The power of clothing
Earlier this week I found myself in a crowded carriage on the Central line during rush hour. As we all shuffled around each other I looked down at my feet to make sure I carefully placed them on the ground instead of anyone else’s feet. That’s when it first struck me, none of us were wearing the same shoes. I looked up and around and saw the pattern repeating from coats to hats, and leggings to scarves we were all wearing something different.
I’m a train with more than 500 people and no one is dressed the same.
Clothes are a form of personal expression and individualism, but at what cost does this diversity come?
I grew up in a culture where the clothes and accessories you wore dictated your social status. However that social status only lasted until the next costume change, and god help you if you ever repeated the same outfit combination twice. Although in Brazil the culture very much has remained the same for at least the 26 years I have been around, I remember finding out early on that clothing has the power to do more than cover our naked bodies. When I was bullied as a child at school because I never had the latest trending sneakers or GAP hoodies, I felt isolated and sad I couldn’t belong to the group of girls that seemed cool simply because they wore international brands that couldn’t be found back at home nor that were affordable to my family.
Later, when I left home at 16 to work as a model in Asia, my views of how to dress myself made me question where I fitted in even more so. I certainly did not know as much about fashion as the other girls that had been working in the industry and I again felt out of place. Like, truly. I did not belong. I was just a girl in this sea of super stylish supermodels (or so I thought).
Now thinking back to why I felt “misplaced” several times in my life, and why I missed out on many occasions, the only common denominator had been that I simply felt like I did not have the right clothes or they didn’t quite fit in.
Clothes, as you may already know, can make us feel confident, strong, sexy and even total badass. They bring out the romantic in us, or the dance floor ninja. They evoke the coziness of a wet and wintery Sunday afternoon or the powerful working boss women we are as we stride into the office the next day. They take us from girl on the train to Pinterest bride and have the power to make us feel like we own the world. To take us from unseen to seen and to create this sense of magic and wonder. The unbounded possibilities to invent and reinvent yourself in an endless number of ways. Of “fitting in”.
The way clothing affects us is so interesting it even has a scientific name: “enclothed cognition”. This is the idea that clothes impact the way we think and that the clothes we wear or see others wearing can change our thoughts and behavioural patterns.
But all this comes at a cost and it is at this point that I pause and ask myself if the power that comes with clothes and trends are worth us paying the price. Can we justify buying more and more each year just because of how it makes us feel?
I drew a hard line on my shopping expenditure when I moved to London after almost 3 years in Asia trying to feel anything like a model - clothes had dictated who I was or wasn’t for longer than I could think and as I grew conscious of the some of the truths that underpin the fast fashion industry and how they affect more than our mood, I realised clothes could make me feel a certain way, but I did not need them to tell me who I was.
After a little digging around, I found out that in the UK, we spend an average of around £1000 every single year just to have the latest fashion trends. We live in a society where somehow the way I grew up in Brazil seems to apply in many cases: we are buying, more than ever, just to fit in these virtual groups of people and that (apparently) means wearing latest trends and always new clothes. And so to fit in, the clothes from the past seasons aren’t good enough and we need more and we need new. No fixing, up cycling or mending the old, what we want is the hit of dopamine when the credit card gets approved and the package arrives in our houses with the promise of how beautiful it will make us feel when we wear it coming to realisation.
But it comes at a cost.
A cost that is greater than what we can afford in the world of today. It fills our land with “out of season” garments that are just not good enough to sell or that have been given away and it destroys what we (should) hold (the) dear(est). Our planet, our home.
Wanting to fit in isn’t the problem. The problem is in how we do so. More often than not, we evaluate our needs and wants based on what media tells us and as what they always seem to say is that we are not quite there yet and that we need more. And so, we turn to the high street.
We live in an era of over consumption epitomised, in this context by our hunger for fast fashion. Fast fashion (as the concept describes itself) aims to supply “new garments to consumers in as little as 15 days”. To have always “fresh, new clothing” and “invent new trends”. New, new, new.
The problems with fast fashion are many. To deliver fast fashion, many (if not all) high street brands will cut corners to create a supply chain that costs very little in third world countries allowing them to keep production costs low and maximise profits on a high volume inventory turnover model and although you may be left thinking that constantly being on trend for a cheaper price is just ideal, the cost of the things we buy from fast fashion brands do not reflect the real human and environmental cost of producing these garments.
Take a $15 t-shirt for example. It is estimated that material, labour and design cost about $3.15 total. So without getting into the argument regarding fair wages and safe working conditions for employees (which of itself is worthy of discussion) and focusing purely on the sustainability side of it - what corners would have been cut to afford resources at such a low price?
But why in a world where sustainability is so present and loudly spoken about we still turn to the high street? Again, the ability of media, targeted marketing and advertising campaigns, social media and pop-culture all play a part in dictating our purchasing behaviour. We, as consumers, need a shift in our mindset and attitudes so that we are in making purchasing decisions also awake to the cost of the garment beyond the numbers on the price tag. After all, sourcing the right raw materials, at fair prices, with registered, insured workers that will produce a garment ethically, costs more. Much more.
The good news is that each of us has the power to do something about this. Each time we buy something (or indeed choose to not buy something) we as consumers get to vote on and decide what sort of fashion industry we want to support. Implicit in making this change is realising that this power we have given to clothes to dictate our social status and how we feel about ourselves needs to be taken back. But if that is too big a step to start with perhaps we can decide that if clothes are to have any power over how we feel, it should be because we are proud that the clothes we are wearing are responsibly and fairly sourced and aren’t costing us the planet.
Today I believe my 16 year old version of myself would be proud. Buying only when I must (and rarely at that), prolonging the lifecycle of my already owned clothes, swapping, borrowing, renting and supporting sustainable businesses, I no longer feel I need clothes to make me feel who I already am.
I am now, more than ever, in peace with who this woman is and decided that in a world where I can transform myself into anything, I would rather reinvent this version of myself with clothes that tell stories for me.