Is It Time for a Global Restart?

I saw an interesting article in The Guardian this week that made me think about my mother, and what I learned from her about clothing–among other things.

The article is about the effect that lockdown around the world has had on the fashion industry. It covers a number of aspects of this phenomenon–everything from some people deciding they really like dressing for comfort more than for fashion, to the natural slowdown in consumption habits that has occurred as a result of lockdowns, to people’s growing awareness of the deleterious effects that the production of textiles has on the environment, and a desire to do something about that.

The reason it made me think about my mother is that my mother was, like many of her generation, traumatized by a childhood spent in poverty during the years of the Great Depression, a trauma she was never really able to get over. In her case what it resulted in was some very strong habits having to do with not wasting anything; and also a compulsion to use things until they were completely unusable, and/or to reuse them for new purposes.

This was carried out in our home in many ways, not all of them entirely rational, or reasonable. For example, one of the things my sister and I found in the crawl space above our garage when we were cleaning out our parents’ home after she died was two very tall stacks of styrofoam egg cartons. My sister looked at me, shook her head, and said–a bit sadly, as I recall–“Why?”

Well, the “why” was because my mother must have been saving them for “something useful.” In the case of styrofoam egg cartons the only possible reuse I could think of would be as a kind of funky (and not very nice) costume jewelry organizer, although I suppose there may be others. I think it is more likely my mom was saving them was because in past years children were sometimes urged to bring such things to school to craft into art projects of one kind or another. No matter that our school years were long past, and that those egg cartons were never going to make it to a school anyway, stored in the crawl space of our garage as they were.

The conventional response to such behavior is to view a person like my mother with at best affectionate amusement, and at worst outright disdain and ridicule. It is seen, not entirely incorrectly, as a mild form of hoarding.

But who really is at fault when it comes to the problem of what to do with something like egg cartons made of styrofoam?

What to do with used styrofoam is a complicated problem, and I do not intend to try to propose a solution to it in this post. But I would just like to say that I think the problem of what to do about styrofoam is one that we really should be working on, and if there is anything to be ashamed about it is not the people who hold onto styrofoam egg cartons because they realize on some level that this is just not something that should be thrown into the trash: it is the fact that we are creating on a massive scale an oil-based product that no one really knows how to properly dispose of or recycle. Now that is a problem.

But to get back to the matter of clothing. One of the things I thought about while reading the Guardian article is how when I was a girl I had a great many hand-me-down clothes, mainly because I had two slightly-older-than-me girl cousins, and often when we would visit them we would come home with a bag full of the clothing they had outgrown. I don’t remember ever feeling embarrassed or ashamed about wearing hand-me-downs, in fact some of their clothing became favorites of mine. I had plenty of new clothing too. My parents could afford that, and I was not in any way deprived.

I think the one bad effect this had on me, was not any kind of stigma attached with wearing hand-me-down clothing. It was, rather, that well into my adulthood I thought of myself as being a person who was to accept secondhand clothing, but not necessarily to give it away. Perhaps in my case this is because once I had worn my older cousins’ clothing, we gave it back to the same family so the next girl in line could wear it. So when I grew up and there was clothing I was no longer wearing, I didn’t know quite what to do with it. So I just kept it, as my mother had kept pretty much everything, and never learned to let go in the way that one must do in order to avoid having too many things around. It took me a while to train myself into the habit of taking clothes to thrift stores as well as away from them. Old habits die hard!

What does any of this have to do with the lockdown, or with downsizing for that matter?

Well, here is the admittedly somewhat tenuous chain of connection that I make between these matters.

We are at a moment of global crisis in a variety of ways. And one of the things we have to do is figure out what to do about it. It is not easy, it is not simple, and there is not just one thing to do, of course.

But I think one thing we might do is reexamine our behavior–as a culture, overall–over the period that started in the 1950s and has continued until today.

This is a period in which it somehow became shameful, at least for many people, to wear old clothing, or the same clothing, or secondhand clothing, or mended clothing. But it somehow was not shameful that we were, with our cultural habits, filling landfills, and polluting the earth, and creating all kinds of ecological problems that now we really don’t know how to solve.

Finding a way out of this morass is not going to be easy: but it occurs to me that we might start by reexamining the attitudes we have about things like wearing secondhand (or mended) clothing; putting milk into glass bottles rather than plastic jugs; even hanging clothes out to dry a clothesline rather than using electricity to dry it inside. What, pray tell, is so bad (or shameful?!?!) about hanging clothes to dry on a line?

And maybe, just maybe, it is time to figure out how to create a world in which we are more concerned about what is in our landfills, and in our oceans, and in the air we breathe–than in our closets.

That might be a good start.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher. She is coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You



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