A number of things coincided within the previous month of March that made it a good time for a reflection on my wardrobe. The first thing was #mendingMarch. If you are not spending time in my corner of the Internet, you could be forgiven for not knowing that March is the month for mending garments. The second thing was a planned spring break roadtrip to the greater Portland, Oregon, area which is one of my favorite locations for thrift shopping [among other things]. And thirdly [but not lastly] it was my 40th birthday which necessitated that I compile a list of potential gifts that could be purchased by those who love me because that is all part of how we celebrate obits around the sun. Now that March is over, and it seems it sort of had a theme, I thought I would come back from my little unplanned blog-hiatus to talk about my month of slow fashion.
Perhaps to be slightly contrary, first the birthday. I started making the “please buy this thing” list for relatives when my kids were small. Because most of the family does not live in Montana they have a hard time showing love from a distance and the *easiest* way to do this, most people seem to agree, is by buying things. Let me be clear: I sort of hate gifts. I do not hate the love that is in the gift, I hate that the gift has to be a stand in for the love. Dearest family, I know that you love me but my love language is Dismantling Capitalism, so please don’t send me stuff – definitely not brand new stuff in the packaging, if it has to be stuff can it be used? or free? or something you already have? Oh, but your love language is the sweet spot between a truly heartfelt gesture and free shipping? Hmmm, I guess you better buy me something from this list of pre-vetted items from pre-vetted retailers. Thank you for compromising for me [sorry no Ama$on].
For my very important birthday I asked for tools to enable my fiber habit. I have recently learned to spin fiber on a spinning wheel [which came to me used from a friend who had upgraded hers] and then came into a large [like 50 gallon bag-sized] amount of unwashed and undyed alpaca fiber [which came to me from another friend because her friend doesn’t need alpaca fleece – just alpacas – but her alpacas still need haircuts] that I need to process so I can make things like sweaters. This is an AMBITIOUS goal [that could well take me 10 years since I have so many hobbies], but I have enough alpaca to make a sweater for every member of my family [even the chickens, but I won’t]. This idea delights me because the fiber is local and a gift, the wheel was gift and the labor is all mine. Now I also have a swift and ball winder and some lovely combs to make the processing easier. Thanks mom. You even ordered them from the slightly more expensive small business I suggested and paid shipping. That’s real love.
I also asked for a tea length, vintage, silk dressing gown [preferably a green, botanical print] for the warmer months and a quilted, floor length housecoat duster for the colder months [all natural fibers please], but I think Etsy was maybe too much for my mom. I get it.
Next the roadtrip. What I like about going to metro Portland is a very long list, but an important thing is that it’s a decent sized city with an excellent secondhand market that we can drive to. When you can drive somewhere you are able to drive back with a trunk full of supplies. Usually we stock up on food and drink items we can’t get at home [and we did this time as well] but increasingly we also get clothes. A number of years ago I decided to opt out of fast fashion because it’s fucking terrible. It’s a sound choice to make, but a very difficult one, especially when the only places in Helena I can buy clothes are Target, TJ Maxx, Walmart, Costco, Old Navy, and Ross. This is barely an exaggeration. Those are the only clothing retailers that are not boutiques and though boutiques charge you as if you’re buying fair trade, ethical, sustainable clothes their wares are no easier to source than the box store retailers. And that means my main choices are online retailers. Some of them sell wonderful things, but most of them don’t offer better choices either, and they come with the added time it takes to check the fiber content or deal with the varied sizing, and the dreaded returns because I can’t try things on.
I do a lot of secondhand shopping here, but we don’t have the inventory available that exists in a place like Portland. For my professional wardrobe I have a lot of requirements about what I must wear because I interface with elected officials [even if mostly in the restroom] and therefore must be dressed so that I am will not be judged by rich, judgmental people otherwise known as “business professional” attire. My 19-year-old self [with her fresh tattoos and newly pierced nose] would have scoffed at me out for taking a job where I needed to wear “nude pumps,” but I can assure her that my Legislative Barbie capsule wardrobe is far from the most offensive thing I have had to do in order to have proper health insurance and a pension. Also, I sort of like the challenge of being Legislative Barbie in a 100% secondhand wardrobe.
I’ve had this job for a little over a year and before I started it I had a lot of black and black-coordinating pieces that could pass as “business professional.” Probably I could have worn all those pieces into the ground and no one would really have noticed, but I know that as an autistic person I need to go the extra mile to impress people with how I look. My wardrobe is part of my mask and allows me to convince other people that I am just like them. It protects me from their initial judgment. It gets me in the door. So in addition to being a secondhand professional capsule wardrobe, it also has to be “fancy.” Many people will not notice, but there will be people I need to notice because I will need them to take me seriously. If you’ve never had to think about your clothes this way it’s because you’ve never been poor, you’re neurotypical and probably also male. On our trip I had a goal for myself to integrate more navy blue and brown with accent colors of green and red into my wardrobe, bonus points for natural fibers like silk, linen and wool.
For less than the price of one blazer from Banana Republic [$199.50] I managed to find across 5 thrift stores: 5 blazers [two wool], 5 blouses [two silk ones], 2 pairs of pants and one skirt. While I was killing a little time on the trip, I brought the kids to a real mall to do things like buy them underwear and socks. Because I had dragged them around to several thrift stores already I wanted to show them a tangible reason why I buy used, so after walking past the Banana Republic and seeing their spring linen collection in the window [beautiful], we popped in. My son stood next to me as I flipped over the price tag of an innocuous brown, linen blazer and then gasped: $260. Then I took them to Goodwill. Sure, it is not the best company, but here in the Global North it is keeping some perfectly good clothes out of landfills. After our outing to the mall, my son was eager to compare the clothes. I impressed him with my ability to discern the fiber content of garments by touch. “Mom, you should do this as a job. What wizardry is this?” Almost everything I bought was name brand and almost all the pockets were still sewn shut like they come from the factory suggesting that either they were barely worn or that most people don’t know they can get out a seam ripper and open up the pockets.
Now all I really need to complete my business professional all secondhand capsule wardrobe is a pair of gray or navy blue flats, a replacement pair of black patent leather loafers, a pair of high-waisted brown tweed pants [for fun], and a white or cream, silk, sleeveless shell. A girl can dream.
And lastly, the mending. Distinct from my professional wardrobe, I want my personal wardrobe to be 100% biodegradable. These are the clothes that I live in, that I am the most myself in. Ideally, my personal wardrobe will be mostly handmade and I would even love for it to be mostly comprised of fibers from my own fibershed like the lovely alpaca. However, the best garments are those that already exist. Why buy new when you can repair what you already have? Sometimes, when I am doing things like darning socks, I remember that before we mass produced clothing, everything cost so much more in resources and time than it appears to now [but the costs are just harder to see]. Because clothes are cheap we have so many, but when you make a garment – say a knitted sweater – you understand the human time it takes to clothe a person. When you spin fiber into yarn or weave it into fabric and then knit it or sew it, you realize that there is even more depth to the time. As a farmer, when you grow something and put all the water and soil and harvesting into something [say cotton or linen or flax] or raising it [wool and other animal fibers] you can put all these steps together to understand why it is resource intensive to create even one garment. And this is what I really like about mending techniques like shashiko or boro: it saves time already spent by restoring a garment to functionality.
Mending is a very slow process. In March I repaired three pairs of the Handsome Gentleman’s jeans [he is very rough on jeans], a hat for a friend, a reusable grocery bag, two pairs of my own jeans, a beloved flannel shirt, and one silk blouse that had been my mother’s. I mostly did this while watching TV but also a little bit while riding in the car. In most cases these repairs were just a hole in the knee, or a torn pocket, or a few other tears, but for one of my jeans I went a bit crazy.
I bought these jeans used on a previous trip to greater Portland and the patch is from a pillowcase I bought at a thrift store 7 or 8 years ago [I have a strange ability to remember where everything I possess came from, which is maybe tedious for other people, but it adds a lot of depth to my experience]. To repair the literally threadbare seat and hole-y knees I basically had to make a pair of shorts inside and double line the knees. Then the embroidery on top. It took about 15 hours to complete them, which seems a bit excessive if you have not done your meditations about the work it would take to amass all the resources to make them in the first place [then it’s excessive to throw them out]. Presently I feel like my pants are functionally immortal. They are The Pants of Theseus. They are not the most traditional boro garment, but they are in that spirit of repair.
Mending turned out to be the most meditative thing that I did in March, but all these things together are illustrative of a lifestyle that is devoted to slow fashion [slow lots of things]. This sort of thing really is just my life. I understand that not everyone has 15 hours to work on a single pair of pants, or 8 hours out of a vacation to look through used clothes, or even a person who will drop a giant bag of dirty alpaca fleece on your porch or give you a spinning wheel. I do these things out of interest and also with tremendous privilege. It would be better if we had a fashion industry that cared more about why these things are important, that built them in, that was a real circular economy. These sorts of steps are incremental ones in the transition plan to that reality. I like clothing and I like fashion. I come from a long line of women who worked in the garment industry and participated in fiber crafts, so much of this is my inheritance. I wish I had the ability and time and resources to make all my own clothes, but I don’t. And also that doesn’t fix all the rest of the issue. That’s an isolationist’s path to slow fashion and we need a collectivist’s path.
As they say in the zero waste movement: we don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.