For two weeks in July I had this vague, inchoate feeling that somewhere out there is something I should buy. I’d go home after work, open up my laptop, and immerse myself in a deluge of purchasable goods: linen aprons, picnic baskets, beaded barrettes, dresses, slender leather sandals. I was mired in a haze of consumerism.
Why am I doing this? I’d ask myself, twenty pages deep into the La Garçonne sale. I wanted nothing, but it didn’t matter. Any satisfaction I had about what I already owned was immediately interrupted by one marketing mechanism or another. One of my favorite stores emailed about The Best of the Summer Sale on Tuesday and New Markdowns Up to 50% Off on Wednesday. In case I hadn’t caught on, I was helpfully reminded four days later with Up to 50% Off + New Markdowns.
Was it just larger brands, with their expansive online marketing operations, insisting that I buy? Not so: a made-by-hand, made-in-New-York brand shrilly informed me FLASH SPLASH SALE — 30% Off Ends Tomorrow. I began to think there was something I wanted to buy from them (there wasn’t) that I might miss out on. Another boutique announced that 'In a world of fast-fashion, our goal is to have a home for the artists of the industry.' They marketed those artists to me by an email titled Today Only!! Sitewide Sale!! and then 12 Hours Left! Everything is on Sale!. The final urgent exhortation came before midnight, when I was settling into bed: Last Hours!
My inbox was frantic and insistent that I shop more, shop today, shop the sale, shop before it’s too late. (Too late for what?) When I escaped my inbox to read the news, I had to fight through a thicket of highly targeted ads. Every time I tried to read an article at The Cut, a dress I’d already decided not to buy—in May!—pushed itself onto my screen. I couldn’t get away from things.
So when I found @slowfashionseason on Instagram, I felt blessed with a reprieve. Finally, something on the internet wasn’t trying to inflict new desires in me, but interrogate them instead. The Slow Fashion Season site was bracing but enthusiastic:
The fashion industry has an enormous negative environment and social impact around the world. Did you know that it takes 2,700 liters of water to make your cotton t-shirt? And that fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world? It produces more greenhouse gases than international shipping and aviation combined.✳︎ Time for action! Or better yet: inaction. We’re taking a stance and pledge to not buy any new clothes for three months!
Politically, I found the call towards a collective action inspiring. Over 14,000 people had signed up. Personally, I was relieved to have an ethical framework to reduce my FOMO when faced with a torrential downpour of insistent emails. My consumerist fatigue could now be propped up by a sense of community and environmental concern. No more dresses for me, thanks—it’s slow fashion season!
Ann Patchett, for her year of no shopping, wanted 'a plan that was serious but not so draconian that I would bail out'. Slow fashion season seemed promising in that regard. It was only three months: June 21 to September 21. You couldn’t buy new clothes, but buying secondhand was fine. Borrowing clothes from friends was fine. They suggested that people look into fashion lending libraries, like Stockholm’s Lånegarderoben and Amsterdam’s Lena, an idea I couldn’t take advantage of but appreciated anyway.
I liked the rules. They demanded some amount of self-denial but stopped short of ascetism. It was clearly a challenge by and for people who were loved fashion, and loved what they wore, and wanted to look good. And I’ve never trusted challenges that tried to make me feel ashamed of enjoying fashion. The problem isn’t that I care about what I wear, it’s that I consume so much—at great environmental cost—to do so.
I told my friends about it. We started a groupchat, which made our commitment feel real. On July 21, I tidied up my browser tabs of things I wanted to buy, and settled in for three months of reduced consumption.
Certainly the internet is well-acquainted with the idea of not buying clothes. In fashion and beauty spaces, where buying is a foundational practice, any act of avoidance reads as solemn and strained.
I saw someone post on a men’s fashion forum, ‘Gonna try this no-cop thing in earnest after this’ while sharing four recent purchases. I googled the first purchase, a pair of shoes: £695 retail, over $800 USD.
On a women’s fashion forum, women discussed a month-long commitment to not shopping. One woman was reflective in her failure: 'I didn't have a No-Spend September. Not even close.' But she observed, 'I think I’ve been buying a lot to compensate for not wearing the nice things I have…Now that I’m practicing wearing beloved things, the urge [to buy] is dissipating'.
A ‘makeup rehab’ forum, where people discussed their beauty purchasing addictions, was full of a rare defiance against buying. A woman declared that she was on a ‘no-buy for life’, but was circumspect about the difficulty: ‘I don't think consumerism will end in this industry. They will try to find new ways to get our money every day and I don't see that ever stopping.’
Each forum has its own way of describing a heroic resistance against the creeping desires of consumerism. No-cops, no-buys, no-shops, no-spends are not unusual. They’re almost always framed as individual acts of resistance. Try and resist your material desires, your profligate purchasing behaviors, your vanities and materialistic tendencies. In this framing, any endeavor to not buy must begin and end with you.
Sometimes an individual will articulate a systems-level critique that underpins their commitment to not buying. It’s easy to find one. The fashion industry produces immense environmental damage from excessive water use, irresponsible water pollution, and textile waste. Workers are treated with vicious disregard, and their treatment is justified by our desire for new things at low prices at a frenetic pace. People are coerced into consumption by a sophisticated marketing apparatus that makes us buy things we don’t need and feel less than if we don’t. It’s no wonder we want to opt out. But we generally do so alone.
Slow Fashion Season is, however, a collective endeavor. It levels a critique not of our atomized consumption habits (you want too much, you own too much, your closet doesn’t spark joy) but of the fashion industry and its environmental impact.
For better or worse, Slow Fashion Season does not ask that we stop bringing clothes into our lives. What it asks is a commitment to not consuming new, the most environmentally taxing kind of consumption, the one that most empowers corporations to do what they’ve always done—run roughshod over labor laws and environmental protections, instill and graft into our brains pointless wants, and all to show ‘growth’ and provide ‘shareholder value’.
In rejecting newness, it also confronts—and dismisses—the usual solutions we’re given. If fast fashion is so bad, why don’t you buy from a different company? Buy jeans made in the U.S., buy leggings made from recycled plastic, buy a t-shirt that uses 347 gallons less water. We’re in a golden age of ethical and sustainable brands. The woman who disdains the taupe linen sack can buy an acid green slip dress from Arket.
This is a solution. But we would be remiss to see it as the only one. At least fast fashion companies were honest about what we were buying: cheap clothes, disposable clothes. But ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ fashion companies allow us to consume in a state of denial. It allows people to unflinchingly speak of replacing their wardrobes with sustainable options, as if all the clothes inside disintegrated immediately once they discovered the gospel of sustainability. It allows people to preach the virtues of slow buying and still own every Everlane product made in the last year.
The pretense of ethics can permit the same atrocious level of consumption. It’s now time for us to ask ourselves: good on you for buying the Reformation dress that produced 19 lbs less CO2 than its equivalent. Did you need another dress? Good on you for buying the Everlane sneakers, which use 62% less water than the industry norm. What about the other 38%? Did you need new sneakers (really, truly)?
It is incredible to have brands truly committed to investigating their supply chains, their factories, their environmental impact. But many of the ‘good’ brands want us to buy more, more, more. And few of them can be honest about what it really means to consume in a sustainable manner. As Elizabeth Pape, the founder of Elizabeth Suzann, said to the Nashville Post:
Convincing customers to buy more shit in the name of sustainability is the biggest scam of our generation. We all know this, but it bears repeating: Buying nothing at all is the most sustainable thing any of us can do, and when you must buy or want to buy, then use that opportunity to shop responsibly. Treating sustainability as a trend is the biggest threat to it being taken seriously, and to take it seriously it has to be more than surface level.
The language of marketing relies on desire and aspiration. When we resist marketing, then, we often try to reject these desires. We tell ourselves that we want too much. We want to buy too much. We want to be too many things, to own too many clothes. We want to look cool and beautiful and better than we are now. We need to stop wanting.
But I don’t want to want less. I want to want differently. If the fashion industry has tapped into deeply essential desires, ones we can’t excise from our hearts— then I want to reclaim them, not abandon them. There’s nothing wrong with wanting (some) of the things they promise, but it’s insidious to buy into their solutions.
I want to feel at home in my body: to inhabit it without alienation, to like the way I look, to be enough. I don’t want to compress my body with my clothes and reshape into a different shape, one that I’m supposed to like more than my own.
I want to be seen as a woman with presence, taste, and meticulously individualistic style. I don’t want to want the latest Instagrammable barrette, Jacquemus micro bag✳︎, or other recognizable tchotchke that I ‘need’ to convey my sense of self.
I want to immerse myself in someone’s sartorial vision, to wear clothes made by fascinating minds. I don’t want to buy my way towards aesthetic appreciation, as if the only way to appreciate something is to own it, to grasp at it and establish dominion: aesthetic taste reduced to a purchasing history.
I want to dress for the moment and live in the present. I don’t want to want a new dress every week to stay on top of a trend, to buy more at every moment for fear of being left behind.
I want to be beautiful and see others as beautiful. I don’t need to own anything more than I did yesterday for that. My friends are good enough as they are. I am good enough as I am, in the shirt I owned in high school, in the jeans I wore last year.
I don’t want to escape fashion. I don’t want to be someone who cares less about what I wear. I want to be someone who cares differently, who cares about mediating a desire for new ideas, new trends, new creative endeavors with the environmental strain of trying to satisfy this desire.
One of the most radical bits of cultural programming that the fashion industry has instantiated in us is this relentless desire for newness. And it gets more aggressive and demanding every year. The fashion magazines I read when I was younger had two seasons: fall and spring. But today there are more seasons. More retail holidays. More reasons to shop. More cheery propagandistic exhortations to ‘Refresh your wardrobe’. Emails to see what’s new, what’s just landed at your favorite shop, what’s the shape of the season, what’s the It Item, what’s on trend, what to buy now. We’ve been told new is better. We believe it.
From 2000 to 2014, the average consumer bought 60% more garments and kept them for half as long as before. With more clothes to choose from in our wardrobes, we surely can’t be wearing them out that quickly. So why don’t we keep our clothes? Perhaps because we ‘need’ to buy a new swimsuit for swimsuit season (also known as summer, which comes around every year). We ‘need’ to buy new sneakers, not because our old ones have worn down, but because the dominant style is a bit different now, and we can’t be left behind.
We buy things when we’re tired of our old ones—not when we can’t use them. We don’t remember to repair. We don’t remember to rekindle a love for the things already in our life, to let them linger. The fashion industry encourages a lighthearted relationship with our clothing: things enter our life carelessly, and are cast aside to make room for the new. And the cost of all this? As Amy DuFault, director of communications at Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator, told the Huffington Post:
Not being able to commit to giving your clothing another chance just means you are continuing to support a fast-paced cycle of consuming.
I've owned and abandoned so many clothes in college that are mysterious to me now, unmemorable. The clothes I cherish most are those that I committed to, and felt—over time and loving wear—not a sense of ascetism, but a sense of material wealth and joy in what I already had.
In 2014 I fell in love with a beautiful coat. It had quietly lovely details: a deep navy tweed for the body, and a lighter blue tweed for the sleeves. The collar had a beige patch of corduroy that felt like a gentle secret when I folded the collar down. At the time it was the most expensive and the most beautiful thing I owned, and I wore it throughout 2014 and 2015 with incredible devotion.
In 2016, though, I began to feel tired of it. Something felt off. The shape—slim in the shoulders, cut wider in the hips—became lumpy and dated. The blue felt staid. My coat was too familiar, which invited contempt, and permitted me to feel lazily disdainful of it. Oh, this old thing.
I didn’t wear it for a year and a half. I thought about donating it or selling it—I can’t remember why I didn’t. It was a burden when I finished college and moved away, and I resented how much space it took up in my new apartment and tiny closet. I found another coat I thought I would like more and wear longer. (I didn’t.)
In 2018 I was headed to work and, on impulse, reached into the very back of my closet and tugged my old off its hanger. I found myself admiring the gentle weight as I put it on. It settled on my shoulders and felt comfortable to move in, easy. I wore it to work and a coworker plucked at the fabric when we walked to lunch. ‘A great coat’, he said, reverent.
That night, I took it off and rubbed my fingers along the sleeves. The coat seemed worn-in but not worn. I marveled that it hadn’t pilled at all after two winters of wear. When I put it away for the evening, it seemed transformed into something lovely again. It felt thrilling to own. I wore it the next day, and the next.
It's been five years after I first fell in love with it, and it has a home in my heart again. I wear it often. When I first moved to London, I spent my first week—tired and lonely and lost in a new environment—wrapped inside that coat, comforted by its familiar shape and weight around me. It’s a beautiful coat. My other coat is now the one relegated to the corner of the closet, biding its time, waiting to be loved again.
Instagram is a space both for succumbing to the cult of newness, and to resisting it. Once I found @slowfashionseason, I began to slip into a world where people insisted we #buylessbuybetter (38,608 posts) or simply #buyless (42,761 posts). People encouraged us to #saynotofastfashion (20,512 posts) and instead #shopethical (79,133 posts) and #shopsustainable (42,477 posts). I was pleasantly surprised to find people insisting that we #choosereused (13,250 posts) if we were to shop.
Most comforting were the hashtags that didn’t talk about where to shop, but how to keep. I found women cheerfully collecting around #wearmywardrobe (1,816 posts). Women who revised the Instagram favorite #ootd (outfit of the day; 267,738,674 posts) by tagging their outfits with #oootd (old outfit of the day; 24,469 posts). Women insisting that #lovedclotheslast (47,959 posts). Women determined to give each item in their wardrobes #30wears (51,702 posts). The more committed gathered around #30pluswears (977 posts), including the tremendously popular @notbuyingnew. Three weeks into Slow Fashion Season, she wrote, 'I know it feels good to have a new outfit to wear, but at what cost and why? A new dress would not make my holiday any better, but it would waste precious resources, pollute and add to human exploitation…that doesn't sound like a very happy holiday.''
It felt good to find these women, to feel like keeping things was glamorous again. That you could be cool and beautiful in the things you already had. It instilled in me a different kind of wanting—wanting to be someone who loved fashion but could still feel content to not buy. These women reminded me that what happened with my coat could happen again with other clothes. I could learn to be devoted to what I had. I could remember the cost of buying—not just to me, but to the earth.
#30wears doesn’t sound like a lot. It isn’t. But in the distorted reality of contemporary fashion consumption, it feels like something to strive for. Wearing an #oootd isn’t remarkable, especially for people uninterested in fashion. But for people who care about fashion, it feels deeply affirming to see a well-dressed woman rewearing something, over and over and over, and making such a commitment seem aspirational. It’s easy to love a new thing. It’s harder to make space to fall in love with an old garment, again—to believe you should wait to enjoy it again, instead of casting it off for something new.
We are exhorted to want more, more, more. Time to slow down and feel that we have enough: as individuals, as a society. When the fashion industry is responsible for 8% of global climate emissions, wanting more begins to feel pernicious. When our world is increasingly characterized by water shortages, and the water that goes into producing a new t-shirt is sufficient to keep someone alive for three years✳︎, wanting more begins to feel ruinous. As a UK parliamentary report put it: “We are unwittingly wearing the fresh water supply of central Asia and destroying fragile ecosystems.” We shouldn't, and can't, go on like this.
We must learn to want differently, and dress ourselves differently. Slow Fashion Season is only three months. But we will be reckoning with the fashion industry’s excesses for the rest of our lives.