by Amelia Yates
Clothing is our social skin, a strategic resource for the unmaking and remaking of identities and groups. Our American and European skins are crafted by the exploited hands of brilliant seamstresses, their art commodified and degraded by the circumstances of their labour. Fast fashion is a symptom of our sick society, one that neurotically recreates power distinctions based on race, gender and class through our material relations. Transforming how we approach the clothes we wear simultaneously reworks dominant discourses surrounding what we are as a society. This is what I have learnt from wearing six items of clothing for the last two weeks.
When I began this process I knew little about conditions in garment factories but thought I had my own behaviours as a consumer dialled down. Denial: the primary roadblock to recovery. Our Western attitudes toward consumption are founded on the delusion of personal betterment through acquisition; a dislocation between our circumstances and the image we are trying to project. The great psychological experiment of advertising initiated me from birth into “the religion of sensuous appetites” (Marx 1982, 22), a carefully designed illusion that my desires could be gratified by inanimate objects became imprinted in my mind. Although I buy all of my clothes second hand, I collect “rare” finds like a magpie and quickly become dissatisfied when they don’t fulfil my desire for self-expression. Right now, in the corner of my room, I have a pile of around twenty items of clothing that I want to re-sell. Although I don’t engage with fast fashion directly and believe myself to shop “ethically”, I still reflect our culture of waste and profit-driven motives in my own behaviours as a consumer.
It didn’t take me long to choose the clothes I would wear for this challenge. In a rush at the time, I threw my highest quality t-shirts and trousers into a pile. There were three requirements for the clothes I chose: they had to be comfortable, capable and wearable during my daily cycle to university. I remember being disappointed by the blandness of my pile, so I threw in a pair of orange flares and a striped jumper. The orange flares were too big for me, but I didn’t think about that – I needed colour. Even though I’d often had doubts about the striped jumper, thinking that it looked like a powerpoint slide with a strange gradient, I held some love for it. The craving for colour came from a deep-seated desire for self-expression. I hoped that my favourite pair of black cargo pants, that fit me perfectly and adapt flexibly (even gracefully) to my daily needs, would keep me sane. A couple of days later I realised that half of the clothes I had chosen for the challenge were given to me as gifts; my jumper with a strange colour gradient transformed from a practical tool for generating warmth into a physical manifestation of my connection to another human being.
I developed some anxieties about cleanliness and foul odours, largely influenced by the concerns of those who would question me about the challenge. I definitely forget to wear deodorant sometimes and sweat a lot during my daily commute. How would I navigate the fact that my body and it’s natural processes might become offensive to the people around me? Even though wearing fewer items of clothing didn’t have any influence over my personal hygiene routines, this was something of which I became hyper-aware. Sweat and body odour came to represent both power and danger, pollutants that illuminate our society’s expression of order and control through the realm of hygiene (Douglas). A few days later, I stop using a machine and instead use my hands to wash my clothes – it feels good, like a ritual of thanks to the material for protecting me from the elements. Somehow, I feel closer to the people who made them for me.
Gender crisis came towards the end of the first week. Waking up in the morning, my hand would reach for a dress or a skirt and I would fantasise about wearing long, ethereal gowns. I wanted to communicate the notion of femininity that had been ascribed to my body from birth. I resented myself for choosing only trousers to wear, and even the fact that I cycled every day. Even though I don’t wear dresses regularly, when the choice to perform femininity was taken away from me I felt lost and confused. One item from my wardrobe recurred in my fantasies – a long brown skirt that had been converted from a pair of trousers, by someone else’s hands. I appreciated its uniqueness and felt that it perfectly communicated my own relationship to gender. I think about becoming more rooted in my body, instead of allowing my clothes to ensnare me in one state of being. I realise I have forgotten that my body is a vessel for life, a tool for expression and not an object to be observed, experienced and judged.
I binge-shop at the end of week two – relapse. The theme of the weekend is self-care. I purchase tools for my bike, a haircut and some “natural” make-up from Boots. I become preoccupied with the psychology of choice and our illusions of freedom. At Halfords there are five different types of bike cleaner, all in the same sized bottle – the only difference between them is their colour, branding and the fact that one of them is “eco-friendly” and almost double the price of the rest. After several days of freedom from decision-making in the realm of dress, I am faced with an alarming spectrum of choices based on seemingly futile contradictions. I enter a state of total confusion and seek advice from the last thing I can trust amidst this rainbow of illusions: another human being. A retail clerk woos me with his expertise and advises me to purchase a discounted pack of three bike-related fluids. Without a second thought, I follow his recommendation. When I leave the shop I realise that two of the bottles in the pack contain the same product, just in different shaped containers. I can’t help wondering whether his advice was commissioned.
Dress has become a site and process of meaning-making in modern civilisation. This challenge has made me think more acutely about how a shift away from our codependent relationship with consumption is required for us to dissolve operations of power, create new meanings and rupture the grip of the past over our capacity to act in the present.
**Read about the third week of our fashion fast here.**
Amelia Yates is a first-year student pursuing a BA in Anthropology and International Development at the University of Sussex.