Friday, October 28, 2005

Simple / Plain / Modest / Ethical Dress

Ah, THIS again!

I'm not sure why this is with me so often lately.

and I don't think it's really only about dress - it's simply that dress is one of our more "public" choices - and one we engage in daily.

I have been thinking about simplicity of lifestyle (as opposed to the more spiritual-as-not-practical) for a while in many terms

-Biking rather than driving
-trains rather than planes
-Housing, my current dilemma - should I share my 9oo square foot, 2 bedroom apartment with another human in addition to myself, two dogs, and three cats? It's not at all an excessive amount of space for an average american, but it feels excessive to me sometimes (and heating bills are going up!)

But clothing, too, is an issue for me.

But what, exactly?

Things about Plain dress that call to me:

- fair trade (was it made by forced or exploited labor? most mainstream "fashions" were, and not just Old Navy, Land's End and LL Bean too)

-environment (growing cotton is traditionally amazingly pesticide-heavy, synthetics are just gross and golly-knows what goes into making them! Not to mention shipping and fancy, loud, over-lit retail outlets)

- having too much (this is where I still fall down, baadly. I swear, I have no fashion sense, but I still have 20 pairs of shoes (more?) not to mention way too many of all sorts of clothes - including things I haven't worn in a year)

- the "slave to fashion" thing. Though I have to say that I'm not sure one escapes this by dressing Plain. I have even seen numerous comments about the attention it gets you (as if this is somehow our ministry - people will ask us about God if we dress funny - excuse me for being flippant)

Things that shove me away:

- any hint of "cultural conservatism" - the parts of it that come from the notion that women should be covered to be acceptable in God's eyes. The parts that say "This gender should wear this stuff" (that it is partially about codifying gender). The overlap with communities that believe marriage is one man/one woman, and what's more, the man is boss.

-the idolization of difference (ie: "I am holier because I set myself apart from you" It's my understanding that this is much of why quakers gave up "official" plain dress. That the idea was not to be distinctive, but simply to be plain (which, as many have pointed out, is more along the lines of jeans and t-shirts these days.)

Almost everything I own is used these days (I mean, I bought it used) but not everything. This takes care of the environmental and labor concerns. I try to buy new things that have been ethically produced, but sometimes the things I can't find used I also can't find "fair trade" (barrettes for my hair which is growing out, a really good (for Minnesota) winter coat, which I still won't need for a few years I think- actually, I think I can get one from Wintergreen)

This is an interesting point for me, because it would be less of an option if I did not live in a country where lots of people buy more than they need and give it away when they're bored with it (so I am participating in a less sustainable system - in my ideal world everyone would own 4 outfits and wear them until they were not wearable - and there would be no used clothes for me! - but in a more sustainable way, yike!)

And yet, I might be a "slave to fashion" - I've never been very "girly" and have sort of a casual hippie dyke "style" . I have heard many women talk of "indulging their "girly side"" and having a facial, or "dressing up" (in heels and an evening dress, or whatever) - very much NOT my thing. And yet, if my own quirky, relatively simple style was "taken away" from me, how hard would that be for me? Not as easy as I'd usually like to think, I fear.

I also really like color, and I do experience it as a celebration of an aspect of God, and not something that detracts (like owning too much, or thinking too much about how others see me) I like lots of colors, and I like them bright. I assume God likes color too. So there


Yet another day, no answers, lots of questions.


Legalfrugalbabe said...

Hi Pam,

Totally with you on the simple dress thing.

A heck of a lot goes into trying to be an ethical consumer, not the least of which is economics. I can't afford organic or hand-knit clothing (unless I knit it myself with cheap yarn); most of what I buy is inexpensive and comes from either Land's End, Old Navy or REI Outlet. I know this may cause discomfort with certain readers, but I shop at Wal-Mart and Target too. I'm not saying this is great, but I do it because it saves me money.

That being said, even if I did have the money, I'm not sure I would have the energy to research every store I buy from to make sure that their corporate ethics satisfy me. It's a ton of work, and I feel led to spend my time on other issues.

In terms of appearance, I just try to keep things simple. I don't wear anything fancy schmancy or embellished or embroidered, but I also try to look reasonably attuned to the times. I'm big into solid v-necks and dark pants/skirts. You won't ever see me wearing pointy-toed stilettos - my feet hurt just looking at them - and my most feminine shoes only have a slight heel.

I would also like to throw something out there. One caveat: I do not mean this as criticism toward anyone because I'm just as guilty of it as the next person. But have you noticed how more liberal people have a dress code too? Let me rattle off a few brands: Dansko, Eddie Bauer, REI, Teva, Keen... Then there are catalogs like, oh, Title 9 Sports and Sundance. It seems that in my neighborhood, the liberalmobile of choice is a Subaru, no matter what the model is. You go to the supermarket at the end of my street and a good quarter of the cars parked there are either Subarus or Volvos. Same thing at the metro station parking lot.

The next question is what that says about us as individuals. The irony of the society we live in is that you can be a non-slave to fashion slave to fashion, because there are so many different styles out there. There is a form of liberal uniform and companies like Dansko and Earthshoes and Teva and Naot and Birkenstock and Keen capitalize on that - you will see their merchandise sold in stores either decorated in soothing earth or wood tones, or in stores with funky, colorful merchandise with inspirational messages. Whole Foods - same thing. Environments like those trigger a response in me - that I'm in on a little secret, that this makes me a good person. I fall for it - every - single - time, so now I stay away.

Sorry, I have an uncanny ability to rattle on and on. I would like to type one last thing if I may. Shouldn't personal appearance be a marginal concern of ours? Again, no criticism here. But I'm wondering if we should dress simply so we can stop worrying about how we look and get on with our lives. That someone is not dressed "simply enough" should not be a concern. The idea was thrown out there precisely so that we could focus on the most important stuff; isn't the fact that the whole simple dress debate even became a debate regarding what is appropriately simple not in line with Quakerism?

earthfreak said...


I think you're right-on, and I enjoy your ramblings, so don't curtail yourself on my account!

I have to say, I shop at Target, but I have like an allergy to Wal-mart. I actually think that Walmart is worse (though I couldn't really "prove" it - it's bigger, which raises my suspicions, but Target is big enough. Neither is unionized or seems to have any sort of corporate ethics (I don't actually believe there is such a thing, more on that later)

I completely agree with you both on the "liberal style" issue, and the danger that we can get obsessed with whether others (or ourselves) are dressed simply enough, which isn't actually any better, in my opinion, than obsessing about whether they (we) are dressed "hip" enough, or "well" enough.

That said, I think there are still "ethical" choices to be made, and I would even say that in some cases they do not involve massive amounts of research, but simply a sort of presence to the reality of things.

For example, Shopping at Walmart is supporting a company and a process that I wouldn't choose to support (as is shopping at Target, - I am interested in the class issues that are probably the root of this - as much as we say it's ethics, there's not an appreciable difference in many ways, except that Wal-mart tends to have (at least a stereotype of) poor / low class / "trailer trash" clientele (including my sister - I'm not trying to offend, I am trying to reveal my prejudices. 'Everyone' shops at Target.

Anyway, I think that's a biggie, actually. And ties into the "liberal dress code" idea. - and what's really freaky is that the "liberal dress code" isn't necessarily more ethical than any other dress code. Land's End and Eddie Bauer get their clothes from sweatshops just like Walmart does. Whole Foods does support organic food, but they are a non-union shop, and a publicly held corporation.

(which, to put it simply, is doubtful can EVER be "ethical" - they are legally responsible to maximize profits for their shareholders - and probably would be motivated to prioritize that anyway. Therefore, except when being ethical is the best way to make money - which, in my experience it rarely is, at least short-term - ethics will never be their top priority.)

So, I would say that shopping at Whole Foods is theoretically marginally better than shopping at Wal-Mart's grocery section in some ways (neither are union, both are publicly held, but Whole Foods carries more organics - on the other hand, you may be mostly buying into the "I'm in on a secret, and it makes me good" vibe that you mentioned. - Is that bad, in and of itself? I actually think maybe. Part of what Whole Foods sells, aside from organics, is elitism. They actually, in a way, have a vested interest in organics not becoming "the norm" because they would lose some of their mystique.

That's really sad and scary, if you ask me.

earthfreak said...

I also forget about the fact that some people have to dress "decently" for work.

I myself can wear almost anything to work. I am easily outfitted at a thrift store, which, as I have mentioned, removes all concerns about the manufacture of the clothing. (I prefer to buy from charitable stores, though there is a Savers right by my work, so I check there more frequently)

As for massive amounts of research. I have found a different sort of "simplifying" around that. (like the fact that a publically held company is basically highly unlikely to be ethical -and, what's more, even if they were, I'd rather buy locally, from people I know, or at least know something about.)

As for food, I buy basically from Cooperatives (but then, I am blessed to live in Minneapolis, in a metro area that boasts at least 8 different natural foods co-ops) - They vary in how exciting their political activism, or their commitment to always doing "the right thing" is, but they also all, by their very nature, are at least somewhat democratically run, and distribute the profits to a large, local membership group, should there be any (profits)

(My patronage refunds this year were $0, $2.17, and $17.00)

I can also get my biked fixed at a co-op and eat at a co-op restaurant. It's an awesome city!

I think that the point of all this is that Whole Foods actually modeled itself on natural food co-ops. They managed to retain the "look" and some of the "mystique", but they left behind the most important parts (legal and economic democracy)

I think this is a key in plain living. To remember that it's not about how it looks, but what the heart of the thing is.

(So, going off something Amanda mentioned, rainbow kneesocks that are "fair trade" will indeed be more "godly" or "true" and maybe even "plain" than grey socks manufactured in a sweatshop)

earthfreak said...

I also wanted to say that I distinctly remember the kids at my school (a quaker school, but without many quaker students) in 1980 or so were very disdainful of kids who wore "designer jeans" (which were sort of all the rage) - and I remember jumping on that bandwagon.

But we wore "Lee" or "Levi's" (both of which are also made in sweatshops now, though I think Levi's had some claim to ethics at the time - I'm not sure) You sure as heck wouldn't be caught dead in sears brand or something.

earthfreak said...

Just a moment for confession

I just blew any possible plain dress ideals out of the water by buying myself a pair of polar fleece, hot pink, polka-dotted pajama pants at Target!

It was a really cold day.

Richard said...

I think a distinction needs to be made between wearing clothes to make a statement and wearing clothes to be functional.

I opt for my clothes being functional. I also eschew any thing that smacks of advertising on my clothes - I can't stand prominent labels. My wife, on the other hand, loves to dress well (and if we could afford it, she would be buying premium labelled clothes).

I have no objection to fine clothes, but, I don't make it a point to go out of my way for them.

It is the same with anything really (except books), I like many things, but can do without them. I like fine food, but, I am just as happy eating "peasant" food.

You need to draw a distinction between being a slave to clothes (or whatever) and being appreciative of it.

Personally, I would not buy "hot pink, polka-dotted pajama pants", but I would not be disdainful of them if I had them, nor would I "flaunt" them. (of course, this is hypothetical, my wife would never let me near such a pair of pants :-)