Last week, The Times reported that Britons binned £12.5 billion worth of clothes during 2017, with 300,000 tonnes of textiles ending up in landfill. This environmental impact was a major motivation for the challenge I set myself last year – don’t buy any clothes for the entirety of 2017.
I had a second motivation for taking on this challenge: a guilty conscience over having bought things that I neither needed or particularly liked, which then became part of an unnecessarily large wardrobe. According to a study by M&S, UK adults only wear 44% of the clothing they own and 3.6 billion clothes lie unworn in the nation’s wardrobes. Maybe if I could survive a year-long ban, this would teach me the discipline to only buy what I need in future.
I’m no follower of fashion or shopaholic, so I thought keeping to this resolution, especially after publicly declaring my intentions on social media, would be fairly easy. It turned out to be harder than I thought but I did learn some interesting lessons along the way about the role that clothing plays in our lives.
The most notable lesson was the near impossibility of undertaking the challenge whilst still being regarded as a ‘normal’, respectable professional. Lingering looks of concern and raised eyebrows quickly made it clear that I was not meeting the ‘approved standard’ that our social norms dictate. It turns out that it’s simply not acceptable to have holes in your clothing (unless they’re in the places that fashion dictates) and that visible repairs indicate some sort of personal crisis.
Perhaps if I had started the year with a pristine set of clothes, rather than my already weathered set, I might have avoided the steely stares. But part of my resistance to this was the thought that clothes should last. Unfortunately, the modern clothing industry does not share these ideals. ‘Fast fashion’ means that catwalk designs can be quickly reproduced at affordable prices in high street stores. But as a result, durability falls down the list of priorities.
A second lesson I took away from the experience was that playing the fashion game is not something you can simply opt out of, however much you want to.
The feminist journalist Caitlin Moran has argued that “women are judged on what they wear in a way men would find incomprehensible”. Wearing the ‘wrong’ clothes can have devastating consequences: being judged a ‘bad mum’, not being offered a job, or even having your rape case dismissed. According to Moran, when women spend a long time in the morning working out what to wear, “what we’re trying to do is work out if everyone that day will ‘understand’ what we’re wearing; if we’re ‘saying’ the right thing, in a very nuanced conversation”.
That’s not true for me, I thought. When I get dressed in the morning, I’m not trying to think about what message I want to communicate. I’m just dressing comfortably for the day ahead. My whole exercise of giving up buying clothes proves that I’m not playing the game that Moran describes.
But I’ve come to realise that this game is compulsory. I cannot remain silent in the conversation that happens when clothed humans meet. Even if I do not want to communicate anything, the fact is that I am still communicating a meaning. Perhaps by sitting in a meeting with a pair of badly darned tights visible underneath an over-sized skirt that I haven’t worn in years, I’m saying ‘I don’t really care about being here’.
At first I thought that this was an issue that should particularly concern me as a feminist – another example of unjust structural norms, resulting in a situation where women are held to different standards from men. There’s definitely something in this – women are often subject to greater censure for making ‘bad’ clothing decisions. But it’s also not an exclusively female problem. Karl Marx, on pawning his gentleman’s overcoat, found that he was no longer allowed into the reading rooms of the British Library. Go to a job interview in the ‘wrong shirt’ and you might not get your dream job.
So, trying to not care about clothes isn’t just about attempting to defy an entrenched gender norm. We might even go as far as saying it’s trying to deny an intrinsic part of our humanity. Part of what we do as humans is continuously communicate meanings to others, and a key way we do this is through the accoutrements that adorn our bodies. The term ‘naturist’ implies that it is natural to be naked. In contrast, wearing clothes, and sewing these with symbolic meanings, is about as natural a thing as we could do.
In fact, from nearly its earliest origins around 170,000 years ago, clothing has meant more to us than just being a source of protection from heat and cold. Indeed, we might even say it is one of the things that make us distinctively human. Yes, caterpillars spin silk and construct cocoons in which they pupate. Assassin bugs adorn themselves with the carcasses of their victims. But it would be wrong to call this ‘clothing’, just as wrapping a bed sheet around yourself and sticking a safety pin in doesn’t really constitute ‘being clothed’. Written into the very notion of clothing is its aesthetic and symbolic function.
So, did I go on a binge buy at the start of 2018? No, actually. Whilst I’ve realised that clothes-wearing is a conversation I have to take part in, I’ve also realised just how little I understand the language. And if I wear the same clothes this year that I wore throughout 2017, I’m at least giving a consistent message, even if I don’t understand what it is!