Guest post: consciously clothed

This guest post on fashion, among other things, comes to us from Jessi Arrington, a designer, creative philanthropist, and as our mutual friend Chris described her, an “outfit scientist.” Her full bio is after the jump.

Raise your hand if you think what you wear matters! I’d like to make the case that it does, and perhaps in ways we’re not really paying attention to.

We can probably all agree that what we put on our bodies on a daily basis impacts the way we perceive each other and ourselves. (Deny this if you like, but listen to Courtney Martin tell the story of how she realized feminism might be for her before you dismiss the idea.) What is undeniable, but in my experience rarely discussed, is that there is measurable physical impact to our wardrobes. Lately, I’ve been obsessing over it.

What do I mean by physical impact? Well, these thoughts are still being mixed around in my head, but I’ve broken it into four categories so far.

1. SPACE: That’s the down-and-dirty amount of cubic footage your shirts, pants, coats, undies, socks, shoes, bags, hats and whatever else you use to separate your body from the environment actually take up. I grew up in the South with closets (plural). Now I live in a Brooklyn studio with one closet that I share with another human being. To say this is a challenge is the understatement of the year. We sometimes end up living surrounded by piles of clothes, piles awaiting laundering and piles awaiting a harsh shove back into the closet. That’s the reality of my wardrobe’s SPACE coupled with a teensy lack of the next item on the list…

2. TIME: Oh, the beautiful, fleeting, precious resource of which I don’t ever seem to have enough! There’s time associated with a wardrobe, and not just in the hours it takes to procure. For me, shopping time is the fun time! But then there’s the washing, drying, folding, hanging and putting away time. And heaven forbid something needs to go to the dry-cleaners or a tailor. That means you’ve got to add travel time into your wardrobe’s impact. Then there’s the deciding time. Does “what am I going to wear today” sound familiar? Over time, it can all add up to a significant amount of, well, time. And you know what they say about TIME and this next one…

3. MONEY: I guess this one is obvious; clothes and their upkeep cost us. This one is also extremely easy to ignore given how easily credit cards allow us to live beyond our means. I guess this is where I’ll share an important detail about myself: I buy all my clothes, shoes and accessories second-hand. In this way I’m able to load up on style without spending too much. It also ejects me from the game of what’s “this season’s” style. I can save MONEY by just addressing what’s “my style.” I also love how second-hand shopping ties into the last, but opposite of least, item on the list…

4. EXTERNAL IMPACT: How did your clothes get to you? Where did they come from and who did they impact before they made it into your closet? And what will be their story when they leave? The answers to these questions have huge implications for the environment, the economy and your local community. It can justifiably seem overwhelming; rather than feeling overwhelmed, I choose to acknowledge the impact and take measurable albeit tiny steps towards addressing it.

So what do you think; have I made a case it’s only sensible to pay attention to what you wear? It’s fair to assert that perhaps I’m simply attempting to validate myself. I started blogging less than a year ago, and it quickly became apparent that one of my favorite things to post about is “outfits.” Initially I felt like this was a frivolous way to spend my time, but the more feedback I received, and the more I gave my wardrobe analytical thought, the more I realize it’s not frivolous at all. Deciding to examine what you wear, its impact on you and the world at large makes for a conscious consumer. And I might even go a step further as to propose that ignoring what you wear is to leave a key aspect of of life unexamined. (Perhaps you and I share the same view on the unexamined life.)

So doubts about legitimacy be damned. I’m going to keep thinking and writing about what I wear. And I’m going to continue to push some social experiments on myself to explore the issue. I tried the first when I traveled to California for a week with only a week’s worth of undies. (Don’t worry; I didn’t go around naked. I bought everything second-hand once I got there.) The next will be called Hole Sale in which I’ll sell almost my whole wardrobe, in a bridge hole in DUMBO Brooklyn, for charity. If you’re interested in joining me, please get involved! You can donate items you no longer need and get some new styles for a steal, all while raising money to send young women to Rock Camp.

I’m a thinker, maker, doer and liver of design. I’m a lover of all things color, vintage, handmade and rock-n-roll. I do my best for the planet. I co-founded of the design studio WORKSHOP. I throw one hell of a Kentucky Derby Party. I serve on the board of AIGA/NY. I’m crazy about my Studiomates. I’m one Lucky So And So.

Join the Conversation

  • Emi

    I’m not sure how this is tagged as environmental justice. Explain?

    Also, I don’t mean to be so challenging, but isn’t your post a little classist? You assume a lot with your four categories. Space, Time, Money and External Impact all assumes a lot about the individual, for instance that they have a) a closet or b) steady income.

    I wonder by challenging yourself to buy clothing while traveling to a new location, you’re really aware of the privileges that your social and economic status award you.

    Please, if I am totally off base here let me know. As I don’t know the context in which you are writing the post, and what exactly you are trying to do here.

    • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      While I don’t know the author’s social and economic status, I don’t think the categories are classist. Even if you don’t have a closet or the kind of money for the latest fashions, space and money are still factors. Whether one has a walk-in closet or is a Traveler with all their belongings stored in a pack, the space you store your clothes in is still something to be figured out. Same with money – even if you get your clothes primarily at Goodwill or discount stores, you still have to pay something for them. Freecycling and clothing swaps can sometimes yield a good article of clothing, but it’s not always a guarantee that things will fit. (Though my husband has a certain level of skill with a sewing needle as far as simple taking things in/shortening hems goes.)

  • Fellmama

    Buying all your clothing second-hand showcases your body privilege in a big way. Only people who fit into standard clothing sizing can buy second-hand on a reliable basis (not to mention having the time to seek out big-box alternatives or the resources to access the internet).

    I’m not saying it’s not admirable, just that it’s not an option available to many, many people.

    • honeybee

      Comments like this are simply mean-spirited attempts to derail discourse for no good reason.

      Are you seriously suggesting that b/c she can buy second hand clothes she isn’t allowed to comment on clothing? How does that make any sense?

      Some of the posters here seem to literally be suggesting that only people who are under the most extreme forms of anti-privilage be allowed to comment on anything. If you have any amount of privilage at all you can’t comment on your life? Since everyone has some privilage – especially those living in Western countries, how does this make sense?

      Also why does buying second hand clothing assume buying standard sizes? Wouldn’t the selection of second hand clothing mimic that of regular clothing. NOt to mention that they are “standard sizes” for a reason – because they fit a majority of the populace. Doesn’t mean all of course, but it’s outright wrong to claim that hardly anyone fits standard sizes. They wouldn’t BE standard sizes if this was the case.

      Besides, why can’t you buy a second hand dress and then hem it yourself or have someone fix it for you, the same you would do with new clothes? I don’t get it at all.

      • Fellmama

        Jessi doesn’t mention having to shop at specific stores due to her body type; I’m guessing she would have if it were an issue for her.

        As for hemming or altering a second-hand dress, this presupposes a garment that fits to a reasonable degree. For many fat (or tall or petite or curvy or not-very curvy) women, finding such a dress would be nearly impossible to begin with.

        I thought Jessi’s article was very interesting, and I think she’s welcome to write about whatever she likes–my comment was meant to point out some expressed body privilege in the hopes that she would take it under consideration and thus in the future avoid alienating people who would otherwise be all about her message. And based on her comment below, she totally did!

  • Courtney

    I tagged it as Environmental Justice because I believe that buying one’s clothing second hand and being conscious of one’s consumption and disposal practices are incredibly important facets of thinking about impact on the environment.

    I find your class comment really misplaced. Jessi was speaking to her own personal experiences and being conscious within those. It’s a personal reflection about her own behaviors and consumptions patterns. I’m so sick of comments on Feministing that pretend to forward conversations about class when really just villifying people for being honest about their own experiences.

    • Matthew T. Jameson

      I had a very similar reaction to your, Courtney. The statement:

      “I wonder by challenging yourself to buy clothing while traveling to a new location, you’re really aware of the privileges that your social and economic status award you.”

      What gives you any indication that Courtney is not aware of the privilege this indicates? Sure, it is a privilege to have economic means, but just because Courtney didn’t spell that out exactly where and how she is privileged doesn’t mean that she is blissfully unaware. Sometimes this little game of “Who’s more aware of hir privilege” boils down to expecting people to make a declaration of every privilege-laden action you ever do. This is absurd. Do I need to start every blog post with a disclaimer that I’m aware that having time, an internet connection, physically ability to type and cognitive capacity to think clearly (etc., etc., etc.) are privileges that not everyone is lucky enough to have?

      Get real.

      • Courtney

        Just for the record, I didn’t write this post. As indicated, Jessi Arrington did.

        • Matthew T. Jameson

          Wups! Please pardon my mis-attribution.

    • Andrew

      I think Emi’s comment is appropriate. Being honest about one’s experiences does not necessarily exclude making classist assumptions. Perhaps you’d be surprised to learn that most people aren’t college-educated Brooklynites who shop, write, and design for a living. This post is dripping with privilege, which isn’t a terrible thing in itself, but there’s no substantive point made justifying the exercise of that privilege. Should we care about what we wear? Yes. Does this post speak to the reality of people who aren’t surrounded by stores filled with the throwaways of wealthy New Yorkers? No. I think it’s important to interrogate what we wear and why, but this post doesn’t do it.

      • Matthew T. Jameson

        “Perhaps you’d be surprised to learn that most people aren’t college-educated Brooklynites who shop, write, and design for a living.”

        Again, no reason or need for the condescension. This sentence pretty much reads, “Look how much better I am than you since I am aware of my privilege, unlike some people . . .” Jessi Arrington is well aware that the entire world doesn’t live the life that she does. It would be similarly condescending and unhelpful for me to write back in response to your post, “Perhaps you’d be surprised to learn that most people in the world don’t have the internet connection, elite education, free time and motivation to post comments on feminist websites.”

        • Andrew

          You’re right, that was condescending, and there really isn’t an excuse for it. I apologize. I was just so taken aback by Courtney’s acerbic dismissal of Emi’s relevant concerns. It didn’t seem befitting of a community (of a moderator and leader, no less) which aims to engage and teach.

          • Courtney

            I’m sorry it read as acerbic. I just get frustrated with feeling like the conversations about privilege in this space are often limited to “gotchya” tactics (that usually just serve to shut people down) rather than deep investment in exploration and constructive dialogue.

    • Nicholas

      I grew up in a small, blue-collar town in south Texas, and even though I considered myself extremely progressive by the standards of my environment, that same environment acted as a tremendous barrier to my being able to understand so, so many important concepts of social justice and injustice simply because I was never exposed to them. In hindsight, it seems safe to say that my younger self literally did not know what it meant to be “progressive” – not for want of good intentions, but for lack of exposure.

      It wasn’t until my first years of college that I really started learning about ideas like feminism (as anything more than a quasi-pejorative cliche), colonialism, ableism, weight privilege, etc. And although learning about these ideas was transformative for me in a profoundly positive way, every time I learned something new, it was through public shaming and humiliation by my peers lucky enough to have had discussions about the body politic at dinner in middle school or by professors all too eager to look slick in front of their classes. An example I remember mostly for how asinine it seemed: I once jokingly made an off-hand comment about how my enjoyment of pasta must be related to my Sicilian heritage, only to be smugly and derisively admonished, “Stop naturalizing your desires, Nick.”

      It makes me genuinely sad to see so much of this posturing in Feministing comments. When I was prog-shamed (as I call it) in college, it was often in response to a comment of mine which may very well have been insensitive or offensive in some way, but nobody ever seemed to think that maybe I just didn’t realize it and could have really learned something in that moment. I eventually learned to be (I think) a relatively socially conscious person, but I always aspired to that. If someone hasn’t internalized “being progressive” as a value (which, let’s face it, the vast majority of people probably have not), treating them with disdain over an unintentional offense absolutely will further alienate them from whatever value set you’re wielding as a tool of belittlement.

      tl;dr – When you have a legitimate criticism to voice, your choice to do so in a tone of condescending accusation belies your true intention to co-opt progressive values for the purpose of constructing an abominable insider/outsider logic of coolness that has less than nothing to do with those same values. In so doing, you have utterly betrayed those values by pissing all over an opportunity to potentially show someone that a presumption is untrue, a phrase is offensive, or a practice is discriminatory in a way that they will truly value and carry with them for life. For shame.

      • Matthew T. Jameson

        First off, who is this addressed to?

        Secondly, if you reread your post, I think you will notice that you are both decrying “prog-shaming,” but also ending your post with the phrase, “for shame.” Hmmmmm . . .

  • Emi

    “I’m so sick of comments on Feministing that pretend to forward conversations about class when really just villifying people for being honest about their own experiences.”

    I’m a new commenter, and I think asking for context is important. I don’t mean to vilify, but to engage.

    • Courtney

      Hey Emi…sorry if my comment was jerky. I’ve been thinking a lot about engaging in genuine conversations about privilege (hoping to write my column on it this week). I should have given you the benefit of the doubt. I was bringing my own shit to it.

  • Sarah Axtmann

    I will admit that I really don’t spend that much time thinking about clothes, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about food, and as I read this post, I kept thinking that there are a lot of similarities between our relationships with clothes and our relationships with food. The “physical impacts” Jessi talks about are all things that impact our food choices as well as our clothing choices. We all like to eat, but making food or buying food or storing food can be stressful just as clothing can be, as Jessi pointed out. And I think the environmental concerns around food are obvious.
    There is great feminist writing about our relationships with food. We eat when we are sad and when we are celebrating, it is an important part of many rituals and customs around the world, and it is an important part of consumerism. Clearly, many of these same things are true about clothing as well. We have a relationship with our clothes. We have outfits that make us feel great, but shopping makes many of us feel bad about our bodies. We wear white dresses for our weddings and black to funerals. Just like food, many of these things are deeply rooted in our culture and in our identities. Because both food and clothing are basic needs, humanity has always been connected to these things. I think it is important as feminists to look at how these needs are connected to our lives in positive ways, but also to be aware of how consumerism and the media can manipulate those deep and complicated relationships, especially with things like food and clothing that we will always have to spend money on in some form or another.

  • Jessi Arrington

    Sorry to chime in so late! I’m new to the game of guest posting!

    I’d like to address a few points (not a hint of this is sarcastic — what’s the emoticon for sincerity?)…

    For Fellmama, I am glad you mentioned the idea that this works for me because of my specific body. I should try to be more sensitive to this issue noting that I am quite lucky to be able to wear lots of different types of clothing. I would like to explore the idea of how my shopping might change if I had a different body type. Only having this one body, it will be difficult to do so, but maybe I can find a way. It is interesting though that I’ve only very recently become comfortable in my own body. It took turning 30 for me to put away enough hang ups (thought trust me, I’m still teaming with them) to start seeing myself as a beautiful person both inside and out.

    For Andrew, I guess I am lucky enough to “shop, write, and design for a living”, but not in that order, and I might not be as college-educated as you’d think. I am a graphic designer by trade, so I design to make a living, which I don’t consider it an easy living. (I’m sure I’m showing my privilege there.) I use the time that my work buys me to shop and write, among the other things I’m passionate about. I’ve never made money shopping or writing, but I have to admit I’d be thrilled to pull that off! I am “surrounded by stores filled with the throwaways of wealthy New Yorkers,” however I’ve been able to travel without clothes and only wear garments found in the rural Southern U.S. and rural Mexico, so I don’t think second-hand shopping is contingent on being in a major metropolitan area.

    For Emi, the reason I’ve experimented with shopping while traveling is to challenge my attachment to objects by learning to let go. I feel happy to know that the $200 or $300 I spend for the week goes to some great causes as each thrift store is usually associated with its own charity. I guess this does assume a certain social/economic status, as would any monetary contribution to a charity. As for privilege, I have only ever written about my own life from my own point of view. For this, my first ever guest post, I tried to broaden my point of view to something applicable to a larger audience, but it’s true that I don’t know how to critique things outside my specific socio-economic background, and not being any sort of journalist, I don’t think I should try. I hope that my life experience is relevant to some, and realize it won’t be to others.

    For Sarah, thank you for drawing these beautiful comparisons between food and clothing. I like that you mention the history of it all. I hadn’t given that much thought, but I will now. I feel quite lucky to be living in a time when I can dress, and eat, however I please.

    For all, you’ll notice I use the word luck quite often. The title of my blog is Lucky So and So because that sums up how I feel about my life. I am SO fortunate to do the things I do and be loved by the people I am. But it’s not all luck; a lot of it’s the right perspective and concerted effort.

    Thank you for reading and commenting. I am happy something I put into the world was worthy your time and opinions.

    • Fellmama

      Thanks for taking my comment seriously! As far as shopping with a different body type, I would think it would pretty easy, at least as a thought experiment. One could pick an arbitrary size or feature before one goes into a store, then try to find only clothes that fit that size or feature; for example, “today I’m a size 20″ or “today I have a 34″ inseam.” I think the result would be very interesting.

  • andrea

    Sometimes it’s just bloody impossible to find second-hand clothing, as much as you’d like to. Moreover, I’m not sure if it’s as important environmentally as buying really good pieces of environmentally-sustainable wear made in your own local area (or local-ish, anyway, in a more global context). If you have the privilege of being able to afford rather expensive sustainable clothing, wouldn’t it make more sense to do that and simply live with less in your wardrobe? It seems to me that the washing, drying, dry-cleaning, etc. of a mountain of second-hand pieces would be MORE environmentally damaging than keeping a few choice items that you bought from a department store or something. It’s not hard to find really good, environmentally and socially just-made clothing, and it seems counter-productive to crawl thrift stores in the name of ‘environmental justice.’

    Also, in South Korea it’s damn HARD to find a second-hand shop for anything.

  • Jessi Arrington

    Thanks for your comment, Andrea. I agree it would be valuable to weigh the environmental impact of buying only second-hand vs. buying truly sustainably made clothing. Maybe an organization like GOOD could do an impact study, and I’d love to participate. In my mind, I’d NEVER suggest we “crawl thrift stores in the name of environmental justice.” I’m suggesting we shop and dress consciously in the name of self expression, and doing so via thrift stores and flea markets helps me be both expressive and lessen my impact. There is certainly a local aspect to what I’m doing. The clothing I buy doesn’t have to travel anywhere, so I consider it local. And most times the funds go either to a local vendor or local charity. When I do buy something new (for me, this is usually in the category of undergarments) I do my best to buy quality, sustainable pieces. I might have the opportunity to visit a friend in South Korea over the next year, and I’ll let you know what I can find. Let me know if you disagree with anything I’m saying here. I appreciate your thinking!

  • filomeen

    Wow, I’m really shocked at all the backlash against Emi.

    I completely agree with her that there are class assumptions here, and I’m really hurt her comments are being contectualized as just seeking to cause trouble. All she was saying (very respectfully, I might add) is that there are class issues. I work a job I hate so I can pay all my bills and get food on the table, and I’ve been saving up for a month to get a pair of pants I want … Not all of us have the luxury of downsizing our inexistent 500-clothes closet. That’s not to say the author’s points are invalid, but it *is* to say that I definitely agree there are class issues here.