Tag Archives: clothing

No, It’s Not Just a Jacket

I can remember when my mother gave up and decided to just let me choose my own clothes. I was probably seven or eight, which by today’s standard is a bit old for this rite of passage, but in the 1960s my peers could not believe Mama let me do the picking. But she wisely knew that sooner or later I’d insist on it, and besides, she had another daughter to dress up in pink.

The truth is, all people in my culture (and probably yours as well) choose their clothes if they are over the age of five or so. Even people who claim to care nothing at all about what they wear, do, in fact, care. My father-in-law was a great example. He was a notoriously sloppy dresser, and he repeatedly reminded us that clothes don’t make the man. The problem was that he had a long list of things he would not wear, and a very short one of what he chose to wear.

He had no jeans, but several pair of identical khakis. He had the same plaid button front shirt in twenty different plaids and colors. He never wore a pair of sneakers. He loved cardigan sweaters, but pullovers were verboten.

One year for Christmas we found what we thought was the perfect gift for him – a red cardigan with a big S applique that came from his alma mater, NC State. He seemed to like it, but we noticed that he never wore it. Some time later the cardigan reappeared, without the big S. He had carefully picked it off.  It then occurred to me that he thought wearing the sweater would look like bragging in a community where college graduates in his age group were rare. He knew that wearing a sweater that he thought advertised his education would make him look as though he was putting on airs.

John may have claimed that clothes do not matter, but he clearly did know that what we wear sends all kinds of messages to others.

Clothes don’t have to have letters, or even words, on them in order to send messages. It’s easy to sit on any park bench and watch people passing by, and make judgments about those people based on their clothes. Sometimes you will be right, and other times you will be wrong, but the message is sent never-the-less.

For centuries clothing has been a sign of social and economic status, a reflection of the position one holds, and even where one resides. When I travel to New York, I plan my clothing carefully, so as not to look so Southern (and out of place). In high school, the girls who had professional dads like doctors and lawyers carried Aigner handbags, while those of us whose fathers worked at the paper plant carried cheap imitations.

We just can’t get away from the fact that in our culture, clothes have meaning. They send messages. And the most obvious messages are those that are in print.

My old Merle Haggard shirt you see above dates from 1983 when Outlaw Country was an interesting alternative to Punk and New Wave. By then I was teaching and pushing thirty, and it seemed that Rock was dead anyway, so we started listening to Haggard and Cash and Nelson. I got the shirt at a concert in Asheville when Haggard was arrested for drinking onstage.

Over the years I’ve worn it when feeling particularly badass, and it never fails to send that message, at least it sends it to the many young folks who comment on it. It never fails to make me feel cool, though the truth is that I was merely lucky enough to have the money to attend a concert and buy the shirt way back in 1983.

But does that even matter? The message is sent, though I suspect that to some people the message is, “Why is that old lady wearing a Merle Haggard shirt?” It may not register with some that I was once a cool concert goer.

Today clothing with writing and logos is so common that one need not pay attention to all the other sartorial clues. At a glance you can tell what team that guy is rooting for, where his wife went on vacation, daughter’s favorite Disney princess, and the attitude of the teenage son. One thing I feel very confident in saying is that these messages are true. A  Red Sox fan does not wear a Yankees hat.

So when a public figure is seen wearing a jacket that says, “I really don’t care, do U?” you can be assured that the message was intended. Whatever she doesn’t care about, the message was sent, and the viewer uses his or her own experiences and perceptions of the wearer to decipher the message.

And who in their right mind wears a jacket in this heat?

36 Comments

Filed under Viewpoint

Working Toward a Better Closet

This is a view into my closet.  Hanging here are 87 articles of clothing, about 65% of the clothes I own, the others now being in storage for the warm months.  I did a quick survey and I found:

  • 48 items were bought new
  • 20 items were bought used
  • 8 items were made by me from new materials
  • 11 items were made by me from used materials
  • 33 of the bought new items were made in the USA, Canada, or Europe
  • 21 of the ready made items were changed by me (hemming, repairs, button changes)
  • 8 of the bought new items were bought within the past year
  • 20 of the bought new items are over five years old

By looking at it this way, you get quite a bit of information about my buying habits.  To be honest, I was a bit surprised that over 50% of these items were bought new, as I consider myself to be a diligent thrift shopper and seamstress.  Taking a close look at the newer bought items, I realized that much of what I’ve bought in the past three years happened on trips to New York.  Somehow I can excuse myself for buying souvenirs of the big city.

Several of the new items have been bought this spring, as at 61 I’ve decided that my days of wearing shorts outside my immediate neighborhood or at the beach are over.  I’ve found that shorts with attached skirt (skort?  I hate that word) are a cool and comfortable substitute, and when I found a design I like that is made in the USA, I stocked up.

My closet is not perfect, and I can see what I can do in acquiring new items to make it more to my liking.  I want to make more of my own clothes, using fabrics that I already own.  I want to investigate brands that are making an effort to be more responsible in their practices.  And I want to be satisfied with what I already have, adding new pieces only as they are needed.

But while I can see a lot in my closet, there is much that I can’t see.  I’m good at choosing clothing that I feel is made in safe factories that pay a fair wage, but what about the fabric?  Most of my warm weather closet consists of cotton, which is notoriously bad for the environment.  Much cotton is grown in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan where the crop is picked by forced labor, much of it children.  Very few companies go so far as to tell consumers where their cotton is sourced.

So what is a consumer to do?  How can we do our best to ensure that as little harm as possible is done in the creation of our clothing and other textiles?  Over the next few days I’ll be looking at ways I’m going to make my closet  better.

Shop Secondhand

Probably the most obvious strategy is to buy less new and more secondhand and vintage.  By doing so you are not producing any new waste.  Shopping in vintage or consignment stores supports  local businesses.  And shopping in thrift stores supports charities.  Some people think that the thrift stores no longer produce treasures, but some of my favorite garments were thrifted:  a 1970s Bonnie Cashin coat, a stack full of vintage cashmere sweaters, a plaid Pendleton coat, and my favorite jeans.

If you are going to buy secondhand, it helps if you have basic sewing skills.  I’m always amazed at the number of great things I see in the Goodwill bins that are there simply because a button is missing or the hem is out.  Making basic repairs can greatly extend the life of a garment and prevent waste.  It’s also helpful if you can do a bit of altering.  I’m short, so I usually have to shorten pants, and even shirt sleeves.  I recently found a french-made Breton stripe shirt of hefty cotton, but it was two sizes too big and had wear at the neck.  Cutting it down to my size eliminated the damage, and was a quick and easy fix.

Shopping secondhand takes time and dedication.  One can’t just run down to the local thrift store to buy a size medium polo shirt in light green as one might do on a trip to Target.  But with time and a bit of luck, secondhand clothing can become a big part of your closet.

Next:  Some clothing companies that have got it right, and some others that are working on their social responsibility game.

 

 

33 Comments

Filed under Shopping, Viewpoint