One of my favorite classes in college was costume design. Women’s magazines tell us to consider what’s in and what’s out, what will make us look slimmer or camouflage generously curved hips. But costume design asks what the clothes say about a character: Does he hide in them or use them to stand out? What does she need to carry with her each day, and does she carry those things in pockets, a handbag, or…? What can he afford, and what does he wish he could afford? What type of crowd does she run in? What are his values, and how might his clothing reflect that? What are her daily activities, and how will that wear the clothing? Does he buy his clothing or make it, or does someone make it for him? What era and region does she live in, and what materials and techniques are in use? And, yes, is he conscious of trends, and does he follow them or buck them?
These days, in the era of all-but-disposable clothing and “fast fashion,” I don’t even know what the trends are. It doesn’t help (or helps, depending on your point of view) that I stopped reading women’s magazines five or ten years ago. But there is one trend I’m interested in—one of those that’s kind of funny because it recalls how our great-grandparents did things: Slow fashion is a movement toward a more mindful, sustainable, diverse, and ethical clothing industry that creates higher quality products. It’s super cool. It’s also a super high ideal to ascribe to, since life is busy (buying ethically takes research, folks) and budgeting is for real. So to keep things manageable, my good-enough version is to stick to these three guidelines, as much as possible:
- Quality and functionality: It’s got to be made to last, and it’s got to be made to be worn. Also, I don’t love shopping, and reuse is sustainable, so I prefer styles that I think I’ll wear for years, and that can be worn in diverse situations.
- Labor conditions: This one is the one I find hardest to track down or feel confident about, since transparency isn’t the norm, certifications aren’t perfect, and without a certification, you’re pretty much left taking the company’s word for it.
- Materials: Synthetics don’t breathe, and even recycled plastic polyesters create big problems in the form of microwaste (tiny bits of plastic that get into everything). Hemp is full of awesomeness, if tough to find. Bamboo is a favorite for athletic wear and underwear, thanks to its uber-breathability. Wool is lovely and rich and cozy. Cotton’s an old favorite, but for me it’s a big deal to buy organic.
Why? I’d known for a while that conventional cotton farming is particularly tough on the environment, but the clincher was this passage in Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy:
A short time before [Texas-based farmer] Nelson Reinsch lost his cotton crop [in 2001], more than 500 cotton farmers in the Andra Pradesh region of India committed suicide as worms ate the last of their cotton. Over the next six years, thousands more farmers would follow them. The farmers could hear the worms chomping, with a sickening click-click sound that kept the villagers awake all night. Dealers had “furnished” the farmers with pesticides at 36 percent interest, but it was the wrong pesticide with the wrong directions, and the farmers couldn’t read anyway. There was no government extension service to give the right advice, no federal financing [as exists in the US] to replace the moneylender, no public school where the farmers could learn to read, and, in the end, no way out. The pesticides so useless on the worms worked quickly as poison, and hundreds of farmers dropped twitching to the ground in the middle of the cotton fields. All those cheap and plentiful people working all day in the Andra Pradesh sun, just couldn’t squish the worms quickly enough. They never had a chance…
Basically, I can’t guarantee that the labor conditions for organic farmers are perfect, but at least I can be more confident that they’re not being poisoned by pesticides sold to them under false pretenses.
Even with just those three guidelines, it can be tough to find clothes that are reasonably affordable. And let’s acknowledge now that “affordable” varies for everyone, and from one point in life to another. We all operate with different resources, and in order to have choices at all, you have to be at a point when there’s at least a little bit of wiggle room in your budget. Even when that wiggle room is there, though, it can be tough because so many clothes are either super cheap (and low quality) or super high-end (and still not always ethically made). The list below includes most of the companies I’ve found that are somewhere in the middle, and pretty frickin’ ethical. I do pay more than I used to—both because the clothes I’m now buying are higher quality and longer lasting than those I used to get, and because I believe that, as Anna Lappe said, “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.”
Outdoor Gear Exchange, aka GearX.com
Okay, I’m cheating. Outdoor Gear Exchange carries a whole bunch of brands, many (but not all) of which fit the above criteria. Their sales are great, and you can filter your searches by price, which is helpful.
My personal fave find at this place find is $10 organic cotton jeans by Blurr. What’s so special about these jeans, aside from the fact that I couldn’t buy enough organic cotton to MAKE jeans for $10? They’re proper denim (not “jeggings”), but somehow allow for enough movement that I could basically do yoga in these things. Best. Jeans. Ever. I’m devoted. Also, a lot of Blurr’s pants have pockets (which is not a given in women’s clothing).
Pro tip: Outdoor Gear exchange is local, which rocks. If you’re also local, you should check out their consignment section.
Please Note: I’m not going into how awesome secondhand is here, because you already know it’s the best. Get thee to thy funky local thrift shop.
Synergy Organic Clothing
Synergy‘s clothing is classy, interesting, and well-made, with some sophisticated details. All their cotton is organic, they use low impact dyes, and their policies regarding labor seem to be good. Their clothes aren’t cheap, but they have significant discounts and sales, which they share via their email list. For bonus points, at least some of their dresses have pockets.
Pro tip: Go for items made in their standard organic cotton. The “tissue knit” is lovely, but I have reservations about its durability. Skip the recycled poly items; plastic threads aren’t good for anyone, and the texture isn’t nearly as soft as Synergy’s cotton.
My favorite thing about Patagonia is that they’ll repair their clothing if you send it in, often for free. All of their cottons are organic, they carry hemp, and everything I’ve gotten there has been well-made. They’re frank and detailed in their answers to questions about labor and environmental impact, and they seem to do well on both fronts.
Pro tip: Check out Worn Wear for “better than new” Patagonia clothing.
Combat Flip Flops
They have moved their flip-flop operation to Colombia, aiding in the recovery of a post-conflict country riddled by civil war and drug cartels, even helping push the establishment of a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia. They are manufacturing sarongs in Afghanistan; each one pays for a [day] of secondary school for a young girl. They make bracelets in Laos; each one made is responsible for clearing three-square meters of unexploded ordinance in the country.
Full disclosure: I haven’t actually tried their flip flops. Everything I hear about them is awesome; I’m just not in the market for sandals at the moment. I do have two sarongs, and they’re gorgeous. The fabric (cotton, an exception to my usual practice of only buying organic that I felt cool with given this company’s mindful and empowering practices around sourcing labor) is soft and with rich colors, and the embroidery is beautiful.
Pro tip: Take some time to browse through the website. Not only will you learn more about the initiatives your supporting by shopping with this company, but the product descriptions are worth reading in full. The sarongs, for example, were described as “embroidered sexiness.” This is a phrase that I’m pretty sure no woman has ever used, but there’s something unexpectedly winning about it. #embroideredsexiness is….not trending, since I don’t think it existed until now. But it should. Or really shouldn’t. I’m not sure which.
Owned by Julia and Laura Ahrens, Miakoda is an independent business with a sense of style I can totally get behind. They use sustainable fibers, and their garments are US-made, in NYC. The website features diverse models, and their clothes look great on all sorts of body types. And they write handwritten notes, too.
Miakoda is a brilliant source for basics, by which I mean beautifully designed and versatile clothes you’ll want to wear all the time. For example, I secretly want to replace all of my pants (except the Blurr jeans) with Miakoda’s slouchy pants.
The slouchy pants are also my favorite pants for yoga. I came across Miakoda after searching through my usual sources and only finding yoga pants that were leggings (leggings-as-outerwear are not really my thing) and/or recycled plastic (see above – plus sweating in plastic pants just doesn’t appeal). Miakoda’s slouchy pants are a bamboo-organic cotton blend, which breathes really well and just feels good. For a more fitted option, there are the joggers (which I love) or the athletic leggings.
Pro-tip: Don’t be discouraged if the particular size/color/style you’re looking for is out of stock. Remember these are mindfully-made, small-batch goods. Instead, get on their email list and follow on facebook, and have fun anticipating when the item comes back in…or when an even better color shows up.
Also: Pockets! The slouchy pants have bum pockets, the joggers have hip pockets, and the hoodie has pockets in the usual spots.
You might think I’m overemphasizing pockets,
but i’m not.
I can’t tell you how pleased I am whenever I find usable pockets in women’s clothing. If pockets are left out, it’s often to make the lines cleaner, to avoid adding bulk to our clothes…it’s about how we look to other people. But if pockets are included, that’s about making the garment functional, about making it serve the woman wearing it. I’ll take clothes with pockets, thank you very much.
Clothes sometimes seem like a frivolous subject, or like something that only fashionistas should be allowed to write about. But the fact is that our clothes are the objects that are closest to us each day. There’s no reason to let far-off voices in fashion-land tell us what our clothes should mean to us and what they should look like, what they should be like, and what functions they should serve. Women in particular have often been told that our clothes reflect our values because they’re too revealing or too “buttoned up,” but clothes can reflect our values in a much more empowering way. Life is busy and budgets are for real, but over time, as items need to be replaced, we can do our best to choose a style that is truly our own.
PS: Nobody paid me to say any of this, or even gave me free clothes. This is the result of spending my own money based on my own personal hang-ups, borderline obsessive research involving a heck of a lot of googling, and occasional serendipity.
- The Gender Politics of Pockets, by Tanya Basu (The Atlantic)
- Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, by Pietra Rivoli
- Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, by Elizabeth Cline
- Mend it Better, by Kristin M. Roach
- Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years—Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber