Tag Archives: minimalism

The cult of fashion and the challenge of minimalism

As an environmentalist, I find minimalism a fascinating concept. I define minimalism as the lifelong journey to reduce your material possessions; to live with elegance — only with what you really need or what really gives you pleasure. Books like l’art de la Simplicité, Madame Chic and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying espouse some elements of minimalism as a path to happiness. Clutter creates stress, goes the theory. And who needs more of that in their life?

In this blogpost, I take clothing as an example. I find myself almost constantly looking for something to add to my wardrobe — the damn thing never seems to be complete. What are the barriers that keep me from completeness? I identify seven key ones below, each one harder to overcome than the previous. Together these challenges reinforce the strong cultural narratives we’ve built around consumption which make this prison hard to escape.

1. The unacceptability of wearing an items that looks old or worn out, and the unacceptability of wearing it twice

The fact is clothes get worn out over time, and especially in today’s world with washers and dryers and more frequent washing and drying, and given that fabric quality has even deteriorated in some shops in the quest for lower prices. The fact is that if a shirt has a small tear, it can be sealed with thread and its life can be extended. Instead, we choose to replace it, because we are judged badly by each other for wearing old or faded clothes. And because fast fashion has often made a new purchase less expensive than a repair.

Another problem is the endless quest for variety — on how we mustn’t be seen to wear the same thing too often. A positive change I have noticed is that some people are now bucking the trend. I smiled when I heard girlfriends at business school saying confidently that they wold wear the same dress to the next ball as they did to the last. And why not?

Alexandra Paul is an ex-Baywatch actress and a deep environmental thinker. In her blogpost on simple living, she recounts an incident of wearing the same dress again:

“About 10 years ago, I was at a premiere, going down the red carpet, and a TV reporter said to me, “I saw you in that outfit at an event last week, Alexandra”. My first instinct was to feel embarrassed, that I had been busted, but then I realized that was silly and I was kowtowing to odd societal rules that say you cannot wear the same thing too often or too close together, and I told him the truth, that I didn’t have very many dresses and that I thought I looked good in this dress. He didn’t know how to respond.”

Suggested Actions:

  • Wear it again, wear it proud
  • Don’t judge others for what they wear

2. The prison of fast-moving fashion

Fabrics and colors fall in and out of fashion making last season’s purchases irrelevant. This means if you wanted to stay current, you’d probably be shopping every month.

Suggested Action: Just ignore fashion magazines and do your thing

3. The proliferation of different occasion wear

I have a number of weddings to attend this summer and so embarked on dress-shopping. “ But you have so many dresses already” remarked my mother. “But none of these are suitable for weddings” I remarked.

Why? Because the fashion industry is about creating a different look for every single occasion. Cocktail party. Ball. Summer lawn party. Day at beach. Night in club. Night in a bar. A first date. Summer wedding. Sister’s graduation. Interview. IPO. Everything requires a different outfit — with accessories, and shoes.

We all know the person in the gym who is kitted out in the most scientific gym gear with their $100 Lululemon leggings and can barely lift 20 lbs, because they only ever make token visits to the gym.

Permit me to point out the obvious: we usually only need a few fabrics for a few different actual differences in physical conditions like temperature.

Suggested Actions

  • Don’t judge and make fun of people who choose to wear odd combinations. Recognize the ‘oddness’ is a perception created by a multi-billion dollar industry
  • Celebrate practicality in your own wardrobe. Look for items that are multi-purpose
  • Challenge yourself to leaving more space in your holiday packing for books/camera/hobbies/whatever and wear the same outfit again
  • In my experience, the only two shoes you really need for a holiday are one pair you can walk long distances in and one that looks good

 

3. The proliferation of different occasion wear

I have a number of weddings to attend this summer and so embarked on dress-shopping. “ But you have so many dresses already” remarked my mother. “But none of these are suitable for weddings” I remarked.

Why? Because the fashion industry is about creating a different look for every single occasion. Cocktail party. Ball. Summer lawn party. Day at beach. Night in club. Night in a bar. A first date. Summer wedding. Sister’s graduation. Interview. IPO. Everything requires a different outfit — with accessories, and shoes.

sneakersmodel.png
Apparently some types of sneakers can work with some types of dresses, but only if you look like a model already

We all know the person in the gym who is kitted out in the most scientific gym gear with their $100 Lululemon leggings and can barely lift 20 lbs, because they only ever make token visits to the gym.

Permit me to point out the obvious: we usually only need a few fabrics for a few different actual differences in physical conditions like temperature.

Suggested Actions

  • Don’t judge and make fun of people who choose to wear odd combinations. Recognize the ‘oddness’ is a perception created by a multi-billion dollar industry
  • Celebrate practicality in your own wardrobe. Look for items that are multi-purpose
  • Challenge yourself to leaving more space in your holiday packing for books/camera/hobbies/whatever and wear the same outfit again
  • In my experience, the only two shoes you really need for a holiday are one pair you can walk long distances in and one that looks good

4. The belief that looks can be compensated for by fashion

My view on this is that you can fool all the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. The astute observer, your partner, anyone who lives with you, they all know what you look like. The right clothes and hairstyle can only disguise you so much.

Suggested Action: Accept yourself as you are. And then you’ll need less fancy stuff to hide it. The key is also to accept other people the way they are. When you don’t accept others, your perspective is that they don’t accept you. When you accept them, you realize it’s both possible and reasonable that they accept you.

5. The general obssession with looks

We search for art in people, sometimes forgetting that beauty can be found elsewhere too — in nature, in paintings, in sculptures, in structures. The beautiful face is every culture is the average of human features. We’ve glorified it so much forgetting that very few people will actually be this average.

Have you ever seen an airline ad where the air hostess has a bigger than average nose or smaller than average eyes?

The real beauty campaigns that are finally gaining some traction are still far behind in my opinion. Aerie real campaign pictures present attractive girls with a tiny bit of cellulite and they’re like “see, it’s ok”. The real challenge is to show someone ordinary on multiple dimensions. The real challenge is to sell women products that appeal to their competence, their skill, their willpower, rather than their desire to be beautiful.

realbeautycampaigns.png
Left: Aerie real’s campaign features women with small imperfections, but are these really that big a deviation from standard billboard images? Right: Singapore Airlines’ perfect flight attendant

I’m a big fan of writer Laurie Penny’s views on this real beauty stuff:

“Rather than fighting for every woman’s right to feel beautiful, I would like to see the return of a kind of feminism that tells women and girls everywhere that maybe it’s all right not to be pretty and perfectly well behaved. That maybe women who are plain, or large, or old, or differently abled, or who simply don’t give a damn what they look like because they’re too busy saving the world or rearranging their sock drawer, have as much right to take up space as anyone else.”

Suggested Action:

  • Be the change you want to see — catch yourself when you are judging someone based on their looks and correct it

6. Not realizing the true cost of things

A fundamental driver of over-consumption is simply that a lot of us can afford items at the price they are sold. The problem is the price at which they are sold is not their true cost.

We don’t realize that everything we consume has a cost for the planet. Products don’t drop from the sky. They are made from materials in the earth and a lot of waste is produced in the process. I think if most people knew the details of how denim is produced, they’d be appalled and ‘need’ fewer jeans.

chinalesothopollution
First photo: Xintang, a Chinese city that produces 1 in 3 of the world’s jeans: “Huge amounts of polluted water flow out untreated from the factory into the East River” – Chinanetdaily, 2013. Second and Third photos by Robin Hammon , http://www.robinhammond.co.uk, are of Lesotho. He says “At rubbish dumps in Maseru, children as young as 3 pick through waste products thrown away by the garment industry. They are often collecting offcuts from jeans to burn for cooking. The smoke from the smouldering waste reportedly causes respiratory illnesses and eyes to sting and weep”. 

Incidentally, Alexandra Paul’s documentary “The Cost of Cool” part 2 on YouTube is a good watch. She traces in a simple way how T-shirts are produced from cotton.

Suggested Action:

  • Get educated on how products are made and spread the education

7. The fact that our entire economic system is based on consumption

The deepest challenge is that, to some degree, we are all condemned to the anti-minimalist life because it’s hard to change a behavior when you are one piece of a giant system.

Our whole economy is built on excessive consumption. You open up the The Economist in these days of economic gloom and you see writers lamenting about manufacturing indices falling; about how governments need to give people tax cuts; about the tragedy of people not spending enough. People’s jobs and hence their ability to support their families depends on endless consumption. This is the greatest tragedy of all. From it stems the greatest unanswered question of all: Does it have to be this way? Is this how value is created in the world? Through endless production and consumption of material goods? Or can we shift more towards experiences and towards the shared economy perhaps, or something else we have yet to imagine? What could another economic system look like? Even more fundamentally, is the point of an economic system to produce ever-more stuff or ever-more happiness?

Suggested Action: If you have a solution to this one, please let me know…Unresolved as this is, I still feel on balance we do more good than bad by consuming less than more.

So here we are: in the shackles of a society still obsessed with conspicuous consumption, wanting to break free but unable to because of a kind of tragedy of commons. It’s only good for me to stop buying shoes if we all decide that sneakers (any type) with a dress are fine. And I hope we will decide for ourselves and those around us that we need less than we initially think we need and we can shop less and spend our money better. Change starts with the individual. The herd only moves when the individual animals at the front start running. And so my run begins…

References

  1. Simple Living thoughts by Alexandra Paul

http://alexandrapaul.com/activism/simple-living/

2. Laurie Penny on beauty: I don’t want to be told I’m pretty as I am. I want to live in a world where that’s irrelevant

3. The denim capital of the world: so polluted you can’t give the houses away

https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/6283-The-denim-capital-of-the-world-so-polluted-you-can-t-give-the-houses-away

4. The dark side of denim

http://www.robinhammond.co.uk/the-dark-side-of-denim/

Photos from: https://www.ae.com/featured-aeriereal/aerie/s-cat/6890055 andhttp://pointmetotheplane.boardingarea.com/2013/06/07/becoming-a-singapore-airlines-girl-training/