by Alfred Lewis
Tadaaa… Here are my 6 items of clothing. I decided on two shirts, one puffer jacket, one pair of jeans and a pair of pyjamas. I had some basic requirements in mind; I had to be warm, I had to be comfortable, and on occasion I needed to look passable if I went clubbing. Being the only male taking part in the fashion fast, I was immediately aware of the unique advantage I held. I could go clubbing in the same clothes that I did everything else in. Jeans and a t-shirt. Unlike everyone else in the fashion fast, there was no expectation of me to wear dresses, skirts, crop tops or any of the other options you might see outside the local kebab shop at 3am. So with a bit of extra leeway I opted for a pair of pyjamas I could lounge around in on the occasions I didn’t quite make it to my 9am lectures, plus a spare t-shirt for a bit of variation.
Three weeks in, and my experience of the 6 item challenge has been a mixed bag. In a certain sense there is a lot freedom in only having one set of clothes. I get to think less when I wake up in the morning. No rummaging through draws and cupboards, trying to find weather-appropriate clothing that I haven’t worn too recently. No checking the mirror to make sure I look passable as a fashion conscious uni student. It’s just wake up, shower, dress, eat and leave. Now I only have to decide how many times I’ll press snooze on my alarm, what breakfast to make, and whether or not to bother washing my hair. Paradoxically, freedom in this case comes from a lack of choice. And yet, as you might expect, in more obvious ways that lack of choice is constraining. To the point that I feel like I’ve become the standardised model of my appearance. Like the Ford Model T in the days of old, you can have any colour you like… as long as it’s black. Utility at the expense of creativity is now the reality of my clothing. How boring.
Whilst partaking in this challenge for Labour Behind the Label, a charity that campaigns for the rights of garment workers that face poor working conditions, I can’t help but draw some similarities between them and myself. I’m fully aware that it’s slightly ridiculous to compare myself to a wage labourer working up to 100 hours a week in a sweatshop. After all, we do live in different ‘worlds’, but bear with me. There is a certain similarity in putting the same clothes on every day for six weeks, as what must be experienced by the person who sewed the same seam in my t-shirt, and another thousand just like it every day. No involvement of thought or consciousness, just mechanical movements. Deprived of the right to think. Me, temporarily a slave to a self-set challenge. Compared to them, slaves to the circumstances of their class, caste, gender and economic standing. Here, I feel the need to use the word alienation. After all its true, I do feel alienated, but in a much more literal sense than that which Marx conceived. Being unable to dress for occasion is a social barrier I didn’t realise could exist. Before this challenge, I hadn’t understood how much of my life revolves around dressing up. Themed Wednesday night socials with my sports team now feel like a place I can’t quite fit in. The only one not wearing a stupid costume makes me feel like the stupid one.
Fortunately, the only actual repercussion of this social deviance is having a can of Carling poured down my throat whilst being held in a handstand by my teammates. But what if I was to wear my 6 items to a more serious social occasion. For example, on the day of this blog’s posting, Thursday the 28th of March, I’ll be at a funeral sitting with my family mourning the death of a loved one. And you could bet all the money you like, I’ll be wearing my best suit, freshly ironed, and my smartest shoes polished the night before. Our clothing is the face we choose to show the world. It carries with it social meaning far beyond just fashion and style. It doesn’t just show us who’s cool, or who’s on trend. It can be a demonstration of care and respect, of kinship within a group.
Alfred Lewis is a first-year student on the BA in Anthropology and International Development at the University of Sussex.