My mother made the decision to let me dress myself at the age of 3, in a Hawaiian-print Mickey Mouse shirt and clashing leggings. From then on, fashion was a way to communicate things that I didn’t have the guts to say out loud. Even if that message was, “I’m cute – pay me attention.”
Fashion allows us to connect to each other. We can communicate our sexualities, gender identity, political beliefs and more. When I stomp down the street with my orange “destroy fascism” bag, I feel maybe 5% less powerless in the face of Brexit or Trump. And a lot more fabulous.
As a weirdo teenager, fast fashion let me feel part of a community. The high street was part of the ritualistic allure. Teenage shopping trips are where I first fell in love with trends, and all the memories of changing-room bonding, friendship-forming, and identity-cementing that came with them. Topshop was my happy place. Filling the hole left by cultural haven Tammy Girl, I could sit for hours perusing the earring section for the perfect expression of “me”.
Participating in mainstream fashion is to be part of a conversation about culture. It’s falling in love with the parts of yourself that you’re choosing to convey with that outfit. It’s also exhausting.
Aside from being one of the most polluting industries in the world – the second, according to retailer Eileen Fisher – keeping up with fast fashion makes us anxious. Fashion lets you buy into a bigger, better, prettier picture of yourself, while simultaneously creating that constant need. As the late John Berger put it: “The publicity image steals [a woman's] love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.”
People are coming around to the fact that fashion is a feminist issue, but it’s not just the sizeism and body policing that causes damage. Around 80% of garment workers worldwide – that's millions of people – are women and girls aged 18-35. Just like you and me. It’s easy to forget when a parcel arrives on your doorstep that it's not been beamed down by generous aliens with impeccable taste. That garment you’re holding came into being at the hands of another woman. She was probably your age, a woman of colour, and not particularly well treated. As an activist, that’s not a thought I could easily sit with.
Even if you haven’t watched The True Cost, or read about refugee children working in sweatshops, fast fashion typically comes with guilt attached. However, I’ve been thinking that the real argument in favour of ditching it has also to lie in the exciting possibilities of the alternative. Since leaving the high street (mostly) behind, there are some things I’ve learnt.
Having limited options makes things more fun
I’ll spend a long time researching outfits, scouring eBay with combinations that unlock riddles to hidden tat. Dressing is more of a hobby now. I had to save up for three months for my dream trainers, but I just about love them more than the Nike Airs that I cried over not being allowed and eventually borrowed off an outgrown friend, aged 12.
Buying less means that items of clothing take on more meaning. A T-shirt left by a crush has more significance. A dress borrowed from a friend is a symbol of shared taste, a Venn diagram of your best selves. Shoes swapped on nights out to relieve feet are worn tentatively, like trying on a new character. These are new ways of overcoming wardrobe fatigue.
You’ll learn to appreciate details
Feeling along a rail for the best fabric in a secondhand shop feels like a newly acquired superpower. I’ve learnt to appreciate every pleat, pocket and buttonhole for the labour it took. Ever since I tried on a mesh dress in a high street store that gave me an actual rash, I take the time to appreciate how soft a clean T-shirt feels, or the luxury of my first, properly waterproof jacket.
When I started getting paid more I bought the two ethical coats of my dreams. At first they felt too old, too grown-up. But I knew I wanted to buy for the power lady I was growing into over the next 10 years, not just the goon who was typing in their PIN with crossed fingers to buy them. One of the coats was made from recycled nylon and I wore it like armour, after enduring years of Northern seaside.
Branding should stand for something
With a lot of brands, we’re being sold an idea as much as the fabric and the design. Learning to be sceptical about brands because of the way they treat their workers has taken some of the magic away for me, but I think that’s a blessing.
Pepsi is an embarrassing case in point of what can go wrong when we take something meaningful and use it to sell a product. Subcultures exist and thrive as a means to participate in conversations outside of the mainstream economy, but how punk can a leather jacket be if it was sewn under exploitation? Too often, political ideas are hijacked and sold back to us as trends.
Buying cheaply is more expensive in the long run
When the gap between rich and poor is widening, survival should be – and is – more important than your consumer choices. The thing that’s really unfair is that bad quality costs more. Cheap shoes fall apart and have to be replaced more often than an expensive, well-made alternative.
Being able to shop around, plan ahead and front the cash is a massive privilege. Most parents buying their kids their third pair of school trousers in a year, or people with less money wanting to fit in, don’t have that luxury. Having said that, even higher-priced brands often aren’t much fairer. Unless the label explicitly states otherwise, your clothing was probably made in gross conditions. There are plenty of ways to find more ethical companies, though, from apps to websites and blogs, like mine.
I’ve met impassioned garment rights activists who insist that boycotting brands doesn’t work. At the end of the day, I choose to buy ethically because I like spending my limited cash somewhere I feel good about, and I have that privilege. It’s just as important to send a letter to your MP, use the #WhoMadeMyClothes hashtag, or educate yourself.
Whatever the negative push factors that hook you into buying ethically might be, there have to be pull factors that reel you in, too. And with much cooler options on the rise, the choice to shop ethically has never looked better.
I want to form economies around communities, not brand despots and profit hounds. When I don’t have much in the way of disposable income, I don’t fancy giving the few pennies I have to a disgraced Sir with a yacht collection. Buy your friend’s new album. Support the artist in your block of flats. Exist within a tide of the ideas you find most exciting. For me, that means buying clothes from people who care about the people who make them.