Several years ago, I watched a documentary on how clothes are made. It seemed like a good idea at the time—a low-risk way to learn a little something. The images hung in my closet next my blouses and seemed emblazed on every shirt I picked up at Target.
The True Cost showed women crammed into stuffy factories and living in squalor despite their hard work crafting our cheap clothes. The scene cut to rivers tainted by round after round of chemicals and the the locals with birth defects and mottled skin that came as a result of exposure to that water. Filmmaker Andrew Morgan didn’t leave out the mountains of American castoffs—the “bargains” that were later purged and dropped off at charities, flooding landfills and overseas markets.
When exploitation and suffering turned to the international politics, I knew my Netflix choice wasn’t low-risk after all.
I spent weeks asking myself why the American government nearly ended trade relations with certain African nations when they didn’t want to take tons and tons of our used clothing anymore. The used clothes were stunting their own local economies.
I wondered if the person who made my chinos was a female garment worker later fired for becoming pregnant, or if my shoes kept the feet of a factory worker firmly placed in their own country because their passport is held to keep them in line.
Wear. Wash. Repeat.
I hadn’t purchased new clothes in years, not primarily because of The True Cost, but because of our tight budget and the up-and-down nature of three pregnancies. My husband was ready to see me wear something that wasn’t stretched or faded (or milk-stained, if we’re being honest).
But I couldn’t keep my mind from replaying the documentary when I looked in the fitting room mirror.
There had to be a better way to clothe ourselves, one that didn’t trample on creation and people made in the image of God.
Do you remember day-of-the-week underwear? Somehow, my life as an eleven-year-old was too complicated to get it right. I would wear Wednesday’s pair on Tuesday and shrug, thinking I’d get it right the next week.
I pulled that memory out while thinking about the problem of cheap clothes—and also thinking about how much I hated getting dressed. I was mentally stretched thin between the kids and freelancing every minute they were asleep or occupied. Every decision, no matter how small, felt monumental. I joked to a friend, “I wish I just had an outfit for every day of the week and never had to think about clothes again.”
But then I wondered if anybody would even notice if I did. Would anybody care? Rather than diving in headlong, I decided to start small: church. I could wear the same thing to church, over and over.
Sunday mornings were a rush to get everybody ready and out the door, so a uniform seemed like a logical way to tone down the crazy. I committed to wearing a basic grey shift for the next four Sundays.
Nobody is looking at you.
It was anticlimactic. Nothing happened. Nobody said anything.
So I went another month of Sundays in the dress (and added outfits for the rest of the week). Then I went for another month. And another. In total, I wore the dress for about six months until Easter, where I switched it out for a pink version of the same dress.
People blinked hard in my direction like they knew something was different but couldn’t quite tell what. A few complimented the dress, which made me realize that nobody had mentioned the grey dress. But I hadn’t considered that along the way. I had never stopped to think about my clothes or body or hangups when I wore the grey dress. There was no insecurity, no comparison, no distraction from the fabric I had draped over my body before coming into a place of worship. The dress was an armor against those insecurities.
In the aftermath of The True Cost, I had only considered how a system predicated on constantly buying new clothes hurt the people who made them. I never stopped to think about how such a system might hurt me.
Retail therapy. Keeping up with the Joneses—or, maybe to be more relevant, the influencers. Projecting a certain image or even just the appearance of having it all together. Clothes can be one more way we can cover over our issues.
My largest issue is that I don’t like my body. Never have. If I could be a brain in a jar, I’d probably be pretty content. Instead of looking to clothes to solve the issue of seeing my body wrongly, I simply opted out: my routine was to buy whatever was cheapest from the clearance rack.
That strategy won’t work now that I’ve seen the realities of where those cheap clothes come from. It was eye-opening to see how problematic clothes have become for the larger world when they’ve only become easier—to obtain, to care for, to get rid of—in the developed world. Because I care about the people who made my clothes and I have options for where to get clothes that work for me, I choose to buy used or research a company and its practices before buying. Fairly made clothes cost more, which means I have to be more careful about what I buy. My budget is limited, so random clearance rack purchases don’t work. I have to look myself in the eye and acknowledge that this is the right sweater or t-shirt or pair of shorts because it’s the only one I’m getting for a while.
Wearing the same things over and over doesn’t get at the heart of my body issues, but it does change my focus. When I wear something familiar, I don’t worry about my size or what people might be thinking. In fact, those six months taught me something we’ve already been told: nobody is looking at you. You don’t have to keep up with anyone. And if you wear the same thing to church every Sunday, nobody’s going to die. There might even be life in that very small, simple act.
Cover image by Modern Essentials