As a young woman in my early twenties fashion had many meanings for me. I felt as if I could purchase a sense of belonging. As if this or that piece of clothing could contribute to my identity which relied on the misconception that other’s perception would shape that identity. Clothing made me feel safe, because I assumed to blend into groups and I found that desirable; but it also made me feel special, because I would stand out with bold prints or unusual colour combinations. At the same time, I would judge my purchases not only through my own eyes, but asked myself – is this too much (cleavage; butt; sparkle; colour; …)? My purchases were guided not solely by my own taste, but by society’s expectations of women’s looks, too.
Still, shopping could ease my nerves; help me deal with heartbreak, sadness or when feeling lost. I felt accomplished, because I was able to shop with fashionable brands such as Zara and Mango. My overflowing wardrobe gave me a sense of safety in a capitalist word.
How absurd. I denied the fact that I spent oh-so-much money on fashion pieces that I didn’t even love, I only loved the idea of them establishing a certain sense of identity. I pretended to have lots more money than I had to satisfy my desire for new clothes; and that was even before I joined Instagram or other platforms where #OOTD mattered.
Now, I don’t want to go into psychoanalysis here, because I think a lot of people, women and girls especially, can relate to these feelings in one way or the other. I knew that I spent too much money on clothing, but I didn’t quite grasp the grip the fashion industry had on me, my well-being and my self-image.
I also had no idea about the harmful impact of the fashion industry on our world, besides the evil of microplastic and polyester fabric both for our planet, and for our bodies. I was easily caught in any greenwashing trap.
I did never reflect on the question how my clothing was produced, by whom and under what circumstances. It’s just something that had never crossed my mind. Those products just showed up in fashion stores, end of story.
I find that very fascinating, because I had always considered myself a fairly conscious consumer, raised by very conscious parents in second-hand clothes (which was in big parts also a financial decision). Being financially independent because of a generous scholarship by the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation I was able to afford fair-traded coffee and fruits or organic foods already in my student years. But fashion just somehow was not on my radar as part of this global exploitation complex.
In 2015, I started to reflect more on who I was, or wanted to be, and how much of my own identity was really a product of social expectations and capitalist consumerism. I also wanted to become more responsible with my spending and hence reassessed how fashion and my search for identity were (negatively) connected. I decided to choose quality of over quantity (and getting started was not easy!!). I also started to become more interested in reproduced vintage silhouettes, and started to stumble upon several fair fashion brands in the course of focusing my style more on these reproduction brands. That way, I began to learn more and more about the global fashion industry, and especially the ethical implications of our Western shopping mania.
In 2018, I made just one new year’s resolution: stop buying fast fashion.
In the beginning, it was difficult, because I was so used to just pop into a fashion store when I saw one, and it was difficult to leave empty handed once I was in one. So I set myself strict rules: Don’t go into fashion stores.
It was not an easy process for me, but knowing that I would directly support the exploitation of people if I were to purchase a bargain at H&M or elsewhere helped tremendously to stick to my resolution. I discovered some amazing ethical brands to purchase special pieces from and realized that my new shopping habits would add up to similar amounts of Euros spent (or even less) than in the years before when I had begun to shop more consciously (do I really need this piece?!), yet still loads more from big brands.
Here’s a few other things that helped me become more conscious within my budget:
- I really reflected on my financial situation.
I knew, as a student, that I had good money thanks to my scholarship. Still, before reflecting upon the money I actually spent on clothing I probably would have told you that I cannot afford ethical clothing. I believe that many of us spend more money on fast fashion annually than we realize (“it’s just 5€”, “just 20€ for this dress, what a bargain”), and reflecting upon that sum can help to spend it elsewhere instead. Obviously, there are many things that remain to lie out of my own financial capability, such as a really good , plastic-free outdoor jacket (starts at 500€ from what I’ve seen) and there are also many people who are in a lot less privileged position than myself. But there are many people who are just as well-off as myself, or much better situated, who still think that slow fashion would be too expensive. It’s a combination of reflecting your monthly or annual fashion budget and realizing the actual value of clothing.
2. I started to work with wish lists,
instead of shopping as soon as I saw a piece I liked. That way I gave myself several weeks to consider if I really wanted this or that skirt, top or dress. Sometimes, pieces were already sold-out in my size, but that is okay, too. Often times, I dropped garments from my list once I returned, because they weren’t actually filling a gap in my wardrobe.
3. I looked out for sales.
Last year, all my basic jersey shirts started to break, and the material was already half sheer in most cases, so they could only be repurposed as rags. To stock up on this wardrobe staple I waited until a bigger ethical & fair fashion brand had their annual summer sale. I wear a size XS in tops or shirts, so my size often remains in sales. This isn’t the case for all sizes.
4. I Improved my mending skills
I usually don’t have much issue with holes in my clothing, but side seams have a tendency to rip, and YouTube’s grandmother’s have been a blessing! Especially learning how to invisibly close a side seam in pants or dresses has prolonged many a beloved garment’s life.
5. I learnt how to knit
My wardrobe is most parts dresses, paired with a couple of jersey shirts and turtlenecks and a very few bottoms. Or should I say – was. When I embarked on my slow fashion journey, I lacked knitwear in my closet which was a problem, because I tend to be really cold very easily. Knitwear is expensive (even in fast fashion store it’s at the upper price scale) for obvious reasons, and I would never say that ethically produced and sustainably sourced knitwear would be overprized – but a knit cardigan for 150€ and a jumper for even more was not in my budget; or if I would save up I’d still be hesitant, because for a piece at that price tag you’d want something to love.
So I learnt how to knit (again, many thanks to the grandmas, but also younger content creators of YouTube) and quickly realized that there was a flourishing community online! It took me 6 months of practice, before I began my first adult jumper (and it was an instant success) and now I could not imagine my life without knitting! It’s become much more than just garment production for me. Most importantly, it taught me so much about the value of clothing.
6. I joined the activist movement
Individual action and conscious consumption is an important signal for the fashion industry, but in order to fight the underlying structural inequalities of the fashion industry activist organization is needed. There exist many amazing projects, initiatives and campaigns out there and I have contributed in different ways to the Fashion Revolution Movement. There’s something to do for everybody and action begins with signing a petition or sending an email to fashion retailers.
7. I am not too hard on myself
In the end of the day, many different things fall together for change in the fashion industry. I was hard on myself in the beginning not only because I individually did not want to contribute to exploitation any longer, but also because I wanted to face and change my own spending habits. Nonetheless, there are times that I turn to big brands and I don’t consider that “cheating” or hate myself for it.
One time, I travelled to a conference just three hours from where I lived and overnight there was a drastic weather change and I did not have proper clothing; I hence went into H&M to get a weather-appropriate dress and tights (but I did not enjoy the experience. All those weird smells & all those cramped-together clothing just put me off). Last year, I was unexpectedly admitted to hospital and quickly bought a pair of fast fashion yoga pants in town, because I didn’t have any hospital-appropriate loungewear at home. I look out for natural materials in my underwear, but 25-40€ is a hefty price tag for one cotton panty. I see where that price comes from and I appreciate the option, but at my current stage in life this is not anything I can afford.
I also want to emphasize here that nobody should be shamed for purchasing fast fashion. There are many reasons for that and a lack of awareness is not the same as ignorance. Slow fashion is hard to afford for many, and especially for families. High quality second-hand clothing is increasingly harder to come by, for many different reasons. Many slow fashion brands target only “straight sized” bodies, and fat people will have a hard time – in an already hostile environment – to find fair fashion designed for their shapes.
8. I love fashion more than ever
First of all it was a great relief to change how I perceive fashion. Not as an element to give meaning to who I am, but as a tool to express my inner self; to feel comfortable and confident; and too have fun. I am not a minimalist dresser, I have a big, colourful wardrobe with a variety of different styles and garments. I don’t pinpoint myself to one style either, I have many different moods and like to dress accordingly. It has been liberating to not rely on speedily shifting trends and social pressure, or to measure my social worth, in the way how I dress, express & impress.
I don’t think I ever had this much fun with fashion and I love to purchase garments of which I know that they’ll stay with me for years to come. Today, there are ethical fashion choices for many people, once you start creating your own me made wardrobe the options are endless. The appreciation that I feel for clothes and the making of garments is something I appreciate tremendously.
What about you? Did you already shift towards a more conscious wardrobe? Did you find yourself in this text? What are your tips? Let me know in the comments below!
The cover picture shows me holding a campaign banner by Fashion Revolution Movement for the annual Fashion Revolution Week in April. I am seen in front of my wardrobe with many of my handmades just behind me. I am wearing my handknit Diaphanous Raglan, a size-inclusive knit design by Jessie Maed Designs (@jessssiemae on instagram).