Recently, I’ve felt frustrated with my wardrobe.

A year ago, Jacob moved to Belgium and I followed shortly after. We moved with our airline luggage allowance of two bags each, packed with miscellaneous household items, food, books, along with a four-season wardrobe of clothing, outerwear, and shoes. Needless to say, the slender IKEA wardrobe we share has plenty of room for all of our clothes.

When May rolled around, I was wearing the same two tee shirts until my mom came to visit and brought a wonderful haul of summery tank tops. Then my sister came and brought me more treasures.

Why am I writing about this?

The fact is that I’ve been feeling frustrated with my wardrobe more acutely than I usually do, and I made a couple of purchases during the Belgian July sales that alleviated my angst… colorful scarves and a pair of shorts and a jumpsuit. I felt fab. For about two months.

I walk into the center of Leuven from the east side of the town, which means that I can choose between two main streets in order to get to where I’m going. Both of the streets are shopping meccas. The window displays are changing again, as the fashion season turns, and that familiar discontent that haunted me in the beginning of the summer is now beckoning from every corner. I’m proud of how little I spend on clothing, and how long I can preserve it, and that I sew the holes in my socks. I like to think that these qualities are virtues. Preserving and mending clothing are virtues. But spending as little as possible on clothing is another matter. Why?

Cheap Buys Twice.

Such a tired—and true—expression. Since moving to Belgium, I’ve noticed how quickly my clothing disintegrates when worn regularly. My sweaters (jumpers, for UK friends) developed holes, snags, and pills with frequent wear, despite my efforts to wash them gently and lay flat to dry. Unraveling knits cannot be easily mended, and I had to part with several sweaters by the end of winter.

My theory is that this problem with my bottom-dollar clothes was masked by the larger wardrobe and longer rotation of my closet in the US. Once I was relying on the same pieces every week, every piece began to wear quickly. My minimalist friends, like Faith, already understand this principle, and my mother-in-law helped me understand this in relation to shoes.

Attire Illiteracy.

When I made my first clothing purchasing decisions, price primarily drove my process. I didn’t choose clothing because it was beautiful or well-crafted or suited me. I chose because if it happened to fit and was on sale, it was good enough for me. Then God gave me a fashionista disguised as a sister and she helped point out the matronly error of my ways. Clothing is art. It can exalt the space that we occupy. Meghan prompted me to ask the question, “If this wasn’t on sale, would I wear it?”

Beyond my underdeveloped sense of style, however, is an even more pernicious problem. I am not steering my own decision-making process. Some clothes are marketed through sales and special offers because if they were not cheap, no one would wear them. A very lovely corporate marketing team is steering my decision-making process by engineering sales and offers to appeal to my desire to “find the best bargain” or “pay bottom dollar”. They know my hunting instinct better than I know what I want to wear. Rather than learning the varieties of clothing I like, which colors fill me with joy, or how some fabrics feel just right to my skin, I am coaxed from one rack to another in an endless corporate marketing game. It’s called sport shopping, friends, and it’s real.

Human Rights Violations.

You may remember my favorite lifestyle empowerment films from awhile ago. Thematically, my favorite documentaries revolve around core values of reducing harm to self, harm to others, and harm to the environment through food and consumption choices. Conspicuously absent are films about the textile industry. I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t really want to know.

My friend Anne once said, “If you’re going to eat a chicken, you need to kill one. You need to kill it yourself and understand.” I couldn’t kill a chicken, because I thought that doing so would injure a fundamentally compassionate urge inside of me that I did not wish to injure. So I weighed my ethical options and stopped eating chicken.

It was time to do the same for my clothing consumption choices. I plopped down on the couch and watched The True Cost. It’s available on Netflix for those who have a subscription, and if you don’t, ask your subscribed friend to watch it with you.

Nothing in this film will surprise you. You already know, instinctively, that when I brag to you about the $5 dress I bought that someone, somewhere, paid the price for that dress. You know it, I know it, but we don’t talk about it. We admire the dress and my bargain hunting skills and we move on.

But one in six people in the world cannot move on: they work in the global fashion industry. Many are textile employees. The conditions in which textile employees work are deadly. Watch the film. Let it stir you.

The film doesn’t mention another injustice, which is less raw but nonetheless problematic: the designers who work diligently to produce beautiful and quality clothing are consistently ripped off by fast fashion chains. The industry is rampant with intellectual property rights violations and copyright infringement.

I’m A Woman.

Feminism is also incompatible with fast fashion. A majority of textile workers are women earning less than $3 per day. They work in extreme conditions, are physically abused, and are frequently separated from their children. If I would not want this kind of life for my sisters or my mother, then I can’t support it with my spending.

Textile workers in Cambodia, primarily women, have successfully fought for a minimum wage of $140 a month. In sharp contrast, in 2015, the average American household spent over $150 a month on apparel.

There is also the issue of clothing advertising, which can be exploitative and discriminatory. A related issue that I’ve been mulling over is the subtext of women’s bodies as surfaces on which a corporation can display or advertise products. I remember thinking that my mom was silly for pointing out that when Corporation A gets you to pay them for the privilege of wearing their label boldly splashed across your body, they have duped you. Now I think she’s right.

Environmental Degradation.

We consume a staggering 80 billion pieces of clothing each year. This is a 400% increase from two decades ago, and the consumption is largely American and European. The manufacturing process of many textiles and materials (such as leather) is toxic. Chemical run off enters water sources and poisons many communities, resulting in disease and death. In the short lifecycle of most of our clothing, the textiles end up in landfills—including 90% of the pieces donated to charity—where it does not disintegrate.

Existential Values.

In The True Cost, a tantalizing idea is raised that has had my mind churning: the increase in textile consumption corresponds to the historic decline of the American middle class. Could it be that when I reach for a new piece of clothing, what I’m really reaching for is some sense of comfort, control, or security? This is not a garden-variety insecurity that I typically associate with clothing—of being ill-dressed or unfashionable or frumpy—but a really deep and existential insecurity surrounding finances and the future. Am I projecting when I shop: projecting my fears and desires and longing for a more stable, more affluent place in the world? Or am I twisted with insecurity about my place in the world and whether or not I can hold onto it?

When H&M beckons me to buy today, am I responding because tomorrow is so uncertain? Eat, drink, go shopping, for tomorrow we die.

Yes, I have many insecurities—garden-variety and existential—and I’m tired of trying to soothe these with a purchase here or there. I need to take my anxieties more seriously than that.


You might wonder why I’m writing this ridiculously long blog about a topic that has been written about extensively and far more thoroughly elsewhere. This is my confession: I’m writing about it for accountability. Going public forces me to change my shopping habits. Even today, I saw one of those delightful red stickers… €3 for a top. Instincts took over: I grabbed it, tried it on, queued up at the cash register. And then I stopped, swore under my breath, and hung the shirt back up. Unless I establish accountability, I’ll continue to respond reflexively and impulsively to my desires instead of choosing the greater good.

So what’s a person to do? If you’re interested in the steps I’m taking to change my textile habits, read part two here.

Advertisements