Sighted people read each other visually, and that means for most of us, how we look will have a huge impact on who other people think we are. People will judge you if you don’t look clean and smart – neither of which is always easy if you’re dealing with extreme poverty. If you are presenting as poor and you don’t look poor enough to the people judging you, that won’t go well for you, either. Many social groupings expect people to conform to visual standards – you have to look the part if you want to belong.
Like many people, I grew up wearing hand me downs and clothes from charity shops. I did not get to choose how I looked, I had to wear whatever would do the job, and fitted. In my mid teens, I started taking scissors and needle to clothing in the hopes of finding something that felt like ‘me’. I was seventeen when I bought my first new dress, with my own money. I liked how that felt.
I’ve never had much cash to spend on clothes, and I’ve mostly bought in sales and I still buy second hand, and I do a lot of upcycling. Being able to choose how I’m going to look is something I really value. I feel more in control of my self, my body and my life if I can choose what I really want to wear rather than having to make do with what fits. As a tall and broad person I’ve struggled to find second hand clothes that fit. It is not a happy thing having to wear clothing you despise because that’s all that fits you.
I’ve talked to other people about this and I know it isn’t just me. There’s an emotional impact in being able to choose how you look when you’ve grown up, or spent much of your life unable to do that. While we’re talking about the impact of fast fashion on the planet, I think we need to talk as well about how the long term experience of poverty can impact on people’s clothes choices – and not in the best way. When you have very little control over your life, cheap, throwaway clothing means you do have control over how you look. Not wearing things until they are ragged means not looking poor. It takes a certain middle class confidence to wear worn and patched clothes – if you’ve got money and don’t need help, you won’t encounter the same problems around this.
To deal with the impact fast fashion has on the planet, we need to identify and deal with the things that make it attractive. My guess is that control is a really important part of this. It’s a rare thing that you can control with very little money, and that might give a person with very little joy in their life an emotional boost. New clothes give people confidence and help them feel better about themselves, and unless those needs are met in other ways, fast fashion will remain attractive.