institutions are being sold to textile recycling firms and then being sold again for profit, sometimes the textiles are turned into cleaning cloths for industrial purposes, and other times incinerated. So, next time you are at the store or shopping online, I urge you to look at the item you are planning to buy and ask yourself “Does this spark joy for me?” “Can I see myself wearing this often, maybe for a couple of years?” and “Do I genuinely like the item or is it just on sale?”.
The second part of my plan revolves around the idea of buying things that would last us and that we would like to last us for generations. When purchasing clothing, a few things would come into play to make a garment viable for this scenario, or “heirloom worthy”. The garment would need to be made of quality materials and could be mended when needed to maximize use. In some cases, it could be specifically tailored for the wearer or a more expensive item that is worth holding on to. This could be the solution to returning to “slow fashion”, meaning more clothing of quality and sustainable pieces that can be versatile. Just like my grandmother was able to pass clothing on to me, the clothes that I purchase should be able to last just as long so I can pass them along to others, if not a couple of years just for myself. When we are shopping, we should be thinking of the life span of the objects we buy and if we would be willing to care for them and hold onto them for an extended period of time. Questions like “Is this something that is going to last me?” while checking material labels and “Do I like this enough to wear and hold onto it for years?” should be questions we are asking ourselves when we are consuming. Being thoughtful and careful of what we are purchasing helps us look towards the future of our lives, but also to the future of our planet and why it is so important to stop mindlessly filling our shopping carts without worrying about the environmental effects and the value we are losing in our clothing choices.
There are many ways we can make sustainable choices in our closets to lessen our environmental impacts. For people who really enjoy keeping up with the trends, options like renting clothing and purchasing sustainably made clothing are great options. Purchasing second-hand clothing and learning to mend and repurpose older clothes are also both affordable options for shopping sustainably. Thrifting is cheap, more sustainable, and you often find better quality items for a cheaper price. In the Netherlands, there are many stores called “Kringloop” with affordable second hand options, and apps like “Vinted” allow you to shop secondhand from your own home.
However, when buying anything from a thrift store or a socially conscious brand, we must still remember to try to cultivate our own styles and value our clothing. Buying clothes that spark joy for you and are “heirloom worthy” can be ways to make our wardrobes more meaningful, less cluttered, more versatile, and more environmentally friendly all while maintaining the ability to express oneself fully through our clothes. So, buy less. Buy better quality. Buy things that spark joy within you. And wear often and forever.