The fashion industry has been under some scrutiny of late for the environmental harm it does. A lot of clothing gets worn once and sent to landfill, and the notion of fashion is held to blame. However, there’s also the issue of looking smart, and what we now imagine that to mean.
Smart clothes are new clothes. There are no marks, no worn bits, no faded bits and no repairs on smart clothes. My son’s school is big on the idea of ‘smart’ and clear that a visible mend isn’t good enough. This wasn’t always the way of things and for much of the past, clean and neatly mended was smart enough for most of us.
New clothes speak of money. New clothes announce that you do not need to make do and mend, you can afford to throw away and replace. To look smart is to look affluent. However, the planet can’t afford us to keep going with this idea of richness.
It helps that I don’t do the kind of work where people will expect me to look ‘smart’. Authors are renowned for working in their pyjamas. We’re allowed to look a bit eccentric at events. It’s not unusual to find people at Transition meetings with old paint on their clothes, upcycled gear, things mended, and repurposed. I recall a fabulous hat made out of a child’s jumper… Equally in steampunk gatherings, remaking has kudos to it. I can go into those places wearing a skirt made out of offcuts from worn out shirts, and any judgement I get will tend towards the affirmative.
When we focus on smart, we also tend to focus on what we can buy readymade, which in turn means conformity, fitting in, having what everyone else has. Readymade means unoriginal, bland, lacking personal expression – and these might be good ways to push back against the smartness that harms the planet. If we prized innovation and originality more, then we’d be more up for upcycling and re-purposing because it would be all about showing off personal skill and cunning.
The current notion of smart, is modern. Our Viking and Saxon ancestors, I gather, took great care of their kit and meticulously patched damaged clothes to keep them going. When your culture says that your smartness is measured by how deftly you can make repairs, then that’s how you focus yourself. When your culture says ‘smart’ is a poor quality garment you throw away after a couple of wears, that’s apparently what we do.
Conventionally smart clothes are boring, unsustainable, and involve little or no personal creativity. Keeping usable fabric out of landfill leads to much more fun, innovation, skill, delight and scope to be unique.