Clothes say something about a person. In America, fashion mirrors the American dream. We dress, not to signal who we are, but to project who we aspire to be. In the social media age, aspirations change day to day.
Flipping through fast fashion’s waste, pollution, and subsequent greenwashing, Hasan Minhaj urged Patriot Act viewers last week to act eco-conscious. The Netflix show’s message was simple: stores like ZARA and H&M are affordable and trendy, but their carbon footprint is lame. The call-to-action? Keep buying clothes, but wear them longer.
I appreciate Minhaj highlighting the fashion industry’s environmental impact, but I don’t think consumers’ behavior will change for the planet’s benefit. Fast fashion appeals to us for the same reason any sustainability issue gets pushed aside — we want everything, and we want it now.
As an older millennial, I remember when life could be slow — waiting by the phone — writing a pen pal — developing a film roll. I also remember going to Bealls and Mervyn’s with my mother, hunting for clothes in the racks, and coming up empty-handed.
Fifteen years ago, a friend told me that Neil Gaiman wears the same all-black outfit every day. I pictured a macabre closet, suitable for an author whose children’s story featured a button-eyed mother. But for me, a college student who used fashion to express myself, I couldn’t fathom trading my paisley dresses and op-art blouses for a single, solid color.
In 2017, I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. The artist’s wardrobe was on display next to paintings and photographs — an attempt to contextualize O’Keeffe’s minimalist style. Living in the New Mexico desert, O’Keeffe asked her seamstress to reproduce a Neiman Marcus frock in Southwestern shades: brown, turquoise, pink. When I saw the collection of nearly-identical wrap dresses, I thought, I totally get this.
What happened to my fashion sense between college and my mid-30s? I live in New York City, where Neil Gaiman would blend in — we’re known for wearing black here. But we’re also a fashion mecca; the city resembles Halloween year-round. Residents don materials from fox fur to recycled plastic. I moved here in 2008 with a partially-shaved head, funky vintage dresses, and lace-up witch boots. I looked like a New Yorker, day one.
A finance job ironed out my self-expression. In a cubicle’s glow, I noticed holes in my skirts, raw hemlines fraying. For years, I shopped exclusively at thrift stores. I loved finding deadstock items that gave me a distinct style. No one else looked like me. On several occasions, I got stopped on the street; “Excuse me, can I take your picture?” and when they followed up with, “What are you wearing?” I saw the disappointment on their faces. To caption a photo with “vintage” or “Salvation Army” doesn’t tell the reader where to buy the look.
The further I delved into a professional lifestyle, the more I wanted to blend in, not stand out. So I started to build a classic wardrobe. Button-down shirts. Pencil skirts. Neutral colors replaced loud ones. But shopping at thrift stores still gave me a slightly-off appearance. I didn’t look sharp. As I got busier with work, I had less time to shop. Eventually, I gave in to fast fashion. First, I convinced myself that I needed a black skirt. When I stepped into an H&M, I thought, Wow, everything is organized, and there’s more than one size. For a time, the brand filled in my essentials; then, I moved on to Uniqlo, then Everlane. Although these stores provided a safe, generic appearance, I did not love the clothes the way I loved my vintage duds.
Style icons like Grace Jones and Ralph Lauren cite thrift stores and vintage clothes as early sources for their fashion identities. Shopping secondhand began as an affordable option for me, but sorting through aisles and piles of abandoned clothes taught me how to discern quality. Blindfolded, I could tell you a garment’s fiber content. I know the difference between silk and rayon. As I get older, my preference leans toward natural materials.
Five years ago, my partner purchased raw denim jeans. He still wears them every day. I watched the stiff paper-like material transform into a beautifully-creased one-of-a-kind item. In awe and jealous, his purchase inspired me to invest in my wardrobe as I had never done before. I quit fast fashion. And I searched for well-made pieces that I needed. It turns out, I didn’t need a lot. Leather boots. Wool sweaters. Non-stretch denim. Cotton blouses.
Before I ever heard the words put together, I slowly accumulated a capsule wardrobe. Susie Faux coined the term “capsule wardrobe” in the 1970s, and Donna Karan re-popularized the concept in 1985 with her “Seven Easy Pieces” collection. A Google search shows the trend’s staying power and its evolution. Seven has turned into 37, but the selling points remain intact: save money, time, and energy. However, true to the fashion industry’s need for a constant overhaul, many capsule-wardrobe advocates have tweaked the formula. Capsules get framed as seasonal — every three months, shoppers are encouraged to “refresh” their wardrobe with trending items.
Neil Gaiman gave his reasons for wearing all black — “It makes life easy.” I respect the author’s approach to fashion, and I see his style’s merits. However, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where everyone looked the same, especially if that sameness meant no more color.
This October, during an unseasonably warm evening, my partner and I ran into some friends outside a Housing Works in Brooklyn. They spent their Sunday looking for a kids’ yellow raincoat — their daughter wanted to dress up as Coraline for Halloween. Her mother said, “I already have the blue wig and the boots.” Every other store they visited had sold out of the costume. I understood just how lucky they were to track down the raincoat at a thrift store. When you shop secondhand, you usually can’t go looking for something specific; you have to be open to finding whatever treasures pop up.
Americans dress up for Halloween once a year, but the way we shop looks the same year-round. Consumers go from store to store, looking for the one item that will finally complete their look. But what exactly could that article of clothing be? Is it the fedora they saw on the cute server at their favorite cafe? Or is it the orange scarf a celebrity wore this morning on Instagram? Whose identity are they searching for?
As Georgia O’Keeffe aged, she sought to internalize nature’s beauty by emulating her environment. She chose to wear colors and materials that matched the external landscape. Social media has taken us even further from the slow-moving natural world. We dress fast because we’re in a fast-paced society. Like our daily feeds, we feel the need to refresh, constantly.
My identity is less refined than Gaiman or O’Keeffe, but I’m starting to understand minimalism’s appeal. When you pare down to the essentials, your clothes are useful, and the more you wear them, they become used. Like my partner’s worn-in denim, natural materials change shape, and if you invest in high-quality fibers, your clothes will take on your shape. It’s a wonderful feeling to slip into a second skin that’s unmistakably yours.
Hasan Minhaj said, “Wear your clothes longer.” I think it’s excellent advice, but most Americans won’t change their habits for our planet’s future. We’ll change our habits when our ideology changes. For now, we still believe that we need to prove ourselves worthy — by working, racing, climbing, competing. There’s enough food, enough shelter, enough resources for everyone, so why are fast-fashion consumers being scolded? We’re not the brilliant individuals who invented polyester or prescribed an excessive lifestyle. Those high-achievers are sitting in their comfortable houses, surrounded by luxurious silks and pelts.
Fashion seems frivolous at times. A superficial layer, a temporary facade that we put on or discard. In truth, our clothes protect, equip, and transform us. Maybe it’s time for Americans to stop following a visionary designer’s trends and settle into an identity that resembles our abundant geography. For example, now that hemp is legal, we can start making fabric with a durable plant, instead of plastics sourced from fossil fuels. Of course, climate change will affect what we make and what we wear. Fast fashion banked on capitalism’s ideals: innovation, efficiency, growth. As we race to outdo ourselves, and we leave a mountain of clothes in our wake, we might run out of room for anything new.