Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Sunday, February 25, 2018

A closer look at your edgy aesthetic

Columnist Julia Gagnon asks what it means to be an ethical clothing consumer

Julia Gagnon

My oversized flannel is among my most prized possessions. It’s comfortable, matches my style and comes with the bragging rights of costing only $4. Like much of my wardrobe it comes from Goodwill. By shopping at thrift stores, I could enjoy the bragging rights of not shopping at “mainstream” stores while also keeping my pockets comfortably lined with my mother’s money.

Occasionally I would walk into Goodwill and shop alongside those who depended on this store, individuals who couldn’t afford to shop anywhere else. I would watch mothers struggle to pick out outfits for their small children, probably hoping to find something special for their first day of school. While I picked out oversized sweaters, the man standing next to me would be trying on various sport coats; however, having been made for someone else none of them would ever seem to fit him well.

In high school, I volunteered with an organization that provided monthly breakfasts for those in the community who were either homeless or in difficult economic situations. As I helped sort and set up the tables filled with clothes and hygiene products, my friends and I would often peruse the different selections of clothes, either laughing at the retro styles we came across or thinking about how we might be able to pull it off. This sense of entitlement was present even in spaces that were supposed to be service-oriented. While we laid out clothes and prepared breakfast for the community there was an underlying thought of what we could get out of it. Although we never went so far as to take the clothes, we rationalized our desires within our own minds by thinking of our own economic needs. If the clothes were free,why couldn’t I take my pick as well? After all, I am a student with limited disposable income.

I recently listened to a panel of speakers from the National Coalition for the Homeless talk about their experiences being in a state of homelessness. Their personal narratives centered around the invisibility and shame that they felt, and about the degradation of their physical and mental well-being.

Simple things like clean clothes and a shower were major moments for them, as these necessities were not easily attained. Even if their homelessness did not involve living on the street, they had no money for new clothes for a job interview or other important life events. When I heard these raw re-tellings of their mental and physical journeys, it brought me back to my Saturdays filled with thrift shopping escapades. My closet is now filled with warm sweaters and wardrobe essentials that could have gone to someone whose heat had just been turned off or who had a pivotal job interview coming up. The prom dress sitting in my closet could have been worn by a young girl who saved up for months to finish her senior year in a memorable way.

You can subscribe to the idea that shopping at Goodwill separates you from corrupt corporations and the harmful ideals of consumer capitalism. However, the truth is that if you can afford to shop somewhere else and instead shop at thrift stores, you are participating in class warfare. Being poor or existing in a state of homelessness is not a fashion trend, it is the reality of many people who live in this country. In fact, it could be the reality of someone you know. In 2015, 48.2 million people living in the United States lived below the poverty line. When you buy a warm sweater or a nice blazer from a thrift store, you are further setting back those who do not have access to the same resources as you. Because the truth is that after you go to Goodwill, you will most likely drive a few minutes down the road to the nearest consumerism haven and buy the same thing at Urban Outfitters for $50.

Julia Gagnon is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle.

jgagnon@theeagleonline.com


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