Thursday, October 07, 2010

Oh La Landfills: fashion and waste. Or, Against Jeans.

Fashion, its enemies declare, creates waste. Because the industry declares new looks "in" every season, women discard their clothes once they're no longer fashionable. If it weren't for the industry, clothes would be valued for their durability and flattering cuts, not their of-the-moment status.

But do many women really get rid of clothes when they go out of style? Is that really our reason for chucking or donating the old and moving onto the new?

While a tiny subset of tiny women probably do buy new clothes every season, most of us are neither that consistent size-wise nor that committed to looking current. In my own experience, the end of a garment comes either when it reaches a truly unwearable (non-donatable) state, through wear or through my own wore-it-to-cook-in/washed-it-wrong negligence, or when I've accepted that pants that were snug when I was 19 are, at 27, unbuttonable. I'm not alone in this.

If fashion is to blame for waste, blame the industry's insistance, season after season, of making us buy clothing with a particular fit, such that any gain or loss of five pounds makes much of a wardrobe unwearable. A more eco- and wallet-friendly approach would be outfits that allow for changes in shape. Leggings and sweatpants, saris and togas, wrap dresses and t-shirt dresses, turtleneck dresses and pants held up by a belt that comes with the pants... need I go on? Some such options might be either too revealing or too casual, but it's possible to find appropriate outfits for just about any setting that do not cause severe discomfort if weight is gained or turn into tents if any is lost. Thinking creatively along these lines, women end up with far more comfortable and size-flexible options than do men.

A move to not-so-size-specific clothes would, of course, eliminate the option of using jeans as a dieting tool - as with those commercials for I forget which diet or yogurt or who knows, where the woman fits into her old jeans and runs down the street to proudly announce this to her incredulous female neighbor. But women dead-set on this method of staying slim could still keep a pair of jeans as a "scale" of sorts at home, without having to get all new clothes with every shift in size. We could, as it were, keep the feel-bad-about-our-bodies part, and chuck the gotta-throw-it-out one, although getting rid of both works too.


Britta said...

I've found that most jeans come with a bit of stretch in them, which allows for minor weight fluctuations (5-10 lbs or so).
I've also found it useful to own pants/shirts in a slight size range, because even if you stay fairly stable weight-wise (I weigh about the same as I did at the end of high school), you will always have times when you are bloated, or on hormonal bc, menstruating, or are stressed and lose/gain weight, or just inexplicably gain/lose a few pounds, and pants that you haven't been able to fit into for months fit really well, or pants that looked really baggy now fit ok.

I think this whole "throw out clothes the minute they don't fit" thing is just a ploy to make you get rid of clothes so then you have to go out and buy back that size once you, say, go off the pill, or stop binge drinking every weekend, or whatever.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Jeans do come with stretch... but the way they're marketed, women tend to buy them at whatever is the smallest size possible at the time of shopping. Thus "skinny jeans" - before that term also took on the meaning, "narrow-cut jeans that might come in any size." The same is true, I think, of all waistband-specific clothing - skirts, dress pants, etc. If a woman can get into and not look ridiculous in an 8, she buys an 8, even if she's a Frappuccino away from a 10. I've been guilty of this while shopping, which is how I ended up with half my pants, etc., fitting properly only when I'm under a lot of stress - a silver lining to stress, I suppose, but I should have just gone a size up to begin with.

Britta said...

I always have the opposite problem, in that I don't want my pants to be too tight, so then they always end up being too baggy. I've also found recently that in addition to the stretchiness that's supposed to be there, my pants also stretch out greatly in between washes. Pants that fit reasonably snugly in the dressing room are then hanging off my hips after several hours of wear. When I wash them again they tighten up, but then the same thing happens again. My older pants don't do this, so I'm not sure what's going on.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I know, I know! What's going on is that these days is, all pants are stretch pants. I'm always surprised to see that even rugged-looking jeans and corduroys are basically thicker leggings with a zip fly. Which means a better fit initially, but more... variation with each run through the laundry.

As for your buy-pants-too-loose approach, this is, I realized far too recently, the way to go. Pants that are too loose can, after all, still be worn. I have some jeans I bought after this realization, and they kind of work either way - as normal jeans after a run in the dryer/a week of particularly tasty food, or as intentionally baggy (that which is marketed as 'the boyfriend jean') the rest of the time.

PG said...

I'll buy jeans loose (I tried to buy a new pair of jeans last winter during the height of skinny-jeans trend and gave up in despair), but I don't know if that's an option for dress pants and the like. Business clothes are supposed to fit fairly well or else they look really cheap (as opposed to I-shop-at-Banana-Republic-not-Bloomingdales kind of cheap).

While I don't own any jeans I don't wear, like the women in the survey I currently own three women's wardrobes for the office:
size 4 (bought for college internships, college-era job interviews, the job I had between college and law school, first round of law school job interviewing, and first summer associate job);
size 6 (after weight gain induced by summer of sitting at desk all day and going out for fancy meals for lunch and dinner, plus drinks--bought for second round of law school job interviewing, second summer associate job, and beginning of actual law firm associateship); and
size 8 (bought during law firm associateship after first full year of sitting at desk not only all day but also much of the night).

The weight difference between size 4 and size 8 was less than 20 lbs. I only wish that wearing saris (or punjabi dresses, which avoid the roll-of-belly-fat issue that saris have) to the office were socially acceptable in the U.S.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Some combination of traditional dress (of an assortment of traditions) and loungewear could absolutely add up to office-appropriate wear. I see women headed to professional jobs in NYC, wearing non-constraining attire, yet looking plenty sharp, conservative, etc. Toss a shrug/cape-type thing over any reasonable-length jersey- or sweater-material dress, add a strand of pearls or whatever, a tortoiseshell headband, ballet flats or formal loafers, and it's not clear where but an office you'd be going. The suit-and-heels look requires less thought, but isn't the only outfit that screams "professional."

If there are indeed some high-paying professions - corporate law? - where suits made out of whatever it is suits are made out of are truly the only option, maybe getting them altered is a viable possibility. If these strict requirements are only for those making a certain income anyway, an "investment" in a few beautiful suits might be a reasonable option. Still, I would question the norm that says a perfectly-fitting garment with no give is the only way to look appropriate. Easy for me to say - I can and will write my dissertation in Old Navy velour "lounge" pants - but a move towards the dressed-up-jersey-dress ideal isn't so unthinkable.

PG said...

A dress with pearls and ballet flats is great for business casual, which my office had on occasional Fridays and which many law firms have full-time, unless you're scheduled to meet with clients or go to court.

Unfortunately, mine was a firm once mentioned in the WSJ for exactly how demanding the home office (thankfully, not the one in which I worked, but there was always the fear of their checking on us) was about dressing up to standards. The article featured an anecdote about an associate getting taken shoe-shopping by a junior partner because the latter deemed the former's footwear unacceptable. Even some of the non-attorneys on staff were expected to wear suits.

Business formal dress codes literally require suits. For women they can be dress suits (and the most size-forgiving suit I own is an ancient beige dress and matching suit jacket from The Limited), but the jacket is mandatory. I would love to see a more relaxed dress code for lawyers, but the suit seems to connote that one really is fit to look after a client's interests (even non-paying clients, as the norm of wearing a suit for client meetings is not relaxed simply because it's a pro bono case).

The point about tailoring is good, and I should look into doing that with the larger size suits if I become smaller before I start my next office job. I don't find that most women's clothing affords enough extra material to tailor for going a size up, though.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I don't doubt that in some professions, in some situations, women really do have to wear suits. I question whether these dress codes are really necessary for firms to operate properly, but it's like any other costume - is it necessary that actresses wear something other than shift dresses, pearls, and ballet flats? There are probably more lawyers than actors, but what % of the population is this affecting? If alllll the important lawyers and businesspeople in the whole country have to own suits in different sizes, is this really what's filling the landfills? I think it's ridiculous to ask much lower-paid firm workers to wear not only suits (which can be put together for next to nothing at H&M or thrift shops) but expensive-looking ones, but this isn't really my battle to fight. My issue is with the idea that any outfit appropriate for any situation beyond lying on the couch has to be constraining and size-specific in order to seem like you've put in any effort whatsoever. Professional uniforms relate to fashion, but I wouldn't really blame the fashion industry here, the way I would when it comes to available clothes for, say, going to the movies, or going to one's less-uniform-having job.

Anonymous said...

This may be going beyond your current life stage, but well-made maternity clothing is built to handle precisely this issue: how do you handle gaining 20-50-??? pounds in a few months, then losing most of it rather suddenly, while still looking vaguely appropriate?

Most women who aren't able to wear t-shirts and sweats all day still end up with more or less 2 sets of clothes -- for "transitional" and "about to explode," more or less.

See e.g. Japanese Weekend or Isabella Oliver for some serious use of stretch fabrics and appropriate cut...

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


If the technology exists, it might as well be put to use in non-maternity wear as well.