Since I’ve been reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma* (it’s a fabulous book – I can’t recommend it enough, btw!) I’ve been thinking a lot about the source for the many components of our modern lifestyles. Food, of course. But Fashion, too.
I feel that in the past couple years there has been a perceptible shift in consumer attitudes, marked by a more of us questioning the where and how a garment came to be. According to a November 2010 survey conducted by American Express, 54% of Americans say they try to support their local economy when making purchasing decisions, and over a third (38%) of respondents equate being good and ethical to quality of life – and making “good” and “ethical” buying decisions plays into that. People also desire more customization ability in their products, and 36% expect brands to be ethical. Hence the success of Etsy (gross sales went from $166,000 in 2005 to over $200 million in 2010), the rise of organic and eco-friendly fashion, the proliferation of “Made in the USA” labels, the formation of groups such as United Students Against Sweatshops and proposal of legislation such as the “Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act,” [defeated in committee], the “Buy Local” movement, and the growing interest in doing-it-yourself, or DIY.
And yet what seems to be hardwired into our brains is the quest for new, shiny, and current. As a species we tend to gravitate towards the newest inventions, the leap forward in technology, anything that we haven’t seen before will hold our interest singularly and collectively. That is, until the next new, shiny thing appears. And so it is with fashion and it’s ever-changing trends.
Fashionista: A person who creates or promotes high fashion, i.e. a fashion designer or fashion editor; A person who dresses according to the trends of fashion, or one who closely follows those trends.
(Nothing to do with that 2003 Australian porno, BTW) My take on this is that it’s almost innate for us to always desire the next, best thing. Excess consumerism and abuse of resources, we’ve all agreed, is not the way to go. However, I feel that it’s okay to want to follow these trends and appear to have the next, best thing. You just don’t always need to buy it. (And you can buck this tendency and dress “classic” or march to the beat of our own drummer, or however you choose to dress. But tell me: haven’t you felt that siren call of those new platform shoes, that gemstone-encrusted watch, that It-bag at least once in your life? And if you’ve decided that yes, you want it enough to have it…well, that brings us to The Fashionista’s Dilemma.
So what is The Fashionista’s Dilemma? Akin to that of the omnivore’s, you have to determine how much you are willing to be ignorant of the moral, economic, ecological, and societal impact of your choices when you choose to be In Fashion.
When it comes to the things that we choose to wear on our bodies and adorn ourselves with, we really only have 3 choices:
1) Buy or get it new (off-the-rack, from a sample sale, from the craftsperson who made it, have it tailor-made for you)
2) Buy or get it used (from a vintage clothing store, charity shop, thrift store, clothing swap, your friend’s closet)
3) Make it (from what you already have in your closet, with raw materials you have on hand or purchase, DIY or customize something bought off-the-rack)
With each choice comes different (and great!) responsibility. It feels that only in the last 10 years or so many consumers are truly beginning to understand that responsibility each time they want something new.
So what do you choose to clothe yourself with, and where does it come from? Do you spend a prodigious amount in creating (or procuring) the textiles yourself, sewing the item from scratch?
Or do you DIY – i.e., take something that already exists, invest minimal time and minimal materials in order to satisfy your need for the latest and greatest, without buying new? Do you bend the rules and work around it so that you can still be on-trend, just not broke while doing it?
Do you buy used and give a home to something that has been pre-loved? Do you help eliminate waste and extend the life cycle of the garment? Perhaps find a one-of-a-kind treasure in the bargain?
Or do you buy new – and support an emerging designer or local craftsperson? Or buy from a known brand, buy luxury, buy from a low-end push manufacturer? (i.e., one that manufactures a large number of multiples of the same garment, stuffs the stores with products, and then tries to market the styles after-the-fact – like H&M or Forever 21, for example) Do you support the need to harvest more cotton, use more pesticides, weave more textiles, tan more leather, hire more workers, expand factory size, ship more quantities of goods across the ocean, stuff the stores with more product, spend more money in advertising to convince more people they want the product? Or do you choose to shop ethically for clothing manufactured with little waste or utilizing eco-friendly textiles?
With every purchase (or non-purchase), you are using your money to send a message. I believe that as of late, many people are sending the message that they do not buy into the system anymore. They want to know that the pieces they clothe themselves with are made locally, fairly, ethically, with minimal environmental impact, by well-paid, well-treated people.
I’m sure none of us can truly create everything we wear from scratch (unless you have a huge amount of time and certain resources at your disposal). And I think, just as with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, we all have to find our own mix of those 3 procurement processes when it comes to having the next, best thing.
I’m not saying everyone should have everything. Obviously a modicum of self-restraint and wisdom is necessary when evaluating whether you should get something. But what I am saying is you do not truly have to deny yourself something because you can’t afford it, or max out your card to get the look. If you want and feel that want is justified enough for you to have it, then you don’t have to spend the money on the expensive, new, designer version. You can 1) Shop smart (with sales, coupons, rebates, buying from craftspeople or tailors); 2) Shop used (thrift stores, clothing swaps, Ebay); or 3) Make it (find something similar and affordable and customize it, or make it from scratch to simply enjoy the process).
My F.A.P. (or Fashion Acquisition Philosophy – just something I made up;-) for myself is probably split as percentages as 10/25/65 (Buy New/Buy Used/DIY); with 10% being items that I buy and wear as is, 25% being items that I buy or swap used and wear as is; and 65% of new acquisitions that I D.I.Y. or make from scratch. And that’s how I allocate my clothing budget – since yes, I do love to shop, but I also like to exercise my creativity with how little can I spend and how well can I customize something so that it looks like it cost a fortune and yet is totally wearable and enjoyable.
So what is your personal F.A.P? Have you felt yourself get more involved with such questions of origin and how something was manufactured in recent years? Have you seen your spending change as a result of being more aware of the impact of your choices? Has your consumption level gone up once you began customizing your fashion – but do you value and enjoy your clothing creations much more?
I’d love to know!
*Interestingly, I noticed that in the latest issue of Marie Claire (Feb, 2011), another writer has drawn on the ideas present in The Ominivore’s Dilemma as being applicable to our consumption habits of fashion in the article “The Fashionista’s Dilemma.” (check out her personal blog ClosetTour here if you are interested) It’s a pretty apt comparison, one that’s been rolling around in my head for awhile, so I wasn’t surprised to see that other people were struck with the similarities our modern industrial food chain has to our modern industrial clothing. However, I only received my magazine two days ago, and this post was pretty much done by that time…I felt my title was pretty apt, and so didn’t chose to change it even though I’m aware that the Marie Claire article uses the same title. Just to explain if anyone’s confused!)