January 2011
Andy Selsberg

Conscientious Clothing

Visions of Artisanal Underwear

Discussed: The Michael Pollan of Clothing, The Invention of the Price Tag, A Man in Shorts, Victory for JCPenney, Bono, Sale Season, The Sensuality of Whole Foods, The Aura in Branding, Leathery Men, The New Rules for Clothing, Family Feud

There’s a nascent conscientious-clothing movement, but it’s several years behind the one for food. Michael Pollan’s food writing changed the way I eat. Before, what mattered to me were taste and price, and not even taste so much. I ate mostly take-out Chinese and fantasized about alimentary pastes. Now I’m a militant flexitarian, and worship at the farmers’ market. Pollan is now an era—so popular you don’t actually have to read his books. To be sure, many of his ideas about the problems with how we get our food, and what we might do to fix things, were well and widely expressed before, but Pollan came at the right time with the right tone. His rules (“Eat your colors,” “Pay more, eat less”) can be implemented without a major lifestyle change.

What I want to know is this: where are the Michael Pollans for clothing? They must be out there, writing book proposals. In fact, a journalist named Elizabeth Cline has a book scheduled to be published by Penguin Portfolio in the spring of 2012 that was sold as “the Omnivore’s Dilemma of clothes.” Fashion has parallels to food: most clothing is too cheap, that cheapness has tragic costs, clothing is an agricultural product, and we consume too much of it. Affordable designer collaborations are like the rise of the home gourmet, but now we should be ready for responsibility beyond taste and design. I’m looking for the textile version of Food Rules, some aphoristic guidelines that won’t make me feel evil when buying a shirt (though I like at least a little guilt with every transaction). Show me how to spend wisely and conscientiously. Does a made in usa label mean better made? More ethically made? Or just more nationalistic? How about a union label? As a recovering bargain-hunter, I would like to know what a reasonable price is for a men’s dress shirt. Not a good deal, but a fair deal. A price that hasn’t factored in extraordinary human pain and economic distress and environmental destruction. A price that’ll help sustain responsible craft and industry.

I’m looking for a centrist buying guide. If you offer an extreme solution, like a cult that makes excessive demands, you’ll get extreme followers. Those followers will be enthusiastic at the start, but unlikely to stick with the plan for long, and won’t be good for recruiting the more stable masses. For example, a call to buy all clothing at thrift stores might be ethically defensible, but you’re crazy if you think everyone—professionals, workers, parents shopping for back-to-school outfits for their kids—will commit to second-hand stores. They just smell too weird for most. Sizing would be a problem. Plus, the global economy would collapse and we’d run out of clothing pretty quickly. (Admittedly, I also wonder what would happen if everyone started shopping for fruit at the farmers’ market, or getting their books from the library. Maybe it’d be fine, and these institutions would expand, and our expectations could contract.)

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell, published in 2009, is a stepping-stone to an enlightened buying guide. Ironically, the Times quote on the front of my copy, “Pay full price for this book,” is obscured by a Strand discount price tag. In fact, Shell tells how Philadelphia department-store founder John Wanamaker invented the price tag because he believed that as all were equal before God, so should all be “equal before price.” Before the price tag, there was more haggling, which required more knowledge about the market and what you were buying. And this buying and selling were generally done within a community—so if you screwed somebody from either side of the counter, it’d come back to haunt you.

But it’s hard now to be deeply knowledgeable about clothing. We’re specialized, and the clothing industry is opaque. You can plant a tomato or raise a chicken, but most of us can’t grow and process enough cotton to make sweaters, or become boot makers by reading a few articles. What—now I’m supposed to care if the buttonholes on a suit sleeve are functional, even if I don’t wear suits outside of weddings? I heard a story that haunts me about how a storied tailor, which sells its suits to a high-end clothing line that hipsters trust, laughs because it sells the hipster designers its junkiest stuff, and the hipsters don’t know any better. It’s tough to play catch-up in any field, like learning a language late in life.

Now, if you’re going to start doing anything because you think it’s the right thing to do, or you’re going to advocate for a better way of doing something, you have to be prepared for some blowback. Watch what happens when celebrities take up a cause. If you follow 75 percent of a religion’s creed, people will ask accusingly about the other 25 percent, especially when they’re following 0 percent. If you become a vegetarian, someone will point out rough conditions at soybean farms. You might hear that the Prius is a pose. Some say Whole Foods is mostly image—a way for people with more money to feel better about spending it. I have to think that some effort is better than none. For the most part, I believe in what Whole Foods is doing; it even has plans to implement a 1–5 ranking system to describe the conditions under which the animals used for meat and dairy were raised—from 1 (“Acceptable”) to 5 (“Gold Standard”). It almost sounds like a psychology experiment. And you better spring for the 5, if you can afford it, even when you’re not trying to impress a potential romantic partner.

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Andy Selsberg edits dearoldlove.com and blogs at andyselsblog.tumblr.com. He’s previously written for the Believer about teen sex comedies and official handbooks.

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