Along with everything else consumption-related that I’ve been considering recently, one other thing I’ve been increasingly interested in on a personal level is the idea of a slow wardrobe. To my mind, this is a wardrobe that is focused as much as possible on practical, functional, durable, mendable, long-lasting, sustainable, fairly made, and eco-friendly clothing. I suspect that better-made, longer-lasting clothing that can be altered or mended as needed could help to jumpstart the slowing down of the breakneck consumption that seems to be a function of a modern fashion industry that’s focused on getting clothing out quickly and cheaply with little regard for the consequences.
I’m not exactly a huge shopper or a follower of trends, but I still wear clothes, I still need clothes for different purposes, and I still like to look relatively good and put together. But I also still buy into the system of consumption by buying things, replacing worn out items, and sometimes shopping as a form of distraction. Furthermore, I don’t feel that the fact that I happen to shop at the thrift store rather than the mall absolves me of being part of the problem, since my habits are made possible by this kind of problematic consumption. Given all this, I really like the idea of focusing in and assembling a quality wardrobe that will last for a long time and hopefully drawing back from excessive consumption a bit more.
Deep in consumption-related thought one day, I found my way to this post which discusses developing a wardrobe based on wool that will last a lifetime. While I’m not about to say that my foresight up to planning out decades worth of functional, long-lasting clothing – much as I’d like to – I appreciate the idea. I think our society is far too caught up in the instant gratification of low cost, low quality, disposable, and wasteful consumption, and clothing factors heavily into this equation.
I buy into some of these tendencies too, which feels troubling. It’s easy for me to go out and buy clothes inexpensively. Perhaps it’s too easy and too inexpensive. Because I shop exclusively secondhand and aim for thrift store sale days whenever possible, I can usually buy quite a bit of clothing for very low prices. But…when the items that I’m looking at are very inexpensive, or they look pretty, or I’m in a rush, I don’t always pay as much attention to quality and durability. While I love some of my thrift store purchases, I also have things that simply didn’t wind up being a very good value, even at only a dollar or two.
The sad extension of this ready availability and low cost is that when I started thinking about the idea of a slow wardrobe, I was tempted to give into the lure of an awesome idea, ditch what I had, go to the thrift store, and start buying myself the components of a new, long-lasting wardrobe as quickly as possible. This was especially tempting after last semester, when a bunch of my clothing started falling apart at once and I was so busy that there were few opportunities to actually do anything about it. Of course, this is exactly the antithesis of the whole idea. The smartness, I haz it.
So I made a pot of tea, sat down on the couch, and took a deep breath. Time for a more measured (slow, if you will) approach.
I gave some real thought to the idea of a slow wardrobe, and came up with a bit of a plan, of sorts, that would allow me to start building the kind of wardrobe that I want, but to do so very slowly and carefully. Ideally, I’d like a wardrobe that addresses both my professional life and all of the other things that I do, like cooking, gardening, hiking, and biking. Some overlap would be nice, but I don’t have much of a problem having nicer professional clothes and then other options for the work of home and everyday life. In terms of unifying principles, what I want is a wardrobe that is serviceable, practical, long-lasting, and as sustainable as possible. As I build a slower wardrobe, I want to focus on options that will last and be useful for a long time to come, that can be mended or altered, and that won’t often have to be replaced.
The first thing I did was to consider what I already had. Happily, when I went digging, I found I already had a number of lovely, practical, well-made items that fit into my ideal. Some well-made wool pants and skirts, many of them vintage. Sweaters ranging from fine merino to heavy handknits, and a few blazers in nice wools and velvets. A rather large collection of wool socks in various colours. Coats, scarves, hats, and gloves for the Canadian winter. Linen dresses and skirts for the summer. Leather footwear, bags, and belts that hold up year after year.
That said, there was still a lot of clothing by mass market retailers that had noticeable holes, undone hems, wonky seams, loose insoles, and pilling, all generally signs of questionable quality. It was all bought used at very low prices so I don’t feel entirely awful about the financial cost. It’s surprising to see how badly some things have lasted, though (even keeping their secondhand origins in mind, and especially as compared to some older but better made items). There are some things that are clearly on their way out thanks to shoddy construction, and the quality is so poor that the effects of mending are negligible at best. As these items become less and less wearable over time (and I do plan keep wearing them until they die), I hope to replace them with fewer, better quality alternatives – in essence, less stuff that will last longer. Some of these items I’m hoping to make myself, but more on that later.
In the interest of slow, focused acquisition, I set out a few guidelines for use when I’m at the thrift store. I already have some things that I always look for – natural fibers (wool, silk, linen, leather, cotton), quality construction (even seams, metal zippers, and quality material with extra in the hems and seams for adjustment or mending). I also check whether there are any obviously disqualifying issues, like tears, stains, or funky smells, and keep my eye on the price as well. But my new approach also includes what I’m calling the “hide it in the bottom of the cart or take it into the change room” test. If I find something so wonderful that I feel the need to hide it, lest someone try to take it, it’s a keeper. Anything less and it simply doesn’t make the cut.
So far, this approach seems to be working. Thrift store visits over the last few months (prior to my March spending ban) have resulted in a few clothing acquisitions that I’m pleased with. These items have replaced some of what’s falling apart, and I haven’t made any extraneous purchases. Clearly I’m still buying things, and will probably be doing so for a good while yet. Although I recognize the necessity of at least some consumption, I still feel conflicted about it and I’m going to keep digging into the idea in an academic and a personal way. But for now, I’m feeling fairly good. The questionable clothing is gradually on its way out and better, more considered options are slowly making their way in. The fact that something fits, is secondhand, and doesn’t cost much simply isn’t enough anymore. While these are still things that I value, quality and durability are becoming a bigger focus as I try to make my things last longer and continue to buy less overall.