Photo Credit: Andrea Izzotti/ Shutterstock.com
We are the beginners of a new life All we know is reforming --Cemal Sureya
As soon as the Covid-19 pandemic started, survivability became one of our biggest concerns. We had to welcome all ideas on how to strengthen our immunity, concerning what we had and what “things” might do to us. Covid-19, as a hyperobject not only affected our daily life but also created a time to do the reflections of the things we have been surrounded by.
The pandemic made it more possible than ever to make inquiries about the functions of objects. It brought my mind to the history of colonialism; just like the blankets that carry smallpox given to the indigenous people, objects are ready to overpower the people, both as a metaphor and in reality. Objects have the potential to destroy the weak. We can think about fashion in that sense, as an infinite number of fashion objects produced under the unlimited exploitation of cheap labor in underdeveloped countries, and think about the groups that were exposed to the remnants and waste of all fashion objects that were produced. In fact, the societies there continued their lives as the least benefiting from the pleasures of fashion. As with the pandemic, the fashion itself eliminates the nonimmune, who become resourceless and perishable in many cases.
This situation allows us to reexamine what our immunity consists of. The philosopher Roberto Esposito, who I often remembered as Covid-19 became our one reality, argues that we are immunized through consumption, asserting our individual immunity at the expense of society and partnership. As soon as we gain individual immunity with the power we receive from objects, we exclude others.
What happened worldwide made me question my fashion immune system as well. I had some time to clean and renew my wardrobe in early spring and rethink my choices. I found that I had all these clothes that reflected my ideology, identity, and personal taste. I got to thinking about how I was trying to convey my personal choices for sustainable fashion too.
Then one item in my wardrobe triggered my concern, and a trail of thought began.
Last year, on an easy spring day, I was having a very fine morning and wasn’t really expecting the weather to change. Suddenly, I was soaked in the rain. In a hurry to get to a meeting, I ended up in one of the iconic fast fashion brand stores to get a better look for my interview. I wanted to buy a simple, and similar, sweatshirt to replace the one that I was wearing. My choice would be a very basic and one-color item—just this. I would do it fast, and it would be quick. Find the garment, make the payment, and leave the store.
But there was this olive-green jumpsuit hanging on the right corner rack, waiting for me to discover it. In a blink of an eye, it was in my hands. Seconds passed by and I was in the fitting room hoping for either of my wishes to come true. I wished that it would not look good on me so I wouldn’t spend my money on a fast fashion item, but I also secretly desired that it would fit me well because it was such a cool piece that I could afford to buy.
Voilà! It looked good on me. As soon as I left the store, my walk of shame began.
It took me years to learn, study, and advocate for sustainable fashion–but to lose all my dedication had taken a couple of minutes. In my end, I paid for it, in both senses. Due to not following my values, I acquired a vast and terrible self-judgment which continued for months. Because of that guilt, I am not sure if I enjoyed wearing the jumpsuit. I compared myself with others, questioned myself, asked what my other peers who are advocating sustainable fashion were buying. Did they buy cheap clothes at all? How would they judge me? I knew that if I confessed to them they would see me as a hypocrite, so I kept the secret to myself.
I am still not sure how much I actually participate as a consumer and what impact it has on corporate decision-making. I know that related ads come up on my IG after I speak with my friend on the phone. I know that all seasons are predetermined more than two years in advance by many fashion brands. Most of the companies have an opinion long before I do about my choices.
Besides, there is such an energy and aliveness that rushes into your body when you enter stores where you feel limitless and capable of becoming who you want to be. Of course, I know the ways to resist them, but I also keep on thinking if the source of my willpower in fashion is limited as well. Developing a behavioral change to support sustainable fashion requires an almost full-time commitment and dedication. It is almost like doing a workout, a sort of exercise to build your muscles. And sustainable fashion is a muscle that we need to strengthen it by practicing, rethinking, and reshaping our values constantly.
It is not an easy job, and there are times that you fail—at least I fail.
In that sense, I’ve got to rethink my emotions towards fashion and fashioning the body. There’s definitely a joy and a pleasure conveyed by fashion items. It is lovely to see someone wearing a floral dress in summer. It always looks cool when you wear a biker jacket. Communicating with others begins with our clothing, before we even say a word. We locate our identities and make statements through fashion. Clothes are our second skin that we show to the world: they are our bodily map.
In that sense, right after I bought that jumpsuit I was wondering if the skin I was showing to others was interesting and exciting at all. I remembered that I have been softly (!) mocked by my friends because of my choices in fashion. I’ve been repairing my outfits and feeling okay to look a bit shabby; my shopping choices are mostly limited and not up to date, I admit. Because of my research on sustainable fashion I got to learn the real situation behind the scenes of the fashion industry, and I was always trying to shift my behavior and practices towards a fair and ethical one.
To my friends, I ended up being somehow a “70’s hippie girl:” when I wore my patches and repaired an item, they told me I looked shabby. I took their point: I was too boring, too old-school with my fashion statements. I was feeling insecure about my choices from time to time. Besides, I didn’t know how many times more I had to explain the true cost of fast fashion.
The practice of sustainability argues that it is the only answer to the climate and environmental crisis, but also creates a space for many people to reconsider our clothing choices and habits as well. A long-standing solution has been to design physical objects that take place in material culture. But we can’t fully alleviate the violence created by fashion being environmentally friendly on the basis of material selection and production. The understanding of sustainable fashion that has existed so far has not been able to have a sociopolitical view of what kind of consumerism and which social groups should be sustained.
This problem was so clear when I considered my emotions related to my experience, and I had to ask this: Which users will wear these garments when it comes to repairs? And where? Which night club I go to or which job I interview for will accept my shabby patches? If I were surrounded by a different social group, I know that I could share and innovate different methods of wearing and enjoy the whole process of my craft-based practices and my modest clothes. What will I choose in this case for my fashion immunity; is it social areas that are suitable for my clothing?
I got to see that there are two kinds of penalties from our ongoing fashion practices: If we do not choose sustainability in our clothing choices, we cannot say that we are advocates for an environmental and sustainable life. We also might lose the places we care about. The main issue is that sustainable fashion is still not accessible to people who need to dress up for social and economic mobility and those who lack economic power. As an example, second-hand buying is not an option in many cities, and the idea of vintage stores is a sign of a lived high society. It means that people actually could afford to buy high-quality items once and were able to replace them with the other. Finding a durable high-end merino wool cardigan in a vintage store for $20 is not an opportunity for many people when such society doesn’t exist.
Fashion has already been moving between guilt and pleasure and flowing inside our desire and nightmare. But the anxiety of it happens for sustainable fashion too. The Covid-19 crisis we are experiencing provides an opportunity to reconsider our choices regarding sustainability and in making critiques on how we differentiate ourselves from others concerning how we build our immunity in the fashion system. This pandemic makes us realize that, almost like a therapist. We can start looking to find a space for discussions on how to organize our social relationships within this context and how to take care of each other when our choices don’t work in our social groups. Maybe we all need a fashion therapist, or we have to become one after all.
Sanem Odabaşi is a PhD candidate from Eskisehir in Turkey and a Visiting Scholar at Parsons School of Design, The New School.