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Fashioning Our Identity

Angela Su

On my first day of private school, per my study of the school handbook, I showed up wearing a starchy white oxford, buttoned to the neck. I wore my school kilt the way it came out of the box: high on the waist and grazing my knees. To demonstrate my streak of irreverence, I finished my outfit with a pair of new blue suede Saucony sneakers. I had hoped desperately my clothes would soften the impression that I was an intruder in this elite world.

"Fashioning Our Identity" on #Zady #Features #Stories

Angela Su for Zady

I realized my mistake the moment I stepped into homeroom: girls lounged about dressed in studied nonchalance wearing half-laced Converses scrawled with long-irrelevant inside jokes, tattered skirts with hems stapled (yes, with staples) to mid-thigh, and oversized Polos claimed from older brothers. My new classmates were too kind to make fun of my misstep, but it hardly mattered. I was more than capable of enforcing my own humiliation.

Teenage girls are quick studies at mimicry so it didn’t take me long to adopt the trappings of the other girls, or at least the gist. I traded my backpack for a tote bag, embroidered not with my initials but with the Nautica logo. Still, it did the job. In addition, the length of my skirt decreased in direct proportion to my duration at private school; by senior year, the tartan plaid appeared less like a separate item of clothing and more like a dutiful hem that trailed behind all my tops. By the time I graduated high school, my adopted style marked me as an insider.

Defendants of fashion against accusations of frivolity often argue that fashion is important because it is a form of self-expression. I wholeheartedly agree. For me, fashion has always been an exercise in identity. I have used clothes to navigate through worlds of privilege far removed from my background. First through imitation then by defiance of conventions, I have learned to construct outfits to validate my place in these worlds. In fact, I’ve become so proficient at the language of style that I’ve made it my career: first as a department store buyer and now as a fashion startup strategist.

Yet, as someone who is not only personally but also professionally passionate about fashion, I’ve been wracked with unease over a fundamental disconnect: if fashion is the most visible way we express ourselves to the world, what are we saying about ourselves when we wear clothes that are made in conditions morally abhorrent by any standard?

As we embrace the annual reckoning accompanying the New Year, I’ve decided to confront this cognitive dissonance head-on. These are the conclusions to which I’ve come. First, guilt is unproductive. Sadly, the supply of responsibly-made apparel and accessories is limited and even a shopper with the best intentions, as I fervently believe most of us are, and an unconstrained wallet would struggle to always make ethical purchases. The long global supply chain and lack of transparency surrounding the garment industry make it difficult for even insiders to assess the impact of production on the environment and labor.

"Fashioning Our Identity" on #Zady #Features #Stories

The author inspecting her label

What’s a socially responsible shopper to do? As we enter 2015, I urge you - and myself -to not be stymied by fatalism and instead, enact a simple shift in mindfulness. While our personal style is a composite of deliberate purchases, those same purchases can be assembled into a declaration of your values. We agonize over how a certain top may go with all the pants in our closet so let us apply that same thoughtfulness to how this new item will align with our beliefs. In this way, to be a conscious consumer of fashion means not an upheaval of one’s shopping behaviors, but rather a change in framework.

Our style is the most visible way we declare to the world who we are. This year, let us do our best to apply the mental energy formerly directed towards creating a synchrony of closet instead to harmony of conscience.