In high school I shopped at Express (during sales). Pretty mainstream, I know. About the same time I started paying for my own clothes, I discovered TJ Maxx. Still mainstream, but I still stop by once in a while, since I’ve sometimes found organic cotton clothes there, and besides, shopping last year’s fashions and overstock seems to make for a lighter footprint.
My closet got decidedly more interesting when I started traveling: A whole slew of garb originally intended only for Pennsic has become daily wear. There are also some choice pieces from further abroad: a merino sweater from Ireland, a muckross scarf, a punjabi from South Africa, a couple of beautiful tops gifted to me by an Italian friend.
When I returned from my first long stint of travel, sick of carrying an overpacked dufflebag full of clothes, I swore that I wouldn’t go clothes shopping until I had worn out or given away my current wardrobe. For the most part, I stuck to that. First, I brought bags and bags of clothes to Goodwill. Then I wore the basic clothes I liked best. As those wore out, I moved on to more daring numbers, including purple, plaid, and silver pants. Eventually, most of the clothes I owned were some strange color or pattern, and I admit I picked up a few solid-colored tops to try to even things out. If I needed something for a specific occasion, I headed to the local thrift store. I also got given a bunch of hand-me-overs from a cousin-by-marriage who happens to be my size.
Finally, this spring, I was heading out for work in my favorite pair of purple pants when I realized they had not one but two holes in them. A few days later, I found a hole in the elbow of one of those basic solid-colored tops. I also realized that most of my tops were from the ’90s and so the waist line was far too close to my belly button, while several of my pants had the same (decade) and opposite (low waist line) problem. It appeared to be time to go shopping, and – since I wanted basics that would last for ages – I probably couldn’t get away with going to the thrift store.
The problem was, shopping for clothes had gotten a lot more complicated. I’d learned that cotton (functional, comfortable, natural, cheap – the sterling silver of clothing) is a major GMO crop. And that it’s often treated with nasty chemicals. Not to mention that clothing companies are notorious for unfair labor practices.
In my ideal world, we’d all get handmade clothes from local artisans who source fair trade, organic swaths of fabric made by other local artisans where such fibers grow. (Cotton does not grow in Vermont. I’m pretty sure hemp would grow well here…if our legislative bodies would…well, that’s a post for another day.) Unfortunately, things aren’t set up that way and, with my limited budget, that isn’t a trail I can blaze this year.
On the other hand, I had come across Patagonia’s all-cotton-is-organic policy shortly after learning about the GMO issue. They have good basic clothing, too – stuff nice enough to wear to work, flexible enough to be functional, and sturdy enough to last. An online sale brought many pieces to prices I could deal with, and the company did okay – getting a grade of a “B” – in this Apparel Industry Trends report on labor practices. Not perfect, but definitely a step in the right direction – especially since I started out at Express, which was given a “D”.
What about the clothes themselves? I ended up getting two new pairs of paints and four tops (two for work, two for play). They’re organic cotton (or blends, including hemp), fit well, and the quality seems to be excellent. There’s a fair likelihood I’ll still be wearing them in the 2020s – along with the harem pants I just picked up a pattern for, the fisherman’s pants I plan on getting from Thailand (at some as yet to be determined point in the future), and the choli top from Pennsic that I can wear anywhere over one my hand-me-down poet shirts.