Aspiring to My Grandmother’s Closet
Last year, a popular fast-fashion chain in Manhattan got caught not only tossing unsold items but slashing them first to prevent anyone from wearing them. I think of my wonderfully practical grandmother when I read tales of such hideous excess. She hated hearing about any sort of waste.
As Elizabeth L. Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, lays it out: “Americans consume nearly 20 billion garments a year. That’s 68 garments and seven pairs of shoes per person or more than one piece of clothing purchased per week!”
I moved a couple of months ago. And like many moves, mine began with the purchase of a box of large black plastic bags and a long, hard look at my own closet. After a few hours, I had filled six garbage bags with unwanted clothes: half for donation to the local charity thrift store, half to drop off for textile recycling.
I own fewer shoes than all of my friends, male or female. I don’t go in for pop-up trends or frequent discount chains. Also, I write a trash blog, a hobby that doesn’t make me immune to excess, but definitely keeps me cognizant of my nation’s waste.
Yet there I stood, surrounded by bags full of worn-out gym clothes, shrunken sweaters, T-shirts proclaiming the excellence of bands and causes I no longer felt so strongly about, food-stained shirts, an army of mismatched socks, a shiny bridesmaid’s dress and a favorite hoodie with a broken zipper.
In the battle against overconsumption, I aspire to my grandmother’s closet. With the exception of a brief flirtation with polyester in the ’70s, she dressed in natural fibers stitched together by trusted brands. She loved pantsuits, and dressed them up with accessories: pretty scarves, interesting earrings, a charm bracelet. She sought bargains, but was always willing to pay a bit more for something made very well. She got a special tickle pulling something old but in impeccable shape out of the closet—a maxi dress, say, or a cream-colored blouse that resembled one in a present-day fashion spread.
“See,” she would cry,” you wait long enough, and everything comes back into style.”
Though it probably fell below the national average, my closet cleaning still felt gluttonous. Especially when you consider that only one in five pieces donated to thrift stores is sold. Cline reports that “about half of secondhand clothing is turned into fibers or wiping rags. The rest is shipped overseas as used clothing.”
My grandmother would have sorted her clothes a bit differently: hand-me-downs for her vintage-loving granddaughters, a pile to become cleaning rags and another for mending. One of the best gifts she ever gave me was a sewing kit—and lessons to build the skills to use it. My new apartment has great closet space, which I have resisted the urge to pack to capacity. My goal is to uphold my grandmother’s legacy and add only new things that are beautiful and will last a lifetime.